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Theologians ponder signs of the times

New Orleans

Theologians think in the context of their time and place, whether or not they admit it. The 2002 meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America confirmed this fact as members tackled the theme of the meeting: “Reading the Signs of the Times.”

The society met in New Orleans, capital and mother city of African-American Catholicism, after changing the venue midyear from Philadelphia because of reported racial injustice at the Adams Mark hotel there. It met nine months after the terror of Sept. 11, with citizens still shaken; the U.S. military in Afghanistan; Pakistan and India staring in each other’s nuclear faces; and the land where Jesus walked and the prophets preached mired in bloody, dispiriting turmoil.

And the society met, of course, in a time of anguish and anger in the church, following revelations of sexual abuse by clergy and of collusion and concealment by the U.S. Catholic bishops.

Colleagues from other continents included representatives from theological societies in Germany, Brazil, Belgium and Uruguay; U.S. theologians residing in Taiwan and South Africa; and Australian, Nigerian, and Indian theologians teaching and studying in the United States. The church universal was also present in the presidential address of Fr. Peter Phan, titled “Theology on the Other Side of the Borders.” Phan, born in Vietnam, is the Catholic Theological Society of America’s first president of Asian ancestry and culture. He is a professor at The Catholic University of America.

The theologians met as inhabitants of a wounded planet riven by economic disparity, where human solidarity and globalized capitalism vie for the allegiance of hearts and minds. Preoccupation with money and wealth often remains unexamined, according to Michael Warren of St. John’s University in New York. Warren reminded participants in a spirituality seminar that in the gospels, Jesus speaks far more often about money than about sex.

The society issued no formal statement about the current church crisis. Its members did, however, spend an extended session responding to a discussion paper drafted at the request of the board of directors. The paper was to be sent to the 16 bishops who are members of the theological society and to the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Despite the lack of a formal statement, this gathering met with an urgent sense of responsibility to and for the church. Fueled by this commitment, theologians need to do what we do best: not to spin sound bites, but to go below the surface of the issues and enlarge the public conversation. Warren spoke in his presentation of “our trained capacity for focused staring.” Thus equipped, theologians’ work in our rushed and reactive culture is to create, expand and nourish spaces where sustained reflection and analysis can take place. “We have a sacred duty to address this crisis from our position as theologians,” Phan said.

Concern for the church’s members, its nature and its structure surfaced in plenaries and seminars. “We need to look at our theology of the laity, of the priesthood, of the church, and at the structures that would embody the best of our theology,” said Dominican Sr. Jamie Phelps of Loyola University of Chicago. “In the long run,” she added, “we will be a better church because of this crisis.”

In an interview, Phan said the rebuilding of the church “cannot come from the politics and rules the bishops set up in Dallas, but from accountability and transparency. The transformation of the church is a matter for all people at all levels.”

A recurring theme besides the “who” and “how” of church was the “who” and “how” of theology. Whose voices are missing? Where do we look for the signs of the times and for help in interpreting them? How can we do this in conversation, not competition, with each other? Latina and Latino theologians have modeled the doing of theology en conjunto, together in companionship. “The romantic cult of the genius theologian is long past,” Jesuit Fr. William O’Neill of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif., and the Graduate Theological Union said in a seminar on racism.

Social ethicist Barbara Hilkert Andolsen of Monmouth University said that reading the signs of the times requires “placing those whom the world marginalizes or ignores at the center of our vision.”

Approximately one-third of society members are now women, and the number of laymen is growing. A younger generation of African-American and Hispanic theologians has joined elder colleagues, two of whom -- Shawn Copeland of Marquette University and Roberto Goizueta of Boston College -- are now president-elect and vice president of the society.

But too often, minorities are invited to speak “as the black theologian,” Phelps said, rather than as experts in their particular specialty. And one can still count the theological society’s Asian/Pacific-American theologians on one hand. “The diversity of the Catholic church is poorly represented within the academy,” said Michelle Gonzalez of Loyola Marymount University, “to an extent that is shocking.”

The voices of younger theologians are also in short supply within the society, whatever their racial or ethnic background. Andolsen singled out one cause of the shortage: According to a new study by the American Academy of Religion, Catholic educational institutions “have by far the largest proportion of part-time positions when compared with Protestant, non-sectarian or public colleges and universities,” Andolsen said. “Almost half of the teaching positions in the religion departments of these Catholic schools are part-time.” Full-time positions without tenure track are increasing.

The mandatum requiring Catholic theologians to request and receive formal approval from their local bishop, the subject of much discussion and negotiation before and during last year’s meeting, quietly went into effect on June 1. Despite New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes’ reminder of it in his welcoming remarks, there was little talk of the mandatum at this year’s convention. “The tragedy of 9/11 and clerical sexual abuse have simply wiped the issue off the screen,” Phan said. But the society is keeping dialogue with the bishops as one of its priorities.

Phan noted in his presidential address that theology in Asia is first at the service of the church, not the academy. It is also based in the human community, not just the ecclesial community. This is a necessity on a religiously diverse continent where only 3 percent of people are Christian. It is a theology of church where the central question is not “how many more churches did you build?” but whether the church is “a transparent sign of ... the reign of justice, peace, and love,” he said.

Related Web site

Catholic Theological Society of America

Jane Redmont has been a member of the Catholic Theological Society of America since 1995 and is co-chair of the society’s Women’s Seminar in Constructive Theology.

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002