[From July 26-29, the Cross-Cultural International Conference of Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church (CTEWC) brought theologians from around the world to Sarajevo. Pope Francis sent a message to the group saying theologians need to build bridges among themselves, to share ideas and programs, and to develop forms of closeness. Charles Camosy spoke to two people involved in the project, Kirsten Heyer and Anna Floerke Scheid. Heyer is a professor of theology at Boston College and Scheid is associate professor of theology at Marquette University.]

Camosy: Before getting into the details of the most recent meeting, can you say a little bit about the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church (CTEWC)  project more generally? What are its goals? How have you gone about executing them?

Heyer: The goals of Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church (CTEWC) include efforts to “dialogue from and beyond local culture” and “interconnect within a world Church not dominated solely by a northern paradigm.” Since the worldwide conferences in Padua and Trento, the network has pursued these goals via its scholarship programs for African women and more recently Asian scholars; regional conferencing (Manila 2008, Bangalore 2012, Nairobi 2012, Berlin 2013, Krakow 2014, Bangalore 2015, and Bogotá 2016); its website (catholicethics.com) and its regional monthly forum there in particular; and via its book series with Orbis press, with each volume pairing two editors from different continents and authors typically spanning over a dozen countries.

We launched the latest (sixth) book in the series, The Catholic Ethicist in the Local Church, at Sarajevo, in fact, gifting copies to Cardinals Peter Turkson and Blase Cupich on site. (Our next two volumes, one on street homelessness and one from the plenaries in Sarajevo, are due out next spring). We have another series in Asian theological ethics being published out of Dharmaram, as well. Here in the North American region we have used the existing guilds (CTSA, SCE, CTS) to foster conversations about how the network influences our teaching and research.

Could you say something about the most recent meeting in July? I saw that Pope Francis wrote a letter addressing the conference! Why did you pick Sarajevo? What kind of goals did you have for the meeting? How did the meeting go?

Heyer: Following the regional conferences in recent years, CTEWC felt it had deepened its network and so oriented this, its third global conference, toward promoting bridge-building in a world in urgent need. In particular, the conference issued a call to action in addressing two pressing issues: the climate crisis and its impact on the environment and marginalized populations alike and the tragic banality of contemporary political leadership in many countries.

The conference underscored the need to address these challenges in solidarity, so it incorporated opportunities for interpersonal encounter, worship, media training and informal networking alongside academic presentations. Vibrant Sarajevo—neither developed world nor developing world—offered us three relevant contexts: inter-religious and cross-cultural dialogue; peace building and ethnic conflict; resistance and economic struggle (with 40 percent unemployment).

For the first time, at this conference colleagues from the Global South were the majority of the participants: 75 percent of the countries and 54.5 percent of participants hailed from the Global South. (Whereas in Trento 400 came from Western Europe or the United States, in Sarajevo, CTEWC provided housing for 280 and air transportation for 250 of the participants to enable more equitable participation.)

Also, by reaching out to institutions training graduate students around the world for recommendations, 30 percent of those at the conference represented the field’s rising generation, whether advanced doctoral students, junior scholars or volunteer translators. It was rewarding to meet young scholars (some newly minted PhDs) connecting with peers and senior scholars from around the world and imagining their network in terms of a world Church from the start.

From the energy generated around ongoing collaboration and the emails I have been receiving since returning, I would say our goals related to interconnecting colleagues so as to address these urgent issues were achieved. Beyond the talks addressing the effects of climate and political crises, I think the presentations by Sarajevo’s interfaith Youth for Peace and pioneering narratives of several women who described their vocational journeys stood out as highlights, in addition to the very encouraging letter from Pope Francis on our theme of building bridges read by the Apostolic Nuncio at the opening ceremony. Whereas some of the 115 poster presenters initially had misgivings about attempting the medium in the humanities (and I about whether they would stay mounted in the heat and humidity after days of trial runs), the vibrant sessions in the high school’s gymnasium turned out to be another high point, with people wishing we had allotted more time to share about the commitments orienting our research in this mode.

I heard that Charles Curran jokingly referred to the meeting as “Catholic Ethics in the World Church at Boston College.” Obviously, one might expect a certain kind of moral/political/theological bent from the community that raised the money and did the organizing, but on the other hand one might also expect this kind of project to have to have the kind of diversity of views (especially in plenary speakers) which reflects the diversity in the global Catholic Church, especially in the global south.

I know that some worry that the CTEWC project reflects more of the former than the latter. Is that worry justified? Unjustified? Somewhere in between?

Heyer: In terms of the program’s constitution, the entire international planning committee met in Sarajevo 13 months ago to plan the conference themes, structure and plenary speakers. Once the planning committee landed on our focus of how ethicists can help address urgent global challenges in the context of the crisis of political leadership, topics and speakers were chosen in that context. Plenary speakers were given specific conference themes on climate and political crises, or in the case of our continental panels, the request to address from their region’s perspective the most pressing ethical challenges in light of their area’s methodological emphases.

The planning committee did not intervene to determine the specific content of papers beyond those invitations. In determining plenary speakers, we did ensure they did not serve as plenary speaker at either Padua or Trento, and we strived for continental diversity and a junior-senior scholar mix. As you know from organizing major events, the planned program did have to be modified a few times due to lack of availability or visa and illness problems, but even with those constraints I would not characterize the plenary speakers, participants as a whole, or project more broadly as overly narrow in viewpoint myself.

We began the first full day with Vietnamese and Bosnian voices, and were pleased to include 47 Eastern Europeans at the conference who were not at Trento, for example. We will continue to work to further encourage a range of voices, however.

