Catholic Conversation Project and Theological Mood

What do you expect when you walk outside in the morning and encounter “the world”? (For the purposes of this thought experiment, assume full caffeination.) The grace of God leaping up to meet you in the people you meet, in their cultures, in their attempts to live out lives of goodness and truth? Or the reality of sin, the deformation of what is best in our humanity by the effects of sin? When you engage in the public square, do you approach the institutions of society with a healthy awareness of the power of power to corrupt absolutely, of the ability of the capitalist market or hedonist impulses to hijack that which is best in us, tarnish us, twist us out of balance? Or do you expect a relatively competent world of humans already “doing what is in them” to their best abilities, for whom Christian revelation is, at most, a confirmation or minor course correction to an already functioning society? Think for a moment about your basic theological mood before letting yourself off of the hook with a stereotypically Catholic “both…and”…

Last week I had the privilege of spending two days meeting with a group of about 20 theologians from various programs and backgrounds, from across some of the false ideological and real theological differences of contemporary Roman Catholic theology and ethics. Entitled the Catholic Conversation Project, this gathering is the brainchild of Charlie Camosy of Fordham University and now, in its third year of meeting, is the product of a great deal of work and collaboration between these theologians. Beth Haile does a great job of summarizing the CCP, its mission, and its ethos over at the Catholic Moral Theology blog. This year’s topic was “Faith in the Public Square”, and we were joined by two theologians, Fr. David Hollenbach, S.J., and Fr. Bryan Hehir, as well as two bishops: Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas stayed with us  for almost the entirety of the meeting, and Sean Cardinal O’Malley of Boston was able to join us for some time one morning. All of us were scattered across very different theological and ecclesial backgrounds and positions that don’t fit very well on an easy polarized binary between “liberals” and “conservatives” – we are, in Charlie’s phrase, “interestingly complicated” theologians.

And yet there were, and are, real disagreements. These were theologians that don’t go to the same meetings that I do, read the same journals or Catholic periodicals that I do, attend the same (frankly) hippie-dippie banjo-strumming parishes that I do. Not just in terms of theological positions, but even in terms of culture, this was a more mixed group of Catholics, never mind theologians, than I’m used to breaking bread with, figuratively, literally, and eucharistically.

Beth’s post does a great job of summarizing the content of our discussions, so I won’t try to match that; but I would like to offer some of my own personal thoughts on the experience. They may or may not be entirely coherent, since they’re less a summary of content and more a summary of my emotional reactions, and my emotions are often something less than systematic…

What was most surprising and hopeful for me was the presence of two bishops at our gathering, especially the continued presence of Bishop Flores throughout the meeting. That’s not a dig at Cardinal O’Malley, but the demands on his schedule only allowed him a few hours to join us, which were greatly appreciated. Bishop Flores described his diocese of Brownsville, Texas, as “the love of his life,” which can only make the heart of an ecclesiologist rooted in the work of Jean-Marie Tillard soar. But as one participant said, it was the first time he had spent as much time with a bishop as he had; that was true for me as well, and even more, it was the first time I felt that a bishop had actually listened to me, and heard both our agreements and our disagreements, with him and with each other. One thing that the project discussed was trying to develop creative ways for theologians and bishops to not just enter into dialogue or work together professionally, but to begin to get to know each other as individuals – keep an eye out for the “Buy a Bishop a Drink” program for theologians in your area. You heard it here first.

A second reaction was my sense of representing a community in dialogue with other communities authentically and honestly. I’ve been involved with ecumenism for a long-ish time now, both as a scholar of the dialogues and as a participant in some. As a Roman Catholic theologian who often finds more to agree with in conversation with some of my colleagues in other Christian churches than with my Roman Catholic peers, and with some of the leaders of my community, I have in the past found myself representing positions and making present explanations that, if push came to shove, I might have some questions about. I don’t think this is simple duplicity or stereotypical sophistry… rather, it’s simply the case that in ecumenical dialogue I attempt to represent the center and mainstream of the Roman Catholic tradition, rather than my own personal opinions, quibbles, or problems. And here at this gathering I got the chance to representing communities of people who are my brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church, and their concerns, their ideas, their theologies, and their fears more passionately than I sometimes do in ecumenical gatherings.

