I committed to this post a while ago, and I thought I would likely write a bit about the joy of sharing a project such as this with a community of friends and fellow-scholars, or perhaps about some of the founding hopes and fears of this blog, or maybe I could be brave enough to write about the vulnerability of embarking on such a project as an untenured theologian. But I found that Jana Bennett did the first, David Cloutier did the second, and Emily Reimer-Berry did the third, all better than I could have. Those posts were also highly personal and anecdotal, so I’ll try to follow suit. Lest you miss it, however, in the stories that follow, my point is simply this: I think that this blog plays–and can play even more so–a crucial role in bridging some of the divides in the world of Catholic academic theology, and in the Church more broadly.
I remember talking to a friend of mine (a Catholic theologian) in October 2008. I don’t remember the exact numbers, or the exact conversation, but it went something like this: “The liberal bias in the media is so ridiculous. They are reporting Obama leading McCain by 5 percentage points. There is no way Obama will win this thing. Everyone I know is voting for McCain.” Obviously, my friend was mistaken, about everything except the last point. Everyone he knew was voting for McCain. The rest followed from assuming that he was familiar with the whole sample.
And, of course, I’ve been party to similar conversations on the other side, where someone, often in a room full of Christian ethicists and/or Catholic theologians at a professional conference says that “we all” know or believe something to be the case that is contrary to the official teaching of the Church. Obviously, many theologians do disagree with many aspects of the official teaching of the Church (and, as a matter of fact, I think the space for informed dissent is important), but to assume that “we all” do in such context shows a lack of awareness of the world outside one’s circle on a par with my McCain-supporting friend above.
I tell these stories because I think sometimes we at CMT forget the uniqueness of the situation in which we find ourselves. We are colleagues who are genuinely tied to one another through bonds of affection and a shared history. As has been pointed out, we all know each other in real life. Each of us knows some of the others better than others. There are little groups of us who went to college or graduate school together. Most (though not all) of us have been involved with New Wine, New Wineskins, a group for pre-tenure Catholic moral theologians. Many of us regularly attend the annual meetings of the Society for Christian Ethics, the Catholic Theological Society of America, and the College Theology Society. In fact, my involvement in these larger groups is shaped and conditioned by the friendships I share with my fellow contributors here. I go to talks I wouldn’t necessarily choose because a friend (or a friend of a friend) is giving it. Some of us have been involved in the Catholic Conversation Project; several of us attending the meeting last fall on “The Intellectual Tasks of the New Evangelization.” Having connected to one another, we tend to keep finding each other at these larger events. Though we share some crucial baseline commitments, the ways in which we carry those commitments are quite diverse. Really, truly diverse. And we still talk to one another. Pretty regularly. In public, even. That’s not quite as ordinary as you would hope it would be.
Another story is in the back of my mind as I write this. A couple of years ago, the Society of Christian Ethics met in Chicago. For years it was the tradition that the Catholic Mass at SCE was known as “Charlie’s Mass,” dating back to the days when Charlie Curran was one of only a few Catholics in attendance, and he said a Mass for those who wanted to attend. Well, this particular January weekend in Chicago was truly wicked, pounding the area with snow and making it nearly impossible to move about the city. Many people who might normally have opted out of “Charlie’s Mass” by walking to a local parish were pretty much stuck inside, and forced to choose between “Charlie’s Mass” and no Mass at all. (If God has a sense of humor, that may qualify as a particular kind of hell for certain brands of conservative Catholics.) Curran and others were aware that there were people at the Mass who really didn’t approve of it (I won’t go into the details here, but let’s just say that it was a bit outside of the normal rubrics). They tried very hard to be welcoming and inclusive (deeply aware that “we all” were not exactly on board with this version of Mass). But how does a group of people who have been celebrating a “more inclusive” Mass for decades manage to be inclusive of people who feel that those “inclusive” changes somehow betray the Mass? (Again, if God has a sense of humor, this may be hell for certain liberal Catholics.)
What I witnessed that day, however, was one of the most beautiful and painful things I think I’ve ever seen. Everyone handled themselves with grace, aware that it was a difficult situation. It was beautiful because it was a truly diverse group of people, all deeply committed to the Gospel and the Church, but carrying those commitments in really radically different ways, and yet, somehow, we managed to gather around one table and receive and become the One Body that we are. It was also deeply painful to me, because I could see some of the more conservative folks cringing when certain things were said and done; I’ll admit it, I cringed a time or two myself. But much more painful to me than anything said or done “wrong” in the Mass was the realization of just how rare it is, in the academy that is Catholic theology, that we really gather together across the arguments and disagreements that divide us. We tend to surround ourselves with people who agree with us and who share our understanding of the Church and the world. We quietly opt out of the Mass, or the sessions, or the conferences that offend us, and find ones more to our own liking. This dynamic in American culture more broadly has been documented (by Bill Bishop in The Big Sort), but it ought to concern us even more deeply among academic theologians.
My participation in this blog is one small way that I work against that divide in my own life. These relationships and this shared commitment to this work together, won’t let me “opt out” or drift back into that like-minded comfort zone. And, to look at it another way, this blog is one of the ways that God works in my life (and in the lives of fellow contributors and readers, I hope) to draw us out of those things that divide us, into the unity of the Body of Christ. In fact, I have had chapter 4 of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians on my mind all week. Paul calls his readers to lowliness, meekness, patience, and love, in order to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” and reminds them that they share one body, one Spirit, one faith, one Lord, one baptism, and one hope (Eph 4:2-5). He exhorts them:
[S]peaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied … upbuilds itself in love (Eph 4:15-16).
I think that God has given us great gifts and positioned us well to “blog the truth in love,” such that by honestly and lovingly exploring both what unites us and divides us, we can make a real contribution to the unity of the Church, and to its becoming more like Christ its head. But I also think (along the lines of Emily’s post yesterday) that we can do better than we have done so far. We can be more truthful with one another, taking more risks in our posts and in our disagreements. Truthful, loving exploration of those differences may be one of the best gifts we can give to a Church deeply committed both to truth and to love, and deeply in need (like the Church in every time and place) of people willing to live both.
May God give us all the grace to grow both in truth and love, and the desire to keep finding new and better ways to express that and to live it. And, of course, the courage to keep blogging about it, together. Happy anniversary, everyone!