College religion professors meet, discuss violence

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Peter and Margaret O'Brien Steinfels stand next to CTS president Bradford Hinze after receiving the CTS presidential award Saturday night. (NCR photo/ Joshua J. McElwee)

NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Arguments among Catholics boil down to disagreement between two key concepts, says Peter Steinfels: inclusion and identity.

Those who put themselves in the inclusion camp -- typically thought of as "liberals" -- are concerned with making sure everyone feels welcomed; those in the identity camp -- typically thought of as "conservatives" -- with knowing what makes a Catholic a Catholic.

While "reality is more complex and subtle," theologians have a unique opportunity to ensure those raised in the faith are "rooted in a master identity," the journalist said here Saturday during for the College Theology Society's annual convention.

The comments of Steinfels, author, former Commonweal editor and New York Times religion writer, came during the 57th annual convention of the society, which was held at Iona College here through Sunday. He and his wife Margaret were honored with the society's "presidential award" at a banquet Saturday night for their "distinguished contributions as premier interpreters, commentators, and shapers of public opinion on American Catholic life and thought."

Peter's response to the award? A thank-you to theologians for their work.

"Insofar as you take on this daunting task -- succeeding a little, failing a little, trying again, learning from your students, learning from your colleagues, learning from the world, learning from the inexhaustible riches of our faith," he said, "I want to thank you and congratulate you from the very bottom of my heart."

Over the weekend some 260 professors gathered for the society's conference, which was titled: "They Shall be Called Children of God: Violence, Transformation, and the Sacred." That theme was an attempt to acknowledge that we live in a society that's "kind of surrounded" by "sacralized violence," said Jesuit Fr. William Clark, an associate professor at College of the Holy Cross.

We need "to be able to think that through in some way," said Clark. "When I say that I believe, and when I speak about God and I try to teach about prayer and so forth, where is all of this violence in the midst of all that?"

Discussions held through the weekend focused on facets of violence in society. There were presentations on everything from violence against gays and lesbians, to the violence of abortion, to how women's eating practices enforce a "regime of thinness." One presentation Friday on the art of political violence was entitled: "The beauty of Abu Ghraib: Art Transforming Violence."

The gathering was also an opportunity for professors to spend time together and get to know one another. Lunches at Iona's cafeteria saw balloons presented to welcome first-time attendees to the conference and the gifting of a birthday cake and candles to a professor celebrating a birthday on Friday. After Saturday's banquet, many joined in a celebration in a residence hall lounge area with acoustic guitars and Irish songs.

M. Shawn Copeland, the well known systematic theologian from Boston College, presented a plenary address on Friday entitled "God Among the Ruins: Companion and Co-Sufferer." Admitting she had been "no environmentalist" in the past, Copeland said the destruction of the Earth's environment witnessed by our generation forces us to ask: "Will we remain God's creatures? Or yield to the awful temptation to make ourselves gods?"

Present in the audience for Copeland's address was St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, whose book Quest for the Living God was publicly criticized by the U.S. Bishops' Doctrine Committee in March. For more on Johnson, see NCR's report: Fordham theologian strenuously defends 2007 book.

A few more samples of the thoughts presented in over 40 breakout sessions by professors and graduate students from across the country:

  • Since the destruction of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have come "face to face with the fact that we as a nation are vulnerable," said Kevin Ahern in a session on justice and peace. In response, the country has made "questionable decisions," the Boston College doctoral candidate said, such as the invasion of Iraq and passage of the USA PATRIOT Act. Instead, he argued, we should engender two values seen as virtues by St. Thomas Aquinas: humility and magnanimity -- humility "to restrain our actions" and magnanimity "to strengthen against despair."

  • "What happens to torturers?" asked Ann Crawford Vinski in a session on ethics. While individuals who torture have a responsibility to "safeguard their own dignity," the Duquesne University doctoral candidate said academics should explore how Catholic social teaching can help those who step over "that line of darkness."

Saturday's banquet also saw the society issue other awards. The award for best published book went to Marquette University professor Patrick W. Carey for his biography, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ: A Model Theologian. Best student essay went to Jill O'Brien, a doctor candidate at Boston College, for a paper which examines the christological basis for considering the redemption of "non-human creation."

In a presentation of her work Sunday, O'Brien argued that the "category of personhood may be larger" than humanity and that the true disciple of Christ may be obligated to work to "help achieve salvation for all the world."

The College Theology Society is made up of over 600 college and university professors throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. Most of the members are Catholic, although some are also from other denominations. The weekend conference was held in conjunction with the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion.

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