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Segregation in Catholic intellectual life


It was a slip-up that happened at the right place and the right time, a “sign of the times” that in provoking a frank discussion, might well turn out to be a blessing.

The Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs planned a conference titled: “The Future of Catholic Intellectual Life” (NCR, Nov. 5). Organizers drew up a list of the usual suspects to speak at the College of the Holy Cross Nov.12-14. Speakers included such luminaries as Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, dean of Harvard Divinity School, and Monika Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

There was only one problem: No one thought to invite people of color.

Outrage ensued. Sixto Garcia, president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States, decried the “intellectual bigotry” prevalent in church circles.

Many whites would appear to assume that Latinos lack “the intellectual, cultural or genetic makeup to discuss thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Karl Rahner, Maurice Blondel and others,” Garcia told NCR. Diana Hayes, African-American professor at Georgetown University, observed that the program suggested that “only Caucasians could speak about Catholic intellectual life.”

I’ve no doubt that the organizers of the Holy Cross conference had good intentions. So do the organizers of a lot of church conferences, where concerns close to the hearts of many a Catholic liberal are hammered out -- but often with little input from non-whites.

So what goes wrong? Why a segregated intellectual life in an astonishingly multicultural church?

First and foremost is the habit of white intellectuals to “barrioize” their Latina and Latino counterparts. (I’m using the example of Latinos here, although most of what I say applies to other groups as well.) Certainly Latinos bring expertise to topics related to Latino life. But as public intellectuals, our interests are necessarily broad.

The specific scholarly pursuits of Latinos, furthermore, are as varied as those of whites. We have as much to say about celibacy and the priesthood, ecology, the just war theory and the rise of Islam as non-Latino experts in these fields. Limiting our participation to the “Hispanic Issues” panel (if there is one) of a conference makes no sense whatsoever.

What else goes wrong?

For one thing, many organizations wait until the last minute to attempt to pull off cultural diversity. Hence, the woes of “finding qualified speakers.” In fact, such woes will decrease as the size of an organizer’s Rolodex increases. And that should be happening year-round.

Change requires, for starters, getting on the phone and talking with members of groups such as the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians. Contacting Catholic Latino organizations will yield up a roster of potential speakers. It’s a matter of being proactive, finding out who’s who and building a network.

A failure by many white leaders to keep abreast of the work of Latina and Latino theologians has also given rise to patterns of exclusion. Any gathering purporting to deal with the future of the church must have a focus on trends in Latino theology, especially Latina Catholic feminism.

A class analysis and interpretations of popular spirituality have been central to the work of these theologians. It would be a tragedy if their ideas remained confined to Latino circles because other Catholic intellectuals failed to do their homework.

It might be useful to understand how Latino intellectuals perceive their relationship to their communities. It is almost a religion among Latinos that if you have the advantage of higher education, then you are expected to give something back to your people.

As a result, many Latinos act as bridge people, “translating” the concerns of Juan and Juana Doe for higher-ups in church, government and academia. Too, they translate in the other direction, serving the community by giving people access to information and ideas.

This sense of obligation, for Chicana and Chicano intellectuals, has deep historical roots, some going back to Aztec philosophical traditions. What has evolved in our culture is a distinction between someone who merely collects academic degrees vs. someone who is bien educado and “well-spoken,” that is, someone who can act as a spokesperson for the community.

I’ve seen countless nuns, priests and activists assume such a role: Latinos who are spending or have spent years in academic settings as students and professors. And I can’t begin to count the times such individuals have told me of their dismay at the segregation that exists within too many Catholic intellectual and activist circles.

Unfortunately, many progressives call for integration in the name of “sensitivity” to so-called minority concerns. This is not about sensitivity. This is about justice. Latinos comprise close to 40 percent of the church.

The entire church stands to benefit from the dialogue precipitated by the conference that discussed “The Future of Catholic Intellectual Life.” That is, if we pay attention -- and act.

Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999