Pierre HEGY, Lay Spirituality. From Traditional to Postmodern (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2017). Reviewed by Anthony J. BLASI. Review Published in the Pax Christi San Antonio Newsletter of February 4, 2018.


I have known Pierre Hegy for some forty years. Professor of sociology at Adelphi University on Long Island, he has sought to describe and explain the dynamics of modern Christianity in general and contemporary Catholicism in particular for a long time. In this new book, he takes up a topic that social scientists have generally avoided—spirituality.

There is nothing inherently mystical or spooky about spirituality. It is simply a more or less coherent set of attitudes, and social scientists have routinely studied attitudes since the early twentieth century, when the German scholar Max Weber drafted the essays that came together in the famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; an ethic or spirit is an attitude, a predisposition to act or, described from outside a psyche, an early phase of an act. Survey researchers have avoided spiritualities by focusing on such items as beliefs and frequency of church attendance instead.

Lay spirituality has been neglected not only by social scientists but by the official Catholic Church as well. Official church documents would enlist the laity into the work of the ordained priests, within ancillary ministries—lector, Eucharistic minister, religious educator, music director, and the like. Hegy would direct our attention to quests, dreams, or vocations that guide a lay person’s course of life.

There is a traditional spirituality of devotions, which presupposes village or village-like communities and takes the form of parades and fiestas. Hegy describes these as they still exit in the Archdiocese of Guatemala, organized by some 2,135 confraternities of lay people. “To attend a procession takes several hours of emotional involvement in tradition. There are no public prayers but a pervasive religious silence.” Conflict between clergy and laity over such devotions is common. Clergy have sought to direct participation to the official liturgy. Cultural changes have undermined both the traditional lay spirituality and the clergy-centered one by dissolving the village and the fear of hell on the one hand and the attractiveness of the clerical life on the other.

The Second Vatican Council envisioned both a centrality of a clergy-led liturgy and a broad lay ethical engagement with social justice. These two emphases were not particularly consonant with one another to begin with, and the backlash after the Council, especially that of Pope John Paul II, did not help. Hegy’s study of a progressive parish, where considerable initiative lay with the laity as well as involvement in social justice issues, found no little alienation from the institutional church. Many people found spiritual nourishment from personal rituals and practices, only sometimes accompanied by Sunday services. The parish did provide a sense of community that was lacking elsewhere.

In the United States, there was a debate about the role of the laity in the last century. The 1975 Call to Action meeting, which almost 100 bishops attended with 1,340 lay representatives, revealed an enormous cultural gap between the laity and the bishops. The delegates recommended communion for divorced Catholics and the ordination of women and married men. The bishops and the pope later issued teachings on peace and social justice, but these never focused on what individual Catholics were supposed to do, apart from praying. In general, the official post-Vatican spirituality was an attempt to return to the era of the Council of Trent, with its clergy-centered organizational pattern.

Slightly more than half way through the book, Hegy takes up “postmodern Christianity,” which he favors. It is marked by an overcoming of the duality of sacred and profane times and places, by pluralism rather than hierarchical organization, and horizontal communication rather than top-down directives. He describes four cases—an Evangelical congregation, a postmodern Catholic parish, the charismatic renewal in Guatemala, and a Catholic African American parish that focuses on social action. The Evangelical congregation is dynamic and postmodern, and is marked by a dichotomy between “saved” and “unsaved” people. It is “missionary” in the sense of sending people out to convert people to the practice of saying lots of prayers. The postmodern Catholic parish, in Guatemala, is similarly dynamic and promotes lay initiative and leadership, but the content of discourse seems centralized in the hands of the pastor—understandably, given the uneducated and often illiterate nature of the parishioners. The focus is similarly on prayer, developed in a long preliminary formative stage not unlike that of a monastery. The charismatic renewal, also in Guatemala, is also postmodern, but again seems obsessed with saying prayers. Nowhere does Hegy dismiss the focus on praying a great deal, but the reader is left to wonder whether that is what Christianity was meant to be about. Hegy’s portrayal of the spirituality of social justice in a Chicago African American parish comes across as the most appealing. The pastor takes the ministry of Martin Luther King as a model.  According to Hegy, the parish “promotes peace and justice through neighborhood parties, food distribution at Catholic Charities, job finding at its Employment Resource Center, educational supervision at its ARK Youth Center, and sound education at its parochial school." The parish also organizes peace marches through gang-riven neighborhoods in the city. Needless to say, unfortunately, much of the Chicago Catholic establishment is wary of that parish and its pastor.