Polarization, dialogue and power dynamics

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Last week the Association of Graduate Programs in Ministry (AGPIM) convened at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. This group of representatives from Catholic higher education institutions meets annually to exchange best practices and explore collaboration for serving the People of God throughout the United States and beyond. This year’s theme focused on polarization, dialogue and power dynamics.

I was awestruck by multiple sessions where two remarkable women shared with the group their efforts in redefining the multidisciplinary approach to wrestling with “dialogue in a divided society,” Anna Floerke Scheid of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and Kristin Heyer of Boston College. Both offered theologically nuanced and inspirational reflections on how we can become “more comfortable with uncomfortable conversations” about race, exclusion, violence and rancor across both the political spectrum and the church.

The large and diverse group who are involved in the training of future ministers, lay and ordained, agreed that it is imperative that we foster formation for solidarity and attend to Catholicism’s “growing edges” in place of remaining in our ecclesial silos, intellectual ghettoes and comfortable familiar paradigms in the face of the “messy and communal call to truth.”

Justice at the peripheries insists that parroting economic data, crime statistics and rational arguments is obviously not sufficient in the vocation to eradicate racism, fear and xenophobia, which are often rooted in emotional, cultural, imaginative and narrative dimensions of being humanly, more than logical ones. Our modes of resisting such distortions of the Catholic intellectual tradition calls us to something ever more courageous, prophetic, and innovative.

If we are to highlight and practice “deep listening” and “active learning” while encountering missing and vulnerable voices across the ideological spectrum, then we must consistently name the institutional aversion to risk prevalent in higher education, American politics and church discourse.

This is one of my favorite conferences of the year (and not only because they tend to meet in warm weather cities in February). It’s a congenial and committed group of scholars, teachers and program directors who place a robust theology of the laity and a methodological commitment to “practical theology” at the forefront of their teaching, scholarship  and service. I was particularly pleased to learn that the archbishop of Indianapolis, Charles Thompson, has agreed to serve as our organization’s episcopal moderator for the next three years, bringing both our insights and challenges to the wider conversations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

One powerful strategy I intend to employ is a physical exploration of the often invisible experience of privilege that too often goes unnamed in our day to day life. Students and faculty are asked to line up together against a wall and take a step forward over a series of 40 questions:

— if their relatives or ancestors did not arrive in their current nation by force,

— if their home had more than 40 books in it when they grew up,

— if they’ve never paused to consider whether a place they were visiting had a wheelchair accessible ramp,

— if their family owned the house they grew up in,

— if they have ever inherited money or property,

— if they have never had to utilize public transportation,

— if it was expected that everyone in the family attend college,

— if they currently have health insurance,

— if they’ve never remembered skipping a meal because of financial distress, etc.

The physical and embodied experience of seeing some who are left behind as students and professors walk forward is a powerful reminder that the forgotten in our society may not be as far removed from our daily experience as we expect.

This week continued to teach me that prioritizing the overcoming of barriers — whether economic, emotive, or argumentative — so as to access the riches of our nation and of the Catholic heritage more fully remains an elusive but important goal for those of us who have a hand in shaping the next generation of leaders.

Orignally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.