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Give peace a chance
At the University’s retreat center in Dover, young theologians attempt to bridge their differences
In the spring of 2009, Catholic leaders and commentators across the United States were skirmishing over the University of Notre Dame’s choice of a commencement speaker—President Barack Obama—and whether a Catholic institution should extend such an honor to anyone who favors abortion rights. The president delivered his speech that May amid the ecclesiastical crossfire, and shortly afterward Charles Camosy, who attended the commencement as a graduating doctoral student in theology and had started teaching at Fordham University, walked into the office of Mark Massa, SJ, then a Fordham professor. “What can we do about this polarization in the Church?” he asked.
On August 13 of this year, that question brought Camosy and 18 other up-and-coming Catholic theologians to Boston College’s Connor Family Retreat and Conference Center in Dover, Massachusetts, for two days of discussion aimed at helping to reach beyond the polarities of contemporary Catholic discourse. These theologians—all of them teaching at Catholic colleges and universities—belong to a group called the Catholic Conversation Project, which began at Fordham in 2010 and relocated to Boston College a year later, after Massa, its founding sponsor, became dean of the University’s School of Theology and Ministry (STM). The group describes itself in a mission statement as “an initiative led by American Catholic theologians trained in the early 21st century seeking to build dynamic relationships between theologians, other scholars, the magisterium”—or hierarchy—”and the faithful.”
“Early 21st-century” is a key distinction: Only younger and newer theologians are invited to join the group and take part in both days of the annual summer conversations. A little more than 40 have attended at least one of these colloquies in the past four years. With roughly equal numbers of men and women, they range in age from late 20s to early 40s and did their doctoral training at a variety of institutions but disproportionately at Boston College, Notre Dame, Duke, and Yale. Nearly all are lay people.
Camosy, who coordinates the project together with Hosffman Ospino, Ph.D.’07, an STM assistant professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education, characterizes the views of most members as “interestingly complicated.” Ospino says their goal is not to agree on everything but to “model” their differences in a constructive way. Not branding someone as “unfaithful” because he or she disagrees with you is a good place to start, they say.
There have been similar efforts at Catholic dialogue not involving junior faculty members. Massa argues that the best known among them—the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, begun in 1996 with shepherding by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago—floundered because it tried to bring together well-established figures already set in their liberal or conservative ways. They found little common ground. In contrast, the notion behind the Catholic Conversation Project was to “get people early in their careers who are still making up their minds about the theological agendas they want to press, who aren’t invested” in ideological positions marked out in books and articles they’ve written, the dean said in an interview.
Veterans of Catholic moral and theological discourse—including bishops—are not left out of the conversation project, however. On the first day of discussions, representatives from their ranks are present as invited speakers. The younger theologians spend Day Two exchanging views among themselves.
In the mid-afternoon of Tuesday, August 13—Day One—participants began arriving at the retreat center, trickling into what is known as “the main parlor,” which lives up to its name with dark wood paneling, comfortable reading chairs, and a large fireplace between built-in bookcases (the 111-year-old stone mansion was originally part of a family estate).
Khakis, dungarees, and polo shirts were the prevailing look. There were no nametags. Introductions were unnecessary for the most part because all but one or two attendees had been to previous dialogues. The young theologians chatted about such matters as tenure and childcare and trying to get by with one salary or one car in a family. They also talked about the schools where they teach, which range geographically from Carroll College in Helena, Montana, and Regis University in Denver, to St. John’s University in New York and Providence College in Rhode Island, as well as Boston College. Asked what brought her to the gathering, Julia Brumbaugh, assistant professor of religious studies at Regis (and a 2009 Ph.D. product of Fordham), said she’s painfully aware of religious disharmony, coming from an extended Catholic family in Washington State that is “fractured in this way.”
The program began in the chapel with a Mass led by Andrea Vicini, SJ, Ph.D.’07, who teaches moral theology and medical ethics at STM; he was the only cleric among the project’s 19 members in attendance. After worship, the assembly wended to a meeting room for a panel discussion featuring four guests: John Carr, who spent three decades as social-action chief of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and who now directs Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life; Greg Erlandson, president of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Company, in Hunting-ton, Indiana; Zeni Fox, Seton Hall Univer-sity professor of pastoral theology; and Massa, a Church historian.
The U-shaped room was blessed with ample late-afternoon daylight. Project members snapped open cans of soft drinks and took notes assiduously, as though they were seated in an upper-level seminar. Taking turns, the panelists gave their sketches of a Church in disputatious times.
Leading off, Massa said he has worried about the alienating trends among Catholics ever since the 1980s, when he wrote his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University about factional struggles that sundered the U.S. Presbyterian Church in the 19th century. “I began to feel that this is a road we are taking in the Catholic Church,” he said, noting that the Catholic community has only grown more fractious since then.
