The Vocation of a Theologian

On Oct. 6, 2005, a memorial Mass was celebrated at Holy Trinity Church in Washington, D.C., for Monika Hellwig, the distinguished theologian and educator who a month earlier had become a Senior Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center. It was the very day and time when she had planned to lead a discussion at the center on the outline for her next book, a new introduction to Christian anthropology that was to be called “Fullness of Life.” On Sept. 30 Monika had died at Washington Hospital Center from a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 75. Many readers of America will remember her contributions to The Word column from June 1984 to June 1987.

Monika Konrad Hildegard Hellwig was born Dec. 10, 1929, in Breslau, Silesia, which was then a part of Germany. Her Catholic father was an economist. Her mother, of Dutch Jewish background and an adult convert to Catholicism, was an accomplished sculptress. “Comfortably placed,” as Monika later wrote, the family moved to Berlin in 1935. When her father was killed that Christmas in an automobile accident, Monika’s mother joined other Jewish relatives who were fleeing Hitler’s Germany and took Monika and her two sisters, Marianne and Angelika, to Limburg in the southern Netherlands.

In the European cauldron of the time, Limburg still offered the peaceful pattern of a vigorous and cheerful peasant Catholicism that Monika always considered a gift and privilege. In May 1939, as Nazi occupation of the Netherlands threatened, the Hellwig girls were sent to a boarding school in Edinburgh, Scotland. There they had yet another experience of Catholicism, meeting the contrasting styles of the old English families and the newer, chiefly Irish immigrants. When the war ended, the three girls were able, though with great difficulty, to visit their mother in the Netherlands for three months before she died there.

While living happily with Barrett and Winefride Whale, Monika entered the University of Liverpool in 1946; she earned a law degree in 1949 and a master’s in social science two years later. During these years she profited from several lecture series sponsored by the Catholic chaplaincy at the university, read through the Summa Theologiae in an informal seminar with friends and undertook a careful study of Marxism. She was also impressed by the Catholic Truth Society and people who worked in it, such as C. C. Martindale, S.J., Frederick Copleston, S.J., Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, all of whom had an acute sense for contemporary religious thought and the questions of the time.

At 22 Monika joined the Medical Mission Sisters and, after her novitiate, was sent to the United States to study theology at The Catholic University of America, where she earned an M.A. in 1956. (She remained a British citizen for the rest of her life.) Though feeling intellectually at home, she was troubled by the exclusion of modern thought from the course of studies and the often-deficient backgrounds of her seminarian classmates. After several years working for her order in Washington and Philadelphia, a time during which she also became expert in linguistics through study at the University of Oklahoma, she was sent to Rome to be a ghostwriter for a Vatican official. There she encountered the universal church at the Second Vatican Council, “an intellectually and spiritually intoxicating experience,” she later wrote, whose new birth of the church in the contemporary world she served for the rest of her life.

Thanks to a generous invitation from the great scholar and mentor Rev. Gerard Sloyan, she returned to The Catholic University of America and, released from vows in her order, completed a doctorate in theology in 1968. (She found the program admirably thorough, “a far cry from the provincialism I had met 10 years earlier.”) After telling Willham McFadden, S.J., in her letter of application that she believed she was “prepared to teach any major subject in doctrinal theology—but not Scripture,” she began to teach at Georgetown University in 1967. She remained on its faculty for the next 28 years, becoming a full professor in 1977 and Landegger Distinguished Professor of Theology in 1990. Soon a lifelong pattern was set: full participation in her department and the life of the university, regular publication, indefatigable lecture tours, summer courses given throughout the country—and a deep personal commitment to prayer, the sacraments and spiritual direction. In her first years at Georgetown, Monika also adopted her three children: Erica, Michael and Carlos. 

Her first published book, What Are the Theologians Saying? (1970), was typical: a slender, remarkably clear and cogent survey of contemporary Catholic thought on topics ranging from dogmatic development to the question of salvation in other world religions. It was her conviction that “all our theology is reflection on the praxis of our lives as Christians, and that all the official teaching of the church is the product of a communal discernment of the appropriateness of what emerges from the theological reflection on experience.”

She went on to publish books on the sacraments, the Christian creeds, tradition, the Eucharist and eschatology. She became known as an ardent voice for aggiornamento and was regularly subjected during her lectures to protesters and hecklers. Later she wrote that “it is almost tautologous to say that it is our vocation to be in trouble, to be misunderstood, to be accused of scandal and error, and to be seen as a public danger.”

By 1980 Monika had become an acknowledged leader in the church, not so much as a theological innovator but rather as a tireless and eloquent ambassador for the best Gospel news that was being wrung from the wisdom of the tradition in order to respond to the urgent questions of our time. She was already an editor for the Journal of Ecumenical Studies and had spent a sabbatical at Tantur in Jerusalem. She now became an editor for Michael Glazier Publications and Theological Studies, among others, and in 1985-86 was a research fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her internationalism was evident in her service as a member of the Board of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, based in Paris, and in being a founding board member of the International Federation of Associations of Christian Higher Education, based in India.

