Global Public Religions in an Age of Crisis


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March 17, 2022

Global Public Religions in an Age of Crisis

  • Crisis
  • global public religions
  • Religion

The rising autocrats. The melting ice caps. The widening gyre of economic inequality. The tide of refugees at the Polish-Ukrainian border – or at Ciudad Juarez. The endless pandemic. 

Those of us attempting to bear up under this parade of crises may look back with nostalgia at a time when only a single specter haunted a single continent. In our own times, it seems, that lone specter has split into many – and grown only more powerful in the process. Because the crises facing us today are not local, national, or even continental in scope. They are global. And our few functioning transnational institutions are struggling to meet them. 

The United Nations’ praiseworthy Global Compact for Migration, for example, has not proven capable of stemming the mounting tide of migrants and refugees. The ambitious Paris Climate Accords have thus far been more “paper promises” than measurable action. And neither the International Monetary Fund nor the G8 nor any unfettered market forces have been able to stabilize a global economy being undermined by spiraling economic inequality. Is there a transnational institution that can help us summon a response to these transnational crises, this ramified specter that now haunts not a continent but a globe? Is there a form of association capable of generating the kind of persons capable of meeting such crises?

It was in hope of offering a response to just such questions that I was pleased to join Georgetown’s Prof. Jose Casanova in a conversation hosted by Prof. Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the New School, and the Democracy Seminar this past fall. Perhaps surprisingly, the answer we gave was in the affirmative. Indeed there is, we contended, at least one such institution that may yet prove capable of locally generating persons suited for solidarity and of linking such persons across existing transnational networks: global public religion. 

Or at least global public religion of a particular kind. 


This is a requisite caveat not only because of recent events – September 11th, January 6th, the list could go on – but because of the often-tense historical relationship between public religion and our Westphalian order. A word, then, about the place of religion in the modern world may be of help in clearing the ground.

It will be remembered that, for centuries, our modern political order sought to constrain religion to the private sphere. The logic went that religion needed to be privatized in order to keep the irrational, even violent, forces it generates from disrupting the rational stability of a secular public – a public in which, as Habermas famously put it, “domination itself was dissolved.” While the soundness of such an argument has been thoroughly critiqued in recent years (not least by Prof. Casanova), a key part of that critique hinged upon the emergence of a new type of public religion: one that brought its own concerns into the public without seeking to reclaim domination, to reintegrate the divided spheres of church and state and economy under its own purview. This type of public religion, in other words, is one that affirms pluralism and in so doing turns away from intra-religious rivalries toward normative coexistence, and even collaboration, with other religious and non-religious institutions in the political public sphere. 

Such a transformation shows that, although it remains true that religious control of the sacred can be used to sacralize violence, it is also true that the same sacralizing power can be used to bring peace. And although it is undoubtedly the case that religion can be used to legitimate oppressive social arrangements, it also possesses, as Durkheim showed a century ago, the rare capacity to expand kinship beyond our local (or ideological) tribes. It is religious institutions, in other words, that may possess the rare capacity to generate new bonds of trans-tribal solidarity in times of anomic crisis like our own. 

Without pretending that anti-modern or anti-democratic forms of religion have disappeared, what is striking about our own times is the increasing commonality of this non-dominatory form of global public religion. An increasing number of religious leaders, in fact, are carving out space for just this kind of transnational solidarity of which our global order is most in need.

Rather than attempt a comparison of the various ways that different religions are attempting to forge such bonds, however, our conversation took up one sociologically exemplary case: that of the Roman Catholic Church. As an institution with local and global presence, one capable of forming persons for transnational solidarities, the post-Vatican II Catholic Church serves as a unique test case regarding whether certain forms of global public religion can respond to the ramified specter that haunts us. 


It does so in large part because – in its official form and since the end of the second Vatican Council in 1965 – the Catholic Church is exemplary of religious institutions that have learned to enter the modern public sphere while accepting the differentiation of church and state. 

At least since Pope John XXIII addressed Pacem in Terris, his encyclical on peace written in the midst of the Cold War, not just to Catholics but to “all people of good will,” the Catholic Church has made a regular practice of speaking, from its own religious perspective, to a broad public about matters of universal concern. Although numerous examples of this kind of official discourse can be found in the speeches of Church leaders and the documents of Bishops’ Conferences over the past six decades, it is perhaps the current pontiff, Pope Francis, who serves as the best example of how a transnational public religion can carve out a path toward the resolution of our global crises that is not readily available to other institutions. 

