San Juan, Puerto Rico — When the organizers for the Catholic Theological Society of America's annual conference picked the theme of "Justice and Mercy" and the location of San Juan for the 2016 gathering, they had no idea their choices would be so newsworthy.
First, Pope Francis announced that 2016 would be a jubilee "Year of Mercy," making the conference theme all the more relevant. Then, Puerto Rico's economic woes became front-page news when it defaulted on its more than $2 billion in debt in May.
Even as theologians were meeting June 9-12, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a "rescue" bill that would create an oversight board to deal with the debt and other economic issues on the island.
While the four-day gathering of Catholic and other theologians featured speakers on such varied topics as human trafficking and Christology, the conference had a decidedly Latin flair. With such features as a bilingual Mass and the awarding of the association's highest honor to a Latino, the society took into account its host culture.
Only a few scholars seemed to stay away because of warnings about the Zika virus. Nearly 350 attendees flocked to plenary addresses and smaller sessions -- many of which focused on Puerto Rico.
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"In terms of the world's reality and the demands of the Gospel, the CTSA gathers in Puerto Rico not as a journey from the center to the periphery, but the opposite -- this is the center," said Michael E. Lee, an associate* professor of theology at Fordham University. Lee is of Puerto Rican descent.
He quoted Puerto Rican Gov. Alejandro García Padilla, who said his words to the U.S. Congress in December were "a distress call from a ship of 3.5 million American citizens that have been lost at sea." Lee urged fellow theologians not to ignore that call.
"If we don't respond to the demands of our world, then it is we who are adrift," he said.
In the opening plenary, Jesuit Fr. Fernando Picó of the University of Puerto Rico, perhaps the world's foremost scholar on Puerto Rican history, detailed the island's challenges and noted that the church could be doing more to respond, especially to environmental issues and the "miserable situations of prisons" in most Puerto Rican dioceses.
Acknowledging that church leaders have worked some for justice, peace and solidarity, Picó noted that too often Christians' response is to say a Mass or organize a prayer service, rather than address the problem itself. "They have reduced Christianity to a ritual system," he said.
Lee agreed, comparing the church to Noah's ark, floating on the waters of a drowning world without touching the ground. This "spirituality of fleeing" cannot respond to the challenges Puerto Rico faces today, he said.
Instead, Lee recommended as a model the statue of "La Rogativa" in Old San Juan, which depicts a bishop and three women carrying torches and crosses to hold off a British invasion in 1797. Lee noted that the bishop -- representative of the institutional church -- is not at the front of the procession but in the middle, "supporting the agency of these women, not dismissing it with self-righteousness nor replacing it with paternalism," he said.
The theological society should do the same, Lee said, "being present, accompanying, listening and allowing marginalized voices to find agency and provide light that will guide its reflection and its faithful obedience to the Gospel's call."
The theological society's Women's Consultation, which met before the conference, invited as its speakers two Puerto Rican women, M.T. Dávila, a Catholic from Andover Newton Theological School, and Doris J. García Rivera, from the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico, who shared an ecumenical perspective. During the Women's Consultation gathering, feminist theologian St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson received the Ann O'Hara Graff Memorial Award.
Dávila also gave the reflection at the conference Mass on Saturday evening June 11, an honor yielded by outgoing president Bradford Hinze of Fordham University so that a Puerto Rican voice could preach. She said that the society's decision to meet in Puerto Rico was "nothing less than 'extravagant interruption' of business as usual."
Members noted that it was the first time the Mass for the gathering was bilingual, with some of the prayers and all of the songs in Spanish.
Hinze closed the conference the next day with his presidential address on the topic of "decolonialization," which he defined as the ongoing struggle not only against colonialism's historical consequences but its contemporary "Eurocentric colonialist mentality."
He noted that Francis, as the first pontiff from the global South, has critiqued historical colonialism and new forms of colonialism. Acknowledging that "there is no decolonizing without conflict," Hinze urged fellow theologians to take up the task.
Many theologians did so in conference sessions devoted to topics related to Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. Speakers in a moral theology session on Puerto Rico were critical of the congressional bill, which they said was misnamed "PROMESA" (or "promise" in Spanish) because it continues the colonial relationship.
Some speakers focused on art or popular culture in Puerto Rico, including a presentation about an image of the breastfeeding Madonna, "Nuestra Señora de Bélen"; another on "The Sanctification of Roberto Clemente," a Puerto Rican baseball player.
Pioneering Latino theologian Orlando Espín, a professor of systematic theology at the University of San Diego, was given the theological society's highest honor, the John Courtney Murray Award, at a banquet on the last evening of the conference.
The Cuban-born Espín "has played a central part in promoting the highest scholarly standards for Hispanic/Latino theology," said Hinze, who presented the award. He praised Espín as "someone who is inspired to experiment, in collaboration with others, with creating a theological culture ... in which the work of theology belongs to and arises from the community."
In accepting the award, Espín urged his fellow theologians to remember that the people of God are the church. "Theologians cannot forget the faith and life and struggles of the real church," he said.
The theme for next year's Catholic Theological Society of America conference, to be held in Albuquerque, N.M., is ecology.
*An earlier version of this story misidentified Michael Lee's title.
[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communication at Aurora University outside Chicago. All her reporting from the conference in Puerto Rico is at NCRonline.org/feature-series/ctsa-2016]