At the same time, Massa suggested that Catholics who are usually at cross-purposes might be able to coalesce around some pressing concerns. He cited the daunting lack of religious knowledge among young Catholics (“We’ve already lost a generation,” he said) and the need for what he called an “affectively satisfying and intellectually challenging piety.” The latter, he said, would involve reintroducing Catholics to traditional practices—such as reciting the Rosary—but in a way that links personal piety to a larger theological and social vision. Calling for a broadly inclusive dialogue about these and other questions, Massa added: “The Catholic tradition is so deep that no one person or group can encompass the tradition.”
Erlandson likened polarization in the Church to partisanship in politics. Alluding to the U.S. president and the speaker of the House of Representatives, he said Catholics in the pews are hungering for a “roadmap that will move us past the ecclesiastical version of the Obama-Boehner divide that is as spiritually paralyzing to the Church as the legislative divide is to our country.” Fox spoke of tensions on the ground, sometimes involving mergers between two or more unwilling parishes or newly appointed pastors who reassert a top-down, clerical model of ministry. “Frankly, it makes me shudder,” she said of the latter circumstance. Carr called on everyone to reject the familiar nostrums of political left and right, including the claim that anyone with reservations about same-sex marriage is a “bigot” and the assumption that a tax cut is “the answer to every problem.”
After the presentations, there was less of a rush to questions and answers than to dinner, but the interchange continued in the main parlor a little after 8:00 p.m. Participants settled into sofas and reading chairs around the room for what was slated as an “open conversation with panelists” that lasted more than two hours.
Kevin Ahern, who finished his doctoral work in theological ethics at Boston College this year and is teaching at Manhattan College in New York, voiced concern over “the disconnect between academic theologians and parishes.” He explained that he and his wife have wrestled with the question of whether to attend their “geographic parish,” which is located in their neighborhood, as is customary for Catholics. The alternative is what he termed a “boutique parish” farther away but with more erudite preaching, livelier ministries, and a highly educated congregation. For a while, the discussion seesawed between those who opt for geography (even bad liturgical music “reminds you what you’re there for,” which is to “worship with a community,” a bearded young professor remarked) and others who seek a more robust experience of parish life.
Then the question turned existential as a 20-something woman in blue jeans and flip-flops asked, “Where do we fit in?” She said a pastor “should care that he has a theologian in his parish,” indicating that hers doesn’t. There was some friendly debate over whether a pastor should treat a theologian differently from any other parishioner.
“You are posing a new problem in the Church, as lay theologians,” Fox interjected, noting the preponderance of lay people in Catholic theology today. Referring to pastors and bishops, she told the group, “They don’t know what to do with you.”
Finally, the conversation arrived at a deeply polarized subject in the Church—the politics of the Eucharist.
One female theologian, tall and slender and sporting a burgundy shawl, acknowledged that she would avoid a parish where some communicants are less welcomed because of their political views. Alluding to bishops who have urged Catholic supporters of abortion rights and gay marriage not to receive communion, she said, “I wonder if I’d be allowed at the Eucharistic table if they knew what was in my head.” At that point, one of her peers stood up and said with a smile, “I’m tempted to push back,” and she did, obliquely—arguing that there’s no cause to feel unwelcome during the Eucharistic celebration because “it’s a table that belongs to Jesus,” not to anyone else. A young man with a Spanish accent added that bishops have a right to be “prophetic” on the question of who’s worthy of communion, but shouldn’t be “coercive.” Sitting in a wingback chair before the fireplace and holding a glass of white wine, the woman in the shawl did not disagree but pointed out, “I just live in a world where people put gates around the Eucharist.”
The next morning, the guests were gone, and project members went behind closed doors to have their own discussions. The confidentiality is part of creating what several of them referred to in interviews as a “safe” haven for dialogue—an environment where they can speak without concern that comments could come back to haunt them when they seek tenure and promotions or encounter their local bishop. The day contained talk of producing a book or other publication mirroring the group’s dialogues, according to Ospino, who said that the role of lay theologians in the institutional Church continued to loom large in the off-the-record exchanges. The same topic occupied a private session on August 15 with Boston’s Cardinal Seán O’Malley, OFM Cap, involving nine members of the Catholic Conversation Project steering committee.
“We’re trying to talk together in a way that breaks” with the bellicosity of much Catholic debate, said Kathyrn Getek Soltis, who facilitated the discussions with panelists and, with her three-year-old doctorate from Boston College, directs Villanova University’s Center for Peace and Justice Education. She added, “And frankly, we’re still figuring that out.”
Read more by William Bole