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The Catholic Conversation Project: Faith in the Public Square

Earlier this week, a group of about 20 theologians gathered at the Connors Family Retreat Center in Dover, MA for a two-day meeting of the Catholic Conversation Project (CCP). The brain child of our very own Charlie Camosy (among others), the CCP is now in its third year. Its mission statement is as follows:

The Catholic Conversation Project is an initiative led by American Catholic theologians trained in the early twenty-first century seeking to build dynamic relationships between theologians, other scholars, the magisterium, and the faithful. We seek to engage the challenging questions of our time by modeling conversations and sponsoring projects in a spirit of unity, charity, and communion in service to the Church and the world.

We are a diverse group with diverse interests and theological commitments, but there are a couple of things that unite us.

A commitment to overcoming the polarized atmosphere so often characteristic of the field of theology that pits left vs. right/conservative vs. liberal. Despite our differences, we come together in a spirit of respect, charity, and dialogue. All of us recognize that we have something to learn from our colleagues (even if we disagree with some of their positions) and we know that learning happens better in a relationship of friendship rather than animosity.

A sense of service to the Church. We are theologians, and though we work in the field of higher education, our home is first the Church and then the academy. Part of our commitment to the Church involves an effort to build honest lines of communication between Catholic theologians and the Magisterium, as we recognize that bishops too are teachers. Indicative of this commitment, we had two bishops in attendance at our meeting this week, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville TX and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Boston Archdiocese. We also pray and celebrate the Eucharist together.

A passion for our students. At a time when the liberal arts are threatened and more and more attention is turned to making higher education “profitable,” all of us have a commitment to a type of learning that is oriented toward producing articulate, learned, and virtuous individuals fit for civic life. Most of our students won’t become theologians, we know, but we hope to help make them good people and people of good faith.

The subject of this year’s conversation was faith in the public square. We read and discussed both Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) as well as the more recent statement from the US Bishops on religious liberty, Our First, Most-Cherished Liberty. We heard from David Hollenbach, SJ, Fr. Bryan Hehir, and Bishop Flores on the HHS Mandate on Monday, and then on Tuesday morning, we spoke to Bishop Flores and Cardinal O’Malley on the theologian in the public square. Obviously, the two-day long conversation cannot be summarized here, but allow me to briefly offer some of the important points I took away from the meeting:

1. The first place that the theologian enters the public square is in the classroom. Despite the fact that most of us teach in Catholic schools, our classrooms are increasingly diverse. Faith assumptions cannot be taken for granted. And while theology is classically defined as “faith seeking understanding,” many of our students don’t have much of an understanding of their faith to start with. Cardinal O’Malley highlighted the importance of catechesis in our work in the classroom. Although it would be inappropriate to reduce a college-level theology class to merely catechesis, we as teachers have to do some if we want to do theology at all. “It is fun to ask the hard questions,” Cardinal Sean told us, “but without proper catechesis, it is like trying to teach chemistry without algebra. It just can’t be done.” This creates special challenges in classrooms that reflect the pluralism of the public square. How do we teach the faith without imposing the faith (and in doing so, violate the religious liberty of our students)?

2. Both bishops we spoke with were incredibly thoughtful and fair-minded, but it was illuminating to see and experience their sense of alarm at the growing secularization of our culture. A secular public square is not only hostile to religion (we see some of that in the HHS mandate debate), it is also reductionistic and individualistic. Catholics have a very public faith. We see the world as something to engage in, not withdraw from. This makes us particularly well-suited to bring faith-related concerns to the public square such as the dignity of all human beings and the psychosomatic unity of the person as body and soul. However, in entering public life, we must not forget that we will confront real enemies of the Church and of the truth. In our conversation, we danced around how to describe the enemies of the Church, and one theologian dropped the word “demons.” For the intellectually sophisticated, this word makes us uneasy but it is an apt one. As Catholics, we are called to be in, but not of, the world. Catholic theologians are often guilty of so engaging the world, that what we teach and write about often seems more secular than Catholic (The bishops’ original letter on the HHS mandate was also criticized on this point as sounding more like James Madison than Jesus). Although overly-dualistic language about the Church and the world is not helpful, we need to be careful not to collapse the two. And a little reminder to look out for demons doesn’t hurt.

