In review: February 2020 at the Cushwa Center

Author: Philip Byers

A few short weeks before the coronavirus pandemic triggered the postponement of gatherings planned in both Rome and South Bend, the Cushwa Center hosted two events at Notre Dame: a book discussion with Jean Porter and Mark Massa, S.J., and the Cushwa Center Lecture by Sergio M. González.

Theological revolution in the 20th century


Massa Bookcover

On February 10, 2020, Mark Massa, S.J., professor of theology and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, joined faculty and graduate students from Notre Dame’s Departments of History, American Studies, and Theology as well as the Medieval Institute for a conversation on his 2018 book, The Structure of Theological Revolutions: How the Fight Over Birth Control Transformed American Catholicism (Oxford University Press). The seminar included commentary by Jean Porter (Notre Dame), whose renowned interventions in the field of moral theology were the focus of one chapter of Massa’s study.

To open the conversation, Massa read short excerpts from his book’s conclusion, highlighting his project’s origins and some of its key arguments. Observing his colleagues over several years, Massa had noticed that each of the eight full-time ethicists in the Theology Department at Boston College described themselves as Thomists, despite their wide-ranging outlooks and approaches. He sought to explain how such diverse meanings had become attached to the same designation, and to do so he applied the insights of Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific paradigm revolutions to developments within the “micro-tradition of natural law discourse within Catholic theology.” He aimed to displace explanatory metaphors that rely upon notions of linear progress and organic growth, arguing instead for moments of “rupture and discontinuity.” Change within natural law discourse, he concluded, has been more “messy” and “chaotic” than some accounts of theological development acknowledge.

Though Porter had prepared comments after reading Massa’s book, she jettisoned them in favor of an extemporaneous response to his remarks, highlighting four points of slight but consequential differences between Massa’s thinking and her own. While Massa identified the 1968 promulgation of Humanae vitae as a key moment of rupture in the natural law tradition, Porter contended that the encyclical and the responses to it revealed a break that antedated the late 1960s. Porter agreed with Massa’s rejection of linear or organic metaphors for the development of moral teaching, yet she questioned whether “rupture” provides a better framework; her academic career has represented a quest to identify an intellectually defensible form of continuity, a “usable past” or even a “deposit of faith,” from medieval and other sources. At the same time, Porter argued that Massa “overestimates the role of Aquinas,” at least insofar as natural law discourse predates the Angelic Doctor’s career. Finally, she clarified a point in Massa’s account of her own scholarship, stipulating that while human nature is always encountered through social constructs, it does still possess normative, non-constructed significance. She concluded her remarks by acknowledging the potential weakness of such an understanding of human nature, namely the “quick step from saying that nature underdetermines its expressions to saying, ‘anything goes.’” While Porter has made attempts at resolving that tension, she acknowledged that it remains an open point of debate.

After this initial exchange between the principals, the conversation opened to all participants. Like Porter, Thomas Tweed commended the generous tone and approach of Massa’s book. Other comments highlighted the book’s engagement with the challenge of theological and ecclesiastical authority. One doctoral student asked about the tension between aspiring to demonstrate warrants for certain beliefs and the need, in contexts such as Catholics’ Eucharistic belief, to respond in obedience and faith. Massa suggested that the relationship between authority and believability represents the crux of the Catholic Church’s present crisis, as explanations particularly for contested moral teachings seem not to make sense to many listeners in the early 21st century. Porter also addressed the topic, clarifying that her own scholarly interventions have sought not to undermine the notion of authority but rather to problematize its current structural form, especially the growth over several decades of a “monarchical papacy.” Other questions addressed the breakdown between professional theologians and the Catholic laity. Timothy Matovina wondered to what degree scholarly debates about Humanae vitae actually registered with laity in the 1960s, and Kathleen Sprows Cummings referenced historical work that has described varied parish-level teachings about contraception prior to the encyclical’s release. Massa agreed that intellectual debates sometimes founder at the pastoral level. As the gathering concluded, Cummings enjoined attendees to remain in conversation across disciplines, bringing the insights of history and theology to bear upon each other.

Political sanctuary and Christian hospitality in the Midwest

On February 27, Sergio M. González (Marquette University) delivered the 2019–2020 Cushwa Center Lecture examining the development of hospitality practices in American Midwestern faith spaces. With special focus on the 1980s-era sanctuary movement, he showed how Latinx and refugee communities worked with and through churches in the quest for political recognition. The lecture reframed common conceptions regarding the urban Midwest, Catholicism, and Latinx communities in the late 20th century.

He began by shifting spatial expectations. While conventional wisdom often situates the politics of asylum in the American Southwest, González opened with an allusion to a Mass celebrated on December 2, 1982, at Milwaukee’s Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, in which more than 700 Catholics declared three local parishes as sites of sanctuary for undocumented refugees from Central America. By the 1980s, Latino Catholics represented a rising share of the populace in cities like Milwaukee, even as congregations in those same urban areas witnessed overall numerical decline. As a result, and with the active leadership of the area’s Latino population, the Upper Midwest became an especially vibrant center of “radical hospitality” for refugee communities. That hospitality included what González labeled “prophetic action,” extending beyond the implementation of Spanish-language Masses and into direct political advocacy.

That advocacy did more than attach occasional Scriptural references to pre-existing policy goals; on the contrary, it sprang directly from activists’ Christian faith. Some Milwaukee Catholics, for example, grounded their commitment to “the sanctity and sacredness of all human life” in Benedictine traditions of unqualified hospitality; the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero and the subsequent murders of four Catholic missionaries in El Salvador galvanized many others. If the movement González described was always religious, it was also always political, entwined in broad and deeply rooted traditions of activism. In their willingness to offer civil resistance against the U.S. state, campaigners cited the historical example of abolitionists who had rejected the legitimacy of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the movement found solidarity beyond local Catholic communities. African American churches in Milwaukee gestured back to the city’s reputation in the 1960s as the “Selma of the North.” One congregation, Cross Lutheran, even chose September 15th for their official declaration as a place of sanctuary—a conscious allusion to the anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. The quest for asylum, these Midwestern activists contended, was of a piece with the centuries-old Christian struggle for justice in the United States.  

The sanctuary movement yielded tangible results. González linked the efforts to the eventual passage of the Immigration Act of 1990, which specified a right for Salvadorans to apply for temporary protected status. In the closing minutes, he tied this historical episode to the present, depicting the contemporary remobilization of congregations and synagogues that now seek to highlight the plight of undocumented peoples from all over the world. 

Philip Byers worked at the Cushwa Center as a research associate in 2019–2020 while completing his doctorate in history at the University of Notre Dame. He has received a Mellon Fellowship to join the Cushwa Center in 2020–2021 as a postdoctoral research associate.

Sergio González’s Cushwa Center Lecture is available to view, along with many other past lectures and seminars, on the Cushwa Center’s YouTube channel.