As for Charlie’s joke, I confess I personally never imagined I would return to Boston College when I agreed to become co-chair while working at Santa Clara University, but I am grateful for BC’s commitment to CTEWC and to educating so many in theology who return to work in the Global South year after year.

Scheid: I would add that after Charlie’s joke there was a powerful moment in which Jim Keenan asked for shows of hands as to where people attend or attended school for their doctoral degrees. There certainly was healthy representation from BC! But there was also a very strong contingency who had studied at the Alphonsianum and Gregorian, as well as graduates of Notre Dame, Leuven, Graduate Theological Union, and Loyola University Chicago.  Watching the hands of people rise to show where they had come from and witnessing the diversity of educational background was an exciting and inspiring moment.

Building on that question–and, again, with the caveat that I wasn’t there — I heard that no talk or presentation or panel dealt with abortion. Was that the case? If it was, I suspect a critic will wonder if a diverse range of views — again, especially reflecting those in the global south — are being represented at CTEWC conferences. This might be a special concern given that such communities tend to have views about issues like abortion, euthanasia, marriage, etc. which are quite different from the views generally held by white academic Catholic theological ethicists at universities in the global north. Any thoughts on this?

Heyer: As I mentioned, the plenaries and concurrent papers were invited to address the conference themes of political and climate crises, and then given the conference’s context and goals, we added a plenary on theologies of reconciliation and several on networking for public impact or linking academic ethics to public discourse.

The poster sessions, however, encouraged presenters to communicate the overall trajectory of their work, and many included questions in bioethics and sexual ethics from Poland, Serbia, Nigeria, and Egypt, as well as the United States. I believe the topic of abortion came up in two plenary addresses if memory serves, and a third spoke of her work counseling women who had been victims of rape in war. I recall meeting this local leader on an earlier visit and being moved by her story recounting meeting the daughter of someone she had counseled whose mother had chosen to give birth after their encounters regarding her shame and discernment.

Finally, we also featured a few concurrent papers which moved beyond main conference themes, one pair related to the #metoo movement and the institutional Church, another on euthanasia and marriage act changes in Australia, and one regarding interracial friendship.

Scheid: I suspect it would strike those who were at the conference as strange to hear a critique suggesting that the views of scholars from the global south were underrepresented or not represented. As Kristin mentioned, the majority of participants were scholars from the global south and this was evident in the program.

While I agree, that scholars from the global south are concerned with the issues you raised (and of course many in the north are too!), there is no doubt in my mind that these same scholars were eager to discuss a wide range of ethical issues.

In listening to plenaries, I would say I heard at least two ideas continue to be stressed by scholars from the global south: the importance of empowering and educating women in their contexts, and the importance of fostering interreligious dialogue and understanding.  Neither of these were explicit foci of the conference, and yet they were raised over and over again in plenary papers.

What is coming next for the Catholic Ethics in the World Church project?

Heyer: I am looking forward to collaborating with Carmelite Father Shaji George Kochuthara and Jesuit Father Andrea Vicini and our wider team in the months ahead to plan developments for CTEWC’s “next generation,” as Jim Keenan put it at the conference.

We received impressive feedback and commitments from the five “continental conversations” sessions convened in Sarajevo—as well as the “new scholars” committee who met several times during the weekend and already submitted an agenda—and after a little recovery time, we look forward to thinking through next steps.

Personally, I would like to move forward on improving our website to better facilitate networking across common research interests. I was encouraged by the initiative of Craig Ford and Ray Ward at the conference to convene lunch conversations around various research and advocacy themes; I think an updated website could help facilitate such collaborative work “virtually” in an ongoing way.

Many have mentioned using video technology to invite guest lecturers into their distant classrooms, and some have used our existing online member map to connect with new colleagues across the globe resulting in joint research: Dan Fleming in Sydney found Ronaldo Zacharias in São Paulo in advance of a trip to Brazil via the map, and they later collaborated to present on conscience formation at a conference in Harvard. I would like to make that easier with searchable directories and an upgraded system.

I also foresee the network sponsoring more intra and interregional initiatives rather than thinking primarily in terms of planning and executing large-scale conferences, for now; for instance, the North American region had a promising idea emerge at the conference to convene an event at the U.S.-Mexico border involving our colleagues in the network from Central America, Mexico and the United States. Facilitating efforts like that and empowering participants to take the lead would be one of my hopes going forward.

Scheid: I can speak specifically to what emerged from the North American Regional Committee discussions. These conversations were tasked with identifying concrete actions that we can take to forward the aims of CTEWC in our regional and local contexts.

We identified four things that we want to begin working on.

First, website development.  We gathered the names of people within the network who have web design and management skills and we hope to make the website an even more useful place for scholars from around the world to make connections and collaborate on research and teaching.

Second, adjunct and contingent faculty support.  We recognized that adjunct faculty were underrepresented in Sarajevo.  We are convening a committee that will advocate for these vulnerable members of the academic community, and that can seek sources of funding for them to attend future conferences and take a larger role in CTEWC.

Third, outreach beyond our academic borders.  We identified the need to increase our community engagement, outreach, and public theology.  We want to have a greater impact on our local and regional communities.  Many of us are already doing this work and have skills and resources for helping the rest of us to make a greater impact.

Finally, as Kristin mentioned above, there was a good deal of energy around the idea of a conference to be held on/across the U.S./Mexico border that would deal with the theme of migrancy and refugees.  It was stressed that the conference should include both the presentation of academic research, and concrete acts of solidarity with refugees, and resistance to dehumanizing immigration practices and policies.