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How the CTSA is keeping focus on the call to racial justice amidst the pandemic

Amidst the uncertainty and ascendancy of the covid-19 pandemic, Spring 2020 also represented an inflection point on racial justice in the United States. In response to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the board of the Catholic Theological Society of America issued a statement on racial justice and state violence on June 3, 2020. In that statement the CTSA acknowledged that “Too often, [the Church] has failed to respond adequately to the plight of communities demanding racial justice. With sorrow, we acknowledge the CTSA itself has frequently been complicit with racial inequality.” The society pledged “a deeper engagement in our scholarship and teaching with the theological contributions coming from communities directly impacted by racialized violence, especially from Black, Womanist, Feminist, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian thinkers,” and called upon its members to engage in greater advocacy in our roles as theologians in the church and academy. In the intervening eighteen months, there have been moments of hope, most notably the guilty verdicts for those responsible for the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, alongside persisting racism and new flashpoints, such as the January 6th insurrection.  In this month’s update from North America, I wish to briefly share the efforts of the CTSA in this period to use virtual events between conferences to engage in critical reflection on racial justice, as actions in line with the June 2020 statement.  While it began in response to the pandemic, a pilot virtual event program became a concrete way for the CTSA to invite members into extended conversations about racial justice and the project of teaching theology. I share this summary and reflection as the current chair of the CTSA virtual events committee and as a member of the CTSA board of directors since 2019. This series of virtual gatherings for and by CTSA members have allowed for practical conversations about our moral responsibility to seek racial justice in our theological classrooms – with attention to the diversity and inclusion of content and pedagogical structure of our classes.

On November 10, 2020, “Teaching & Doing Theology in Real Time: Summer 2020 and Black Lives Matter,” the first virtual panel conversation was held. Ethicist and CTEWC member Craig Ford[1] asked: “How can I create an antiracist classroom, where the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable is not only a theme of Catholic social teaching, but becomes an epistemic principle, a way of coming to knowledge about ourselves, the world around us, and God?”  Nancy Pineda-Madrid challenged CTSA members to hear the call of Black Lives Matter as one challenging us as theologians and to extend this urgency to listening to other minoritized groups as wel; especially in response to the US/Mexico border crisis and increasing racial targeting of Asian Americans during covid-19.l. Despite some anti-racist efforts, noted Jeannine Hill Fletcher, predominantly white North American Catholic colleges and universities never fully seem to grapple with the idea of real redress and reparation (perhaps the one recent exception being Georgetown University, which has begun publicly grappling with its history of slave-owning and the Jesuits sale of 272 enslaved persons in 1838).  Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, 2021 began with its own inflection point – the insurrection on the United States Capitol on January 6th. In response, the CTSA held a virtual session, “Christianity and US Politics After the Epiphany Insurrection,”  to note and examine the intersections of white supremacy and Christianity. CTEWC members Anna Floerke Scheid and Stan Chu Ilo, as well as theologian J. Bryan Hehir and CTSA member Leo Guardado, offered analysis and challenge to “do theology that is capable of responding to the ongoing polarization in this country.”

Both these events highlighted the ways that, as theologians, we are all called to openly acknowledge and dismantle the nexus of white supremacy and Christianity in the United States. As both the board statement and subsequent events note, doing so requires unmasking the historical and ongoing complicity of the Church in the United States with white supremacy. The weight of this task, M. Shawn Copeland powerfully argued in her 2021 CTSA plenary, needs to rest on the shoulders of white theologians. Lamenting “relentless white supremacy,” Copeland contended that the Board statement did not go far enough. She issued a strong challenge, “What kind of Catholic theologians are we, if racial justice is deemed optional to Christian discipleship? This is an altar call: I ask you to pledge here and now to take action in the coming Fall semester to introduce and facilitate discussion in your parish, during Advent and/or Lent,  of  a  theological  work  that  addresses racism or that offers  a Black, Indigenous, Mexican American, Latinx, or Asian perspective.”

