In 1840, American Whig politician William Henry Harrison was battling Martin Van Buren for the American Presidency, Charles Darwin had just published The Voyage of the Beagle, the Queen Victoria Pub‘s namesake was overseeing the expansion of the British Empire, and Pope Gregory XVI was finalizing his decision to name Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti a cardinal, decades before the future Pius IX would lead the First Vatican Council toward the solemn definition of papal infallibility. The year also marked the first edition of the international British Catholic journal The Tablet.
Widely seen as a preeminent standard of Catholic journalism in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the weekly periodical is currently celebrating 175 years of insight into the church’s inner workings and relationship to the wider world. One of the highlight events marking the anniversary was a conference held from November 2-4 at Durham University titled “The Spirit of Catholic Renewal: Signs, Sources, and Calling.”
Some of the church’s most influential voices gathered in the Northeastern English countryside to discuss the shifting theological and political currents of our times. Stanley Hauerwaus, Eamon Duffy, Paul Lakeland, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, Anna Rowlands, Tina Beattie, Alana Harris, Timothy Radcliffe, Karen Kilby, Ormond Rush and Myriam Wijlens headed what was a remarkable intellectual marquee to completely sold-out crowds. Though both Elizabeth Johnson and Cardinal Walter Kasper were unable to attend due to last minute personal issues, their important contributions continued to shape the three days of conversation. Kasper’s paper was presented by Duffy and Rev. Anthony Currer of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. Cambridge theologian Janet Soskice offered a stimulating response.
The days were incredibly full, with lectures and meetings running from early morning to well into the evening (and usually followed by informal conversation over pints and whiskey until even later). Various Catholic and Anglican bishops participated in both the liturgies and the sessions, a wonderful sign of collaboration and articulation of the fact that those recognized by Catholics as the authentic teachers of the faith are also excited to learn from others in the church and society. A quick walk through the book stalls attested to the popular and scholarly contributions the attendees and speakers have made to the life of the church in the English-speaking world.
As is commonplace with The Tablet, the participants did not shy away from analyzing the challenges facing the church in these complicated times, both in terms of divisive societal issues and the internal debates unfolding in the wake of the recent synod. Of course, Pope Francis’s vision of the church’s mission and future loomed large in nearly every session, though the attention to his office and personality was counterbalanced by some interesting points about the “macrocephalic” attitudes toward the papacy in recent centuries when compared to the long history of Christianity. Duffy, Kasper, and event host Paul D. Murray have long emphasized the importance of the local church in ecclesiology, while of course remaining respectful of the papacy’s unique role in Catholicism. According to thinkers in this camp, the Modernist crisis, ongoing ultramontane attitudes, and a pattern of centralizing authority in Rome in the years immediately before and since The Tablet’s founding have given the church an abnormally large “head.” To employ a different metaphor brought to light by Alana Harris, the current pope seems to be inverting the pyramid, especially in terms of his recognition of the role of lay popular piety, the preferential option for the poor, and the sensus fidelium. As is well known, one of the ancient descriptions of the papacy is the servus servorum Dei, the Servant of the Servants of God. Many in the church, even among the hierarchy, seem excited about these developments. While certainly not all agree that Francis’ decisions have been unqualifiedly positive or helpful, most of the participants in this conference agreed that synodal and collegial ecclesiastical structures serve to address pathologies and keep the Body of Christ healthy and relevant to all people of good will, whether believers or not. In so doing, they further evangelization efforts and the church’s raison d’etre.
It was a wonderful few days, and information about it and relevant resources can be found on the website of the Department of Theology and Religion’s Centre for Catholic Studies, fast becoming the ever-growing hub of academic and spiritual Catholic life in Britain, and one with international ties.
Michael M. Canaris is a former postdoctoral researcher in the Centre for Catholic Studies. He is now Assistant Professor of Ecclesiology and Systematic Theology and Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Pastoral Studies.