I just finished my ninth New Wine, New Wineskins Symposium this past weekend.  I missed the very first one because I was on my honeymoon and have not missed one since.

Over the past several years, we have invited a senior scholar to address the group. These individuals have come from all over the theological map:  Jean Porter, Fr. Paulinus Odozor, Lisa Sowle Cahill, Fr. Robert Barron, Stanley Hauerwas, and Daniel Finn.  This year was Jim Keenan.  Of everything Fr. Keenan said, two things that captured the value of NWNW for me.  He said Catholic moral theologians are by nature critics and do not talk to each other.

Moral Theologians are by nature critics. I was a bit taken back by this statement.  I had always thought of our task as constructive, figuring out how to live as disciples.  So, I asked him about this constructive task, but, of course, in doing so, I proved his point.  My first move was a critical one, pointing out something I felt was lacking.

Yet, being critical was not the whole picture.  As Fr. Keenan expanded on his statement he clarified that we are critical not out of cynicism but out of a hopefulness to make the world better, out of desire for the coming kingdom of God.

I found this to be true of the papers at the conference. Each paper offering a criticism but doing so to make things—an idea, the academy, society, the church whatever it was—better.  Tom Bushlack’s, Michael Jaycox’s, and Sheryl Overmyer’s presentations all sought better interpretations of Thomas’ understanding of the virtues and decision making.  Richard Corneil critiqued of notion of the common good for neglecting close relationship but did so to expand the category and make it more serviceable.  In response to a question about the use of “passivity” to describe sanctity, Anne Carpenter noted she shared these concerns and welcomed the term “active receptivity” from another questioner.  Lincoln Rice “criticized” Michael Baxter’s thought but only by way of seeking to recovery Dorothy Day’s notion of plurality.  Michael Martocchio argued that we needed to bring together economic and environmental stability while Christopher Spotts found the biblical notion of the jubilee a needed corrective to Benedict’s recent social encyclicals.  Brian Green sought to bring the notion of cultural evolution into moral theology, a usefulness seen when it added another layer of explanation for Maria Morrow’s excellent study about the decline of penitential practices in the 1960’s.

Like every year before, I saw played out a moral theology with an undercurrent of love of others.  Yes, we were definitely critics, but ones rooted in the pursuit of something better, something good.

Moral Theologians do not talk to each other. Fr. Keenan said that this was one of his motivations behind organizing the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church conferences in Padua and Trent.  I feel this intellectual isolation.  My office is a one-minute walk from one of my long time Wineskins friends, and yet the only time we get to talk about moral theology is when we drive to the conference together each year.  In the frenzy of teaching, writing, and administrative work, we can hardly find time to talk shop.

Like his comment on being critical, this one was also driving toward greater love and understanding.  Talking was the first step.  This has been my consistent experience at the NWNW symposium.  After three and half days, people start becoming friends.

Perhaps, nothing catches this better than the Friday night discussion this year.  It all started when someone picked up a conversation begun at lunch, “So, why wouldn’t you lie to the Nazis if they were at your door asking for Jews?”  Off we were, for five hours, almost fifteen of us discussing lying and intrinsically evil acts.  The Hauerwas crowd said not lying was the greatest challenge and expression of discipleship.  The Thomists worked toward a more precise definition of lying, noting the need in the tradition.  All of us brought up case after case, exposing us as the casuists we were. The conversation meandered, got heated, became flippant and then serious.  It ended under the shear weight of exhaustion.

While officially over at one in the morning, the debate affected the rest of the conference.  It came up in discussions, at lunch, and in jokes.  People who had taken sides on the issue now seemed more friendly and open to each other.  Although no one seemed to change her or his perspective, everyone seemed to appreciate what had been said.  We had had mass together, ate together, and debated papers together.  As strong as the opinions were expressed, the conversation coupled with the rest of the conference seemed to move everyone toward friendship.

Over the past nine years, experiences like these have moved out of the conference and out into the field at large. I can now call up people, seek advice from them, and tell my students to contact them.  In their works, I see a generosity toward friends and foes alike.  And this year, even though so many of the people were new to me, I could feel the beginnings of this friendship emerging.

I think this is why I have liked Wineskins so much in the past and this year:  it is a group that forms people in the intellectual work of moral theology in a context of love and friendship.