One other crucial place where as theologians we can and must take up the commitment to antiracism and to dismantling the nexus of white supremacy and Christianity is in the classroom. The virtual events committee of the CTSA recognized that taking up Copeland’s altar call presented a direct and justified challenge to white theologians.  Therefore, on December 2, 2021, CTSA virtually convened “Taking Up the Call: Anti-Racism in the Undergraduate Classroom” with panelists Julia Brumbaugh, Julia Feder, and Dennis Doyle. In the United States, theology is a crucial component of required core curricula at Catholic colleges and universities. Unlike our colleagues with three year directed programs of study, the United States four-year system offers theologians a particular ability to teach theology to all pursuing a bachelor’s degree, regardless of program or major.

Highlighting the wonderful work of her colleagues, Julia Brumbaugh noted experiences with students that demonstrated simply diversifying the curriculum is not enough. Decolonizing our curriculum involves bringing to the surface historical racism and exploitation within Christianity’s history and theological sources. As someone who centers narrative, and the invitation into encounters with long narratives, most of which we only enter ourselves for a moment through our lives, Brumbaugh shared her concrete pedagogical ways of structuring classes such that students, especially students of color, have the space and power to claim, shape, and share their narratives.  Creighton’s Julia Feder shared how she introduces racial justice early and often within her introductory undergraduate courses. Grappling with local history, in her case particular incidences of lynching and local clergy abuse cases in Omaha, Nebraska, Feder pedagogically weaves racial justice throughout the required core course. Finally, Dayton’s Dennis Doyle shared his lesson plan for teaching Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom in dialogue with Benedict XVI, Tolstoy, and Nietzche focusing on embodiment and the cross. Doyle helpfully shared not only his pedagogical approach but some feedback from students demonstrating their deep engagement with Copeland’s work.

In all these virtual gatherings, we began with a panel of theologians sharing their experience, analysis, and pedagogical approach, before turning to small group breakout sessions. This focus on teaching does not lessen the moral responsibility to incorporate racially and ethnically minoritized scholars in our academic research or to share these works in our local churches and communities. The CTSA Board statement and Copeland’s plenary rightly challenges each CTSA member to do so. By focusing on teaching, however, these virtual events provide structured space for shared learning and support as members seek to expressly decolonize and create anti-racist classrooms in which Christian theology is taught and learned.

As a lay theologian, it is easy for me to lament participation and inclusion by the hierarchical church while forgetting the locus of influence that I do have through my classroom. While they did not begin because of the statement on racial justice, these virtual events have served as  crucial and demonstrable actions to put that statement into practice. I hope this serves as one example of creatively engaging the signs of the times – attentive to our shared theological task and common locus of the classroom. The CTSA looks forward to continuing with more virtual events in the Spring and beyond.

 

Meghan Clark, a CTEWC member, serves on the CTSA board of directors and chairs the virtual events committee.  

 

Catholic Theological Society of America Board of DIrectors. “CTSA Statement on Racial Injustice and State Violence,” June 3, 2020. https://ctsa-online.org/resources/BoardStatements/CTSA.StatementRacialInjustice.3June2020.pdf.

Copeland, M. Shawn. “Panel Presentation: The CTSA at 75: Paper Two – An Imperative to Act.” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 75 (September 16, 2021): 27–31.

Hinze, Christine Firer. “Fall Event: Mid-Year Gatherings: Teaching & Doing Theology in Real Time: Summer 2020 and Black Lives Matter.” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 75 (September 18, 2021): 175–175.

———. “Spring Event: Mid-Year Gatherings: Teaching & Doing Theology in Real Time: Christianity and US Politics After the Epiphany Insurrection.” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 75 (September 18, 2021): 176–77.

n.a. “Georgetown Reflects on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation.” Georgetown University, 2021. https://www.georgetown.edu/slavery/.

[1] I have noted the strong participation by CTEWC members, who are also CTSA members. With the exception of J. Bryan Hehir, all presenters, moderators, and attendees of these virtual gatherings are active members of the Catholic Theological Society of America.