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Maureen O'ConnellJuly 29, 2010

The citizens of Trento are no doubt happy to reclaim their city from the 585 moral theologians who invaded it for a giant five-day, three-generation family reunion (the group of us included pre-Vatican II, Vatican II and post-Vatican II moral theologians from 73 countries). I’m sure we gave Trentinos plenty of fodder for any number of “How many theologians does it take to…” jokes. What we left them with pales in comparison to what many of us are taking home. In addition to a hankering for gelato, the ever-versatile “Prego!,” and the warm smiles of the African “cousins” I didn’t know I had, I’ve comprised a list of my Trento takeways. I hope that other folks in the family will add to it.

  • Africa rising. Laurenti Megesa and Anne Nasimiya of Hekima College in Kenya noted that as the result of engagement with traditional African religions, the Catholicism in Africa is emerging from the predominantly Western/Tridentine paradigm in which it was formed during colonialization into a dynamic African Catholic Church with much to offer the wider Catholic community. Beneset Bujo, currently at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, advised those of us in the West to engage the inherently communal anthropology that supports African ethics. And we will need to continue to support the growth of moral theology there, as well as in India and Latin America, since these regions will soon be home to 75% of Catholics.
  • Attention to racism. Bryan Massingale of Marquette University and Maria Teresa Davila of Andover Newton Theological Seminary called our attention to the seemingly inescapable human tendency to “racialize the other.” This fault that lies at the root of personal and social sin must be a necessary focal point of moral theology in the 21st century.
  • No more moral scapegoating. Many of us expressed frustration that the bishops who participated in plenary sessions did not address the impact of the sexual abuse crisis on the Church’s public credibility when it comes to any moral matter. However, Charles Curran of Southern Methodist University, one of two members of the family actually teaching moral theology before Vatican II, dramatically turned the tables on us when he called moral theologians to task for our silence during the decades of sex abuse in the U.S. and Europe. Rather than blame bishops, he encouraged us to accept our vocational responsibility to speak out against injustice and support victims.
  • The feminization of moral theology. The inclusion of women into moral theology since Vatican II has dramatically changed the discipline. As Julie Clague from the University of Glasgow put it, “When new members join the club, the club changes.” And yet, as Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Trinity Theological Seminary in Geneva noted in the opening plenary, Catholicism, like many other religions on the planet, continues to undermine the agency of women. We will need to think creatively about how to do more than simply give women a voice in Catholic moral theology.
  • Fear and hope. Bishop Kevin Dowling of Johannesburg, South Africa prophetically observed that fear remains a significant obstacle to meaningful social change, both within the Church and in the global community. Panels and presentations surfaced these fears: fear of indigenous religions, fear of gender and emotions, fear of acknowledging the extent of moral failure, fear of reprisals from the hierarchy, fear that the discipline will fragment into cultural-specific contexts or issue-specific silos, fear that the forces of globalization cannot be resisted. In the end, the future of moral theology needs to be about hope, since most sensed that this is the tradition’s best antidote to fear.

The final session of our gathering considered the future of this collective body. For now, a leadership team will be formed to consider various possibilities for regional meetings and an international on-line network. There’s also talk about another international gathering to mark the 50th anniversaries of Gaudium et Spes or Humanae Vitae in 2015 or 2018. If the family fun in Trento is any indicator (check out the montage that captures the spirit of the conference), that will be a reunion we won’t want to miss.


Catholic Theological Ethics · Trento 2010 from WellStudio on Vimeo.

Maureen O'Connell


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Dana Dillon
12 years ago
O'Connell asked for other participants to add other ''takeaways.''  The liturgy from Sunday will be one of my major takeaways. The blending of the Church universal (the diverse theologians gathered) with the local church of Trento, the 6 languages (I think I caught Latin, Italian, English, Spanish, French and German), and the feeling of tradition (past, present, future) all gathered for the eucharist which is and has been the source and summit of our Christian life-it was for me the absolute center of the conference. I hope the memory of it stays with me at every eucharist in which I partake.  
Brendan McGrath
12 years ago
"However, Charles Curran of Southern Methodist University, one of two members of the family actually teaching moral theology before Vatican II, dramatically turned the tables on us when he called moral theologians to task for our silence during the decades of sex abuse in the U.S. and Europe. Rather than blame bishops, he encouraged us to accept our vocational responsibility to speak out against injustice and support victims."

