Catholic Eyes, Outward Looking

Cambridge, MA. I had been thinking recently of writing a blog on my life at Harvard in recent days, by way of example detailing this most interesting (and exhausting) week since my return from Korea. That I should write it now, still early on the Saturday morning before Palm Sunday, is inspired by Jim Martin’s recent entry on Catholic bloggers, which  concludes: “’One of the things we are a little bit aware of is that sometimes the Catholic blogosphere can become a bit of a ghetto…rather than engaging in the world outside,’ said Richard Rouse, an official from the Pontifical Council. So two good goals for Catholics bloggers (and for us here at “In All Things” of course!): Engage the world outside, be charitable to the world inside.  Actually vice versa is pretty good advice as well.” See also Austen Ivereigh’s subsequent blog on “tribal Catholicism.” (Though I thought the term might just as well be, “Catholic cannibalism.”)

     There is much to occupy us inside the Church. There are the innumerable good deeds and faith-filled aspirations of young and old Catholics everywhere, works of charity and service, scholarship, prayer and worship such as keep the Church honest, holy, and alive; and there are the problems that in various ways upset, embarrass and even shame us: ongoing revelations about sex abuse and its cover-up; unilateral and condescending criticism, devoid of dialogue, on books by Catholic theologians; and a general absence of real top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top dialogue on issues of great importance inside the Church, such as who God is allowed to call to ordination.  Many of my colleagues here at In All Things deal very well with these issues.


     But in my current situation, now in my sixth year at Harvard, and in my first as Director of its Center for the Study of World Religions, is that my task is primarily “engaging the world outside,” even if seeing it all through Catholic eyes. Consider events recently on my calendar:

1)    On Monday, a lunch for graduate students with Diana Eck, Harvard professor and director of the Pluralism Project, on religious diversity, studied and lived, as a central factor of graduate education in theology and religion today;

2)    Also on Monday, a panel arranged by one of our graduate students, Asha Kaufman, in which representatives of five different religious traditions spoke of the meaning for them of a chosen work of art from the Harvard Art Museum collections — works ranging from a medieval painting of St. Dominic to a Buddha of compassion and to a Monet painting; 

3)    On Tuesday, off campus and over at BC, a conversation with Nicolas Standaert, SJ (Professor at Leuven, but visiting at Harvard this semester), on Fr. Jerome Nadal’s illustrations (c. 1600) for the Spiritual Exercises, meant to aid the exercitant in meditation — illustrated also as reconfigured - drawn differently, to different effect - in Chinese prints in 17th and 18th century China;

4)    On Wednesday, the Annual Greeley Lecture for Peace and Social Justice delivered by Dr. Kiran Martin, founding director of Asha, an organization which, inspired by the love and example of Christ, works with interfaith openness for urban health and development and women’s empowerment and education in fifty slum colonies of Delhi, India. (The video will be up at our site soon, so please come back in a few days to see this wonderful presentation.)

5)    On Thursday, the annual Krister Stendahl Consultation, in honor of this revered former Dean, bishop, and tireless worker for interfaith understanding, a consultation at which four current students presented the fruits of their research, involving Christianity and Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, on topics of comparative import: the relationship between interfaith experience and Catholic theology (Lisa Gasson); an instance of the use of Aristotle in Islamic spiritual psychology (Celene Lizzio); how we are to learn from the tradition-based yet radically innovative teachings of Jesus and Krishna (Seth Ligo); and the discovery, deep inside Zen practice, of a moment where Zen koan utterance and the cry of Jesus on the cross come together (Jim Lopata);

6)    Also on Thursday, a conversation at the Center of several Harvard professors — Diana Eck, Parimal Patil, Tamsin Jones, and myself — with 15 sophomore religion majors, on the diverse ways in which we study religion today, as we seek to combine scholarly discipline with a concern for truth and respect for faith perspectives, in fields such as the comparative philosophy of religion, dialogue, and comparative theology;

7)    On Sunday, we will have a rare Sunday session, a visiting professor (Heiko Narrog) presenting his reflections on modern Soto Zen doctrine and practice, with respect to one modern author’s writing on 10th century texts;

8)    And finally, on Monday, a current doctoral student (Devaka Premawardhana) will address the HDS Society for Comparative Theology on the work of Aloysius Pieris, SJ, the great Sri Lankan Jesuit scholar of Buddhism and liberation theology.

