As Dana pointed out in the introduction to this series, theologians don’t talk about their personal faith very much. There are all kinds of reasons for this, and the structure of the academy into which we try to fit is certainly one factor. In my contribution I will pick up on the question which gave rise to this series, the one raised by Maureen O’Connell in the open forum at CTS: “What gives you hope?”
The most important thing that gives me hope is my experience with my students. I came home tonight to write this post after the final class of a five week intense undergraduate introductory course in theology called Faith and Critical Reason. I had an absolute blast. My students were smart, careful, sensitive, passionate and diverse (four continents were represented in a group of 11 students). Clear with their opinions, they were also open to withholding judgment while soaking in a new point of view. They came in generally skeptical of “organized religion” but were open to seeing good in it that they had not yet considered. They took the content of the course personally and seriously, and several were ready to give up meat after learning about factory farming–even becoming playfully angry with me for bringing it up with them. They clearly hate hypocrisy, but have deep respect for authenticity and consistency–and were particularly open to the consistent ethic of life. They see the deep problems with the hook up culture (not least because of personal experiences), which makes them more open to seeing an alternative way of being sexual in the world, and thus open to seeing the Church’s teaching on sexuality as something other than totally ridiculous. In short, they are “magenta”–not fitting into the political/ethical/ecclesial categories the older generations try to hoist upon them. Bucking another label often thrown their way, I find them to be anything but disengaged or uncaring. They do seem disillusioned–but this is understandable given the hypocrisy (and, often, bad faith) present in the bearers of the messages of meaning from which they are currently forced to choose. It gives me hope that they remain out there searching for an alternative, and it gives me hope that Catholic moral theology–when presented in the right way–seems to be an alternative that they are willing to consider.
This is very important hope all by itself, given that our students will shape the world to come, and it should not be understated. But there is more. The recent shift in tone and emphasis of the American bishops is very hopeful for me. Mostly in an attempt to combat abortion, and perhaps understandably given abortion’s horrific evil, the US Bishops spent much of the last three decades with their wagon hitched to the star of the GOP. This has been disastrous, not only because it seems clear small government Republicans can’t possibly be committed to the huge reforms necessary to give our prenatal children equal protection of the law, but because it has marginalized the Catholic message as one that can often be reduced to an American political agenda. But with the recent power shift to Cardinals Dolan and O’Malley, things appear to have changed. Issues like abortion are still a central concern (how could they not be with 1.2 million of them taking place each year?), but universal health care, the full dignity of immigrants and their families, income inequality, ecological concern, sexual violence, and many other issues have also taken center stage. The magenta of the bishops’ sashes is now being reflected in their politics.
The magenta turn looks to continue for the foreseeable future–especially with Pope Francis calling the shots on new bishops. (And it is interesting, isn’t it, that so many believe Dolan and O’Malley were playing kingmaker in the conclave–and someone like Pope Francis emerged.) Pope Francis himself is a huge source of hope. So much has been written about the reasons for this already that I could hardly add anything worth mentioning, but I’ll just highlight his putting Jesus front and center. Whether it is his simplicity and disdain for meaningless clothing and other trappings, his care for the poor and vulnerable, his joy (particularly when it comes to interacting with children and other simple people), or his authenticity. He has “fan boys” from every religion, and even from those of no faith at all. What a shockingly powerful and hopeful witness to the fact that Catholicism is not only relevant, even in the developed world, but that it can capture the world’s attention and imagination in a unique, powerful, and perhaps even transformative way.
My final reason for hope comes from an odd place: the number of bad mistakes made by the Church in recent decades. For those who understand history, you know that it is no rare thing for the Church to succeed and flourish despite the fact that it could not get out of its own way. (In fact, those who imagine the Church to be “in crisis” right now might do well to skim a Church history text for a bit of perspective.) That said, mistake after mistake has been made in recent decades, particularly in this country: the sex abuse disaster, a near total failure of catechesis, responding to that failure with a catechesis that bears a striking resemblance to the Republican party platform, the shift toward clericalism…and many others. Despite all of this, here we sit. Here we sit with a fantastic new Pope, important new leadership in the conference, and a new generation of students who are jaded but open to a different way of seeing the world–even our tradition’s way of seeing the world. That we still have this opportunity is clear evidence that the Holy Spirit remains alive and well in guiding the Church. And this, of course, remains the most hopeful thing of all.