Being Catholic Interreligiously

July 18, 2022
Francis X. Clooney
Professor Frank Clooney standing in the CSWR. Photo by Kris Snibbe, Harvard Gazette

Francis X. Clooney, S.J., Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at Harvard Divinity School, recently became president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

The Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) is the principal association of Catholic theologians in North America. With a membership of more than 1,300, the CTSA is the largest professional society of theologians in the world.

Clooney has been a member of the organization for nearly 40 years. In 2017, he received the society’s John Courtney Murray Award for a lifetime of distinguished theological achievement. He was previously its vice president and president-elect. As president-elect, he organized the society’s convention held earlier this year, focusing it around the theme “Thinking Catholic Interreligiously.”

Clooney, who became president in June, recently spoke about what he will bring to the leadership position, the pressing issues facing Catholic theology, and the theological implications around the Supreme Court’s recent decision on abortion.


HDS: Tell us a bit about the Catholic Theological Society of America, how your involvement with the organization came to be, and what your role as president entails.

Francis X. Clooney: The CTSA was founded in 1946 and at the start it was comprised almost entirely of seminary professors. If you look at the old pictures from the CTSA in the 50s, it was all priests in roman collars. Over the years it has vastly expanded. It has about 1,300 members, mostly in North America, and has grown in various ways. Now, the membership is probably 90 percent lay people. To be a member you have to have a PhD in theology or a related field. So, it’s some seminary faculty, priests teaching at universities, but mainly lay men, lay women, teaching almost always in Catholic institutions.

I am one of the rare presidents who’s not teaching at a Catholic institution, even if I taught for 21 years at Boston College. Francis Schüssler Fiorenza (Charles Chauncey Stillman Research Professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies at HDS) was president, but he was still at Catholic University at the time. The current president-elect, Kristin Heyer, happens to be at Boston College, and so too the Secretary of the CTSA, Hosffman Ospino. Since two presidents in a row and the long-term secretary are here in the Boston area, we’re hoping to have a courtesy call with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, and hopefully open up a conversation with him about how theologians can be in better dialogue with the bishops, which is an ongoing concern.

HDS: Why is that an ongoing concern?

Clooney: In the beginning it was natural to have a conversation like that because, as I said, the members were almost all seminary professors and their bishops or religious superiors. Over the years the diversification of theology and theologians has meant that there’s less natural contact, so that many members aren’t necessarily in regular contact with the local bishops. Yet we should be.

There can be misunderstandings or tension where theologians may look and ask, “Why aren’t you thinking about where things are going?” and where the bishop may ask, “Why are you theologians always so critical?” Generally speaking, the bishops are not theologians and don’t take an active role in theology. The role of the bishop is to run a diocese and keep it together. He is also ideally a teacher, explaining the Church’s positions on issues of matters of faith and morals, including more challenging issues such as women’s ordination, attitudes toward marriage and abortion, and so on. But the critical edge of the questions raised by theologians, too, is essential. The academic theologian, too, is a teacher, but her job is to raise difficult questions: can’t these things change, can’t we think differently, can’t we do that? If not, why not? We all need to keep praying, thinking, changing over time. Indeed, the CTSA an organization that has changed very much since its founding over the years and it’s a progressive, imaginative, diverse organization.

HDS: In your previous role as president-elect, you organized the society’s annual conference held this June. The theme was interesting. It was “Thinking Catholic Interreligiously.” Can you talk a bit more about why you chose that theme and what came out of that conference?

Clooney: One of the duties and privileges of the president-elect is to pick the theme that unifies the convention, guiding both the plenaries and the many smaller sessions, some of which meet every year, some meeting just in a single year. Given my work and given my field, I could see that the interreligious is very important, and the 2022 convention in Atlanta was my chance to put the theme front and center. Every issue we take up as Catholic theologians—be it issues of religious identity, young people and religion, the environment, human rights and religion, or authority of the Church—there are analogues in other religious traditions as well and it makes good sense to see what others have done and are doing on some of these issues.

HDS: What were some of the distinctive features of this year’s convention?

