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American Independence Day focus: the Church in the US MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS


Young, gifted and Catholic


Next month sees the second annual gathering of young American theologians who make up the Catholic Conversation Project – a group of mainly laymen and laywomen determined to forge a new approach after the divisions that have dogged the Church in the past


T


he University of Notre Dame’s deci- sion in 2009 to invite President Barack Obama to give the annual graduation speech revealed stark divisions within the Catholic Church in the United States. Notre Dame had extended the invitation


to speak at graduation to every president since Dwight Eisenhower, but Obama was pro- choice and many Catholics felt the Church had become too willing to accept such political differences in its stride. The debate was often ugly, with protests and counter-protests. One thing was clear: the political divisions within the political community had seeped into the Catholic community and the Church appeared badly divided. One of the graduates at that year’s ceremony


was Charles Camosy. Understandably, he had long been looking forward to the day when he would receive his doctoral degree in the- ology. A cradle Catholic who had trudged to a rural Wisconsin church to serve early morn- ing Mass, which often had no more than five communicants, Camosy had gone to Catholic schools all his life. He had long been interested in theological issues, but, as he told me, “teaching high school in between my Master’s and PhD really pushed my interest towards the practical – and ethics, in particular”. Now, on his graduation day, Camosy saw how the practical was intertwined with theory, in ways that were often divisive. But he did not despair. “I came back realising that I had just witnessed a moment in time and that someone had to take advantage of that moment,” Camosy said. “But as a new professor I wasn’t sure how this might happen, so I asked my more experienced colleagues for ideas and guidance.”


One of the people he reached out to was Fr


Mark Massa SJ, then director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University, where Camosy had just finished his first-year teaching. Massa agreed that some effort must be made to heal the divisions within the Church. “After much discussion, we decided to begin with younger theologians at Fordham,” Camosy recalled. “We have a lot of junior fac- ulty in our department, and the idea was to


12 | THE TABLET | 2 July 2011


holding their second larger meeting in August at Boston College, another Jesuit university where Fr Massa is now the dean of the school of theology and ministry. The move to Boston College has also precipitated a name change to the Catholic Conversation Project. What distinguishes the group, as Camosy


mentioned, is that they bring a fresh approach to important theological issues and are not burdened by some of the polemics of earlier generations. “Everyone is more complex than a label,”


Members of the Catholic Conversation Project listen to a lecture at last year’s meeting of the group


try to engage difficult issues in a way that cap- italised on the fact that we were all pretty much working with a clean slate. Several of us met for the first time starting in the fall of 2009, and continued to meet nearly every month until last summer’s major event to which we invited junior theology faculty from all over the country.” Thus was born the Fordham Conversation


Project, a gathering of untenured theologians under 40 at Catholic colleges and universities. In addition to the meeting last August, which drew 20 theologians to the Fordham campus,


These theologians are


impressive not only in their scholarship. Their love for the Church shines through in conversations with them


the group has sponsored smaller, more infor- mal gatherings. They hosted a dinner party for theologians Christine Hinze and Amy Uelmen to discuss Caritas in Veritate (Pope Benedict’s 2009 encyclical on global devel- opment and the common good). They held a gathering to coincide with an event honouring the late Jesuit theologian, Cardinal Avery Dulles SJ. Members of the group participated in an online symposium at the National Catholic Reporter. And, this year, they will be


said Camosy. “But there appears to be some- thing different about our generation. I see it even with colleagues I meet randomly at con- ferences who have no connection to the Conversation Project. Part of the story here might be that our formation did not take place in the midst of the social upheaval coinciding with the aftermath of Vatican II, and this may have led some of us to see ourselves and the theological landscape differently than those who were formed during that time.” Patrick Clark, who teaches at the University


of Scranton in Pennsylvania and attended last summer’s meeting, acknowledges the debt the young theologians have to their predecessors. “I myself would not want to overstate the


difference between the course of our pre - decessors and the course we ourselves are seeking to chart,” Clark told me. “We remain extremely grateful for the many invaluable contributions of the generation of scholars who have served as our teachers and mentors. Perhaps the one thing we might like to do dif- ferently is to foster a broader community of friendship and professional solidarity that can help prevent theological disagreement from devolving into the sort of polemical par- tisanship that characterises so much of the political culture of our society.”


One of the issues the young theologians will be addressing at this year’s meeting is the relationship between theologians and bishops, as Hosffman Ospino, a yet-to-be-tenured theology professor at Boston College, explained: “As pre-tenure theologians, par- ticipants in the Catholic Conversation Project will explore possibilities for this relationship to be more fruitful while addressing some contemporary challenges.


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