One thing we discussed briefly at the meeting [full disclosure: I’ve brought this up in print before] was the very fact that dialogue between Catholics today feels more and more like ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, especially when our institutions and parishes, and even the scholarly organizations where we theologians gather, feel increasingly like parallel communities. And I think that there’s a part of us, as Catholics, that is rightly concerned about admitting that – that we need some more formal process of dialogue in order to come together as Catholics in the way that we want. Intra-Catholic dialogue feels a bit like marriage or family counseling – there’s some shame that we haven’t been able to work things out on our own, some fear that we won’t be able to remain together, some scars, new and old, from the hurt feelings and past experiences that occur within families. And yet the old slogan about the first step being admitting that you have a problem isn’t entirely inaccurate here. Oh, and we believe in the Holy Spirit. That might help too.

Thirdly, and related to that act of coming together in dialogue, I felt more Catholic than I have in some time. As an “interestingly complicated” theologian who nevertheless tends to find myself on the progressive end of the spectrum, I sometimes feel pushed to the edge of my community, and respond with a tired sense of self-marginalization. But I felt more accepted and supported, if challenged, as a member of the Roman Catholic theological academy than I had in some time.

Finally, to go back to my opening questions, one overall theological observation from the weekend was about how many of our differences around our dialogue table, and among theologians, bishops, and the remainder of the church, go back to a substantial difference in temperament, a “style” or “mood” of thinking about nature and grace, rather than a direct logical disagreement. One participant described the situation of the Catholic Church today as “being immersed in a hostile culture.” While I may have had critiques of particular actions taken by my government or by my fellow citizens, I can honestly say that I’ve never myself felt that as a starting position, as the mood in which I begin my life as a Christian or my work as a theologian. Whether naïve and Pollyannish, or rooted in evangelical openness to the grace of God, my default mood is one of expectation that God’s action within or without the Church will meet me in the morning as I encounter the world.

It’s important, I think, that this view is not primarily a theological position on nature and grace that I hold; rather, it’s a theological mood, something like the different styles that John O’Malley talks about in his book Four Cultures of the West. And, as a mood, it colors much of my thought, the research questions I tend to ask, the sources I tend to trust, my balancing of scripture and tradition, reason and experience – beyond my intellectual commitments and my faith, it colors the horizon, so to speak, in which I view the world.

I use the language of “mood” in order to emphasize my realization last week of how opposite the gut understanding of some of my fellow Catholics was on questions of nature and grace, of church and world, before even entering into intellectual/theological argument.  In fact, both of these moods are pretty deeply rooted in our common Christian tradition, as H. Richard Niebuhr among many, many others outlined in the ideal types of Christ and Culture, and most theologians, if they’re paying attention, would never harden their basic mood into an intellectual firewall – I regularly find reasons to be suspicious of the lack of redemption in the world, and I hope that my colleagues are regularly surprised by the places where grace was already active and waiting for them.

What struck me this weekend, and what I will most take away, is not the existence of different positions or different theological moods, but the authenticity of the encounter with a different yet complementary Catholic outlook on the world. Now, authenticity by itself is no guarantee of anything – someone can be an authentic racist or an authentic jerk as well as an authentic Catholic. But encountering a deeply Catholic suspicion of the effects of sin upon our world held authentically, and not as an ideological bombshell hurled to score points, was deeply challenging and enlightening to me. Experiencing friends and fellow Catholics whose theological mood was so different than my own more than anything else convinced me of the need for this dialogue, and others like it, to continue – not simply for the sake of institutional cohesion and effectiveness, or for public manifestation of Catholic unity, important as that is, but because we need each other. The rarity of encounters like this in my work thus far has limited the horizons of my theology, perhaps even hurt it in ways I don’t yet realize; I hope that my new friends might share some of the same reaction. And the healing of a bleeding Body of Christ as well as the advancement of our common attempts to express the Catholic faith in our own interesting times is reason enough to pray for dialogues like the CCP to spring up and to flourish.

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