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The Relations of Theology and the Social Sciences according to Gabriel Le Bras - article ; n°1 ; vol.20, pg 79-93


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Archives des sciences sociales des religions - Année 1965 - Volume 20 - Numéro 1 - Pages 79-93
15 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Published 01 January 1965
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Frederick A. Shippey
The Relations of Theology and the Social Sciences according to
Gabriel Le Bras
In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 20, 1965. pp. 79-93.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Shippey Frederick A. The Relations of Theology and the Social Sciences according to Gabriel Le Bras. In: Archives des
sciences sociales des religions. N. 20, 1965. pp. 79-93.
doi : 10.3406/assr.1965.1788
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/assr_0003-9659_1965_num_20_1_1788THE RELATIONS OF THEOLOGY
dology other omitted Because to not the and Introduction. narrowly students What should Some which ONE France gists will fails problem receive intended The It other noteworthy of to facets scholars goes truly is yield religion the here receive views of on Therefore to important beyond appropriate the urbanization both is but of nature drawing purpose to The Tomes of ignore needed sophisticated Professor adequate central be most one extent Gabriel sides brevity the perspective They exhaustive of side dimensions chiefly of the difficult relations now simple attention et importance the Le overlook of recognition issue II Bras in range the religion present from approach Atlantic alternatives the problems Etudes. between nevertheless completely article problem have of at the perception writings English-speaking his another of discussion French religious in been Ocean discrete the precludes scholarly Such Tomes theology to the Both of gathered problem whereas time resolve Scylla sources in the United already and ecology wholeness of to the types ensuing 3) work and Gabriel provide et relevance discussion sociology in can from others noted II world States fail has social the historical Charybdis However be of exposition and to Le his been Sociology above of the is delimit science brief function and Bras principal sundry of interest religious French accomplished research religion critical considerations Great exploration these The treatment their can This of as important to writings Although endeavor thought Religion Britain matters sociolo disclose society inquiry will metho matter serious efforts be of in
This problem is recognized in the writings of various U.S scholars including Dynes
Fichter Glock Gustafson Lenski Muelder W.W Schroeder Schuyler
Underwood Whitley Robin Williams and J.M Yinger
Elsewhere the excellent researches of Boulard Desroche F.G Dreyfus
Isambert Janunes Labbens E.G Léonard Maître Mehl Pin Poulat Séguy
and others will be evaluated
The writer has in preparation book length manuscript which includes these topics
articles In instances where pertinent observations have been reiterated in
several places the more apt passages only have been retained for scrutiny
Wherever vital summary of closely related remarks could be managed without
violence to the obvious perspectives it was done Wherever recent or
more detailed exposition was accessible this was incorporated into the present
analysis Throughout the study reasonable care has been exercised in order to
discover and to present the French own interesting viewpoints
Therefore the six points discussed hereafter suggest both the broad range of
Le Bras scholarly activity and at the same time they reveal the remarkable
continuum of interest which runs from one discipline to another i.e from
theology to social science or vice versa This analysis yields also suggestive
step-by-step approach which can be applied in the scholarly study of other reli
gious societies or faiths To focus summary into brief scope the general subject
is treated under six headings Theological Assumptions Ecclesiastical Assump
tions Sacramental Assumptions Pratique Religieuse the Embeddedness of
Religious Society and Vitalité Religieuse Finally the present notes can be regarded
only as preliminary to more extensive study of the materials which will be
undertaken later
For more than three decades Professor Le Bras has engaged in studies of
Sociologie religieuse utilizing theological assumptions There never has been
desire to be secretive about the matter In this approach he follows the recommen
dation of Joachim Wach who urges that studies be done by scholars within
faiths Moreover Le Bras makes no attempt either to create or to evaluate
the theology instead he merely receives it from the scholars This
posture of acceptance is defended in two recent comments
Le fondement de toute religion est le corpus dogmatique ensemble de repré
sentation communes ou de vérités révélées 7)
Le psychologue ne comprendra vraiment le problème que il connaît le sens
précis de tous les dogmes de tous les préceptes du catholicisme tels que les explique
la théologie 8)
What Le Bras urges for the psychologist is stressed for other social scientists as
well To comprehend the content of theological dogma one must scrutinize the
answers given to the fundamental questions of the faith These answers when
adequately tested by time and scholarship provide noteworthy theological
assumptions which Le Bras regards as essential in making adequate studies of
Roman Catholicism in France Properly he sees no reason for apology in making
such assumptions he merely states them as any scholar would without passion
Introduction histoire de la pratique religieuse en France et II Paris Presses Uni
versitaires de France 1942 et 1945 Etudes de sociologie religieuse et II Uni de 1956 and numerous articles
In addition Professor Le Bras has published significant books and articles on Roman
Law Canon Law and History Middle Ages)
