Moderate Hopes among Catholic Theologians

Heathrow Airport, UK. As I write these words, I am in Terminal 5, that new and cosmopolitan crossroads for people traveling, it seems, just about everywhere in the world; a shopping mall of global proportions. I am on my way to Beijing for a brief 12-day visit; more on that, later. But as I waitin transit, I want to note quickly the fact of this year’s Catholic Theological Society of America annual meeting, just held in Miami, ending on June 9. You can find the program here. Several points stood out for me about the convention.

First, both plenary lecturers and speakers in small group seminars and panels were very conscious of the 50th anniversary of Vatican II that we are gradually making our way through during 2012-2015. It is not surprising that some of us look back with nostalgia to the heady days of the Council and the hopes it engendered. In the CTSA, a moderate and progressive body, there is still a feeling in the air that the official Church has not lived up to the promise and even directives of the Council, particularly regarding the realities of Church as community, as collaborative in discerning its mission and not entirely top-down, never finished in defining itself for new situations, and particularly as hitherto silenced and subordinated members find their voices. On the whole, though, what was also a notable lack of stridency in the air. We all know there are differences among us on the legacy of the Council, and that we are not going to agree any time soon on where we are and should be fifty years later. For the most part, we agree to disagree, and (most of us, most of the time now) stay in the Church, because it is our Church and not “their Church.” Fifty years is to be sure a relatively brief period in the history of the Church, but it is long enough for us to grow not only older (of course) but also wiser. Anyone who has turned fifty and beyond knows how this works out.


Second, there was a deep hopefulness in the air as the papacy of Francis begins. Many of us would love him to be another John XXIII, of course, but no one expects this Jesuit to announce a radically different theology than his immediate predecessors, or to change Vatican policies in any definitive manner. Yet I think it fair to say that in Miami there was relief simply at the prospect of fresh air in the highest echelons of the Church. Specifically, the age of Joseph Ratzinger is drawing to a close. I am among those who always looked with interest to his writings as a theologian, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and as pope. Even if you did not agree with him, you knew that most usually there would be a thoughtful approach, considered reasoning, and insights of interest. Yet I am also among those, a majority in Miami, who have felt it was certainly time to move on. The honest and faithful theology of Joseph Ratzinger has been a gift to the Church, but for too long it has been a theology super-enhanced by the CDF, by his place at John Paul II’s side, and by his own role as pope. Given his status and power, his ideas did not always receive the dispassionate analysis and sober critique required and expected in theological circles. In his various positions of authority, he chose not to step back out into the theological fray in a way that his ideas could be analyzed and debated on their own merits. He was too often not only participant but also referee and judge. Even if Francis does not produce theology like that of Benedict, things will be different now. Or at least this is my sense of the mood in Miami.

Much of the work of the CTSA is done in small groups - again, see the program linked above. I was an invited participant this year to the Group dedicated to the thought of Bernard Lonergan, the influential Jesuit philosopher-theologian (died, 1984), famed for his great books, Insight and Method in Theology. Under the general rubric of the convention’s theme of “Conversion,” we discussed this topic in various ways, as illumined by Lonergan’s teachings on moral, religious, and intellectual conversion. Shawn Copland (Boston College) analyzed the urgent need for and prospects of social conversion, particularly in light of the persistent racial divides that still plague our country. Mark Miller (University of San Francisco) offered unique reflections on Jean Paul Sartre’s imagining of the human problem in his Nausea, and drew us toward an unexpected parallel to Lonergan’s understanding of what happens in the moment of insight and intellectual conversion. My own paper explored yet again the Yoga Sutras (see my Lenten blogs), a text which (un)surprisingly offers a detailed and deliberate analysis of human consciousness and knowing, so as to give the reflective person freedom not only from the errors that lead us astray, but even from the habits of unreflective correct knowing. Theologies of conversion are deep within Christian tradition but also, I proposed, operative outside it. While such a panel almost never reaches a firm conclusion, the 25 of us in the room were taking on, through the prism of Lonergan, social, philosophical and literary, and interreligious issues. We are not at the starting point in connecting theology to the issues defining our world today. After all, the point of a convention — all the travel and expense of getting 400 theologians together in one space — is to create conversations that get us out of the narrower expectations that govern even our everyday theological reflection. (See my last blog, and the opening to the new issues of a younger generation.)

I close by noting the annual comparative theology dinner about eighteen of us shared on Friday night, as we always do at the convention. It gathered professors young and old who are interested in comparative theology, theologies of religious pluralism, missiology and global theology, and who are likewise friends, often over many years. Our group was too big for a single concerted discussion, but it seemed, from the noise level, that vigorous conversation was occurring up and down the table. Again, this kind of complicated and outward looking conversation is now routine. It involves at least three generations of theologians; we’ve been meeting for discussions and dinners at the CTSA for some 25 years – amazingly, that is, a full half of the post-conciliar period. Yet it is also clear that we will have much to discuss during the next 25 years too and beyond as well.

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ed gleason
5 years 9 months ago
" the prospect of fresh air in the highest echelons of the Church.' John XXIII was no radical changer.. But both he and Pope Francis just had/have a nose for moldiness. That's why the call for the windows to open
mary jane prouty
5 years 9 months ago
The winds of Vatican II were stirring long before Angelo Roncalli became John XXIII and Roncalli was privy to much of what was about. He, too, was a papal diplomat for many years during and after WWII. There was no true disconnect. In my liberal northeastern Catholic college in the late 50's many of the coming changes were being discussed.


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