Findings & Footnotes – March 2019

    • RW has covered the rise and growth of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), and now Katherine Dugan fills out the picture considerably, showing how this group has fused evangelical practices and fervor with orthodox Catholicism in her new book Millennial Missionaries (Oxford University Press, $34.95). As its title implies, the book provides an in-depth look at the way the organization trains a large core of lay leaders or “missionaries” to start ministries on campuses and who then often go on to influence parish life. Dugan’s ethnographic study of the conversions of students—from both Catholic and non-Catholic backgrounds—finds that their spiritual encounters are similar to those of evangelicals (having a personal relationship with Jesus), even as they go on to compete with evangelical ministries and build a Catholic subculture on campus with their owns kinds of music and worship (often centering on eucharistic adoration) that are modeled at their annual “SEEK” conferences.

      FOCUS’ conflicts with other more liberal Catholic groups already on campus, such as the Newman Centers, suggest that the campus environment reflects the divisions of American Catholicism in general. FOCUS also clashes with other Catholic campus ministries in their strong assertion of Catholic gender teachings—trying to recapture “feminine genius” and “authentic masculinity”—while they do not completely forsake 21st-century gender roles and millennial culture in general. They try to revive the role of romance in relationships to offset the “hookup culture” predominant on many campuses. As these young Catholics carry their fervor and devotion into parish life, they are likely to have a formative influence in American Catholicism mainly because they will dominate the thinning ranks of active young people in the church.

  • American Cosmic (Oxford University Press, $24.95), by religion professor D.W. Pasulka, is an unusual book on UFOs and their believers that examines the phenomenon more as a religion than as a variety of pop folklore. The book also stands out because it focuses on a distinguished group of scientists and high-tech professionals who are highly secretive about their beliefs, mainly because of the stigma it would bring them, rather than the “usual suspects” of conspiracy enthusiasts. Stephen Hawking has called UFO believers “cranks and weirdos,” but Pasulka’s study shows the wide appeal of this diffuse movement (UFO belief is at an all-time high). The book’s “cast of characters” consists of a network of researchers whose work on UFOs has rarely seen the light of day, both in order to avoid professional scandal and because of the pledge of secrecy they made in their government positions, but also an entourage of “influencers,” producers, government agents, and even actors who are household names. Not every claim made about spotting a UFO is a religious event; it only becomes so through a process of interpretation supported by a community.

    The artifacts (such as unexplained objects found at alleged UFO crash sites) that UFO believers collect and in some ways venerate are similar to holy relics and the way they create devotion among believers. Many of the members of the group the author interviews believe they are in contact with alien intelligences, yet they still retain some doubts and skepticism about their experience. The same goes for the UFO devotees’ claim of recovered memories (through hypnosis) of alien abductions, as recent research has shown that false memories can be implanted or influenced by the media and its frequent depictions of UFO scenarios and images. Pasulka concludes by stressing that the ambiguous and mysterious nature of UFO artifacts—especially for the skeptical yet believing scientists—creates the power to inspire belief. And sometimes this belief crosses the border from the paranormal-occult to institutional religion, as seen in the book’s concluding section, where the main protagonist experiences a radical conversion to Catholicism while in Rome. Like others at the intersection of institutional religion and popular spiritualty, he integrates his experiences with UFOs into a belief and experience of Catholic miracles, such as apparitions and bi-locations.