National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Posted July 16, 2003

M. Shawn Copeland
Complete interview with M. Shawn Copeland by Margot Patterson

The Catholic Theological Society of American held its annual conference June 5-8 in Cincinnati. M. Shawn Copeland, president-elect and now president of the CTSA, chose the conference theme: The Vocation of the Theologian. During the conference NCR 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. I’m wondering if you would say a little bit about how you see the vocation of the theologian and the challenges to that vocation posed by the contemporary world.

Copeland: By using the phrase 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 he 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.

Meaning that the work of the theologian is furthered by spirit?

I mean by that … last night Frank Clooney made some wonderful references to Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poem about the presence of Christ in eyes and faces and limbs other than his own. That is the concrete particularity of Jesus of Nazareth. And so I think that because of that particularity, all human particularity imposes itself on us in the struggle to understand the universal meaning of human life. The human community is deeply divided on all sorts of levels and while theologians cannot answer every question, we cannot respond to every social problem, the fact of the matter is that we need to attend at least some of us, some of the time, and at least all of us every now and then, to the social context in which we do our theology.

I know that you’re 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 a time when in the 7th 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 Rage of the 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. I think you can find African- American members of society who had their work disrespected by colleagues; I think you can find Latino members of society who found their work to be ignored or shunted aside. So I think the different presentation or the diverse presentation of God’s human creation is a real concern. And in that sense, what theology is and how I am a theologian has a lot to do with the person who I am.

Is there something anomalous about being a black Catholic in America? Do black Catholics feel totally integrated into the life of the church? And I’m wondering if there’s a particular spirit that characterizes black Catholicism in America?

What characterizes black Catholics in the United States is a phrase that will be the theme and title of the conference coming up in March 2004 at the University of Notre Dame under the auspices of the Cushwa Center, and the theme and title of the conference is “Uncommon Faithfulness.” I think that’s what characterizes the African-American presence in the Roman Catholic Church in America.

Perhaps the signature story is the story of black Catholics in Colleton County, South Carolina, who in 1856 were enslaved and because the slaveholders were Catholics so were they. But they had a very lively Catholicism and a lively faith life. There was a fire in the church, the church burned, the Civil War broke out. And the white planters left. These people for 40 years were abandoned. There was no priest; no one thought to go and see if they had sacraments or religious instructions. And it was only in about 1897 that someone discovered them, a priest, and found out that they had kept the faith alive among themselves and were indeed doing their best to be faithful Roman Catholics. Now this kind of benign neglect characterizes the African-American Catholic experience. But so does uncommon faithfulness.

Is there a sense in which black Catholics feel that they are not truly integrated or accepted into the church?

You’d have to look at the number of black Catholic priests. You’d have to look at the number of black Catholic religious women. You’d have to ask about the presence of the church in inner city areas. Those kinds of gestures and those kinds of proactive actions --recruiting priests, recruiting women for religious life -- would reflect whether or not black Catholics were integrated into the U.S. Catholic Church. I would have to say that historically in a certain way, that we are not as a people. There are of course individual African-Americans who are very active and vibrant members of the Catholic Church who are making national and international contributions. One need only think of Bishop Wilton Gregory, who is head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at this time. But at the same time, I’m sure that Bishop Gregory would say that he would love to see more black Catholic priests. He would love to see more black Catholic religious. He would love to see a continuing increase of black Catholics in terms of our numbers. There’s probably something like 2.5-2.7 million black Catholics in the United States.

I remember while the invasion of Iraq was going on, there were news stories that black Americans were much more antiwar, much less supportive of the U.S. invasion of Iraq than white Americans. Is that true of Black Catholics and can you explain why the two races would see this in different ways?

I wouldn't have any real statistics on what black Catholics thought about the war. Malcolm X had a wonderful saying once. He said, “You don't catch hell because you're Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian, you catch hell because you're black.” And in that sense, I think black Catholics probably agree with most African-Americans about the social situation in the United States. I don't think there's any large disagreement there. But I think what African-Americans and lots of other people, not just African-Americans, were asking for is a greater clarification of why war in Iraq was needed.

