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CURRENT ISSUE:  June 21, 2010
VOL. 48, NO. 12   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Pope concludes Year for Priests
CCHD gives funds to help Gulf Coast oil spill victims
New voices influence development
of 21st-century theology

CLEVELAND (CNS) — Shifting demographics within the Catholic Church are allowing new voices to emerge to help guide the development of Catholic theology, according to several theologians addressing the recent convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

Father Bryan Massingale, theology professor, Marquette University
The voices shaping theology include those of women and African, Latin and Asian cultures, providing for a deeper understanding of what the Scriptures can mean to a Church that has been dominated by European theological interpretations for centuries.

Extending in many cases from broad experiences of witnessing or performing ministry in marginalized and poor communities both in the United States and around the world, these emerging voices are widening traditional theological thought while building recognition that diversity will strengthen the Church as it faces growing challenges in the 21st century.

The effort is allowing Catholics of all walks of life to “tap into the universal human experience,” said Father Bryan Massingale, associate professor of theology at Marquette University, who ended his term as CTSA president during the convention.

“We’re trying here to create a Catholic theology that is no longer a European or Eurocentric Catholic theology,” Father Massingale said. “We’re trying to create a Catholic theology that is truly Catholic, truly universal. And if we’re going to be Catholic, genuinely universal, then inclusion is not something of political correctness. Inclusion is a requirement of our faith.”

The effort to include formerly missing voices in the development of theology in the United States stems from necessity because Catholics of European descent no longer make up the majority of the U.S. Catholic Church, said Dominican Sister Jamie Phelps, director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana.

“Once you get into the minority position and you have the power and the authority, but you don’t have the manpower to be in charge . . . then we’re forced to do what the Second Vatican Council told us to do a long time ago: that everyone is called to communion,” said Sister Phelps. “We’re supposed to call leadership from each cultural family.”

That leadership extends not only to positions within the Church and its various ministries, but the development of theology as well, she said.

Fernando Segovia, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School and a Cuban-American, said the rise of new voices has been fueled by better access to education and a reversal of the tokenism practiced for decades by administrators of theology programs. Whereas in the not-too-distant past a single Hispanic or African-American would have been admitted to graduate or doctoral studies in theology, the situation has changed today, he said.

“The demographic (changes) of the late 20th century both here and abroad will continue to change the face of Christendom, incredibly so,” he said.

For its part, CTSA established its Committee for the Underrepresented Ethnic and Racial Groups in 1988. Father Peter Phan, professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown University, co-chairs the committee. Its work revolves around raising up the voices of Catholics who traditionally have not been prominent in Catholic theology.

Father Phan said that theology in the Asian Church arises from grass-roots activities rather than from academic settings.

“We do (theology) as an experience of Church within a context of daily living,” Father Phan said.
As people continue to migrate around the world and become involved in Catholic parish life, Sister Phelps said she expects theology to reflect more of the experiences people have in their lives.

“The diversity both in the local Church and within the global Church is not an accident,” Sister Phelps said. “It’s a design. As I tell my students, diversity is an aspect of nature. What would it be like if we had only one type of tree or one type of bird?

“So if diversity is one aspect of creation, then we have to see that as a gift from God and instead of being afraid of diversity or the other who is different than myself, I need to see that as an opportunity. What is it that I can learn from this other culture?”

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