Public Theologies in an Age of Ethnic Rivalries

By Buckley, William Joseph | The Catholic World, November-December 1994 | Go to article overview

Public Theologies in an Age of Ethnic Rivalries


Buckley, William Joseph, The Catholic World


The two sets of quotations given below will illuminate elements of the title I have chosen for this article. The first is from an unpublished sermon on the outbreak of the American civil war by the founder of the Paulists, who was also the founder of this journal - Father Isaac Hecker (1819-1888). The second includes remarks by a missionary and a news reporter about recent events in Rwanda.

God's blessing and help is also necessary to our success in the common pursuit of life - in the natural order as no one doubts it is in the affair of our salvation in the supernatural order.... Religion is the expression of our relations with God, and a people which attempts to realize its destiny without religion is like a ship which starts to cross the ocean without a rudder; sectional interests and differences of opinion like tile strong currents and winds will sooner or later bring about their ruin. And the national mind needs to possess religious principles and convictions, to which in time of violence and discord an appeal can be made which will be regarded, and bring forth from the bosom of tile people a response that renders them forgetful of private interests and makes peace take the place of discord and violence.... For it is Religion that strikes the deepest roots in the human heart, raises man above himself, and can excite his enthusiasm to the noblest actions and deeds of heroic sacrifice. . . . The present lesson is a good one, if we learn by it to appreciate our institutions at their true value. They are fore [sic] us the best that can be devised. Let us improve and strengthen where experience teaches they need improvement & strength, but let us not breathe the thought of changing their essential character. Remembering that the largest individual freedom consistent with public order is the government nearest to that of God.(1)

"There are no devils left in hell," the missionary said. "They are all in Rwanda. . ." If the Rwanda catastrophe was more than a simple tribal meltdown, it also showed signs of being the kind of conflict that scholars warn will haunt the world for decades to come. These wars are not started by statesmen or fought by armies or ended by treaties. The tribal skirmishes recall the wars of the Middle Ages, when religion and politics and economics and social conflicts all messily intertwined.(2)

In the pages that follow I will explain why these two apparently disconnected quotes illustrate the possibilities and problems facing "public theologies" in an era of hostile ethnic (and frequently religious) identities. How might social conflict and religious ethnicity serve as a kind of test case for assessing the adequacy of our claims about public theology? Succinctly put, the question could also be phrased: Can particular traditions offer public resources for discourse about social conflicts within a wider society? From inside the plural traditions of Catholic Christianity, we ask: What religious symbols and categories might we retrieve to address our fragmented era? From the outside looking in, one might ask: How do some accounts of religious symbols and categories contribute to some construal of the "common good?" By focusing on effects rather than the origins of selected symbols and concepts from Catholic traditions, we aim to show how and why religious symbols and concepts contain disclosive and transformative possibilities for public arguments and interpretations.

The first quote is taken from an unpreached sermon on the "Let down your nets" pericope of Luke 5:5 by Father Isaac Hecker. (Either Father Hecker, or the one who later typed his notes, has mistakenly conflated the account with Matthew 4:18-22.) Although no exact date is given, the historical context of Hecker's sermon is crucial for understanding its dramatic setting; it was written about the time of Beauregard's opening salvo on Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861 as, in Hecker's own words, a "Sermon on the Breaking Out of the Rebellion. …

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