religious society is best studied by scholar within the faith Consult especially
chapters and IX in Joachim WACH Sociology of Religion which stresses inside studies
Réflexions sur les différences entre sociologie scientifique et sociologie pastorale
Arch de Soc des Relig. 1959
Sociologie religieuse sciences sociales Conférence internat de sociol religieuse Paris
Ed Ouvrières 1955) 10
and without embarrassment Indeed all research activity demands the public
acknowledgement of underlying assumptions
It is apparent from perusal of bis writings that Le Bras accepts the theolo
gical dogma of the religious society as starting point As practising member
of the particular faith under scrutiny he wittingly makes his studies inside
the faith Enormous advantages are evident intimate knowledge of meanings
of structure of administrative process of goals along with the relatively facile
access to both quantitative and qualitative data As result the studies are
carried forward with sympathy precision penetration and responsibility On
the other hand the risks of an inside study need to be weighed also How can
the researcher transcend debilitating naïveté toward the phenomena How
can he be truly objective eschewing temptations to utilize only data which
promote the faith Indeed how can he achieve balanced critical and sophisti
cated evaluation of the religious society which he studies This distressing pro
blem is not new in scholarship or in human history Against formidable back
ground of extensive experience Le Bras believes that the goal of objectivity is
attainable within the faith providing that the indigenous investigator is
willing to work also under the discipline of the social sciences Quite apart
from his personal faith the researcher has an inescapable obligation to be scholarly
Evidently theological assumptions cannot be avoided in the subject area of
sociologie religieuse Such being the case the scholar as Christian must be
willing to function under the required disciplines recognized throughout the
academic world as essential to the data whether history geography sociology
psychology or law
This necessary posture or role must be espoused during the entire
period while the studies are in progress It is evident that both theological assump
tions and the posture of social science are mandatory requirements Both per
spectives are strongly emphasized in the writings of Gabriel Le Bras For him
theology is the fundamental starting point in the study of religious society
Yet by itself it is fruitless orientation until incorporated into an adequate pro
cess of research and analysis Le Bras comment upon the distinction between the
goals of theology and the goals of sociologie religieuse is instructive on this point
Leur des théologiens but est expliquer les dons de Dieu ordre surnaturel
Le nôtre est de décrire ordre naturel des actes du Chrétien dont les docteurs nous
certifient la convenance et efficacité 10)
The closing phrase of the second sentence ..whose fitness and efficacy the
theologians certify indicates the social need or theological assumptions
It is legitimate working orientation which certifies the authentic data of
second set of important assumptions are necessary to the study of reli
gious society according to Professor Le Bras They are ecclesiastical assumptions
Who has not observed that the church imposes certain beliefs certain patterns
of conduct and certain practices upon the adherent Such is true of all great
Consult LEBKET Guide pratique de enquête sociale tomes Paris P.U.F. 1951-55)
and La France en transition Paris Editions Ouvrières 1957 and other works on methods
10 Introduction... 12-13
religions This means that to the faithful is entrusted the three-fold task of the
affirmation the defense and the promulgation of the dogmatic truth in the visible
But by what means shall this gigantic task be carried out Surely there is
one logical answer Ecclesiastical structure and administration have come into
existence in order to fulfill this great instrumental need Apparently theology
cannot communicate itself It makes use of vast system of agencies Therefore
patterns of worship have been instituted proper rites have been established the
populous world has been divided into geographical parishes and canon law has
appeared in order to adjudicate controversial issues These several observations
do not exhaust the phenomena but rather they suggest the complex developments
which have emerged in the history According to the wisest church leaders
official ecclesiastical structure and administration derive from the fundamental
theological dogma and therefore they are consistent with the purposes of God
Evidently all great religions propose aggregations observances and devotions
scrutiny of religious history reveals that the domain of faith is partly invisible
and partly visible This possibility interests the social scientist
Moreover the historical insight noted above prepares the faithful for rec
ognition and acceptance of the necessity for visible ecclesiastical structure in
society The visible ecclesiastical structure has definite relations with other
religious societies and also with various profane institutions Altogether notion
of the giveness of the structure and administration appears in history
Eventually the system won the support of theology Such approval elevates the
structure into the respectable realm of assumptions which are essential to an
adequate study of religion in France For many of the faithful sacred meanings
adhere to the overt pattern of church life They do not regard it merely in its
lowest or most vulgar terms They assign to it spiritual significance which is
not altogether naïve Certainly the visible structure and administration become
objects of interest and study in sociologie religieuse How can the feet
of clay escape the critical attention of curious scholars
Further assumptions about ecclesiastical structure include acceptance of
relations with the Beyond These important relations are designated and other
