As the Catholic Church continues to appear in scandalous headlines, I find myself in the strange, timely position of teaching an undergraduate theology course called “Church in Controversy” at Fordham University. We spend four months examining historical and contemporary controversies—from fourth-century christological debates to the contemporary sex-abuse crisis —in the Catholic Church, an institution that claims to communicate God’s very presence to the world. Indeed, it’s where I’ve met God, in encounters profound enough for me to commit my career to researching and teaching theology from within the Catholic tradition: the imaginative exercises of Ignatian spirituality; the candlelight, chant, and silence of Taize prayer; the strands of prophecy and liberation that my favorite theologians draw from sacred texts.
But these days, my relationship to the church feels brittle, strained. I see our ecclesial structures and culture obscuring, rather than illuminating, the mystery of God. I find myself at a loss, furiously dissatisfied with hierarchical leadership, political in-fighting, and even well-meaning but lukewarm calls for reforms that fail to address the depth of our brokenness. How can I offer my students perspective on this “church in controversy” when these controversies threaten my own relationship to the church?
I joke with colleagues that this class could be subtitled “Mary Kate Airs Her Emotional Baggage Twice a Week.” I privately worry—jokes aside—that honest discussions of these controversies will disillusion my students, feel like church-bashing, cause them to lose interest in faith.
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My class is comprised of nineteen students, desks arranged in two concentric semicircles. One theology major, two Catholic Studies minors, sixteen others who are simply fulfilling their theology core requirement. Some are altar servers for on-campus masses, others were raised Catholic but no longer practice, and a handful belong to other religious traditions—Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism. A few are agnostic.
In the first few weeks of the semester, we warm up with some history: the early church’s loosely structured network of communities, ecclesial institutionalization in relationship with the Roman Empire, the Reformation, the articulation of papal infallibility (it wasn’t until 1870!). Catholic students are the most surprised by this material—they’d largely presumed that their monolithic institution has always looked the way it does now.
Historical perspective frees our class from an overly rigid understanding of tradition, which is, in truth, alive and developing. I assign these early controversies to provide a sense of how we got here, and my students take the discussion a step further—using the precedent of the past to imagine how a future church could evolve, or reclaim enlivening practices from the past. An agnostic student raised by a Jewish parent describes a “raw feeling of joy” at Nostra aetate, expressing hope for continued interfaith openness. Several women get particularly fired up over women’s leadership in the early church, using the evidence of house churches and female deacons to construct an argument for increased female governance today.
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“Who do you mean when you use that word, church?”
This question becomes a refrain that I’m constantly invoking to challenge my students, both in their writing and speaking. When they say “the church,” they mean the hierarchy. I don’t think this is a lazy elision. It reflects how most Catholics and non-Catholics alike perceive the church. Only the leaders count.
“Do lay people count as the church? Do those of you who consider yourself Catholic count as part of the church?”
At first they think I’m being pedantic, but eventually it makes a difference. The constant interrogation of what we mean by “church” reframes whose voices we listen to in the controversies we study. I assign magisterial documents promulgated by bishops and popes—but we also read texts by academic theologians, treatises by dissenting Catholic activists, news articles, and personal testimony from ordinary parishioners.
This strategy makes a palpable difference, particularly among my LGBTQ students. Many of them had assumed they’d have to choose between their Catholicism and their sexuality, two incompatible identities. We read documents from the USCCB and CDF laying out church teaching on sexuality; I see in their faces and read in their reflections the pain and frustration of being designated “intrinsically disordered.” But then we peruse the website of the Out at St. Paul Ministry, and read an essay by Deb Word, a Catholic activist and mother of a gay son who shelters homeless LGBTQ youth. All of these voices comprise “the church.” Hannah, an activist student involved in social justice programming in the Bronx and El Salvador, announces at the end of class that this material has made her feel more connected to the church.
These are the days when I feel a little more hopeful.
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