Theologians conclude meeting on 'Justice and Mercy'

This story appears in the CTSA 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Heidi Schlumpf

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Editor's note: NCR was reporting on the ground at this year's Catholic Theological Society of America conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. You can read all our coverage on our feature series page CTSA 2016.

Members of the Catholic Theological Society of America concluded their annual conference June 12 after four days of sharing scholarship on theological topics ranging from Christology to anthropology, from racism to human trafficking. The plenary talks -- and many of the other sessions and papers -- focused on the conference's theme of "Justice and Mercy."

The theme was chosen before Pope Francis announced the "Year of Mercy," although the jubilee celebration gave the theme added importance, noted CTSA President-elect David Hollenbach, S.J., of Boston College. The CTSA chose the theme because "the suffering and needs of our world cry out for both justice and mercy," he said. "The Catholic tradition has deep spiritual, intellectual and ethical resources that can help us address this suffering and these needs."

Throughout the conference, held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, conference speakers called for mercy and justice for Central American and Syrian refugees, for LGBTQ persons, for all creation, even in international pharmaceutical markets. Friday’s keynote speaker Paul Crowley, S.J., professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, said even the church itself is in need of mercy.

"Religious institutions can be the source of so much good, as the holy church most surely is; but they also can be the source of so much suffering and even violence," he said, adding that "the church is itself the bearer of sin, not only through its members but as a body."

In response to this structural sin, Crowley called for "a bold mercy," an ecclesial conversion, especially when it comes to the situation of women in the church.  

In responding to Crowley’s plenary address, Nancy Pineda-Madrid of Boston College agreed that the treatment of women, especially third-world women, constitutes a form of "anti-mercy" and pondered whether the church might be guilty of "theological malpractice" in its views and treatment of women.

A number of speakers spoke about the connection between justice and mercy. "Without justice, mercy has no power to meet the truly wounded or give hope to the truly broken," said Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, professor emerita of Christian ethics at Yale University, at Saturday's plenary session.

In a world and church where "things are falling apart," forgiveness -- out of all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy -- is the work of mercy for our time, Farley said. Forgiveness is active, not passive, "a decision to let go of something within ourselves," she said, describing the need for "anticipatory forgiveness" of those with no remorse or regret, even as resistance continues.

Emmanuel Katongole of the University of Notre Dame, in responding to Farley’s address, agreed, noting that interest in forgiveness is growing in other academic fields. But he held up Christian forgiveness as distinctive -- "from another planet" -- in that it reflects the mercy of God and leads to the creation of a new society.

Katongole's powerful story of an African mother's forgiveness of the rebels who kidnapped her daughter as a sex slave, while she continued to work for the release of her and others, illustrated how forgiveness can be a form of activism. "Forgiveness interrupts structures of violence with the tenderness of God’s wounded love," he said.

The theme for next year’s CTSA conference, to be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is ecology.

[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communications at Aurora University, outside Chicago.]

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