wise explained by theology liturgy and canon law Here Le Bras observes the
imposition upon adherents by Roman Catholicism of unity of faith and of
discipline which encompasses the religious society the profane society and even
an unseen society Au-delà Here all relations are organized minutely and the
effects upon the visible religious society and upon adherents are seen No social
scientist making serious study of religious society can ignore these phenomena
Thus in recapitulation one notes that ecclesiastical structure and adminis
tration are accepted as emerging from the internal logic and from the dogma of
the religion under study Structures vary from one faith to another Yet each
religious society is bound together by common system which comprises three
elements an internal discipline code of social duties and set of supernatural
relations Ecclesiastical structure and administration derive from theology and
are the visible means for transmitting nurturing and defending the dogma in the
world Hence the importance of such assumptions in the study of religious
Not only does religious society feature theology and an ecclesiastical
structure but also it contains program of salvation Usually this is delineated
in set of Essential Acts which are necessary for salvation according to the
faith In Catholicism there are seven essential acts or sacraments BAPTISM
and MATRIMONY For our purposes here sacrament as an essential act can be
defined as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace which is
fundamental to the expression of faith This constellation of seven is intended to
hallow the important experiences of the human life cycle and at the same time
to encompass the fundamental requirements of life in God Professor Le Bras
also directs attention to the sequential significance of the essential acts
Nous avons marqué acte essentiel mais les initiations sont parfois pro
gressives Le baptême solennel fut abord suivi de la confirmation qui dès le
Moyen Age est comme un complément de la première communion Les derniers
sacrements confession viatique extrême-onction font un cycle depuis longtemps
constitué et préparent au Jugement 11)
By observing the sacraments an adherent discloses his submission to God
through Jesus Christ Moreover this is the basis upon which the true French
Catholic finds an adequate relationship with God in faith Adhesion to the essen
tial acts demonstrates submission As expected adhesion reveals an important
visible dimension and visible consequences Here Le Bras seeks to isolate what is
religiously important from all other activity thereby testing its relevance against
the dogma of the church and against the imposed requirements with respect to
ecclesiastical structure and administration Le Bras has directed numerous studies
of these essential acts at the parish level and in manifold types of milieu
rural village small town urban industrial and suburban He has traced with
considerable care the lines of relationship which extend from basic theological
doctrine through the complications of administration to the simple life of the
parish peasant From extensive and profound study he has come to believe in
the necessity of accepting the essential acts as given
No one takes the essential acts lightly Indeed so great is the importance
attached to these sacraments that the Church penalizes adherents who violate
openly the demands of faith Punishment is severe Certain sacraments the
Eucharist and Extreme unction will be withheld or denied frequently along
with denial of access to the church Individuals who fail to accept the
theology and ecclesiastical structure thereby displaying heresy are advised to
mend their ways to change their attitudes to confess their sins and to renew
their faith else the church will not bless them nor their loved ones Such great
religious importance is attached to these essential acts The authority of excommu
nication or the exclusion of recalcitrant persons from masses and from other
benefits of the clergy and the church should not be mistakenly thought of as
mere administrative decision rather it is fully backed up by theological dogma
The power is great because the essential acts are crucial to faith Hence Le Bras
makes sacramental assumptions necessary starting point in his studies of reli
gious society The researcher must accept the own declared prescription
for faith and salvation
Thus far certain preparations have been suggested in anticipation of
scholarly study of religious society The researcher himself has approached the
11 Introduction... 46
task as man of faith who is also technically competent social scientist Therefore
being inside the religious society has facilitated speedy and thorough understand
ing of the basic theology its ecclesiastical system and its program of
salvation With these primary assumptions forming an adequate orientation
one can now scrutinize the response of the people to the formal require
ments According to Professor Le Bras approach this is an important next step
It is designated under the rubric pratique religieuse The following selected
quotations can provide preliminary definition of the term and prepare the
reader for an understanding of this sophisticated concept In order to get the
idea before us have telescoped the data and arguments down into very brief
état religieux une paroisse est révélé abord par la pratique 12)
..la pratique religieuse étant que adhésion collective ou particulière des
fidèles aux exigences de autorité 13)
Pratique religieuse dans un sens très large est tout ensemble des relations
avec Dieu est par exemple abstinence le jeûne plus précisément ce sont des
actes publics qui désignent et qui spécifient les rapports officiels tous les actes de
participation au culte et aux sacrements 14)
La pratique religieuse est acceptation extérieure une discipline qui
enserre toutes les activités de homme où la moralité sa part 15)
It is evident that the conception of predique religieuse espoused by Professor
