Segregation in Catholic Intellectual Life

By Martinez, Demetria | National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Segregation in Catholic Intellectual Life

Martinez, Demetria, National Catholic Reporter

It was a slip-up that happened at the right place and the right time, a "sign of the times" that in provoking a frank discussion, might well turn out to be a blessing.

The Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs planned a conference titled: "The Future of Catholic Intellectual Life" (NCR, Nov. 5). Organizers drew up a list of the usual suspects to speak at the College of the Holy Cross Nov. 12-14. Speakers included such luminaries as Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, dean of Harvard Divinity School, and Monika Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

There was only one problem: No one thought to invite people of color.

Outrage ensued. Sixto Garcia, president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States, decried the "intellectual bigotry" prevalent in church circles.

Many whites would appear to assume that Latinos lack "the intellectual, cultural or genetic makeup to discuss thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Karl Rahner, Maurice Blondel and others," Garcia told NCR. Diana Hayes, African-American professor at Georgetown University, observed that the program suggested that "only Caucasians could speak about Catholic intellectual life."

I've no doubt that the organizers of the Holy Cross conference had good intentions. So do the organizers of a lot of church conferences, where concerns close to the hearts of many a Catholic liberal are hammered out -- but often with little input from non-whites.

So what goes wrong? Why a segregated intellectual life in an astonishingly multi-cultural church?

First and foremost is the habit of white intellectuals to "barrioize" their Latina and Latino counterparts. (I'm using the example of Latinos here, although most of what I say applies to other groups as well.) Certainly Latinos bring expertise to topics related to Latino life. But as public intellectuals, our interests are necessarily broad.

The specific scholarly pursuits of Latinos furthermore, are as varied as those of whites. We have as much to say about celibacy and the priesthood, ecology, the just war theory and the rise of Islam as non-Latino experts is these fields. Limiting our participation to the "Hispanic Issues" panel (if there is one) of a conference makes no sense whatsoever.

What else goes wrong?

For one thing, many organizations wait until the last minute to attempt to pull off cultural diversity. Hence, the woes of "finding qualified speakers." In fact, such woes will decrease as the size of an organizer's Rolodex increase. And that should be happening year-round.

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