Clooney: This year we had Professor Amir Hussain from Loyola Marymount as the opening night plenary speaker—the first time a Muslim has been a plenary speaker at the CTSA—discussing being a Muslim professor at a Catholic university, issues about Islam in America, and Islamic perspective on theology. In another plenary, Professor Catherine Cornille from Boston College delivered a talk on Christian particularity—how to do you preserve the particularity of your faith tradition in an interreligious context. One of our doctoral students here at Harvard, Norbert Litoing—an African Jesuit from Cameroun (and working with Professor Ousmane Kane of our HDS faculty), responded to her and talked about his experiences in growing up Catholic in West Africa. Our third major panel was an intergenerational conversation on the nature and purpose of comparative theology, examining where is comparative theology going today. Three speakers of different backgrounds (Reid Locklin, St. Michael’s College, Toronto), Mara Brecht (Loyola University, Chicago), and Stephanie Wong (just joining the faculty at Villanova University) looked at the past, present, and future of comparative theology, in a changing Church and changing world.

Because we were meeting in Atlanta this year, on the first night, we had the pastor of the largest and oldest Black church in Atlanta officially welcome us to Atlanta. On the second night, we had a wonderful conversation on race and religions with three native Atlantans, a Black Muslim, a Black Hindu, and a Black Jew, talking about their faith experiences and their place in their respective communities, and being a religious person who is not a Christian in today’s Atlanta. We also offered, for the first time, the option of Zen meditation early each morning of the convention, and the group grew each day.

HDS: What do you see as most pressing issue facing Catholic theology today?

Clooney: I would distinguish what’s a pressing issue for the Catholic Church, and what’s a pressing issue for the Catholic Theological Society of America. We are just a small part of a very large Catholic community worldwide! But I can say that the CTSA on the whole is very grateful that Francis is Pope. He is taking up issues that are timely for society, ranging from the plight of refugees and migrants, poverty, the systemic suffering of people in poor countries victimized by global capitalism, the abomination of war in all its varieties. He has shown a strong commitment to environmental issues, and like Pope John Paul II, though in a different way, Francis too is a leader in fostering the interreligious relations that are absolutely necessary in today’s world. The kinds of issues that Francis is speaking for are right on target. But important, too, is his insistence that theological and ethical conversations in the Church are a matter of “us” and not simply of the man who is Pope. And so, Francis has a very strong vision of revitalizing the Catholic community so that from the people in the pew to the people in the Vatican and everybody in between know that we are together confronting the issues that face our world. For me, the interreligious realities of today’s world form the primary place where I myself try to make my contribution. The Church thinks and acts in many ways, and the CTSA does its share in the research and teaching, the questioning and leadership evidenced by its many talented members.

In terms of things we’d be particularly concerned about, I suppose, for many of our members, environmental issues come to the fore, and rightly so. At our June board meeting, we made a firm decision to freeze investments in fossil fuels and then also to divest. Issues about inclusion and making sure the society is diverse also matter, ensuring that the society is truly inclusive and diverse. All the issues about women in the church are important, in terms of equality of women in the Church and women’s voices being forcefully heard in every area of theology. We as an organization have done fairly well in terms of the issue of justice over the past decades. In fact, the past two presidents are women, and the president-elect and vice president are both women. We need also to be concerned about other kinds of exclusion, too; this year we initiated the new custom of remembering together the original peoples of the land where the convention takes place, and we will do this every year from now on.

And finally, to state the obvious: in a nation where religious commitments are on the decline and Christianity losing its dominant place in society, we need to be rethinking how to speak of Jesus Christ, his person, and his message, in our post-Christian society. We need to show his love to our neighbors. Generalities won’t do: we need to be living and teaching and doing the Gospel message—while mindful that our neighbors of other faith traditions are likewise bringing their own deep and powerful religious values to life in today’s America.

HDS Professor Francis X. Clooney, S.J., stands holding a gavel behind a podium with the logo of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

HDS: You wear many hats. In addition to president of the CTSA, you’re a Jesuit priest, you’re also a scholar, you’re an expert in comparative theology, you’ve done extensive research in South Asian religions and cultures, and you offer much support to Hindu students and scholars that come to HDS. How do these many roles inform one another as well as your role as CTSA president?

Clooney: As in other academic organizations, like the American Academy of Religion, we do most of our work at our home institutions and meet in person only once a year. Who we are when we get to the convention reflects who we are when we’re on campus. I like to think that what I do, like when I set a theme of “Thinking Catholic Interreligiously,” is akin to what I do at HDS, where I seek to bring together rigorous scholarship, challenging teaching, while being rooted in a tradition and also steadfastly open. Everybody knows I’m a Catholic, a priest, a Jesuit, and in that guise have Masses in the Catholic house for Jesuit students, help out in the parish on the weekends, and mentor both Catholic and non-Catholic students, chair a South Asian Religions Colloquium, and work with PhD students of diverse academic and personal backgrounds. This is an inclusiveness that I ambition as scholar, teacher, person at HDS. It’s really important for the faculty at HDS to be able to show that it’s possible to be grounded in a faith tradition and to belong to a community of practice and do that in a way that shows that deep-seated faith commitments need not be intolerant of the diversity of HDS or Harvard University.

