Catholic Conversation Project

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last week I had the good fortune to attend the fifth meeting of the Catholic Conversation Project (CCP). Begun in the wake of the kerfuffle over President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame’s graduation in 2009, and designed to defuse the culture war mentality that so easily consumes all in its wake, the CCP has been gathering young theologians together each summer for a few days of panels, discussions, camaraderie, and prayer. They invite some experts at each session to serve on panel discussions. And, each year they invite a bishop to join their discussions: This year they had two, Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines and Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane. For me, the best part of the meetings, and the most humbling, is that being around all these very smart, professional theologians, I am reminded that I am not an intellectual, I only get paid to play one on this blog!

The first meeting of the CCP was held at Fordham where the CCP’s principal driving force, Charles Camosy, is a professor. The next three years were held at Boston College’s retreat center outside Boston. (I missed last year due to doggie rehab.) This year’s meeting was hosted by Carroll College in Helena, Montana, where Brian Matz did a wonderful job as land-cruise director, shuttling people to and from the airport, and between the inn where the meetings were held and the hotel downtown, giving tours of Helena – which has one of the most beautiful small Cathedrals in the country – and making sure that everyone was well taken care of.

This year the group discussed the relationship of theologians to their parish and diocese as well as to the USCCB, and the role of experience in theology. The meetings themselves are off the record, but some of the participants were kind enough to share their thoughts with me about what the CCP means to them and how they see it developing over time. Marti Jewell, from the University of Dallas and well known to NCR circles, attended as an expert panelist this year and was a first-time participant. She told me afterwards that, “this was one of the most energizing church events I have experienced in a long time.”

John Carr, who worked at the USCCB for more than two decades and who now leads the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought in Public Life at Georgetown, was also one of the experts brought in this year. It was his second time to a CCP gathering. “The CCP Is impressive and hopeful because of who it is, what they do and how they do it,” Carr told me. “They are young Catholic theologians with a variety of background and perspectives exploring how they can build bridges among themselves and within the Church to advance the Gospel and Catholic principles. In their dialogue with one another, with bishops and others they avoid labels, seek common ground and move beyond the categories and controversies of the past. It is a refreshing, important and hopeful conversation which offers lessons for the rest of us.”

The adjective “refreshing” that Carr employs is one I especially would like to second. In addition to the CCP, the USCCB Committee on Doctrine has gathered a group of young theologians the past few years, an initiative begun by Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl a few years back. So, I have met these young theologians in different venues but I always come away with the same, dominant impression: Like their predecessors in the ranks of lay theologians, they express a diversity of views, but they do not have a chip on their shoulder. One need not assign blame to acknowledge the fact that the first generation of lay theologians developed a distant, sometimes hostile relationship with the hierarchy. Sometimes, it has seemed to me, that lay theologians actually view it as part of their job to dissent from the Church’s magisterium, to stand in opposition to the hierarchy. I think the reasons for that bad relationship were many and varied and, again, let me not assign any blame but anyone with eyes can recognize that such a bad relationship was not good for theology and not good for the Church. Kudos to these young guns for actively seeking out bishops with whom to enter into dialogue. If nothing else comes from the CCP meetings, a better, not bitter, relationship between theologians and the bishops will be a large accomplishment.

Kevin Ahern, a theologian at Manhattan College, thinks I overstate the case. “By its very nature, the CCP is limited. It's strengths are in the intimacy and trust that has built over time among the small group of theologians. It is almost a small Christian community,” Ahern said after the meetings. “We cannot and should not be seen as speaking for all theologians. We also need to avoid the danger of making it seem that our generation is somehow superior to previous generations. I am quite concerned with a generational narcissism that might perceive one generation as better than another.” I agree that it would be narcissism of a sort if these theologians were to revel in any perceived superiority, but as an outside/inside observer, I cannot deny what I see: This generation lacks the baggage of its predecessor. They may acquire that baggage later in life or, more likely, different baggage. But, on this point I am with Carr – the young theologians are refreshing.

Brian Flanagan of Marymount University told me it is the fellowship that keeps bring him back to the CCP meetings. “Sharing a table -- both at Eucharist and at lunchtime -- with theologians who I've grown to respect and to love, even though we are aware of how often we disagree in our theological styles and methodologies, our positions on some controversial issues, and our starting points for understanding God and our relationship to God,” Flanagan says. “I always leave CCP far more refreshed to do my own theological work and more confident that while my scholarship and ideas might not always be met with agreement within the church and academy, they will be received with respect and challenged with charity.”

While there is no shortage of points about which the theologians disagree, it is also interesting to witness their shared receptivity to each other’s ideas and how that can translate into theological progress. “Polarizations in U.S. Catholicism are often fueled by ideological stances that blind us to critical realities that demand solidarity, mercy, and coming together as Christian disciples to share God’s love. We often forget why we are Church,” says Boston College’s Hosffman Ospino. “When CCP members and guests engaged in conversation about the growing presence of Hispanics Catholics in our faith communities nationwide, it was clear that the conversation about what it means to be a theologian and a bishop could not ignore the questions Hispanics are asking and the issues millions are facing. Those questions and issues are often about survival and the possibility of becoming something new (e.g., immigration, cultural diversity, youth), more than about that which separates us from one another. Those are the questions of and issues of the Church in our day!” Can I get an “amen”! Indeed, after listening to Ospino on his panel, I recognized that we need to have a big conversation about secularization and how it is encountered differently by Latinos and Anglos. Typically, the panels produce conversations that spill over immediately into the lunch and dinner tables, but which also continue by email and phone through the year.

CCP was born of Charlie Camosy’s frustration with the polarization that plagued his 2009 commencement ceremony at Notre Dame. “The CCP has grown and thrived beyond my wildest expectations,” Camosy told me. “Indeed, there were no expectations--at least at first. Just a bunch of younger theologians sitting around and chatting about how we could move beyond the polarization that had produced the disastrous lead-up to Obama speaking at Notre Dame. To have so many good people willing to give up a chunk of their summers, and take a long flight to Helena to attend this meeting, it speaks of the commitment--and, frankly, love--that has been built up over the past five years. And while those relationships are essential to what we are trying to do, I think we have yet to take the next step and actual craft something together--something that puts on formal display what we have been able to accomplish informally.”

For myself, I can say that the experience of “frankly, love” that has been built up over the years is one of the highlights of my year. I can say, too, that if the CCP takes “the next step” and produces some formal work together, I want first crack at reviewing it. As Marti Jewell said, it is just energizing to be around these young theologians. Buckle up, Church. The theology of the Church is in good hands, interesting, complicated minds and some big, big hearts.



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