Unless Curran means moral theologians who were also clergy in high-ranking positions who would have had knowledge of clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up, how are moral theologians per se to blame (unless you want to use that line of thinking dubbed "modernism made me do it" by one of the bloggers here)?  Is Curran saying anyone, lay or clergy, involved in the Church in some way must have known something?  Are parents and family of victims who didn't go to the police also "to blame," then?  I guess I just don't like this line of thinking - and it's certainly not defensiveness or anything on my part, because I'm only 28, having been a freshman in college when the scandals really broke in 2002.  Though I suppose it is a defensiveness on behalf of all my teachers: in my experience, my Religion/Theology teachers in grade school, high school, college, and grad school have always been wonderful in every way; often it's theologians who are among the brightest lights in the Church; from my experience, colleges (and private Catholic grade and high schools, sometimes diocesan ones too) are where the Church comes closest to being ideal (not that there aren't still problems).

Prof. O'Connell, I'm not really familiar with you or your work, but what possible blame could you have in the sex abuse scandals?
William Lindsey
12 years ago
I was struck by the same passage that struck Mr. McGrath.
But my reading of it is very different than Mr. McGrath's.

In my view, Charles Curran is pointing out the lack of solidarity with victims of injustice (including the injustice of ecclesial institutions) among many Catholic theologans in recent years.  I hear Charles Curran saying, for instance, that as church officials have violated the human rights of one theologian after another in recent years, Catholic academic theologians have sat aside in relative silence, refusing to raise our voices in any effective way.

And so it is disingenuous on the part of those of us who are theologians to decry the irresponsibility and complicit silence of members of the hierarchy in the sex abuse crisis, when we've walked right along with the hierarchy as they've trampled on the human rights of our brother and sister theologians, of women seeking a voice in the church, of gays and lesbians.

We've been all too willing to go along with those who have abused power, and whom we now wish to expose in the abuse crisis.  We've been concerned about our jobs, our career advancement, and about not being placed in the hot seat as theologians.

We are part of the problem, when it comes to the church's current situation.  We have not imparted to several generations of Catholics the strong sense of solidarity with everyone, but victims first and foremost, that is at the very heart of the Catholic vision of life.  Our values have been rooted far more in American individualism than in the communitarian vision of the world, particularly when it comes to demonstrating solidarity with victims of injustice.

I applaud Charles Curran for speaking prophetically and courageously here.  His prophetic insight comes, I suspect, from his own experience of marginalization, and from witnessing how his brother and sister theologians dealt with that.  Making publid declarations of protest against unjust church actions is one thing.  Walking in solidarity with those treated unjustly is something else again.
Thomas Bushlack
12 years ago
Unity and Hope:

In Prof. O'Connell's last 'take-away' she spoke of the dialectic between fear and hope that characterizes the discourse of today's theological ethics, and I wholeheartedly agree that this is an important challenge to our future as ethicists.  I would add another fear to the list - fear (and its close partner, resentment) towards those within our own Church and the discipline of theological ethics whom we perceive to be on 'the other side' (whatever this means - too liberal, too conservative, too magisterial, too subjectivist, too objectivist, etc.). 

I was not personally present at the first gathering of ''Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church'' in Padua in 2006, but many in Trent commented that that conference was much more focused on finding an internal sense of who we are as theological ethicists.  It seemed that a more unified voice and sense of who we are emerged from Trent, and it was exciting and palpable to be a part of that.  Part of the challenge offered at Trent was how to maintain that unity while also recognizing that we don't all agree.

The take-away that I would add is that we also need to overcome the polarizing language and demonizing of each other that has come to dominate certain parts of our discourse, which I sense is a uniquely Western phenomenon (most blatantly evident in the American blogsophere).  Our unity lies in considering the needs and sufferings of the world and the Church in the light of the Gospel.  If we focus on that, then it seems that we find what Fr. Bryan Massingale spoke of as a hope born out of suffering and solidarity.  Although this space is often one of discomfort (and does not offer us the surety from which we can demonize those with whom we disagree), it does at least offer a hopeful way forward.  For me, the humility and hope that is born of that kind of listening and solidarity with the needs of the global Church (especially those under-represented voices) is perhaps the best 'take-away' from Trent.
Jim McCrea
12 years ago
Re:  Wm Lindsey’s comments -
“The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.”  (John Locke)

I'm sure an modern-day Locke would include women along with men.
William Lindsey
12 years ago
Jim, thanks.  Very well observed, with your usual pithiness.

There's so much airy verbiage in our theological academy (and I'm guilty of it myself).  But it goes nowhere.  Because it's not coupled with action.