     What a week! Now of course it is true, as learned readers of this blog may already see, that while this is a fascinating week’s program, what it all means theologically depends on what happened in each venue, the issues addressed, and how deeply possible theological questions were pursued, honestly faced. So too, this is still a rarified setting, a Divinity School, and the wide world, the real world some might say, is much wider still. True, but I still take it as a starting point that by the eyes of faith - the mouth of faith is not our solitary resource - we can see Christ present in each and every one of these events, manifest in the truth and beauty and goodness of what has been shown and said and done in our midst, outside the Church's usual domain. Yes, we need to care deeply about issues inside the Church, as we seek to live out the best of our tradition while rejecting its worst features, but looking-outward too is of great importance.

     “Engage the world:” I am reminded of the words we heard from the Gospel of John several Sundays ago: “But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting… For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

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7 years 11 months ago
This sounds like quite the interesting/multicultural week in the Harvard Divinity School; however, since you used the Gospel quote, I will have to ask: what exactly did you reap? What labor did you engage in?

Did you proclaim the message of Christ: "I am the way, the truth, and the life, No one comes to the Father except through me."  Or was the Christian faith presented as one truth among many: no better, no worse in a lukewarm, academic fashion?

Did you wear clothing to identitfy you as a Catholic priest at any of these events?  And, just out of curiosity, does St. Augustine of Hippo embarrass you for his zeal and lack of political correctness?:

"Neither in the confusion of paganism, nor in the defilement of heresy, nor in the lethargy of schism, nor yet in blindness of Judaism is religion to be sought; but among those alone who are called Catholic Christians, or the orthodox, that is, the custodians of sound doctrine and followers of right teaching"
7 years 11 months ago
Or, in the name of less snarky blogging ;) I guess my question is are truth claims examined and challanged between say Islam/Buddhism/Judaism and Christianity.

For example, Rene Girard writes: "Why has Christian revelation been subject to the most hostile and ferocious possible criticism for centuries but not Islam. There is an abdication of reason here. In some respects, it resembles the aporia of pacifism, which can be a strong encouragement for aggression. 

The Qur'an would thus benefit from being studied in the same way that Jewish and Christian texts have been studied.  I think a comparative approach would reveal that it contains no real awareness of collective murder."

Would such a conversation or examination even be allow to start at your program?  Obviously, good relations and dialogue are important, but at the expense of truth?

Mr Joyce, thanks for your two comments. Issues of truth can indeed be considered in a university setting, but it is not the place for arguments that presume the superior authority of any given tradition. The educational process cannot omit the issue of truth, but neither can an institution like Harvard enforce one consensus view, religious or secular. See my opening lecture as Center Director, for a more expansive example of my handling of these issues. And yes, everyone at Harvard knows that I am a Catholic priest, even if I had not written this very public blog. Fr Clooney

PJ Johnston
7 years 11 months ago
The relationship between proclamation and dialogue is complicated, interrelated, and leaves much to individual discernment about what is prudent in a given context.  Here's a guideline from the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue:

It doesn't seem necessary to be an exclusivist, wear a clerical collar, or pass out the Catholic equivalent of Chick tracts to engage in proclamation!  Often you can do this just by manifesting a Catholic openness to the truth in non-Christian religions (see Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate about the existence of such truth) and a disposition of charity.
PJ Johnston
7 years 11 months ago
Is there a distribution network for theological ideas that you would prefer as more efficient, or do you think the distribution of theological ideas is so unimportant there shouldn't be one?  (Or is the distribution of theological ideas unimportant only when the ideas comes from people trained in theology - a sort of reverse imprimatur where having an advanced academic qualification requiring about a decade of sacrifice and possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt makes you uniquely unsuited to speak about the subject matter?)
PJ Johnston
7 years 11 months ago

Thanks for the thoughtful and clarifying reply.  I'm anxious about the academic job market and politicians who don't think a liberal arts education serves any practical purpose (so why fund universities?) and I am probably just hyper-sensitive on the topic.
Stuart Breaux
7 years 11 months ago
"Yes, we need to care deeply about issues inside the Church, as we seek to live out the best of our tradition while rejecting its worst features . . . ."

Fr. Clooney, what exactly are these worst features of our Church's tradition that we should reject?  Perhaps the all-male priesthood ("such as who God is allowed to call to ordination")?  Please elaborate.  The unlearned readers of this blog have trouble with subtlety.


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