While the Pope’s recent personal visit to the Russian embassy to appeal for peace following Vladmir Putin’s unjust and illegal invasion of the Ukraine might serve as a strong example, documentary evidence of Catholicism’s style of public presence can also be found in two of Francis’ recent publication: his 2015 Encyclical on the environment, Laudato Sí, and the Document on Human Fraternity that he signed in 2019 with Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and spiritual leader of some 1.3 billion Sunni Muslims. 

The former document is notable not only for taking up perhaps the most pressing of our current transnational crises, but because it has helped to build support for the idea of caring for what the Pope called “our common home” in both religious and secular spaces. And the latter document served as a remarkable commitment to peace between the leaders of the two largest religious institutions in the world. “We call upon intellectuals, philosophers, religious figures,” the document reads, 

artists, media professionals and men and women of culture in every part of the world, to rediscover the values of peace, justice, goodness, beauty, human fraternity and coexistence in order to confirm the importance of these values as anchors of salvation for all, and to promote them everywhere.

While such labor of consensus-building and culture-formation is necessary, documents provide scant protection from real world crises. Let us take a middle-range example, then, of how such sentiments are being put into action in response to one of the crises we’ve named: migration. 


It seems apt to consider the migration crisis both because so many others – the environment, democratic backsliding, longstanding economic inequity – serve to catalyze it, and because of how the pandemic has exacerbated the problems migrants and refugees are now facing.  

While international aid organizations like the Red Cross and the UNHCR continue to do heroic work in the face of the migration crisis, a Catholic organization has proven particularly effective in helping to construct a significant transnational response. This group is not, however, a service organization but a group of friends (an “ecclesial movement,” in Catholic parlance) who attempt to live their religious lives close to one another and to the vulnerable. They are the Community of Sant’Egidio, and the program that they constructed in partnership with other religious organizations is known as the Humanitarian Corridor Initiative

Founded just over fifty years ago by a group of then-high school students, the Community of Sant’Egidio did not originate with ambitions of helping to solve even local Roman social issues, much less global ones. Instead, this was a group of Catholic friends who wanted to live their religion within the plural space of the modern world as envisioned by the Fathers of the second Vatican Council. And yet it was this ambition of forming a religiously-serious community of lay people capable of acting in the plural public sphere without any nostalgia for a bygone Christendom, that came to play a major role in international peacemaking in places as varied as Mozambique, the Balkans, and South Sudan. Unplanned as their involvement was, however, this transnational peacemaking experience left their organization well-prepared to respond when hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Afghanis, and Iraqis began to be displaced in the mid-2010s. It was this displacement crisis that spurred them to advocate for the construction of what have become known as “humanitarian corridors.”

Existing in practice since 2016, the idea of humanitarian corridors arose in response to the deaths of thousands of asylum seekers in the waves of the Mediterranean. Members of Sant’Egidio were struck by how these women and men, fleeing violence and political instability in their homelands, were met not only with suspicion but mountains of red tape. Rather than turning away or allowing another international organization to respond, Sant’Egidio organized themselves and other religious institutions when the conventional pathways that national governments had established for refugee resettlement were quickly overwhelmed and ground to a halt. Rather than resign themselves to such gridlock, the community of Sant’Egidio imagined and constructed a transnational response. 

The procedural key utilized by this coalition of religious actors was the humanitarian visa program. Taking advantage of existing laws, over the past six years this coalition has institutionalized a pathway upon which migrants and refugees can journey to safety. This has involved the long, unglamorous, personal work of identifying candidates, applying for visas on their behalf, arranging for their transportation to host countries, and providing for their integration into society with language programs and asylum applications, but in so doing this grassroots network of religious actors has carved out a new path to safety for these vulnerable persons. But members of Sant’Egidio and their ally-institutions have taken up this task so effectively that a program that was initially limited to Italy has been expanded to include host sites in other countries like Belgium and France. Advocacy for the institution of similar programs has even been taken up in United States in response to Pres. Biden’s revisions of the Trump-era migration policies. 

What we see in this example, then, is a mid-scale response to one of the manifestations of the specter that haunts our age. Although it does not “solve” the global refugee crisis, it is concrete evidence that global public religions, acting within civil society and motivated by their own religious ideals, do indeed have the capacity to respond to these crises in ways other institutions struggle to replicate both because, being itself a transnational religious institutions, it can imagine a transnational response, and because it can motivate its members to do the hard work required to realize what has been imagined. 

