Ritual Tensions: Tribal and Catholic

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My title today deliberately evokes a 1976 article by the anthropologist Victor Turner-"Ritual, Tribal and Catholic"-published in the journal Worship.1 It is fitting to invoke Turner today, of course, as his work on rites of passage made everyone thinking about ritual or liturgy stop and rethink the most basic character of such practices. In particular, he made us look at the efficacy of the structure of ritual activities, independent of their verbal narratives and theologically-defined sacramentality. It is this appreciation of a "deep structure" that is the contribution of the idea of "rites of passage" to consideration of life-cycle liturgies.2 In addition, however, as a "Catholic by faith and an anthropologist by profession," Turner was the public point at which the study of ritual and the study of liturgy began to interact with each other.3 Turner regularly referred to Christian ritual, though usually in its less liturgical forms. Liturgists, in turn, read Turner carefully and often enthusiastically. While I address you today with only the credentials of a ritualist, not a liturgist, this is clearly a Turner-esque opportunity to contribute to the dialog in which he was so instrumental. Still, I can only invoke Turner's interest in "anti-structure" to license my approach today, since I would like to explore some of the paradoxical problems involved in using his formula "rites of passage." The first paradox lies in the theory itself, while a second and third have to do with its application to marriage and death rites. To focus on these paradoxes is not to argue against using the "rite of passage" formula, but simply to suggest some alternative ways of thinking about the more intractable problems with which this formula can leave us.


Also published as “Tensions à l’interierur du rite: tribal et catholique” in La Maison Dieu 228, no. 2 (2001):41-61.