Young moral theologians seek to put 'new wine into new wineskins'

Young moral theologians seek to put ‘new wine into new wineskins’

Young moral theologians seek to put ‘new wine into new wineskins’

(Credit: PIxabay.)

Dr. Alessandro Rovati speaks to Crux about his work in moral theology.

[Editor’s Note: Dr. Alessandro Rovati is a Full-Time Lecturer and Chair of Theology at Belmont Abbey College, and he is a member of the New Wine, New Wineskins’ Board of Directors. Rovati’s scholarship focuses on Christian Ethics, Moral and Political Philosophy, Catholic Social Teaching, and Political Theology. He has contributed the chapter “War Is America’s Altar” in the edited volume Cultural Violence and Peace (Brill), travelled across dioceses to teach ministers, educators, and lay faithful, and written articles in Philosophical News, Quaestiones Disputatae, the Journal of Moral Theology, and various online publications. He spoke to Charles Camosy about his work.]

Camosy: You are on the board of a group that is close to my heart, New Wine, New Wineskins. Can you tell us a bit about the history of the group leading to the present moment?

Rovati: New Wine, New Wineskins (NWNW) is an association for young Catholic moral theologians who are at the beginning of their academic careers. It was founded in 2002 with the goal of creating a place that would foster fellowship, genuine conversations, and common research for those who are entering the field of moral theology. Above all, the members of the association (past and present) share the sense that doing theology is a vocation, and NWNW has given all of us the opportunity to find a network of friends who accompany each other as they try to find ways to be of service to the Church and the world.

Every year, we gather for a symposium where members have a chance to be together, present papers on their area of expertise, and dialogue about the most pressing issues that we confront in the Church, the academy, and society. Our gatherings intentionally leave a lot of time for conversations beyond the formal paper sessions to create an atmosphere that is intimate and that allows people to really share their insights, questions, and concerns. The result is that in NWNW we deal with the same disagreements and tough issues that all theologians need to face, but we do so in a context where the other is always cherished as a companion on the journey, rather than as an adversary to be defeated. This allows us to approach the things we differ about with openness and charity, never letting our disagreements overshadow our common ecclesial belonging.

This year you’ve chosen Professor Holly Taylor Coolman of Providence College as your senior scholar. Can you say a bit about this choice? Did the fact that she is a theologian who ran for public office have something to do with it?

Our symposia always start with a dialogue with a senior scholar who has in one way or another shaped the field of moral theology. We always involve the whole membership in the decision about whom to invite, and this year we settled on Professor Taylor Coolman. In addition to her scholarly work as a moral theologian — her work on Christian theologies of Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations is especially noteworthy — she has published a lot of popular articles on family life and adoption. She has also had a lot to say about polarization in the Church in the United States, contributing to a book that you helped edit. This is a topic that we think about and discuss a lot in NWNW, and she is a very articulate voice on it. Obviously, the fact that she is a theologian who ran for public office as a pro-life Democrat had a great deal to do with inviting her to be our senior scholar.

While members are invited to present on a variety of topics, this year’s symposium will focus on Church and society. Professor Taylor Coolman has written and spoken quite eloquently of the homelessness of Catholics in our present political landscape, and the fact that she has actually run for office and tried to be part of instantiating an alternative makes her contribution unique and very interesting. We very much look forward to engaging with her.

How do you see the relationship between doing Catholic theology — especially moral theology — and engaging in activism and politics? When I was going through the doctoral program at Notre Dame, I wouldn’t say there was an aversion to making the connection, but it was certainly not encouraged. That Taylor Coolman was chosen not in spite of her activism/politics, but at least in part because of it, is interesting to me.

Gaudium et Spes claims that everything that is genuinely human raises an echo in the hearts of Christians and calls all the faithful always to be attentive to the signs of the times. That means that Christians will tend to have a distinctive answer to the questions and concerns that characterize the human condition, including questions and concerns about our life together. One of the ways that the Church has articulated its concern for and interest in the human condition is Catholic Social Teaching (CST) which, as John Paul II explained in Centesimus Annus, belongs to the field of theology, particularly moral theology. All of that is to say that doing Catholic theology has important implications for political engagement and thus we should not be surprised when moral theologians spell out how our faith commitments impact the way we participate in society.

At the same time, it is often said that CST is the church’s best-kept secret, which might in part account for the fact that people are surprised when theologians take forceful, public stances on the political issues of the day. In the end, though, the critical question is not so much whether faith has political implications — it certainly does — but rather how to make our involvement in politics a genuine outworking of the Gospel and not a mere repetition of partisan ideologies that come from without. This discernment is challenging and always ongoing, which is why it is essential to find people with whom to think clearly and honestly about these matters. That is precisely one of the reasons why NWNW exists.

I wonder if there is a general shift toward more strongly connecting moral theology and activism/politics in part because of what I’ve argued is the ascendancy of intersectional critical theory. Do you think there is such an ascendancy? Do you think it tends to lean disproportionately in the direction of activism and politics?

It is hard to say. It might indeed be the case that a renewed focus on politics is in part due to the ascendancy of intersectional critical theory. But I think there are many other reasons as well. For example, it seems to me that Catholics of all stripes find the political options before them increasingly unintelligible and that they are overwhelmed by the many injustices of our time. The shift also has something to do with the fact that CST is becoming more of a topic of discussion in parishes and Catholic schools, which means that Catholics in the pews are becoming increasingly sensitized to the need of finding a distinctive voice and engaging in meaningful action in the public arena.

Obviously, Pope Francis‘s own teachings and gestures play an important role as well, but it is certainly not the case that his predecessors were politically disengaged. Just think about the way John Paul II has shaped the way Catholics think about and actively defend the dignity of the human person or the conversations about the need for a Christian environmentalism started by Benedict XVI. Even in the academy, intersectional critical theory is not the only force that is driving the theological discussion toward taking political engagement more seriously. In past symposia, we have engaged with the work of Stanley HauerwasDaniel K. FinnBryan MassingaleWilliam T. Cavanaugh, and Cathleen Kaveny, and they have all helped us think about what a Christian politics might look like.

As important as I believe activism/politics to be for moral theologians, I worry that when done by intersectional critical theorists sometimes the activism can crowd out attempts to rigorously engage with ideologically diverse points of view via academic norms. But what is your sense of this?

These are significant matters and it is urgent to preserve places where they can be discussed. The worst thing that can happen to moral theology — and the Church as a whole, obviously — is for scholars to entrench into silos of like-minded people who perceive those who disagree with them as outsiders not worth engaging with. Sadly, this is a temptation that runs across the ideological spectrum and risks corrupting the common life in the academy and beyond. We need people who are worried about these divisions to come together, who are committed to dialogue about them, and who continue to participate in venues that help discover and forge a common enterprise. NWNW is one place where these conversations are happening, and our hope is for them to continue to happen.

In our membership, we have folks who come down on different sides of the issues you discussed in The Crisis of Catholic Moral Theology. As such, NWNW does not — cannot –have one position on them. We do have one position, though, namely that we are committed to establishing a space where the rigorous engagement with ideologically diverse points of view is possible. NWNW is committed to allowing people with different opinions to dialogue with each other in a spirit of charity because we are sure that it is by journeying together that we will enter more deeply into the truth.

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