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The Call of Public Scholarship for Theological Ethicists in 2021

Insurrection. Impeachment. Inauguration.[1] January was not quiet in the US context. Some theologians have pointed out with shame and horror how white Christians fanned the flames of violence and journalists have reported that the insurrectionists invoked God in prayer in the midst of the destruction of property inside the Capitol building.[2] Some Catholic priests spread false claims about election fraud via social media and the USCCB did not condemn then-President Trump for inciting violence on January 6th.[3] On the same day as the inauguration, as President Biden’s speech called for unity and collaboration in a time of collective trauma, USCCB President Archbishop Gomez issued a statement that reiterated a claim made during the election, that “for the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the preeminent priority.”[4] How can we as scholars help others to make sense of the public face of Catholicism today? While theologians can and should partner with ecclesial leaders, what we’ve seen lately is that the USCCB is simply not prepared to adequately, fairly, and accurately represent the breadth of theological discourse that is found among experts in the academy. 

It is time for theologians to discern—individually and collectively—how we might more productively shape public discourse and bring our expertise to the church and world beyond our classrooms. While this is not a new challenge, some features of our current context are new, including the fast pace of news, the influence of social media, and the distorting influences of right-wing media organizations that claim to speak for the Catholic faithful in the public square (including EWTN, LifeSiteNews, ChurchMilitant, and CatholicAnswers).

Bryan Massingale’s understanding of doing public theology is a helpful guidepost for me. In a 2016 Horizons roundtable he wrote that doing public theology means:

(1) addressing issues of public concern, urgency, and import;

(2) to a religiously pluralistic and diverse audience of fellow members of a civic community;

(3) in a way that is accessible to people of any or no faith tradition or commitment;

(4) while rooted in and inspired by one’s own faith perspective, commitments, and beliefs.[5]

As the events of the past few weeks have unfolded I have thought about what I learned at a panel discussion at the recent joint meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, Society of Jewish Ethics, and the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. The four panelists spoke about what public scholarship is and why it is important. I’ll first explain my biggest takeaways and then propose a challenge for CTEWC members.

Liz Bucar, whose public scholarship has appeared in Teen Vogue, The Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times, told participants: “You know stuff and what you know matters.” Public writing can help you reach new audiences, shape public opinion, influence policy, clarify your thinking on a topic, and expand your conversation partners. She recommended that scholars seek out training for this work. Some universities have communications departments and public relations offices that are eager to train faculty for this work. If that does not describe your institution, fear not! There are other opportunities, including the Op-Ed Project and Sacred Writes. One important question is “Who is my audience?” Depending on how one answers that question, the direction of the work will be different. For example, you may find that spending time on Twitter will not be as valuable to you if your audience is not found on that platform. Writing an opinion piece for your local secular newspaper may have a more significant impact than writing for a national Catholic magazine. Liz has an active social media presence and is willing to work with journalists both on the record and on background as they develop stories related to her areas of expertise. While time consuming, fostering these relationships then enables her to shape the pieces that are written and reach a much broader audience than her own writing could alone.

Laurie Zoloth spoke about her experience shaping decision-making on ethics advisory boards. The expertise she brought to the table was not the same kind of technical and scientific expertise that genetic researchers or NASA engineers brought to the table. Often she asked questions. She encouraged teams to reflect on their motivations, processes, potential consequences, and embedded questions of justice and flourishing. She advised scholars to build relationships with people over time, and to always tell the truth. Sometimes white papers or policy papers resulted from board meetings, but more often her role was to shape the decision-making process itself.

Chuck Mathewes, whose scholarship focuses on political theology and the theology of public life, encouraged participants to consider carefully which “public” one is trying to influence. One goal, he hopes, of the work of theologians in the public square will be to model a discourse of ethical inquiry. This means avoiding any attempts to become a propagandist for “my side.” Instead, one should aim to educate the reader about an issue and share one’s position without complicating the two. In some ways, public scholarship can be thought of as an extension of good pedagogy; the same muscles one uses for teaching can be adopted for public scholarship, as one explains the findings of one’s field to non-specialists.

Aaron Gross, whose public scholarship has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, encouraged participants to consider how their training in deep reflection could further public discourse in their field. His own work has focused less on a social media presence and more on building the capacity of a non-profit working on the issues of ethics in the American food system, and of animal agriculture in particular. To that end, one exciting project he worked on was the award-winning documentary film, Eating Animals, which reached a viewing audience far greater than any of his scholarly books.