And along with the lack of action and the verbiage, it often seems to me, a baffling lack of awareness of the apologetic challenges facing Catholics today-challenges that require us to go far beyond words. 

Catholic theology that doesn't begin with the awareness that our most fundamental claims about who we are and what we belive has been radically undermined by the actions of many of us at this point in history seems very empty to me.  Sounding brass.

And I agree that a modern-day Locke would surely envisage women counting in the Lockean statement you quote.
David Nickol
12 years ago
Fr.  Robert John Araujo, SJ , has some comments over at Mirror of Justice about this piece in which he says:

Professor O’Connell offers several statements which made me pause because she makes an appeal to subjectivity rather than objectivity. One of these statements deals with her appeal to the “democratization” of morality. Well, if we democratize morality, what easily follows is this: what might be sinful if done by one person may well turn out to be virtuous when performed by another because of subjective rather than objective evaluation that follows the “democratization” of morality. For example: it may be murder to you, but it is honor killing to me.

I certainly don't think this is Maureen O'Connell is saying here.
William Lindsey
12 years ago
I don't find what Charles Curran said at all trendy or vague, David.  Admittedly, I wasn't at the conference, and am relying on Professor O'Connell's report.  But I have every reason to believe it's an accurate report of Charles Curran's comments.
Curran encourages theologians, including moral theologians, "to speak out against injustice and support victims."  And he challenges moral theologians to focus on their own silent complicity in the injustices perpetrated within the church itself, as they lambast church leaders for their handling of the abuse crisis.

Vague?  It certainly doesn't seem that way to me.  As a theologian, I hear him loud and clear.  Trendy?  That's a value judgment I don't share.  I hear a theologian speaking to other theologians about something essential to our vocation: we lose our right to claim to speak in solidarity with victims when we don't actually stand in solidarity with victims.

And it's inbuilt in our vocation to call on the church itself to adhere to its own principles of justice and respect for human rights.  If we don't do that, we abandon one of the core responsibilities of our calling as theologians.

And we don't do the church a service, since we permit church leaders to betray principles of justice and respect for human rights as we remain silent-and in this way, we contribute to the undermining of the church's moral teaching in the public sphere. 

Because people will believe what is lived first and foremost, and only then spoken.
Maria Davila
12 years ago
Thanks, Prof. O'Connell, for the 'takeaways'. I have two that stand out at the moment, one rather funny one, and one more serious one.

First on the lighter side, at one small group discussion a scholar commented that she had come from a session where ''scholars seemed to be running laps in their heads, driving round and round in a go-cart with Thomas Aquinas as their co-pilot...'' That phrase has not left my mind and has made me wonder what it truly means to have Thomas Aquinas as one's intellectual co-pilot. The image is remarkable to behold!

This leads to, though, the second and more thoughtful takeaway. There was a lingering stated, but often unmentioned concern about the relevance of Catholic moral theology for the Church when so few of our hierarchy pay close attention to our work - outside of their task to 'tsk, tsk' our words when they veer off the doctrinal course. To wonder what it means ''to have Thomas Aquinas as one's co-pilot'' points to two important questions: first, how do contemporary moral theologians from all parts of the world relate to the 'classics' of our tradition? How do we fit Aquinas (or Ambrose, or Augustine) with questions regarding HIV/AIDS in Africa, human trafficking, racism, a collapsed economy, and the war on terror? Many of our colleagues ask these questions seriously and attempt to answer them in detail. The second question, one that pierced each one of us as the conference closed, is what is the value of our work for the Church? Will Church authorities ever consider our contributions instrumental in understanding what it means to live in Christian hope in the 21st century? Will there ever be a mutual dialogue between Church and academy with each open to learning from the other?

These were hard questions to ''take away'' from Trento. For the time being, as the ''Catholic in residence'' at a Baptist and UCC seminary (with a strong UU presence), I believe that I do theological ethics for my own discernment process of what it means to be a Christian, an agent of hope and evangelization, in the world I inhabit. From that location I hope that my work can help the laity answer hard questions about the challenges they face everyday, whether it's a family facing a crisis pregnancy or a city councilor trying to make a decision about new immigration regulations in their corner of creation. 

Maybe one day a bishop or cardinal and I will sit and dialogue fruitfully, in charity and - as Jim Keenan puts it - mercy and care for each other. Until then, my work is for those around me asking the hard questions and wanting to engage with me in crafting faithful and responsible answers.
Anne Danielson
12 years ago
"democratization of morality" in a "pluralistic society" ???

Why not be honest and call it recycled arianism? All Morality stems from The Truth of Love.

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