3. This is not a Catholic country, nor should it be. Related to point #2, Catholics should think of themselves as “resident aliens.” We need to also realize that because we are aliens in our own land, and that the kingdom of God is still “yet to come,” we aren’t going to get everything we want, nor is public life ever going to fully promote the good. There was a constant sense of unease in our conversation about the bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom and the emphasis on repealing an unjust law rather than simply seeking broader religious exemptions. Bishop Flores spoke to this point in the concern many of his flock have raised about Catholic business men and women who own a business of more than 50 people who will not be covered under the exemption and will have to either violate their consciences in providing contraceptives or will have to break the law. This is a valid concern, and one that I myself sit uneasily with. But unless we withdraw totally from public life (which we should not), we are going to have to get our hands dirty and cooperate with evil. Is it worth it for the business person to cooperate in the evil of providing contraceptives if she can, in the process, dramatically improve access to health care services among her employees? Many of us thought it was. The Affordable Care Act is deeply flawed, but it does an awful lot of good too. Catholics should be unafraid to draw a line in the sand, but we need to be sure we are drawing it in the right place.

4. Finally, both Cardinal O’Malley and Bishop Flores spoke of the “connatural theologian,” the theologian who, though unlearned, knows the faith. “My grandmother was a theologian,” Bishop Flores told us. “She would always say ‘We do not do that.’ She may not have known why, but she knew the faith.” This speaks to a real need for humility on behalf of the theologian as she steps into the public square. We have spent a lot of our lives in school, studying the faith. But we also need to realize that we do not have a singular access to truth. We have much to learn from the connatural theologians out there, and such learning begins by living, working, and worshiping with them. As theologians, we cannot become so immersed in the concerns of the academy (important as tenure may be), that we fail to be part of the Church. We cannot also become so enamored with the role of the theologian that we think ourselves exempt from the teaching authority of the Magisterium. As theologians, we have a critical role to play in the life of the Church, especially as she goes forth into the public square. But we need to be humble in submitting to the authority, expertise, and prudential judgment of others.

The meeting, as the cliche goes, produce more questions than answers. But we can be sure that this next generation of theologians is committed to working on the answers together, to conversation rather than ad hominem attacks, and to a dynamic melding of worship, study, and service as we better seek how to understand the faith and teach it to others.



  1. (Point #1): I don’t understand this concern. In what possible way could you impose faith on anyone and how could explaining what the Church teaches be considered a violation of a student’s religious liberty? The problem might be transparently obvious to you but it is certainly a mystery to me.

    (#2): I think it is clear that the bishops’ letter received much less attention than it deserved and some of that was, as you say, the tone in which it was presented, but I think the disinterestedness was inevitable. With letters appearing weekly from bishops and committees of the USCCB on a great variety of topics I suspect that this was seen as just one more political observation with no more significance than any of the others. The real problem was not so much the tone of this letter but the mere existence of all the others.

    (#3): My understanding was that accepting exemptions to the HHS mandate was to exchange the concept of freedom of religion for one of freedom of worship. Once the original principle is lost, exemptions become merely optional benefits granted by the government and revocable at their pleasure. Either the government can force an individual to violate his religious conscience or it cannot. To accept that law, with or without exemptions, is to grant the government that right.

    Perhaps we use the phrase differently, but surely it is a mistake to suggest that we should cooperate with evil if that’s what it takes to achieve some good. We are in fact specifically forbidden to act this way. I understand the concept of double effect but the criteria that justify such an action don’t appear to be met in this case. The unease you felt with the bishops’ position must be similar to the one I feel with yours.

  2. Beth,

    Thanks for this report on what sounds like a great meeting. The problem you refer to in #1 is difficult. I think Cardinal O’Malley has a point which is echoed by many younger theologians. It makes sense to hold for later the controversial questions in order to spend time first with the basic, positive teachings.

    Still, if theology is faith seeking understanding, and many of students no longer begin with faith, where does that leave us in theology class?

    I find myself asking students to approach theological ethics from the inside of the tradition, even if they find themselves on the edge or outside. Reason “as if” you were a Christian, I tell them. I did this in divinity school in classes on Judaism and Islam and found it to be a worthwhile challenge. It’s not exactly what I hoped for when I first came to a Catholic university, but I’ve come to see it as a gift.


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