Early in the 1980’s she published her widely read Understanding Catholicism (1981), which proposes that “the message of Jesus had to do first of all with the powerful and compassionate fidelity of God.” Two years later, in Jesus: The Compassion of God, she pursued this basic insight in response to questions raised by the liberation movements of the time. She published on feminism, war and peace, reconciliation and conversion, and the liturgical readings of the church year. During these years she received 13 of her 32 honorary degrees and eight of her 15 named awards, including the John Courtney Murray Award in 1984 from the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Award from the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in 1994. In 1994, with Michael Glazier, she also co-edited the Modern Catholic Encyclopedia.

Monika served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1986-87, and many of its members well remember her presidential address in Philadelphia, titled “The Role of the Theologian in Today’s Church.” Reprising an earlier theme, which she had taken up from Bernard Lonergan, S.J., she spoke of the “spiraling sequence” of doctrinal development, which moves from the experience of the Christian people and their first-order reflection, through the specialized work of theological discussion, toward the formulations of the church’s official teaching—and then back again to fresh experience of Gospel liberation. With her accustomed deft touch she also sketched the theologian’s (and her own) many roles: myth-maker; fool or court jester challenging prejudices; comforter or reconciler; builder of constructive theology; archivist treasuring the cumulative wisdom of the past; critic evaluating how the wisdom of the past serves the needs of the present; archaeologist searching the sources for new insight; and ghost no longer visible because her ideas have been assimilated. After a difficult year for theology and theologians, it was a moment of challenge and encouragement.

In 1996 Monika left Georgetown to become the executive director and then president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. It was typical of her to seek the greater good of the Catholic community. American Catholic education was undergoing significant new developments of its committed and vigorous voice on the national academic scene. There was also the question of how it should appropriately respond to the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990). Monika was tireless in her defense of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, in part because she knew how much Catholic institutions were contributing to American higher education and what the source was for their deepest inspiration, in part also because her understanding of the church required it to be more communitarian and dialogical. The humanism of her early education, her reverence for the wisdom of the past, her courage in recognizing the real questions of her time, her depth of prayerful dedication and her prodigious energy all combined to make her office indispensable for everyone who was committed both to academic excellence and to the promise of the Gospel.

During her years at the A.C.C.U., Monika continued to conduct workshops and seminars in parishes and at diocesan ministry days. In 2003 she received the Ann O’Hara Graff Award from the Women’s Seminar on Constructive Theology of the C.T.S.A. She also managed to write not only a good many essays on theology and education but two books: Guests of God: Stewards of Divine Creation (2000), which was illustrated by her daughter, Erica, and Public Dimensions of a Believer’s Life: Rediscovering the Cardinal Virtues (just published by Sheed and Ward). The latter points to the major project on which she had planned to embark, a full exploration of the theological virtues as a way of life. “I want,” she wrote to her Woodstock colleagues, “to bring the tradition with its wealth of teaching about the theological virtues to meet inquiring Catholic intellectuals where they really are in their experience and their thinking.” Her audience had not really changed, nor had her confidence in the Gospel, and certainly not her courage.

Mourning Monika with her three children, her three grandchildren and her two sisters, we should allow her the last word. In her Marianist Lecture at Dayton University in 1993, she said: “In my journey through the twentieth century as a Catholic scholar, what have I really learned? First of all, that we cannot keep the Holy Spirit out of the church, no matter how much we try to domesticate the whole enterprise. Secondly, that the church is wiser and more faithful when it listens discerningly to many voices, even those from outside its own boundaries. Thirdly, that we, all of us, are the bearers of tradition and the shapers of it for the future, and that we have immense wealth entrusted to us. Fourthly, never to be afraid of the truth, but to seek truth with humility and faith and the readiness to be proved wrong and to begin the search again. Fifthly, that conflict is part of growth and the shaping of tradition, but that hatred and rejection of those who differ need not be. And last, that as educated Catholics of our time we are part of a very important intellectual contribution to our society and to the world—a contribution that is an integral component of the redemption.”

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13 years 8 months ago
A “snow day” here in Connecticut allowed me to catch up with the last three months of America. The Nov. 28, 2005, issue was the best. “Teaching About the Jesus of Islam,” by David Pinault, was perfectly timed and an excellent teaching tool; the article by John A. Coleman, S.J., on religious liberty was too. It reminded me of the complexities surrounding the passage of that sea-changing Vatican document.

Besides these articles, I was moved by the vignette by Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., (fittingly, not at all a eulogy) on Monica Hellwig. I had no idea of Hellwig’s Dutch, Jewish, Medical Missionary background. What an impressive woman; what an impressive career. And the brief piece by Ladislas Orsy, S.J., was wonderful for its quiet reminder of the basics. Finally, the book reviews were right on target: José M. Sánchez’s critique of a flawed work on the Holocaust, and Gene Roman’s fine analysis of “values evangelists” and “legal secularists,” in Divided by God. Really, this was a solid issue!

13 years 8 months ago
Many thanks for the tribute to Monika Hellwig (“The Vocation of a Theologian,” by Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., 11/28). Many times upon hearing her speak or reading her work, I experienced a woman of kind consideration and respect, a woman of grace and a person of unquestionable intellect and well-reasoned argument.

As a Generation X laywoman, a sometime theology student and pastoral minister, and mother of young daughters, I am deeply appreciative of Professor Hellwig’s example of a life of service to the Catholic community. Monika Hellwig, a nationally identifiable Catholic laywoman who lived two vocations, as theologian and mother, was and will remain a shining star for me.

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