I appreciated the range of perspectives on this panel, and how each scholar had identified an area of expertise that they wanted to bring to a broader public, and then discerned what medium made the most sense to achieve their goals. Theological ethicists in the CTEWC network are also involved in this work. Bryan Massingale, Nichole Flores, Meghan Clark, Tobias Winright, David Cloutier, Lisa Sowle Cahill, MT Davila, David DeCosse, Kathryn Lilla Cox, Todd Salzman, Darlene Fozard Weaver, and James Keenan are among those in the US context who have written for America, National Catholic Reporter, US Catholic, and Commonweal in order to reach a wider audience in their work. Some also contribute to blogs like Daily Theology, Political Theology, and CatholicMoralTheology.com. Kate Ward spent the morning of January 20 as a news analyst on WGN TV Chicago so that she could explain the significance of the second Catholic President’s inauguration. Victor Carmona recently published a commentary piece in his local newspaper, the San Diego Union Tribune.[6] Simeiqi He recently published a piece on child care during a pandemic in US Catholic.[7] Christiana Zenner provides analysis on ecological ethics in such venues as Public Radio International, MSNBC, and the Washington Post. Many scholars within our network connect with one another on Facebook and Twitter, sharing relevant news items, collaborating, commiserating, and amplifying each other’s posts.

The challenges of public scholarship are real and worth repeating. Often our research is slow and the best work results from years of careful labor, but public work frequently involves navigating someone else’s daily deadlines. We have to develop resilience, patience, courage, and self-care. Public scholarship rarely “counts” in tenure and promotion dossiers, one may spend time writing pieces that never make it to publication, and one may draw negative attention to one’s scholarship. It can be scary to develop a public profile when one’s personal safety may be jeopardized. This is especially true for queer, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), and female faculty, some of whom receive unwanted sexual solicitations and threats of violence as a result of their public scholarship.

If you are just starting out, I recommend reading AAR’s Being Effective with the News Media, which provides helpful advice about how to speak with journalists. The Op-Ed Project runs fellowships and workshops and also has advice on their website if you would like to get started in op-ed writing. Finally, institutional support and the support of colleagues is essential when doing this work. Perhaps our network can link up people who have interests in public writing projects to serve as writing buddies and cheerleaders.

How can we do this better? How can we as a global network of scholars increase our media footprint, shape public opinion, and share the good work we are doing? And what is required of us given the special challenges of our day? Perhaps you can share your answers to these questions in the comment thread.

[1] Image: Alex Wong, Getty Images. Source: https://www.fox29.com/news/inauguration-day-2021-biden-placed-hand-on-same-family-bible-used-during-his-vp-senate-swearing-in

[2] Bryan Massingale, “The Racist Attack on Our Nation’s Capitol,” America Magazine, 1/6/2021; “A Reporter’s Footage from Inside the Capitol’s Seige,” the New Yorker, 1/17/2021.

[3] James Martin, S.J., “How Catholic Leaders Helped Give Rise to Violence at the U.S. Capitol,” America Magazine, 1/12/2021; Emily Reimer-Barry, “Donald Trump’s America,” Catholic Moral Theology Blog, 1/9/2021.

[4] Inaugural Address of President Joseph Biden, ABC News: https://abc11.com/joe-biden-inaugural-address-inauguration-speech-video-2021-watch/9694215/; USCCB President Statement on Inauguration: https://www.usccb.org/news/2021/usccb-presidents-statement-inauguration-joseph-r-biden-jr-46th-president-united-states

[5] Bryan Massingale, “Theological Roundtable: Theology in the Public Sphere in the Twenty-First Century,” Horizons 43 (2016): 351-356, at 352.

[6] Victor Carmona, “This is How and Why We Celebrate Three Kings Day,” San Diego Union Tribune, 1/5/2021.

[7] Simeiqi He, “Work and Family Shouldn’t Have to Compete,” U.S. Catholic Magazine, 10/7/2020. See also Angela Denker, “Catholics Can’t Ignore the Child Care Crisis,” U.S. Catholic Magazine, 1/4/2021: https://uscatholic.org/articles/202101/catholics-cant-ignore-the-child-care-crisis/