National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 18, 2003

M. Shawn Copeland
-- CNS
A theology of the 'human other'

The Catholic Theological Society of America held its annual conference June 5-8 in Cincinnati. M. Shawn Copeland, president-elect and now president of the society, chose the conference theme: “The Vocation of the Theologian.” During the conference, reporter Margot Patterson interviewed Copeland, a professor of theology at Marquette University who will begin teaching at Boston College this fall, about some of the issues in theology today and about Copeland’s own identity and experiences as a theologian.

NCR: The theme of this conference is “The Vocation of the Theologian.” Would you say a little bit about how you see the vocation of the theologian and the challenges to that vocation posed by the contemporary world?
By using the word vocation, I wanted to signal that our theological work, our theological lives, are not so much about careerism, upward mobility, but they are about a response to the Word made flesh. And I think the presence of the Word made flesh in history really imposes on us an attention and a reverence and a devotion with regard to all creation. At this time in our world, in the 21st century, human life is really quite cheap. When we think about the social context in which we are currently doing theology, we cannot help but mention the war conducted against Iraq, cannot help but mention the suffering of people on the continent of Africa ravaged by AIDS. We cannot help but mention the struggles of the people in Palestine and in Israel. So the world in which we are living is really presenting us, without any effort on our part, a certain demand. And it’s asking us, for whom do we do our theology and by whom? And I think the “by whom” is really about the Word made flesh.

I know that you are the first black woman to head the CTSA. How does your identity as a black woman shape your concerns as a theologian?
My concerns have been, probably since I was 12 years old, expressed under the rubric of theological anthropology, that is, what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be human from a Christian point of view? What does it mean to be human in the kind of social setting in which we live? I think my first question about this was at a time when in the seventh grade I had nothing to do one summer and I wanted to go to summer school to learn French and do world history. And so my mother let me and I learned about the Shoah, and it struck me quite forcibly that people who have a great disregard for human life, if they can stigmatize you and identify you and if they are in charge, they can make laws which can eradicate you.

What it means to be a human being is extraordinarily important in our society, and I think African-Americans struggle with this question on a daily basis. Maybe in very egregious and painful ways, but also in ordinary, daily ways in which people are undercut at very good jobs; people are undercut in very prosperous circumstances. Ellis Cose wrote a book many years ago, called The Rage of a Privileged Class, in which he tried to explain how despite affirmative action and despite the progress or seeming progress of African-Americans, he had a number of descriptions of very affluent, well-trained, well-placed black attorneys trying to enter their offices and being stopped by white junior colleagues because they didn’t seem to belong. What characterized the lack of belonging was simply their race.

Do you have any idea why the church wasn’t more successful in reaching Americans with its antiwar message? I imagine Catholic Americans were supporting the war in about the same percentage as non-Catholics, despite the church’s mounting a spirited critique of it.
I think, and this is very sad, that the sexual abuse scandals wounded the moral credibility of the church. I think it was very difficult for the bishops to mount a critique.

I also think the vast majority of Americans right now are very afraid. September 11th really was a very difficult thing for us. We don’t know what it’s like to have that kind of experience. We’ve never had that kind of experience in this country. I think that perhaps people felt afraid; they felt their way of life, our way of life was threatened, and I think they felt the only response was a strong one.

I think the ability to sustain a democracy depends upon critical conversation. It depends upon serious people who are willing to talk, who are willing to educate themselves about the issues. And I think the more in which we fail to engage our citizenry in this way, the more in which people move away from participation at local levels, it trickles up to state levels, it trickles up really to national levels. And so there’s a certain fear. Many Americans thought that people were attacking our way of life, that they were jealous and vengeful. Really, I think that people were trying to say to us that we don’t hate you, but we really are tired of your arrogance, your indifference. We’re tired of your dismissive attitude toward the rest of humanity. And this takes me back to theological anthropology, which is a very important issue. It’s the human other. We can’t seem to hold respectfully and reverently before us the face of the human other without trying to conquer, change, manipulate in some way. We just can’t seem to be patient and listening.

Do you think that theologians have anything in particular to say about the sex abuse crisis in the American Catholic church and why it occurred? And does this crisis to some degree reflect any failure of theological understanding?
How can theologians help? That’s the best way to respond to your question. You’ll be able to hear tonight what people think we can do in areas of theological anthropology, spirituality, ecclesiology, moral theology and you’ll hear from a bishop. Those five people tonight will give you a very good way of responding to that kind of a question. I’m not trying to dodge it, but I’m trying to say it’s complex. One of the issues at stake must be theological education, must be formation.

Recently, someone did an article in The New Yorker in which they accuse the bishops of using psychiatry as a kind of hideout for these problems. And I thought about that because I’ve been thinking that part of our problem has been a failure to sufficiently educate these men, not in the last 10 years, but I’m talking about the older abusers, people like [former priest John] Geoghan, people like [Fr. Paul] Shanley. There’s been a breakdown in their formation in terms of psychology and psychological development. That remains to be determined -- it’s merely on my part a hypothesis about the failure of psychological integration in formational experiences. But I think what’s also true is that it was unfair of this author to really accuse the bishops of simply using psychology as a hideout when in fact there probably was an effort on the part of many people to try to understand what was happening. This particular author suggested that some people ignored their warnings. It’s a very interesting piece, but I think theology is struggling both to answer questions about human sexuality in a complex way and to answer questions about human psychological and physiological development. And I think theology is trying to understand really the meaning of authority in the church.

Margot Patterson is NCR opinion editor. Her e-mail address is

For more comprehensive interview click here .

National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 2003

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