Report from the Theological Society convention

The Catholic Theological Society of America held their annual June convention in Milwaukee, Wis. Being invited to participate in this year’s meeting was fortuitous, as I have recently accepted a permanent position on the faculty at Loyola University Chicago, and so was able to combine some of the conference events with finalizing my move from Rome to my new department 90 minutes south in the Windy City. I do, however, still plan to maintain my close connections to Rome through Loyola’s campus there, the Lay Centre where I have many friends, and my pending dual Italian citizenship.

The CTSA chose the “sensus fidelium” for the convention theme this year. The “sense of the faithful,” most famously outlined in Lumen Gentium 12, has its roots in John Henry Newman and earlier, and refers to the spiritual “antennae” with which the church recognizes, determines, hands on and receives the faith of the community guided by the Spirit. Thorny questions proliferate: How do the bishops, theologians and the believing church at large best interact? What is the role of the laity in terms of ecclesiology, governance, and the idea of a church which both teaches and learns? How are ecumenism, popular piety and inter-religious dialogue influenced by close study of the sensus? How are distinctions to be made between statistical majority positions and the sensus fidelium? For surely if 51 percent of practicing Catholics deny a teaching, that does not serve as an authentic barometer of the sensus. In fact, Newman makes clear that during the Arian controversy the “orthodox” opinion was in the minority at various stages.

Much of this conversation turns on the distinct but interrelated realities of the fides quae creditur (the faith which is to be believed as an acknowledged, objective body of content) and the fides qua creditur (the faith as believed, in a subjective personal commitment to Christ and the church he divinely willed and founded).

I spoke on Karl Rahner’s contribution to some of these questions, and with a bit of added pressure as I didn’t realize until moments before that his grand-niece, a theologian herself, was in the room. Thankfully, it was warmly received and an honor to speak with her a bit afterward.

Beyond the group being welcomed by Milwaukee Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba, keynotes were given by Jerome Baggett, John Burkhard, Paul McPartlan, Maria Clara Luchetti Bingemer, Gemma Tulud Cruz, Anne Arabome, and CTSA president Susan Wood of Marquette University.

The John Courtney Murray Award, the highest honor given by the Society, was bestowed upon theological historian and prolific author Joseph Komonchak. Described as “the preeminent English-speaking scholar of Vatican II,” he is representative of an increasingly greying crowd of those who lived the council as it were, both intellectually and — as the story of him sneaking past the Swiss Guards as a young seminarian into the first days of meetings makes clear — personally and directly. Along with other eminent deans of ecclesiology like Avery Dulles, Francis A. Sullivan and Ladislas Orsy, Komonchak serves as a larger than life figure for those of us who have given our lives to the study of the church in past, present and future contexts.

Komonchak studied at Cathedral College, St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie), the Pontifical Gregorian University and Union Theological Seminary. He is a decades-long friend of influential theologian David Tracy and was a popular faculty member at The Catholic University of America for a generation. In addition to Vatican II, he has interests in Catholic social teaching, pastoral ministry, and the thought of Newman, John Courtney Murray, Bernard Lonergan, and Augustine of Hippo.

As a graduate student, I once shared a cab to the airport with him in Miami and was stunned by his encyclopedic and readily accessible knowledge of so many aspects of the tradition, willingness to share his thoughts with an inquisitive stranger, and generosity in refusing to let me split the fare with him after what amounted to a half hour of free theological tutoring.

It was a surprise to me that he had not already won the lifetime achievement award. In addition to now raising chickens in New York State and reading a sermon by St. Augustine every day, he continues to publish, blog, consult and generally influence contemporary theology in America.

The CTSA will be meeting next year in San Juan, Puerto Rico on the theme of Justice and Mercy, an obvious nod to realities especially dear to the current pope. I’m thrilled that our Society’s incoming president is my mentor, colleague and friend Bradford Hinze.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D, Loyola University Chicago.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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