Religion professors' convention shows theology's new lay face

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Professor Terrence Tilley (NCR photo/Joshua J. McElwee)

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- There’s not one habit or Roman collar in the crowd.

As some 260 religion professors sit in an auditorium at Iona College here June 4, not one is wearing clerical garb. Most are dressed in skirts and blouses, shirts and ties.

Later, as professors present papers for the College Theology Society’s annual convention, which revolved around the theme “They Shall Be Called Children of God: Violence, Transformation, and the Sacred,” a few carry their own children with them into breakout and plenary sessions.

Taken together, it’s a set of images that captures a social and cultural shift that has marked the field of theology in recent years -- and one that has made it more difficult for collaboration between bishops and theologians.

Thirty years ago, says Bradford Hinze, president of the society, “almost all” theologians were priests. That meant they had “pretty close relationships with their bishops.” They might play golf or racquetball together -- “there was a context to form a relationship.”

But today, Hinze said in an interview during the June 2-5 convention, “there is no context for these predominantly laypeople to form good relationships, living relationships, with [bishops.]”

“It all tends to get sorted out in terms of the prism of authority -- the bishops’ authority and their concern about the college or university.”

At the gathering, however, those concerns weren’t at the forefront. Coming together from across the country, the theologians were looking at more basic issues facing society.

The theme itself was chosen 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 and one of a handful of clergy attending the gathering.

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 on the art of political violence was titled: “The Beauty of Abu Ghraib: Art Transforming Violence.”

M. Shawn Copeland, the well-known systematic theologian from Boston College, presented a plenary address June 3 titled “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: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God was publicly criticized by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine in March.

Johnson’s presence, and the convention’s focus on contemporary issues, underlined a key question being asked in this new era of academic theology: What is the role of the theologian in the church?

Theologians answer that question, said Terrence Tilley, chair of the theology department at Fordham University in New York, with another: “How do we imitate Jesus today?”

Given that “we don’t live in first-century Palestine and our culture is widely different from that culture,” Tilley said, a theologian “has to figure out ways to live in and live out the tradition in a different context.”

“We don’t live in a culture of kings -- how do we talk about the king of the universe?” asks Tilley. “Maybe we don’t use the same words that have the same meaning.

“Most, if not all, reputable theologians are trying to do just that: Figure out how we can, in the period in which we live, live in and live out the tradition.”

Two samples of the thoughts presented in over 40 breakout sessions by professors and graduate students at the gathering give some background to how theologians are confronting the time period:

  • “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,” Vinski, a doctoral candidate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said that academics should explore how Catholic social teaching can help those who step over “that line of darkness.”
  • Jill O’Brien, winner of the society’s “Best Student Essay” award, presented June 4, examined the Christological basis for considering the redemption of “nonhuman creation.” The Boston College doctoral candidate 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 contact with present societal concerns during the conference, said 91-year-old Fr. Gerard Sloyan, shows the theologian’s “proper work” is to continually “find new things in the revelation that the church lives by.”

Sloyan, who has been a member of the College Theology Society from the first gathering at Trinity College (now University) in Washington, D.C., in 1955, also mentioned that the dwindling number of clergy academics was “something you cannot but notice.”

At that first meeting of the society, which now is made up of over 600 college and university professors throughout the United States, Canada and Europe, a picture taken at the front steps of Trinity showed “everybody in a [clerical] costume,” Sloyan said.

Yet today, “almost none of the people at this meeting are on a faculty where they have even been in contact with the local bishop.”

It’s that lack of contact that Hinze says is one of his primary concerns.

Referring to the atmosphere of the society’s gathering -- which saw balloons presented to welcome first-time attendees, a birthday cake and candles given to a professor celebrating a birthday, and a late-night celebration in a residence hall lounge area with acoustic guitars and Irish songs -- Hinze said bishops and theologians need to create a culture where there’s “no pressure to say we all have to agree.”

“You have to create a culture where there are relationships where you get to a level of conversation and honesty with each other. And if everybody’s very careful around each other it’s not going to work.

“It’s about finding a way to create a culture where we can work together for the good of the church.”

[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is]

Society member ‘from the first’ sees hope for Catholic church

As theologians moved from room to room for different presentations during the College Theology Society gathering, there was one member of the group who was always just a little behind the pack.

Walking slowly, and with just a little bit of a limp, 91-year-old Fr. Gerard Sloyan didn’t seem to be in any rush.

Ordained June 3, 1944 -- three days before the Allied invasion of Normandy -- Sloyan, a Trenton, N.J., diocesan priest, recalls that he celebrated one of his first Masses the morning of D-Day, as the first radio reports of the invasion were being broadcast.

As he turned around to face the congregation at the final blessing, he saw the parish was “full of mothers” praying “for the safety of their family members.”

With a loud, low and, above all, well-enunciated voice, Sloyan has been at the center of American theology for all of his 67 years as a priest. Present at the College Theology Society “from the first” in 1955, he also served as its president from 1962-64 as well as the president of the Catholic Theological Society of America from 1993-94.

In a conversation during a break at the gathering, Sloyan talked about the role of the theologian (“teaches people how to be good catechists”) and the relationship between theologians and bishops (“each has a role”). But, with a tacit acknowledgment of his own unique sense of history, he also talked about what gives him hope in the church.

“The nature of the church is what’s giving me the most optimism or hope. ... Those people who are the church, here, there and everywhere, are accomplishing quite wonderful things,” said Sloyan.

“The laity are living their Catholic lives wherever they are -- greengrocers or New York Stock Exchange officials. Catholics who are living their life as baptized to the full are to be found everywhere in this country. And that trend is certainly on the increase,” he said. “That’s the reality of the decade you and I are living in -- healthy Catholic influence everywhere in this land.”

-- Joshua McElwee

The challenges of transforming a broken world

Sept. 11. Abu Ghraib. Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

As Bradford Hinze, president of the Catholic Theological Society, puts it: “Looking around the world, it’s been a very tough period of history.”

And -- recognizing that the society’s annual convention would take place in New York just months before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- Hinze said organizers wanted to “provide a context for people to think about” the violence of the past decade.

That desire, he said, led right to the theme: “They Shall Be Called Children of God: Violence, Transformation, and the Sacred.”

That theme, said Margaret Pfeil, a University of Notre Dame assistant professor who helped organize the convention, leads to a question: “In light of who God wants us to be, how do we transform ourselves away from the violence?”

Presentations over the weekend answered that question from a number of angles. One strain, however, seemed constant: Before our society can start to think about transformation away from violence, we first need to acknowledge our own human failings.

“Being a Christian is being is traditionally called being redeemed,” said Terrence Tilley, chair of the theology department at Fordham University in New York. “But I would also say it should be called being a recovering sinner.”

“We have to first recognize that we are broken, that we are sinners and nonetheless we’re saved, we’re loved by God,” said Tilley. “How can you be reconciled without having been divided?”

Or as Hinze said: “Being able to acknowledge the darkness or abject in yourself as an important part of the transformative process -- for social transformation as well as personal transformation you’ve got to do that. Rather than simply saying what’s broken is out there [in the world] -- it’s also [inside us] too.”

-- Joshua McElwee

More NCR coverage of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God:

Coverage of the CTS and CTSA gatherings:

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