This past weekend’s 64th annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Halifax, Nova Scotia took a turn toward the introspective. The theme of this year’s convention, “Impasse…and Beyond,” invited this somewhat unusual and unexpected drift. The convention’s plenary speakers and concurrent sessions examined experiences of impasse, described by Carmelite contemplative theologian Constance FitzGerald of Baltimore Carmel during the second plenary as “an eternal imprisonment in the present” that denies any possibility for moving toward a different future.
Obvious examples of impasse quickly emerged: the growing disengagement of the laity and theologians with local bishops; a lack of constructive communication between theologians and the magisterium, as well as an absence of meaningful engagement of theologians with the wider community of faithful Catholics; emotions of fear and insecurity that create physical and emotional distance among Americans and American Catholics, most notably around injustices connected to immigration, abortion and the current economic crisis; and a sense of being overwhelmed by the social sins of racism and environmental degradation and by the implications of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, this usual hit parade of theological and ecclesial tunes was quickly drowned out by more interior, spiritual and emotive sources of impasse. Several theologians encouraged their colleagues to examine the impasses within themselves, as well as the various impasses in the theological academy which cultivate dead-ends of cynicism, disengagement, lack of intelligibility and intellectual isolation.
Gary Macy, Church historian at Santa Clara University, warned against the tendency to recreate the past in the present, since doing so guarantees that we will miss the future orientation of history. “History is not the past,” he explained, “but a story about the past that we tell ourselves so we can remember who we want to be in the future.” In addition to recounting the tale of 11th century Gregorian reforms in such a way as to acknowledge the reformers’ own ways of using history to shape the future direction of the Church at that time, Macy recommended that American Catholic theologians let Vatican II remain in the past so that new memories about the council might emerge.
In a stunning criticism of what he named as an “academic style” that permeates theological writing and lifestyles and promotes “highly meritorious individualism,” Boston College moral theologian James Keenan, S.J. provocatively pointed to impasse by rhetorically asking the assembly, “Do we live and write in a world all our own? Has anyone read us? Been moved by what we write? Has anyone cited us? What happens when we do not resonate with public audiences?” In order break through the medieval vestiges of academia, Keenan recommended an “affective solidarity” that might move theologians beyond concern with the chancellery or the academy in order to engage those who suffer injustice, as well as those who squander the common good. “The key to enhancing solidarity,” he said, “is the ability to live cognitively and emotionally with our own suffering in order to be in solidarity with others in theirs.”
Outgoing CTSA president Terrence Tilley of Fordham University addressed several impasses between theologians and the magisterium around Christology. If we wish to avoid moving beyond impasse toward “stalemate,” Tilley recommended a renewed focus on dispositions and practices that unite Catholics rather than ideas that divide us, particularly reconciling prayer that might cultivate atonement, perhaps best understood as “at-one-ment.” He also called for a willingness on the part of those on all sides of impasses to “stay at the table together,” guided by the Spirit and virtues of tenacity, patience, solidarity and hope. “Communication is the key practice of disciples who are theologians,” he said. “But we need a dialogue of action, or a dialogue of religious experience. Preach the gospel always,” he said, invoking Francis of Assisi. “Use words if necessary.”
I departed Halifax yesterday afternoon with more than the usual post-convention intellectual overload. In addition, there’s the stuff of the heart to consider. Constance FitzGerald’s ascetic wisdom, however, offered theologians a helpful way of orienting what lies beneath toward what lies beyond: “We work in the present, but not for the present.”