Theologians Ponder Signs of the Times. (Analysis)

By Redmont, Jane | National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002 | Go to article overview

Theologians Ponder Signs of the Times. (Analysis)


Redmont, Jane, National Catholic Reporter


Theologians think in the context of their time and place, whether or not they admit it. The 2002 meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America confirmed this fact as members tackled the theme of the meeting: "Reading the Signs of the Times."

The society met in New Orleans, capital and mother city of African-American Catholicism, after changing the venue midyear from Philadelphia because of reported racial injustice at the Adams Mark hotel there. It met nine months after the terror of Sept. 11, with citizens still shaken; the U.S. military in Afghanistan; Pakistan and India staring in each other's nuclear faces; and the land where Jesus walked and the prophets preached mired in bloody, dispiriting turmoil.

And the society met, of course, in a time of anguish and anger in the church, following revelations of sexual abuse by clergy and of collusion and concealment by the U.S. Catholic bishops.

Colleagues from other continents included representatives from theological societies in Germany, Brazil, Belgium and Uruguay; U.S. theologians residing in Taiwan and South Africa; and Australian, Nigerian, and Indian theologians teaching and studying in the United States. The church universal was also present in the presidential address of Fr. Peter Phan, titled "Theology on the Other Side of the Borders." Phan, born in Vietnam, is the Catholic Theological Society of America's first president of Asian ancestry and culture. He is a professor at The Catholic University of America.

The theologians met as inhabitants of a wounded planet riven by economic disparity, where human solidarity and globalized capitalism vie for the allegiance of hearts and minds. Preoccupation with money and wealth often remains unexamined, according to Michael Warren of St. John's University in New York. Warren reminded participants in a spirituality seminar that in the gospels, Jesus speaks far more often about money than about sex.

The society issued no formal statement about the current church crisis. Its members did, however, spend an extended session responding to a discussion paper drafted at the request of the board of directors. The paper was to be sent to the 16 bishops who are members of the theological society and to the president of the U.S. bishops' conference.

Despite the lack of a formal statement, this gathering met with an urgent sense of responsibility to and for the church. Fueled by this commitment, theologians need to do what we do best: not to spin sound bites, but to go below the surface of the issues and enlarge the public conversation. Warren spoke in his presentation of "our trained capacity for focused staring." Thus equipped, theologians' work in our rushed and reactive culture is to create, expand and nourish spaces where sustained reflection and analysis can take place. "We have a sacred duty to address this crisis from our position as theologians," Phan said.

Concern for the church's members, its nature and its structure surfaced in plenaries and seminars. "We need to look at our theology of the laity, of the priesthood, of the church, and at the structures that would embody the best of our theology," said Dominican Sr. Jamie Phelps of Loyola University of Chicago. "In the long run," she added, "we will be a better church because of this crisis."

In an interview, Phan said the rebuilding of the church "cannot come from the politics and rules the bishops set up in Dallas, but from accountability and transparency. The transformation of the church is a matter for all people at all levels. …

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