I think people were stimulated to question all this also by the fact that there is no draft in the United States. Although we have a volunteer army, because of the situation of disemployment in the United States, because of the movement of manufacturing jobs out of the United States, many young people who are not interested in a college education are really left with little to do after high school. And the Army or the Navy or the Air Force or the Marines have become a very important outlet for their energies. Some of them also join the Army or Air Force or Marines or Navy because they wanted to have help with college education. These young people, because we've been at peace for such a long time, had little expectation of any difficulty. And so what African-Americans were expressing were the sentiments of many people for whom poverty is a daily occurrence, whether you are black or white or brown or red or yellow, that our young people were at war. And it seems that affluent people didn't seem to have to bear the burden of the cost of freedom. When once again these young people will find that their possibilities for exercising their civil rights in the U.S. would be challenged.

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 other non-Catholics despite the church mounting a very 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 and I think Catholic theologians are very appreciative of what the bishops did present. The CTSA board voted at its October meeting to support Bishop Gregory's letter to the president. Today, we passed a resolution again of appreciation for the bishops in their instruction on peacemaking. Those things, this kind of mood, if you will, in terms of the sexual abuse crisis, dampened or muted the ability of the bishops to critique. But I also think they did, and I think some people listened.

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.

In your answer, you were talking a little bit about conversation and the ability to have a critical conversation...

Democracy depends upon the ability to have a critical conversation.

To me that implies that probably that conversation will tend to be more the precinct of certain elites. I just finished reading your essay this afternoon about the vocation of the Christian theologian in the journal Spiritus, and you were mounting a critique of white privilege. Don't you almost have to have elites and don't those elites almost always reflect some kind of privilege? Can you really do away with privilege?

This is really the challenge of the kind of democracy that we have. And it depends upon education. Many, many years ago, the same question was raised by (theologian) Bernard Lonergan when he asked the question, how do we then change the society? And he said you do it by changing people and you change people’s minds and you change people's hearts. That is to say that to make the changes you have to have people who are capable of making the changes and who are ready. And he raised the question with regard to mass education and mass democracy. So having elites, well, I think there are different roles in a society. But I would argue it ought to depend upon knowledge and skill, as opposed to wealth and affluence, which is really where these things have been relocated.

Finally, in terms of the theologian's duty, do you feel 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?

I think that's a very good question. We're going right now in a few minutes to a special session, and it's designed and commissioned by the board to answer that question. 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 Geoghan, people like 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.

I'm wondering if, not so much the abusers but say the bishops who forgave them time and time again, if this is in some way a deficiency in the church's emphasis on mercy sometimes at the expense of justice.

There are people who are writing substantively on this. I mean people like Don Cozzens, who’s been writing a lot about the clerical culture of the priesthood. Any group has a culture, any closed group has a culture, and how people are initiated into that group, how they come to belong, really is complex. I think for most lay people, the issue was cover-up. It wasn't that these people either had moral failings or were committing crimes or sinned. I think it was that these things were covered up. I think there is every effort on the part of the bishops at present to do all that they can to open up some windows and to let some air blow in on this because it's become rank and fetid. And it really has begun, I think, to abuse the mystery of the church.

You mentioned how you began as a theological anthropologist. Is that what your work is still concerned with?

By saying I began in theological anthropology, I don't know that I'd say it that way. I'd say that it's come to me that that's the question that's really motivated my theological work. I'm very interested in a variety of other things, like political theology and method and theology. I'm very interested in political philosophy. But at the core of all that study is the human question.

Finally, can you say just a few words about yourself?

I'm an only child. I'm single. I'm a former nun. I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, where I was educated in parochial and private schools. I've done a lot of different things. I have a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston College. I'm the convener of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium, which is a parallel society to the Catholic Theological Society of America. It's a group of black Catholic theologians and scholars from related disciplines. I have been teaching at Marquette University for the last eight years. Before that, I taught at Yale University Divinity School for five and a half years, and in September I'll begin teaching at Boston College.

National Catholic Reporter, posted July 16, 2003

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