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Doing Ethics in a global church

Jesuit priest-academic and ethicist, Anthony Egan, recently returned from Bosnia-Herzegovina where he attended The Third International Conference of Catholic Theological Ethics in a World Church. As he reports, the conference offered theologians the world over the opportunity to reflect on some of the great moral challenges of our time: the crises in ecology and political governance.

The Third International Conference of Catholic Theological Ethics in a World Church (CTEWC), held in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, from July 26-29th, focused on the global deficit in political leadership, the global ecological crisis and the need for global solidarity to address these challenges. Given the theme, and at the risk of repeating myself, it was thus quite appropriately a global conference, with representatives from five continents attending.

Welcomed on the 26th by CTEWC co-chairs James Keenan SJ, Linda Hogan and Kristin Heyer, by Cardinal Vinko Puljić (Catholic archbishop of Sarajevo) and by members of the conference planning committee, the theme of cooperation and dialogue became immediately apparent. In a letter read to the assembly, Pope Francis sent his greetings and best wishes to the conference, emphasising the need to “be faithful to the word of God which challenges us in history, and to show solidarity with the world, which you are not called to judge but rather to offer new paths, accompany journeys, bind hurts and shore up weakness.”

CTEWC Eucharist at Sacred Heart Cathedral, Sarajevo. Cardinal Peter Turkson presides

“Without renouncing prudence, we are called to recognise every sign and mobilise all our energy in order to remove the walls of division and to build bridges of fraternity everywhere in the world”, the Pope added.

In short, the task was to try to ‘build bridges’, a central motif of the Conference, where the delegates explored not simply the problems raised by poor governance and ecological crisis but the idea of solidarity in trying to address them through a whole variety of theological approaches.

This was a particularly appropriate image since Sarajevo is a city of bridges. It is also a city where literally East meets West, Asia meets Europe. In the 1990s it was also the scene of a brutal siege during the war following the break-up of former Yugoslavia. Signs of the siege – pockmarks of shelling in old buildings, and the ‘Sarajevo Roses’ monuments marking places where three or more citizens were killed, are part of the landscape of this small, friendly, multicultural city today.

A ‘Sarajevo Rose’ next to Sacred Heart Cathedral. Pockmarks painted red to commemorate people killed here during the war

The commonality of challenges and the need for global networking was explored by the many plenary speakers and parallel sessions at the Conference. The speakers themselves reflected this diversity dramatically – from world-renowned senior scholars to doctoral students, representatives from countries with long-established traditions of Catholic moral theology (Italy, United States and Germany) to ‘new’ places for doing theological ethics (like Vietnam and Myanmar), ordained and lay, men and women.

A key part of the Conference was to see how networking among theologians already existed. Speakers noted how since the first CTEWC in 2006 (in Padua, Italy) Catholic moral theologians had already built up continental groups and associations, organising regional CTEWC conferences in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. But far from being self-congratulatory, these groups meeting in continents admitted their weaknesses. Though greatly strengthened over the last decade, they still had to build up better organisations, and in many places encourage the growth of women and lay moral theologians.

The ‘past’ of CTEWC was also movingly celebrated in a short service remembering moral theologians who had died between Padua and Sarajevo. They included such luminaries as African theologian John Mary Waliggo (Uganda), feminist scholar Anne Patrick (USA), Filipino theologian-activist ‘Archie’ Intengan, and the great German fundamental moral theologian Klaus Demmer. Among the younger generation were two African scholars Margaret Ogola and Anne Nasimiyu, and the Hong Kong-born biblical ethicist Lúcás Chan. Colleagues and former students read short obituaries and placed lit candles on the stage of the auditorium in their memory.

In facing the dual global challenges of governance and ecology, participants were invited to dive deep into the Catholic moral tradition, drawing and building on its riches. One keynote speaker, Father Charles E Curran, highlighted the ecumenical theme of ‘Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation’, read through classical moral theology and Catholic Social Thought, to promote an ethic of solidarity and subsidiarity.

Professor Charles E Curran speaks at CTEWC Sarajevo

Similarly Kenneth Himes called on speakers to draw on the Catholic political imagination to challenge political crises generated by the rise of populist demagogues, particularly those who misuse religion by appealing to white supremacy and Christian nationalism. While focusing on the ecological crisis in India, George Kodithottam highlighted that the ecological crisis was also at base a political crisis. It soon became clear that the great social and ecological challenges of our time are not divisible, but two sides of the same coin. Kodithottam’s speech was in some way characteristic of many of the plenaries: grounded in the local challenge, the speaker would try to draw out issues and moral themes that could be applied universally.

The ongoing challenge of solidarity and peacebuilding – highlighted in talks like that of Elias Omondi Opongo of Kenya, who emphasised Ubuntu and the value of truth and reconciliation commissions – was movingly contextualised by a presentation by four young women from ‘Youth For Peace’ an interfaith group committed to peace between the three great faiths in Bosnia – Islam, Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

One feature of the conference raised the question of how to communicate theologically to a public not well-versed in the intricacies and subtleties of theology. This was, I think, a vitally important theme that speaks to the role of the theologian as a public intellectual who needs to communicate ideas accurately in a popular manner, without distorting what one says or being misunderstood. Two theologians spoke to this from experience. Eric Genilo (Philippines) spoke of the complexities of debating the public health provision of artificial birth control in the Philippines and the Church’s dealings with the belligerent populist president, Rodrigo Duterte.  Benedictine sister and doctor Teresa Forcades from Barcelona, Spain, recounted how her critical examination of pharmaceutical companies, and the church’s views on sexuality and marriage, gave her the press’s title “Europe’s Most Radical Nun”.

As the conference drew to a close three scholars suggested directions forward for moral theology facing the challenges of governance, ecology and solidarity. Pablo Blanco, from Buenos Aires (Argentina) reflected on the importance of incarnation – God entering history, theologians engaging with concrete reality – and the importance of seeing issues from the perspective of the poor. Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan ethicist working in the United States, reminded the assembly that all theology is a theology of hope and that crises were a call to conversion, courage and action. Irish theologian Linda Hogan called us to develop an ethic of vulnerability and resistance, the former making community necessary, the latter rooted in the commitment to human rights.

For those who attended Sarajevo, the conference was in many respects an opportunity to reflect on the past, the present (in all its complexity and conflict) and the future. In sharing the challenges of the present, delegates saw that the particular issues of church, society and planet they faced were common, that the Catholic moral tradition offered a variety of resources to address them, and that their task was to continue battling both locally and globally for a more human world. For while a more human world would never be the reign of God in its fullness, efforts to make it more human remain the Christian challenge to cooperate with God in helping bring about God’s reign. SA.

Images: Jan Jans and Anthony Egan SJ

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.