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James T. KeaneJune 13, 2023
Roger Haight, S.J., speaks after receiving the John Courtney Murray Award at the annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Milwaukee on June 10. 2023 (Photo courtesy of Paul Schutz/Catholic Theological Society of America)

What a difference two decades can make.

The world of Catholic theology witnessed a welcome development in Milwaukee on Saturday, June 10, at the 77th annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America, when the guild honored Roger Haight, S.J., with the John Courtney Murray Award, its highest honor. Named for the distinguished American Jesuit theologian known for his contributions to the Second Vatican Council as well as his significant influence on American Catholic theology, the John Courtney Murray Award is given yearly to a scholar for a “lifetime of distinguished theological achievement.” In announcing the award, Francis X. Clooney, S.J., C.T.S.A. president, noted Haight’s contributions “to theology and to the life and well-being of the church and God’s people.”

Francis X. Clooney, S.J., C.T.S.A. president, noted Roger Haight’s contributions “to theology and to the life and well-being of the church and God’s people.”

The C.T.S.A. also honored two other scholars at this past weekend’s convention: On Thursday, June 8, the Women’s Consultation in Constructive Theology recognized frequent America contributor and Loyola Marymount University theology professor Cecilia González-Andrieu with the Ann O’Hara Graff Award, given yearly to a female scholar whose work exemplifies Graff’s commitment to the integration of faith and scholarship. Graff, who died in 1996, was an expert in theology and church history who taught for many years at the University of Seattle and Loyola University Chicago.

Susan Bigelow Reynolds, an assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., was honored with the Catherine Mowry LaCugna Award, given yearly by the C.T.S.A. “to new scholars for the best academic essay in the field of theology within the Roman Catholic tradition.” LaCugna, who died in 1997, was a feminist theologian who taught for many years at the University of Notre Dame. (A review of Reynolds’s new book, People Get Ready: Ritual, Solidarity, and Lived Ecclesiology in Catholic Roxbury, will appear in the next print issue of America and will be available online next week.)

Haight, who was himself president of the C.T.S.A. in 1994-95, is currently scholar in residence at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He noted when receiving the award that he may be the last recipient who actually studied under Murray. Born in 1936, Haight entered the Society of Jesus in 1954 and was ordained in 1967. He taught for many years in Jesuit university settings, including the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass (now part of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry). After the 1999 publication of his book Jesus Symbol of God (which was honored as the “best book on theology” from the Catholic Press Association in 2000), Haight came under investigation by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for what the C.D.F. called “serious doctrinal errors in the book.”

In 2004, the C.D.F. banned Haight, then a professor at Weston, from teaching Catholic theology, a censure that later was extended to include a ban on teaching theology at all in any institution. Haight was one of a number of prominent scholars censured or investigated by the C.D.F. during the tenure of Joseph Ratzinger as prefect of the Vatican congregation (now a dicastery) during the papacy of John Paul II.

“Perhaps there are places in the Church where the silencing will produce a desired caution and even fear in theologians, but here in the United States, my guess is that it is mainly the Vatican that comes off looking bad,” Father Clooney wrote in America in 2009. “It would have been better, wise, kinder, more productive, more charitable, to let Fr. Haight write what he wants, and teach at Union, letting the rest of us, who do really care about Jesus and his meaning for us, judge whether he is to be in our bibliographies and on our reading lists or not. Silencing simply interrupts and delays the necessarily slow process of making up our minds on his writing; there is simply no way to substitute for the learning each of us must do, sooner or later.”

Further, he added, “I am all the more and endlessly edified by Roger as intellectual, writer, teacher, Jesuit. He wrote what he thought, in simple and austere honesty, working out his ideas step by step. He wrote, as he saw it, for the Church and for his students.”

In 2008, Haight warned against “a kind of theological illiteracy among the laity and the clergy regarding the work of the academy” in recent years.

At Union, Haight has written on spirituality and advised graduate students while also serving as a scholar in residence. He has also kept up a busy publication schedule. (Full disclosure: While an editor at Orbis Books, I edited three of Haight’s books on spirituality: Christian Spirituality for Seekers, Spirituality Seeking Theology and Spiritual and Religious.) His most recent book is The Nature of Theology: Challenges, Frameworks, Basic Beliefs (Orbis, 2022), which was reviewed in America by Christopher Pramuk last October. Many of his former students from different schools took the stage Saturday night for a picture with him—among them the incoming C.T.S.A. president, Kristin Heyer of Boston College.

Haight has also written for America regularly since the early 1980s, when he began contributing book reviews to the magazine. His most recent contributions have been a 2021 obituary for the prominent Swiss theologian Hans Küng, a 2018 review of Michael Lee’s Revolutionary Saint (on Óscar Romero), a 2017 reflection on his experience of 50 years of priesthood and a 2008 cover story on developments in Catholic theology since Vatican II.

In that 2008 story, Haight wrote that “Catholics should be amazed by how theology has developed over the past 40 years. From Karl Rahner to Jon Sobrino, from Edward Schillebeeckx to Elizabeth Johnson, the expanded territory covered by the theologians of our era bears comparison to the transition from the monastery to the university in the High Middle Ages.” But he also warned against “a kind of theological illiteracy among the laity and the clergy regarding the work of the academy” in recent years. Haight offered suggestions for where Catholic theology needed to go in the future—suggestions that hinted toward his published work in spirituality in the years that followed:

Theologians need to explore more fully the ways in which an open theology grounds a strong religious identity and a vital Christian spirituality. A critical understanding of how Christianity can be universally relevant and at the same time open to other religious experiences confirms rather than threatens one’s Christian identity. Our professed faith in precisely the God of Jesus should convince us that openness to other churches and other religions is a proper Christian spiritual attitude. New times and new theologies call for new forms of spirituality.

Oh, and John Courtney Murray, for whom Roger Haight’s honor is named? Long before he was recognized for his monumental contributions to Vatican II and to our contemporary understanding of questions of church and state, he too was censured by the Vatican.

Roger Haight: "Our professed faith in precisely the God of Jesus should convince us that openness to other churches and other religions is a proper Christian spiritual attitude."

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Letter to Myself While Learning To Read,” by Laurinda Lind. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Vatican II’s secret priest-journalist: The story of Xavier Rynne

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

The mystery of Thomas Merton’s death—and the witness of America magazine’s poetry editor

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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