On a macro-scale, then, this type of global public religion serves a bridging function, linking together diverse institutional actors into new networks that span civil society, the market, and the state and which have the capacity to imagine and to realize innovative responses to our global crises. And this means that, contrary to the long-held Enlightenment expectation that religion needs to be cordoned off in order to preserve the stability of the secular public, a form of de-privatized religion is already serving as the mortar capable of bonding – without de-differentiating – the divided spheres of our modern world order. 

Powerful as such evidence is, however, such an institutional, ad extra response is only one part of the analysis of the role public religion plays in our worldwide drama. Because the preceding narrative of religion’s capacity to intervene in public does not yet amount to an account of how the religious persons who carry out such interventions are generated. It is not “Sant’Egidio” as an institution, after all, that made the Humanitarian Corridor Initiative happen – it was actual people who participate in a particular Catholic community and who have been formed through long-participation in that community to imagine and realize relationships between themselves, others, and the world in a unique way. And this formational, ad intra aspect of religion – its capacity to generate forms of subjectivity well-suited to enact forms of public solidarity like that of the Humanitarian Corridor Initiative – must also be considered. 

Sociologically speaking, the premise behind considerations of the type of global public religion capable of responding to the crises we face is not only carried in institutions; it is embodied in persons. And this in turn means that in order to fully grasp how this type of religion might aid in responding to the crises facing us, account must be taken not only of its macro-institutional but also its micro-formative capacities. 

We might take the problem in this way: we have seen that Sant’Egidio as an institution generated a compelling mid-level response to the migration crisis, but how are the members of this community themselves generated? How does one become the kind of person who can imagine – and realize – an intervention like the Humanitarian Corridor Initiative? My own research on how three Catholic ecclesial movements, including Sant’Egidio, produce religious selves in our secular age is an attempt to answer just such questions. 


It took some three years of immersive participation in the literature, practices, and discourses of the Community of Sant’Egidio before I could begin to see how the innovative transnational interventions for which they are famous are linked to their everyday practices. What I discovered was that the way they structured their daily lives, particularly through their practices of friendship with marginalized persons, induced in them a religious identity open enough to respond to the needs of strangers and capacious enough to imagine a project like the Humanitarian Corridor Initiative. What, then, are these practices? And what kind of religious self do they fashion? 

Sant’Egidio is a largely urban organization, with communities in cities like New York, Rome, and Havana. In each such place Sant’Egidio members make it a habit to become friends with those the city has discarded, particularly with the women and men who make the bus shelters, train stations, and backstreets of the city their home. This ongoing practice of friendship with the homeless, I found, reshapes the “sensorium” of Sant’Egidio members – it induces in them a new way of seeing and hearing. A brief story may help demonstrate how this local practice induces a way of sensing the city that simultaneously shapes their global imagination.

I had lived in Manhattan for years before I first accompanied a Sant’Egidio member, whom I’ll here call Antonietta, on one of her regular visits to her friends who live on the streets of America’s largest metropolis. She’d been making this trek for years, and these years of practice had given her a sensed knowledge of the city that was qualitatively different from my own. Though not a native, I had spent years living in New York at that point. I was accustomed to its pace and I had learned how to move through it. I had long ago adopted, for example, the diagonal tilt of the shoulders, the unacknowledged sidestep, that New Yorkers deploy to give one another a sliver of sidewalk room in a city of 8 million. In this and a dozen other ways my senses had been comported to the city, my body instructed by it. And although I did not realize it at the time, a key part of the embodied knowledge I had mastered was what I ought to see and what – or whom – I ought to overlook.

This crystallized for me while Antonietta and I were walking along 32nd St., bags filled with tins of homemade pasta in our hands. At one point she looked back at me, “There is my friend!” she called out, pointing across the crowded street. “Where?” I replied, the bags preventing me from wiping the summer sweat from my eyes. “Right there,” she answered, gesturing once again. 

“I don’t see anyone,” I replied to her after a moment. At this Antonietta smiled, the skin at the corners of her eyes crinkling into webs of amusement. And then the traffic parted and she darted across the street, a tiny arrow headed directly for someone my untrained eyes could not make out.

