Research Report: KU Leuven Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies Research Group on the History of Contemporary Religious Identities and Ideas

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 29, Number 1/2 (Summer 2023)

Research Report: KU Leuven Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies Research Group on the History of Contemporary Religious Identities and Ideas

By Dries Bosschaert, KU Leuven

In the transition to the 21e millennium, the Leuven historian Roger Aubert reflected on the future of the discipline of contemporary church history. He emphasized the adage ‘nova et vetera‘: in order to develop, the discipline should both learn from the past and draw inspiration from insights from other disciplines. [1] It is the same adage that I used in my inaugural lecture for presenting the future research lines of the KU Leuven Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies Research Group on the History of Contemporary Religious Identities and Ideas. [2] Research done within this group will deal with contemporary church history with a particular focus on the development of (religious) identities. Three theoretical lines were developed in this lecture: the historical study of identity formation, the role of (religious) concepts within it and the opportunities that methodological innovation can offer. Examples from the long 1960s were used to illustrate all this. Indeed, what makes these years so fascinating, according to historian Hugh McLeod, is the fact that within them “perhaps the biggest change was the weakening of the collective identities that had been so important in the years before”. [3] This transition, but just as much revolutionary events during these years such as the Second Vatican Council, makes this a particularly fascinating period for the discipline of contemporary history of church and theology when it seeks to focus on identity formation.

A strong tradition of research on identities already exists within the discipline of church history, but in the past these studies were often characterized by their focus on important figures and/or on identities described in a static or monolithic way. In light of developments in social and cultural history, the inaugural address pleaded to complement the classical church-historical approach in a threefold way: By focusing more strongly on ‘forgotten’ or marginalized identities; by doing justice to the intersectionality of identities in which religion is one of the categories that interacts within identity formation with various other relevant categories such as gender and social class; and by paying attention to the creativity in which individuals will combine different religious elements from their own and other traditions to develop their own, and thus often hybrid, identity.

This threefold approach offers opportunities to study individual (religious) identities in the past, but does not yet help so much to thematize the collectivity of these identities. The second part of the lecture therefore focused on how historical individuals function within an intellectual sociability: milieus of actors and institutions that share intellectual frameworks, shape them and interact with other milieus from this background. In light of the aforementioned Second Vatican Council, the church historian Philippe Chenaux often refers for example to the importance of the Leuven theological milieu in the preparation and as an influence on the council. [4] In the historical search for these collective identities and/or intellectual milieus, certain concepts often play a key role. For example, in that same Leuven context concepts such as ‘Christian humanism’ or ‘personalism’ played a key role. These central concepts are often picked up from other milieus – in the case of Catholic identity formation, by the way, they are often concepts from one’s own historical tradition – but are then creatively filled in with new meaning on the basis of one’s own identity. Dutch cultural theorist Mieke Bal speaks of ‘travelling concepts‘ to designate these concepts. [5] Hence the plea in this lecture to approach collective identities in recent church history and/or theological milieus from these ‘travelling religious concepts’. Indeed, it is often these central concepts, the concepts that are foundational to one’s identity, that will play a central role in the collective narrative and myth-making processes of collectives. To push the example further, it appeared in the identity debates surrounding the Catholic University of Leuven that ‘Catholic’ identity was interpreted through references to this Christian humanist or personalist basis.

Finally, the discipline of contemporary church history faces methodological challenges. While it can draw on a strong tradition of archival and text-historical research, this has not yet enabled to bring all stories to life and, moreover, often makes it difficult to map the identity of the social categories described above and the use of religious concepts within them. This explains the plea to keep innovating methodologically as well. Two avenues seem particularly worth exploring in this regard. Firstly, that of oral history, which can make it possible to tap into a whole field of unexplored sources within contemporary church history, the memories of those who lived it or helped shape historical processes. In addition, the lecture indicated the added value of the Digital Humanities to facilitate research. For instance, historical network analysis offers added value to analyse and visualise historical relational data in a structural way. It is one thing to speak metaphorically about these theological environments and milieus, another by studying whether there are indeed underlying links between certain figures that constitute these environments and their intellectual reference points. These and other strands will be further developed in the coming years in our own research or as part of some start-up research projects:

  • The Digital Synopsis Vatican II project which is committed to digitizing conciliar material and developing a collaborative online platform for the study of the genesis and reception of religious normative texts.
  • The Auxiliaires de l’Apostolat research project that seeks to map and study the identities and common vocation of a particular network of lay women in church and society;
  • The REACT project which aims to study the phenomenon of ‘bystandership’ in cases of transgressive behavior and/or abuse of power in Catholic contexts from a historical, practical theological, and social psychological perspective;
  • For an overview of the team and their individual work, see

In addition, members of the research group actively contribute to:

  • The international project Vatican II: Legacy and Mandate ( which aims to write a cross-cultural history and commentary of the documents of the Second Vatican Council;
  • The Jocist Women Leaders Project ( that studies the influence of the thought and method of Joseph Cardijn in the international Jocist movements with a specific attention to the role of women in its shaping.
  • The RESILIENCE research infrastructure ( that aims to facilitate the connection between theology and religious studies and the European Union’s science policy with its focus on data management and FAIR data (i.e. European Open Science Cloud programme).


[1] Roger Aubert, “Les nouvelles frontières de l’historiographie ecclésiastique,” Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique 95, no. 3 (2000): 757–81.

[2] A full version of this inaugural lecture will appear as Dries Bosschaert, Is there a Future for Contemporary Church History? Exploring Identities in the Long Twentieth Century through Travelling Religious Concepts, in Louvain Studies 2023 (forthcoming).

[3] Hugh McLeod, The Religious Crisis of the 1960s (New York : Oxford university press, 2007), 259.

[4] Philippe Chenaux, Le Temps de Vatican II: Une Introduction à l’histoire Du Concile, Pages d’histoire (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 2012).

[5] Mieke Bal, Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide (Toronto : University of Toronto, 2002).