Research Theology

Tilburg School of Catholic Theology explains the catholic tradition in the context of contemporary society and studies the spiritual needs of the individual.

The transformation of religion in late modernity: the case of new Catholicism

Research themes

In our time – the period after 1960, ‘late modernity’ – religion and the mainstream churches in the West are experiencing fundamental change. This change is usually described in terms of decline: a decrease in church membership and attendance, secularization, ‘ontzuiling’  (the collapse of denominational segregation in society and de-institutionalisation). This research program’s ambition is to look forward and to describe more clearly the new forms religion and the mainstream churches are taking, as well as to ask the academic questions that arise from this description. The main focus will be on the transformation of Catholicism: the new ways in which the Catholic church is manifesting itself, the new forms of Catholic religiosity and spirituality. The case of Catholicism will also shed light on religion in general in late modern society. This research program continues the work begun in the previous program (Re-)actualizing Catholic Identity in Advanced Modernity.

Further comments on the research theme

‘New Catholicism’ is understood to mean ‘being Catholic in our time’, the aggregate of forms and interactions through which Catholic identity is manifesting itself. This takes place on a number of different levels. It starts at micro-level with individuals who – in the widest possible sense – are involved in some way with the Catholic tradition. At meso-level it concerns the evolution of the church as an institution and the new forms it is taking, but also the institutional settings in schools, health care, justice and defence in which (the Catholic) religion has a presence. At macro-level, it involves the position and development of the new Catholicism in interaction with late modernity. Reality therefore invites us to work on different levels and to take into account the interactions – and contradictions – within and between these levels. This ‘new Catholicism’ is anything but a monolith. It is an umbrella term used to denote and summarize al the new forms and manifestations of ‘being Catholic in our time’.

Research questions

The program’s main research questions are as follows:

  1. In what ways has Catholicism changed fundamentally since first modernity (the 19th century and the 20th century up to ca. 1960)?
  2. How is institutionalized religion, and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, being transformed in a late modern, secularized environment?
  3. What kinds of theology, what practices and what forms of spirituality are being advanced or should be advanced?
  4. How are people themselves shaping this new Catholicism?

Social and academic relevance

Researching these questions means dealing with a number of broader issues. The position and evolution of religion in (late) modernity. Problems of de-institutionalization and re-institutionalization. Institutions, including religious institutions, are under pressure, while ‘light communities’ and individualized forms of religion are popular. Less institutionalized religion is on the upturn. What possibilities remain for institutionalized religion? Do mainstream churches still have a future? The Christian churches have always strongly valued doctrine. Are they still doing that today and is it still possible to do that today, in an age of ‘experiential religion’? How are wisdom and doctrine related to each other? People are no longer ‘birth members’ of a church. Their temporary or permanent relation to churches and religious movements, if they have one at all, arises from their own personal history. What form does religiosity take when believers have become seekers and nomads?


Towards a New Catholic Church in Advanced Modernity (completed)

Investigators: Professor S. Hellemans, Professor J. Wissink

The currency of Christian spiritual centres (completed)

Investigators: Dr. C.N. de Groot, Dr. J. Pieper, Dr. W. Putman

The Appeal of a Catholic Minority Church in a Time of Seekers

(started in 2013, publication planned for 2015)

The second research program studies transformation processes that have taken place in the churches in the West in ‘late modernity’. Its focus is on analyzing the transformation of Catholicism and its underlying causes. It will investigate how social and societal changes in the late modern, secular environment are transforming the institutionalized religion that exists within it. It will also examine how individuals themselves have shaped new forms of Catholicism in the transitions that have occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Investigators: Professor S. Hellemans, Professor P. Jonkers, Dr. M. van Dijk; T. Elshof; N.C. de Groot; Dr. K. Schelkens; Professor Th. de Wit

The Transformation of Spiritual Care in Late Modernity (started in 2013)

Continuing the first research program’s line of investigation, the second program studies the consequences of the social and societal changes and the transformation processes mentioned: new forms of (Catholic) religiosity and spirituality and new forms of pastoral practice. The research question involved is which kinds of theology, which religious practices and which forms of spirituality are effective in ensuring that religions remain important in ‘late modernity’.

Investigators: Dr. M. van Dijk, Dr. S. Gärtner, Dr. J. W.G. Körver, Dr. J. Pieper; T. Elshof.

Participating staff

Resident staff

Research students