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Starting a Conversation, Instead of an Argument

STM dean helps create dialogue on issues in the Church and Society


By Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff

Published: Sept. 6, 2012

Weary of the polarization in American society that often turns discussions into heated ideological debates, a group of Catholic theologians  is seeking to transcend the harmful rhetoric and limiting labels and build community by engaging in honest and open-minded dialogue about issues facing the Catholic Church and society.

The Catholic Conversation Project (CCP), created by School of Theology and Ministry Dean Mark Massa, SJ, and Fordham University Assistant Professor Charles Camosy, gathers young, pre-tenured, published Catholic theologians in higher education who are seeking to build dynamic relationships between theologians, other scholars, the Magisterium, and the faithful.

Project members work together to tackle the challenging questions of the day by modeling conversations and sponsoring projects in a spirit of unity, charity, and communion in service to the Church and the world.

“It is especially pertinent in the current political, cultural and ecclesiastical climate to move beyond ‘left’ and ‘right’ labels and say, ‘We are Catholics. We have a lot of things in common. We differ about some things. Can we have a conversation?’” said Fr. Massa. “This is one of the few places where serious conversation across the ideological divide is happening. It’s respectful and very fruitful.”

Added Camosy, “Our culture is now more polarized than any time since the Civil War. And the Church — having largely accepted both the categories and rhetoric of secular politics — is similarly polarized. But the CCP shows that we can get beyond the simplistic and harmful left/right binary thinking.”

Now in its third year, the CCP convened last month at the Connors Family Retreat and Conference Center on BC’s Dover campus for a conference hosted by Fr. Massa and the School of Theology and Ministry. Camosy and STM Assistant Professor Hosffman Ospino served as co-conveners. In addition to Boston College and Fordham, theologians in attendance represented higher education institutions such as Regis University (Denver), Marymount University, Catholic Theological Union, St. Michael’s College and Providence College, among others.

This year’s theme was “The Church in the Public Square” and conversations touched upon the Health and Human Services mandate that contraception be covered in health plans. Both Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2012 statement on religious liberty were required reading.
“The overall spirit at the CCP meetings is very positive. We do not shy away from asking hard questions, challenging each other, and realizing our differences,” said Ospino.

The CCP has made a conscious move to invite a member of the Church hierarchy to its gatherings, according to Camosy, who said “the left/right polarization in the Church has put pressure on relationships between bishops and theologians.”

Last month’s conference featured Boston Archbishop Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM, Cap., and Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Tex., who is a member of the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. Last year, Bishop Michael Mulvey of Corpus Christi, Tex., participated in the CCP meeting.

“Theologians benefit from being connected to the institutional Church, and bishops benefit by learning from diverse perspectives of people who not only know the tradition so well, but are ‘in the trenches’ seeing how that tradition can relate to our students and with secular discourses,” Camosy said.

Ospino said, “Often bishops and theologians consult with each other to address a crisis or to respond to immediate questions. This is important. But it is also important to gather together on a regular basis without a tightly defined agenda, enter in conversation about matters that are important to both groups.

“It is humbling and reaffirming to learn how much we share in common and how much we want to help the Church do the best as part of her evangelizing mission. That alone is worth having meetings like the CCP.”

The conference organizers also set aside time for the young theologians to hear from senior scholars and experts such as Boston College Center for Human Rights and International Justice Director David Hollenbach, SJ, and Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, a professor of religion and public life at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government.
“After each meeting we leave with new questions and a new commitment to do a better job as Catholic theologians,” said Ospino.

Camosy said the CCP seeks to form relationships between bishops and theologians on a more local level, facilitating relationships between local departments of theology and seminaries, and publishing a book together.
“It’s exciting and it’s important,” said Fr. Massa. “Making peace in the Church and building bridges within the community is something I think BC should be involved in.”