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Associate Professor of Theology Catherine Cornille (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Making History, Again

Cornille is the first female chair of Theology at BC
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By Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff
Published: March 4, 2010
When Associate Professor of Theology Catherine Cornille was studying theology at Katholieke Universiteit in her native Belgium, she figured after graduation she would teach high school -- a common path for women who studied theology in Belgium and many other European countries.

But one of her professors sensed that a different path awaited Cornille and encouraged her to continue her studies. After completing a master's degree at the University of Hawaii and returning to Katholieke Universiteit to earn her doctorate in religious studies, Cornille became the first female theologian on the teaching staff in the university's more-than-500-year history.

Now, Cornille has marked another "first": In January, she became the first female chairperson of Boston College's Theology Department.

The road from Belgium to Boston was hardly a predetermined one for Cornille, a Catholic theologian who specializes in interreligious dialogue, particularly Hindu-Christian and Buddhist-Christian.

She joined the Boston College faculty in 2005 after spending 10 years teaching at Katholieke Universiteit. A career opportunity for her American husband, a philosophy scholar, brought them to Massachusetts in 2000. [Her husband, Jeffrey Bloechl, is now also at BC, as an associate professor in the Philosophy Department.]

Leaving behind a tenured faculty position at a top university in her homeland to come to America, Cornille said, took a "leap of faith." It is a decision she looks back now on with a bit of awe, but also with affirmation that it brought her to a job she calls a "blessing" and a place where she gets to teach "what I've always wanted to teach."

Cornille's teaching and research centers on the more theoretical and theological questions in understanding and dialogue between religions. She is the author of several books in Dutch and English - most recently The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue - and is founding editor-in-chief of Christian Commentaries on Non-Christian Sacred Texts, a theological study series that has made a significant contribution to interreligious dialogue. 

She also is an organizer of the annual Symposia on Interreligious Dialogue, which brings leading religious scholars together to discuss ways of promoting interreligious dialogue and how such initiatives affect other global issues, such as economic development - the focus of this year's symposium, to be held in the fall.

Among her goals as department chair is to further enhance collegiality and intellectual exchange among faculty. The department has started a series of lunches where colleagues can share their latest research across specialized disciplines. "We have great communication and collaboration within subspecialties in the department - systematic theology, ethics, church history, biblical studies, and comparative theology - but sometimes we don't know what our colleagues in these other areas are working on," she said.

Cornille also is interested in forming a strong working relationship with the School of Theology and Ministry. Last week, together with retiring STM Dean Richard Clifford, SJ [see related story on page 1], she coordinated an on-campus dinner for about 50 faculty members from both Theology and STM. It was the first time the two groups had gotten together in that type of venue, she said.

Cornille believes that by bringing the best of these two areas of the University together "we can become one of the most important centers for Catholic theology in the world."

Another goal of Cornille is to strengthen the international orientation of the Theology Department by expanding relationships with targeted universities in other continents. She sees great value in purposeful faculty and student exchanges.

Cornille said she has seen a rising interest in comparative theology, and finds her students, most of whom are Christians, not only "enhance their understanding of another religion but rediscover the richness of their own Christianity, its beauty and depth.   

"Boston College is different from other places in that our focus is on comparative theology, not comparative religion. We are interested not only in learning about other religions, but also from them, in a mutually enriching - and sometimes critical - way. We also have a Buddhist, a Muslim, and a Jewish scholar in our department, and we are all engaged with the study of religions from a confessional point of view. There is an openness about this Theology Department that I find fascinating and unique," she said.