Le Bras emerges from fundamental knowledge of the church He considers
pratique to be the exterior life of the faithful and the only verifiable adhesion to the
church This point is stressed in various discussions of culte conduite et croyance
as the three essential parts of all religious life Each possesses dimensions of
visibility and hence can be observed in pratique by the sociologist of religion
No thoughtful person would deny this fact According to Le Bras pratique is
discernable participation in the seven Essential Acts or sacraments of the church
At the parish level salvation thus becomes concretely accessible and Christianity
can be practised It is in the local parish that the response can be seen
and studied
Significantly Le Bras discovered that the public response to the
basic requirements is differential This means that there exist degrees of partici
pation in the Essential Acts Not everyone accepts the total religious responsi
bility imposed by the church After considerable research Le Bras was led to
categorize the responses under several meaningful rubrics 16 However bis
analysis does not preclude the possibility of some mobility some migration of
persons from one religious status to another Such movement is natural and does
take place What his analysis reveals generally is that the responses fall into
broad pattern which has the aspect of continuum Religious practices cluster
at several points along this continuum Moreover because Le Bras seeks to
embrace all residents of the local community in his analysis there is provided
12 Etudes... II 468
13 II 790
14 II 470
15 Etudes... II 664
16 Introduction... chapitre premier Etudes... chapitre premier FBIEDMAKN
éd Villes et Campagnes Séance IX et al
special category for persons who are outside of the faith Roman Catholicism
under study
The analysis yields four significant classifications conformistes sai
sonniers observants dévots and non-catholiques The
saisonniers scarcely practice more than the rites of passage Baptism First
Communion Marriage and Extreme Unction The observants add Easter Commu
nion Pâques and regular attendance at the Sunday dominical mass The dévots
observe all of the sacraments and add leadership in minor church offices regular
communion and participation in associations for the development of piety Finally
the non-catholiques comprise all of the remaining persons in the local community
who have grown up in another religious faith and or who are non-religious and or defected from Catholicism No information is given respecting religious
practice here except that the individuals do not participate in the local catholic
parish The label for this rubric is variously identified in Le Bras writings as
déliés dissidents étrangers and non-catholiques indicating his difficulty
in selecting an appropriate label On none of the other classifications does he
vacillate Thirty years of research have not altered the first three categories
significantly Thus Le Bras presents to the reader not only tripartite division
of adherents but also an authentic visibility of adherents in the religious society
These data hold great interest not only for the theologian but also for the social
scientist In simplest terms they demonstrate that response to religion can be
studied This is the response of the faithful the of the only adherents
which the church truly has
It is not possible in this brief discussion to follow Professor Le Bras argument
in detail Yet attention can be called to several pertinent observations Possibly
such will suffice here First in religion Le Bras refuses to separate the external
act from the internal attitude and the intention which lie beneath the surface
Rather he insists upon an abiding discrete unity here Authentic Christianity
has both visible dimension as well as an invisible character According to the
theology its structure and its salvation requirements neither aspect
can be authentic or complete without the other The seen and the unseen are
inextricably bound together Second Le Bras is never content to rely upon sta
tistics alone His shrewd combination of quantitative with qualitative data draws
upon the disciplines of history geography law and psychology to augment the
insights of sociology As noted already respecting assumptions he does not
ignore theology This approach within the faith yields dynamic and
realistic conception of the religious society Third Le Bras sees pratique religieuse
as developing the faith stimulating canon law liturgy and even theology
Pratique verifies adhesion to the church and also identifies the faithful To date
no one has found more adequate way of discovering the progress in
achieving its spiritual goals in the world What Christians do and are indicates
their faith Fourth it is difficult to accuse Le Bras of naïveté in the conception
and application of pratique religieuse The broad range of his scholarly compe
tence makes the task of negative criticism formidable assignment Clearly he has
subjected his views to the crucible of continuous réévaluation Criticism is wel
comed by him but he weighs the comments against substantial bodies of data
and against ever-deepening insights into French Catholicism Thus far his
generalizations have withstood the test of time and the onslaught of scholarship
Evidently the concept of pratique religieuse has commended itself to many
scholars and church leaders as profound and useful generalization
Professor Le Bras directs attention to two types of societies which are treated
in his analysis the religious and the profane Contrary to common supposition
these societies do not exist side by side Moreover they cannot be described as
discrete collectivities Rather the religious society is always found embedded in
the profane society and never vice versa It is kind of captivity but not neces
sarily an enslavement Further tbe religious group rarely if ever achieves
coterminality with the whole society whether the latter is considered as an
object of analysis either at the national level or in the local community While
