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Latino, black scholars protest exclusion

NCR Staff

When David J. O’Brien, renowned U.S. Catholic historian, took it upon himself to put together a conference sponsored by an organization of Catholic intellectuals, he saw it as, well, a bit of a good deed.

The organization -- the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs -- is 50 years old and “somewhat moribund,” he said, bowed a bit, perhaps, under the weight of its mission. The commission strives to provide a forum for Catholic intellectuals across disciplines in an era of dwindling interest and support.

After conference notices went out in mid-September, though, O’Brien was brought up short, reminded with considerable force of the vitality in intellectual quarters he had neglected to include on the program. O’Brien, who heads the commission’s board of directors, said he is apologetic.

Outrage is probably not too strong a word for feelings that Hispanic and African-American theologians expressed over being left out. The pain was all the greater, some said, when they noted the conference title: “The Future of Catholic Intellectual Life.”

Diana Hayes, African-American professor at Georgetown University, said she had noticed immediately the absence of “Catholics of color” when she received an invitation to the conference in the mail.

She said she had written O’Brien to point out that the program suggested that “only Caucasians could speak about Catholic intellectual life.” O’Brien apologized by return mail, she said.

How can you talk about the future, wondered Orlando Espin, theologian at the University of San Diego, and not include Latino and Latina scholars, African-Americans and Asian Americans? “We simply don’t exist for the conference organizers,” he told NCR. “There is not a single reference to our intellectual life on the program.”

Too often, he said, Hispanic Catholics are viewed as “objects” suitable for academic study but undervalued as “subjects” capable of making significant contributions to U.S. Catholic intellectual life.

Roberto Goizueta, theology professor at Boston College, said the conference, while not itself a major event, had become “kind of a flash point for what is in fact a much larger issue in the theological academy and in the church. We don’t want to pick on this particular symposium,” he said. “This is just one example of something that has been an ongoing issue for us.”

“The title hit us particularly,” Goizueta said, “because for so long it’s been assumed that the intellectual life of Catholics is the province of Europeans. To talk about Catholic intellectual life without including other groups within the church whose intellectual life has not been given their due historically is an important issue.”

Sixto Garcia, president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States, said that Hispanic and African-American theologians are often “grudgingly accepted … but expected to confine ourselves to our ‘Hispanic issues.’ There is a very real kind of intellectual bigotry that can best be described as an assumption that we do not have the intellectual, cultural or genetic makeup to discuss thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Karl Rahner, Maurice Blondel and others,” he said.

Several Latino scholars noted in interviews that, by some reports, membership of the U.S. Catholic church is half Hispanic, or soon will be, and that dozens of Hispanic Catholic scholars are active around the country.

O’Brien, author of numerous books on Catholicism in the United States, professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and an expert in Catholic higher education, is truly sorry, he said, for what he described as an unfortunate oversight.

“This organization has not been terribly active in recent years,” he said. “The conference evolved rather haphazardly, and I’m afraid I gave it a pretentious title. I should have been around long enough to know how sensitive these matters are.”

Noting that several women are included on the program, O’Brien said he had intended to be inclusive. “But I should have been thinking of the cultural distribution as well,” he said. “I ran the program by a couple of people, but I take full responsibility. I’m not excusing myself.”

The complaints, he said, directed to him via e-mail and letters, “are quite justifiable.” Speakers for the Nov. 12-14 conference, being held at the College of the Holy Cross, include Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, dean of Harvard Divinity School; Jesuit Fr. Michael Buckley of Boston College; Fr. James Heft, chancellor of the University of Dayton; Sr. Margaret Farley of Yale University, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America; Sr. M. Therese Moser of the University of San Francisco, president of the College Theology Society; and Monika Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

“There was absolutely no intention of excluding anyone,” said R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame and interim executive director of the commission sponsoring the conference. “And of course,” he added, “Hispanic theologians are leaders in the American Catholic intellectual community. There’s no question about that. David and I both understand how important Latino intellectual leadership is for today and for the future.”

“This was a good wake-up call,” Appleby said. “It shouldn’t have been needed, but there it is, from our Latino colleagues as we think through the restructuring and revitalization of this Catholic commission.”

O’Brien said he had invited representatives of Catholic academic groups, centers for Catholic studies, foundations that support Catholic scholarship and other groups with an eye to developing new initiatives “to sustain Catholic intellectual life.” The goal of the conference, he said, is to come up with a list of projects that might be undertaken. As a result of the controversy, the need for inclusiveness would become part of the public discussion, O’Brien said.

“Traditionally, Catholic intellectual life has been nourished by religious orders,” he said, “institutions of men and women, and by seminaries, which are less and less able to provide that institutional support.”

Fernando Segovia, professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, described the omission as an “endemic problem,” but no longer one that Hispanic scholars will let pass. “It’s not unlike the women’s movement,” he said. “Once the numbers grow, you can flex your muscles and be heard in a way you couldn’t before.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999