My confusion didn’t last long – only the few seconds it took to follow her from one side of the street to the other. And in that interval, instead of training my sights on the traffic or the well-manicured commuters, instead of allowing my senses to be captured by the bright lights or the heat, I saw what Antonietta already knew how to see. A person. A person suddenly visible beside the shopping cart where her worldly possessions were kept. Right there in plain sight was a woman draped in baggy clothes rising to embrace Antonietta, her friend. 

Months after I had disregarded her friend, I was able to ask Antonietta about the experience. Had she experienced a similar transition from living in Manhattan as a stranger among strangers to a friend among friends? “Absolutely,” she replied, “absolutely… Things I didn’t notice before – either because I was distracted or because I was trying to avoid them because they were a scar in my daily routine – now I seem to see them. And, well, they are still painful to see, to watch, to witness sometimes. And most of the time I cannot do much. But at least I have a different sensitivity.” 

In my own search for a word to describe this Sant’Egidio sensitivity I eventually settled on “disponibilità,” the Italian word for “availability.” It fits in part because it is a word that carries a connotation not only of being open to something but of being positively disposed towards it. But what is distinctive about Sant’Egidio members is that this positivity is more than just a feeling or an attitude, it is a cultivated way of sensing the world. It is evident not only in who they can see but in the sometimes-shocking ways that community members include the marginalized in their everyday lives. They organize vacations for both themselves and their homeless friends, for instance, and they allow themselves to be interrupted at work and at home by the needs of those they have befriended. For Sant’Egidio members, in other words, this way of sensing the world is not a part-time occupation or a service activity performed in one’s spare time. Instead, it is the “availability” to become a certain kind of person: a person who is capable of being friends with those who are marginalized. 

Years after the event I am still embarrassed at my blindness, but the months I spent with Sant’Egidio members taught me something important: it wasn’t that I had actively chosen to overlook Antonietta’s friend, it was that I had grown accustomed to giving my attention to certain sights and certain people and withdrawing it from others. I had learned to inhabit the city like a stranger rather than like a friend. And because of this my eyes lacked the Sant’Egidio disponibilità. It is just this capacity for seeing, born from the regular practice of friendship with homeless men and women, from allowing otherwise-ignored persons to make a claim on their senses and lives, that marks out the distinct religious identity of a member of Sant’Egidio. 

Indeed, it is their distinctive capacity to hear and see those who otherwise go unheard and overlooked that allows them not only to imagine befriending members of Manhattan’s homeless population but to imagine that Syrian refugees cast adrift by the scourge of war might become friends as well. Both are seen by disponible Sant’Egidio members not as strangers incapable of making a claim on their freedom, but as potential friends with whom life might be shared. 


What can be seen here in narrative form, then, is an example of what the late Saba Mahmood argued in theory: that it is “impossible to understand the political agency of [a] movement without a proper grasp of its ethical agency. [A movement’s] political project… can only be understood through an exploration of their ethical practices” (Mahmood 2011: 35). It is because Mahmood is correct in this that it is not enough to simply point out the accurate fact that Sant’Egidio is a global public religious institution capable of offering a response to our migration crisis. Instead, if we scholars are serious about empowering the kind of transnational (religious) action capable of exorcising the specter that haunts us, we must practice the kind of scholarship that is curious about how a community of persons capable of such actions is generated and sustained. 

This will be scholarship capable of seeing more in “religion” than the old fear of an amorphous mass of unreasonable persons – despite the fact that this old fear lives again in the present-day examples of anti-democratic religious nationalism carried by some post-Catholic and post-Protestant nativists. It will instead be scholarship that, by discriminating between types of global public religion and the types of person that incarnates it, is capable of identifying unexpected allies who arrive with unlooked for capacities – capacities that can perhaps serve as mortar to shore up the walls of our decaying public. 

It would be the height of overreach to claim that some amorphous thing called “religion” is now arriving as the white knight of our endangered modern order. There is no such thing, and it is not. Further, even the more precise type of global public religion I have described here and which is exemplified in the case of Sant’Egidio offers no silver bullet. 

And yet it would be naive to insist that because it is not a total response this type of global public religion offers no help at all or to insist that secularism and secularists can combat our crises alone. The argument made here is more modest: although a magical solution is not at hand, a certain form of help indeed is. And this from a surprising source. The question that remains is whether new, secular-religious, transnational alliances can be formed – new collaborations between old rivals, we might call them – rivals who can at last admit our normative differences while still celebrating our shared desire for a stable, free, democratic, differentiated, modern world order.

Fr. Patrick Gilger, SJ, is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Loyola University, Chicago.


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