Catholics and Practical Theology in Chicago

The biennial conference for the International Academy of Practical Theology (IAPT) began today in Chicago, Illinois, hosted at the Catholic Theological Union. The IAPT is a collection of scholars from around the world who specialize in the theological study of practice, whether social/cultural or ecclesial. There are about 120 Academy members.

Those of us who study and teach practical theology tend to see practice as a central organizing category for theology in general, for Christian life and for the work of the church more specifically, and for social life. Some of us specialize in ecclesial practices that have become constitutive of church mission: homiletics/preaching, religious/Christian education, pastoral care/counseling, congregational studies, liturgy/worship, and other areas. Others specialize in methods for (theological) analysis of (theological) practice. Some focus on making theological sense of social and cultural practices that make up life in particular contexts. Still others work on philosophies of religious practice, or philosophical theologies of practice, so as to better denominate precisely what and how we ought to be studying as theologians.

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"Practical theology" does not have the cachet in the United States that other specifications do, such as "systematic theology" or "biblical theology." Its life before a North American appropriation in the 1980s was substantially European and Protestant (having been renewed for modern theologians by Friedrich Schleiermacher in the 19th century). However, the turn to the crucial category of practice (as overlapping with, but distinct from, say, "belief") happened in certain philosophies and theologies, and dovetailed with major changes and crises for the Christian churches in the United States, all of which (and under the mentoring of a famous cadre of theologians who founded the IAPT in the early 1990s) led to a minor flood of North American theologians participating in the domains of practical theology. Now this flood threatens to overwhelm, and there is much attention being paid to the support of practical theologians in Africa, Asia, and Oceania to bring us into a more realistic balance.

The Roman Catholic presence had been very small in practical theology until recently, but in the last several years, that presence is growing at a noticeable clip. (At the opening session this evening, when members of the Academy were asked to stand up by denominational affiliation, the Catholics -- including both Academy members and guests -- easily made up a quarter of the room. A remarkable sight.) Practical theology, its methods and its research, are working their way into more and more Catholic theological settings. This is probably also connected to Catholic ministry in the U.S. becoming a majority lay-led phenomenon, but also to the breaking down of old barriers between Protestant and Catholic theological communities.

This biennial conference, which owes so much historically to the great Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and to a host of Protestant thinkers, might also remember that Karl Rahner argued that Catholic theology should make practical theology a key domain in Catholic theological research and teaching. No doubt we may have the great Rahner in mind when we here at the conference hear from another great Catholic theologian who will deliver a plenary address for us on Saturday, down the street at the University of Chicago: Fr. David Tracy, emeritus at Chicago, who will speak on "God, Diversity, and Practical Theology." Theology gourmands will recall that Tracy, too, in past work has advocated practical theology as an essential theological discipline.

The Academy's website is here.

Tom Beaudoin

Chicago, Illinois

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