the church must recruit all of its adherents from the social milieu one should
recognize that evangelistic appeal also falls upon many unheeding ears
Yet even among those who respond are many many persons who fail to take all
of the requirements seriously Thus the response to religion is found to
be differential within French Catholicism
This fundamental finding emerges from Le Bras extensive studies of
pratique religieuse Here one observes that the most effective carriers of the faith
were found in the classification of dévots group which apparently never
constitutes more than modest minority within the religious society Moreover
at best the entire religious society comprises but segment of the total society
With this tremendous fact clearly before us it is easy to observe the fallacy of
concluding that the nation is either France catholique or France athée
Such statements enter the sphere of absurdity in their wanton disregard for the
multiplicity of conditions and of reactions which exist within the nation
scrutiny of history discloses that the church has persisted through many changes
of fortune and probably will continue to survive additional ones Yet the number
of witnessing adherents has never been large The circle of the faithful in contem
porary society has smaller compass than does the whole nation religious
society is embedded in the profane society
Le Bras continues his analysis by noting the fact that the Christian society
church has already been installed among the nations and that in France this
status has continued for more than thousand years If this fact is understood
it precludes the need of placing religion in society or of proving its relevance to
the human scene Whatever else is or is not it is already rooted in the
common life In France Christianity is indigenous And it has been so for many
centuries Hence the proper focus of the present discussion is upon the nature
and extent of embeddedness Throughout his analysis Le Bras maintains that
the religious society is already established as visible reality that is currently
in interaction dialogue with the profane society and that it has already demons
trated its amazing ability to survive under manifold systems of political and
economic life No one needs to tell the French scholar that the two societies are
inextricably bound together and that each is reflected to some extent in the life
of the other What Le Bras really stresses here is the necessary linkage between
religious attitudes and social conditions The value of this liaison will be dis
cussed subsequently
Toutes nos enquêtes démontrent que la société est un facteur essentiel de
état religieux Chaque individu subit la pression de sa famille de sa classe des
compagnies et des hiérarchies où il est engagé 17)
17 Etudes... II 612
Thus we now reach the point where consideration of the nature and scope of
this reciprocal influence demands our attention Such discussion must proceed
upon the assumption that Christianity always has been embedded in profane
society Throughout the history of the faith This is the point at which Le Bras
Professor Le Bras launches the discussion recognizing that the profane and
ecclesiastical societies are in state of reciprocity with one another The two
societies interact continuously As result the visible church bears within
itself the marks of identification along with many of the limitations of the
profane society in which it is embedded Le Bras stresses the enormous range of
this profound influence
Si la religion vit dans le ur de hoinine chaque religion positive naît et
grandit dans des sociétés qui influent sur ses formes et son contenu 18)
Profane society cradles and nurtures religion thereby participating in the power
struggle between the spiritual and the temporal elements The impact of the
profane penetrates belief liturgy and even the nature of grace Such knowledge
helps explain certain puzzling religious phenomena Indeed the character of
each nation can be discerned in its theology law and liturgy This explains why
ecclesiastical forms differ from one country to another since significant differ
ences exist in the secular society Contemporary theological emphases vary
from nation to nation depending to some extent upon the character of the popu
lation Even piety can be identified by regional appellations So important is
the impact of culture that Christianity is lightly regarded or taken with great
seriousness according to the temperament and character of the population
Moreover Le Bras observes that French Catholicism is influenced by the profane
milieu respecting its organizational structure its earthly leadership its evange
listic outreach its history and its vitality Paucity of space prevents more
detailed exposition of Le Bras argument here However the reader may have
already received preliminary glimpse of the penetration and adequacy of this
analysis Undoubtedly the profane society has profound effect upon the reli
gious society
On the other hand Le Bras balances the discussion by calling attention to
the effects of religion upon the profane society Evidently the aforementioned
embeddedness has not proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to the proper
function of the church French Catholicism has exercised modifying influence
upon the secular milieu This is evident from two of Le Bras statements
En revanche la société religieuse exerce sur les structures et la vie des
sociétésciviles une action qui se traduit en tout domaine usages courants urs
politique économie Cette action puissante ou médiocre doit être appréciée
sans jugement de valeur toute passion exclue. 19)
Le catholicisme inspire la science et art la morale publique et les fondations
de la charité le droit et le gouvernement et combien actes institutions sans
rapport avec le culte 20
Many additional observations can be cited However let attention be turned to
18 Etudes... II 767
19 Réflexions. A.S.R. 1959
20 Introduction... II 147 footnote