Theologian Karl Barth famously advised younger colleagues to base their work on both the Bible and the newspaper. Now, two new courses offered by the Faculty of Theology at the University of St. Michael’s College are doing just that, reflecting theologically on the evils of racism and clerical sexual abuse, topics that regularly make front-page news.
Theology of Radical Evil and Suffering will look at the experience and testimony of Jewish, African American and Indigenous individuals and communities who experienced extreme evil and suffering at the hands of those reclaiming what they understood to be their Christian faith, values and way of life.
(Sexual) Abuse and the Catholic Church, in turn, aims to explore how the present sexual abuse crisis informs—and proposes the need to reform—the understanding of the church as body of Christ.
“These are very challenging—and very necessary—courses,” says Interim Dean John L. McLaughlin. “We are educating people who will be helping to find the answers to society’s ills. They need to understand root causes and be able to recognize systemic challenges before they can begin to effect change.”
Radical Evil and Suffering “will offer a different approach to evil, as often we look at both God and evil at once in abstract philosophical terms,” says Dr. Jean-Pierre Fortin, who will be teaching the course. “This course will have a more practical approach, based on self-narratives, determining agency and how we experience the impact of evil on our personal identities and lives. How as Christians do we listen to victims when Christianity is on the side of the perpetrator?”
Along with readings from theologian Dorothee Soelle and philosopher Simone Weil on the nature of suffering, the course also features the works of such writers as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Dr. M. Shawn Copeland, who is a specialist in African American Catholic theology, Aboriginal writer Thomas King, and documents from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Dr. Fortin, who is the author of Grace in Auschwitz: A Holocaust Christology, says his years living in Chicago while teaching at Loyola University exposed him to the reality of the African-American experience, and allowed him to hear prophetic voices. As a Canadian, he felt the ongoing fallout from residential schools and the injustices revealed via the TRC highlighted the need to discuss injustices suffered by Canada’s Indigenous peoples and reflect constructively on a responsible Christian response.
(Sexual) Abuse in the Church, which is being co-taught by theology professors Drs. Darren Dias, OP, and Michael Attridge, is one of the first of its kind to be taught in Canada.
“The church has gotten better, in the sense that the present number of cases has decreased, but the crimes that have been committed are a permanent wound,” Dr. Dias says. “After (1989’s) Mt. Cashel scandal, people thought it couldn’t happen again. Then came the magnitude of Pennsylvania (where a grand jury report indicated the church had covered up abuses committed by more than 300 priests over a 70-year span) and we began to realize that this was happening around the world, in any number of cultures and linguistic groups, whether the United States or India.”
The course will be delivered in three sections: the first will be inductive, using data such as statistics and ethnography; the second will look at structural, systemic issues such as celibacy, clericalism and power; the final section of the course will be deductive, looking at what church is and what the people of God are called to be. The last section, notes Dr. Attridge, will look at Scripture, and theologically grounded teachings from Pope Francis and others. Each class will begin with the testimony of survivors.
“If we think of church as sacrament, with the moral responsibility to be the body of Christ, the presence of God in the world, ask yourself what it means when the Church, called to be an instrument of God’s love, behaves in this way,”says Dr. Attridge. “We are talking about Church in a responsible, methodological way.”
Dr. Dias agrees.
“This is a pervasive issue and Catholic universities have to address it, both because we have witnessed degrees of abdication within the church and because we are informing people who will be in ministry,” he says.
Theology of Radical Evil and Suffering (SMT5610HS) is offered Tuesdays from 14:00-16:00 in the fall semester.
(Sexual) Abuse and the Catholic Church (SMJ3/6505HF) is offered staggered Saturdays from 9:00-13:00 in the fall semester.