HDS: You’re coming into this role in what appears to be a significant year for reproductive rights. The Supreme Court just recently released its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Individuals and organizations on all sides of the issue are mobilizing, including groups like Catholics for Choice. A 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that 56 percent of Catholics said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. What are the theological implications here?

Clooney: This is a complicated issue! Among several factors to take into account is the Catholic view—which has a long and varied history—that life begins at conception. In the Middle Ages, for instance, there were discussions in the Church as to how many days after conception the soul enters the newly formed embryo, so that it would then become human. There has been diversity in the Catholic teachings historically, and so it is not surprising that there are some differences among Catholics about abortion even today—yet within the basic frame of the Catholic affirmation of the preciousness of life from conception to death. In the past 50 years, the Catholic Church as a hierarchical institution put itself firmly on the side of pro-life as opposed to pro-choice, and much good has been achieved. But as you point out, Catholics are all over the place on this issue, and that is not going to change in our lifetimes. But I think we do share that core belief, respect for life from conception to death—with a commitment to make sure that those who are born receive the basic necessities of life, health care, education, and so forth–in a society that strives to overcome the biases and discrimination of the past. To be pro-life, after all, must also mean being an opponent of the death penalty, the reckless spread of gun ownership, and in favor of health care, decent jobs for every person, and the abolition of the culture of death that is inseparable from racism, anti-Semitism, and other poisons in our culture.

But by now, to be honest, I’ve said more than enough on this complicated matter. After all, I myself am not a historian or a moral theologian, but that’s the point: in the CTSA we do have many members who are experts on the historical and ethical issues involved in difficult cases like abortion, and our job—and my job as president this year—is to help those scholars do their best work, and to bring our considered wisdom and honest questioning into wider conversations in the Church.

HDS: So what is the role of the CTSA in society today, and your role as president this year?

Clooney: I would just add to what I’ve already said that we need constantly to think outside the box, and think amid the culture within which we live. Even after we all do our thinking, teaching, writing, we Catholics must remember that we are living in a complicated society where other people of faith have their own cherished views on moral matters. The American “we” today is multicultural, interreligious, and indeed made up also of people of good will who consider themselves secular—or perhaps better, humanists. We Catholics need to talk among ourselves, but then also we must be conversation partners in a much wider conversation. It would be needlessly counterproductive to rely on Catholic leadership alone, as if the bishops will solve all our problems for us, or as if Catholic politicians and judges will do the needful in making Catholic values the law of the land. The job of Catholic theologians is to not go that route, but to think, teach, write, receive, and hear criticisms, and learn along with our sisters and brothers who are not Catholic. My term is just for one year, but my hope is to build on the work of my predecessor, in cultivating the ethos of faithful, thoughtful openness as a scholarly virtue.

HDS: What do you see for the future of Catholic theology over the next 5 years?

Clooney: Here’s a very Catholic answer: Catholic theology at its best is thinking with the Church, and with humility also thinking for the Church. I’ve already mentioned that the Church currently has a very thoughtful, compassionate, and bold Pope who is engaging the world in a multifaceted way. Our job is not to try to do his job, nor to be merely supportive or merely critical, since scholars ought not be conformists nor merely skilled at tearing things down. Rather, on every crucial issue, our job is to study and do research—and pray—and bring to light the hard questions that we neglect only at our own risk.

As Francis said early in his papacy, the Church should be thought of as “a field hospital after battle,” helping those most in need. Being Catholic—and hence being a Catholic theologian—is not about hiding in an ivory tower and protecting ourselves. The Church needs be out there among people in trouble, and so, too, Catholic theologians need to be out there, thinking honestly among the realities of our world today. Such is the direction of the CTSA in the next five years—and, I suppose, every five years after that: being faithful to Christ and to the Gospel, showing God’s love in action, and as scholars, thinking through every issue that needs to be clarified for the sake of the Faith, and for the sake of justice and peace in our changing, deeply interreligious world.

—by Michael Naughton
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.