San Juan, Puerto Rico — Editor's note: NCR is reporting on the ground at this year's Catholic Theological Society of America conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Keep checking our feature series page CTSA 2016 for our coverage.
Nearly 350 members of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) opened the organization’s annual conference Thursday, June 9, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The theme for this year’s conference, "Justice and Mercy," seems particularly apt, given the island’s economic woes.
With a 45 percent poverty rate and high unemployment, Puerto Rico is unable to pay its $70 billion debt but, as a territory, cannot file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Many Puerto Ricans are moving to the mainland in search of jobs, while tourism is being affected by the spread of the Zika virus. A warning about the virus may have affected CTSA attendance, with slightly lower numbers than previous years.
Despite the lure of the pool and pina coladas, the attendees from Catholic and other schools packed the ballroom of the Caribe Hilton Thursday evening for the first plenary. Jorge Ferrer, S.J., of the University de Puerto Rico, gave a welcome from the San Juan archdiocese, since Archbishop Roberto O. Gonzalez Nieves, OFM, was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Ferrer noted that San Juan is one of the oldest dioceses in the hemisphere, founded in 1511. "I’m always amused when I’m told Baltimore is the oldest diocese in America," he said.
The history lesson continued with an address from Fernando Pico, S.J., of the University de Puerto Rico. The author of 15 books on the history of Puerto Rico, he is perhaps the world’s foremost scholar on the subject. Pico detailed the island’s challenges and noted that the church could be doing more to respond to those challenges, including environmental issues and the "miserable situations of prisons" in most Puerto Rican dioceses.
Respondent Michael E. Lee of Fordham University agreed with Pico, using the images of various boats to describe Puerto Rico's woes. The colonizing and warships of the past were signs of conquest and exploitation, Lee said, as are today’s cruise ships and the "luxury yachts of hedge fund managers who want to use the island as a tax haven."
But the church, too often, has been like Noah’s ark, Lee said, floating on the water but without touching the ground. This "spirituality of fleeing" cannot respond to the challenges Puerto Rico faces today, he said.
The convention continues through Sunday with nearly 50 sessions on various aspects of theology, especially as they relate to justice and mercy.
[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communications at Aurora University, outside Chicago.]