A Historian Walks into a Religion and Theology Conference and…

Yesterday, I had another full day at the AAR/SBL in Atlanta.  In the morning I attended a session on Anti-Catholic Protest, saw some friends that I met while working at the LFP, and then participated in the Women’s Caucus’ publishing Roundtable.

In the morning, I attend the North American Religions Section’s panel Protesting Catholics: The “New Anti-Catholicism” and the Politics of Public Religion in North America.  Amy Koehlinger, Oregon State University, presided, and Anthony Petro, Boston University, Hillary Kaell, Concordia University, Montreal, and Kathleen Holscher, University of New Mexico presented.  Robert A. Orsi, Northwestern University, responded.

[Disclaimer: I did try to attend a panel that did not involve a Catholic theme.  Really.   I just really wanted to see what these presenters had to say.]

This panel looked at more recent events in Catholic studies and included a examination of AIDS activists and use of camp in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Petro), Québécois feminist protests in Montreal in the early 2000 (Kaell), and contemporary Native American protest (Holscher). The last presentation looked specifically at the recent canonization of Junipero Serra as a means of looking at the larger protest movement.

This panel was engaging, thoughtful, and challenging. Like the West/Sales plenary from the day before, I need more time to really process the ideas offered.  One takeaway is the idea that Catholicism or Catholicity is not fixed.  The recent assertion that there is a “new” Anti-Catholicism originating from liberal democracy and more specifically from the Left was challenged by the panel.  Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative, Anti-Catholic and Catholic do not fit the reality of these protest movements.   I found Hillary Kaell’s paper about Québécois feminist very compelling as she argues that these activists are seen as a part of a French Canadian Catholic culture.  With Petro, Holscher, and later Orsi’s response, I took away a better understanding of (what I secretly believed, thank you panel) a broader Catholic belonging.  The conversation actually reminded me of Terrence Fishers’ The Catholic Counterculture Among the many things Fisher does in this book is talk about how Jack Kerouac is formed by Catholicism. (Fisher talks a lot about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement in this text, too.)

The other thing I took from this panel and haven’t quite finished chewing on it is a new understanding of Public Catholicism.  I call this a new understanding on purpose, because of David O’Brien’s 1996 book, Public Catholicism.  The book was not mentioned, but I imagine it was in the back of people’s minds.  O’Brien writes about an earlier period and a different immigrant/American church. What the panel (and Holscher in particular) articulated was something different.  And here is what I am chewing on.  How is it different and what does that mean?  Or is it different?  Still chewing.

After that, I spent the afternoon looking around, having lunch with a friend, and catching up with people I haven’t seen in a while.  I hadn’t expected to see many of these lovely people, so that made my afternoon quite fun.  Then, came the roundtable.

I must confess, I was a bit nervous.  I didn’t know anything about the Women’s Caucus.  What would the roundtable be like? How would the presentations go? Would I keep to time? (Nope.) Would anyone want to be in my breakout group?  As it turned out, it was a wonderful experience and I got to meet some lovely people all engaged in the project of advancing and incorporating scholarship by and about women in a thought and meaningful way (read: not as additive or other in the cannon).

I have a lot to say about this panel and this post is getting long. And I have to head to the airport!  More soon.  For now, thank you AAR/SBL 2015, it was an interesting and enjoyable time!


AAR/SBL 2015: It’s Bigger on the Inside

I was asked yesterday by a friend if the American Historical Association’s annual meeting is like the AAR/SBL.  Before I came to this conference, I thought it had to be sort of the same.  You know, lots of tweed, people who look like they could use fresh air, the occaisional panicked looking job candidate, and playing spot-my-historian-heroes to pass the time when I am not trolling the book exhibit. And so far, there is a lot of that.  Except the book exhibit (haven’t been there yet).  And I don’t recognize a lot of names/faces. The AAR/SBL, however, seems much bigger.  Much bigger.  Maybe I haven’t been to a conference of this size in a while or maybe I have been to a lot of AHA meetings, but the annual history conference (that coincidentally meets in Atlanta as well) doesn’t seem so massive.

I am impressed with the number of sessions/groups/panels that there are at this conference which brings both the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature and some associated groups together every year.  What I have seen and heard is impressive.  As one not versed in theology, I must confess some papers are bit over my head.  I, however, appreciate the questions asked.  I will have to digest it all, but I hope I can come away from this experience with much that will help my own work.

In the morning, I attended the Vatican II Studies Group session, Catholicism vis-à-vis Modernity and Beyond: Religious Liberty, Other Faiths and “Signs of the Times.”  I enjoyed Francesca Cadeddu’s paper on John Courtney Murray and religious freedom (Debate on Religious Freedom in the Light of Dignitatis Humanae and Its Reception).  I also found Nancy Dallavalle’s presentation The Risk of Catholicity: Dignitatis Humanae Comes to the Synod on the Family quite thought provoking.  Dallavalle talked about a culture of risk which exists now.  By this she means the real and perceived understanding or a world at risk.  She pushed her audience to consider how a Catholic outlook can exist with this outlook.  More specifically she states:

Dignitatis Humanae (1965), particularly its dyad “freedom” and “truth,” attempts to position the person vis-à-vis the state, for a church that must engage across all variety of political systems. This paper will introduce the notion of “risk” as a complicating factor in this dynamism, as perceptions of risk (whether from non-state violent actors; or economic policies or sanctions; or juridical actions) drive us to both join and sunder our community-making relationships. Bringing the immediate context of DH into dialogue with the discussion surrounding both “religious freedom” in the U.S. and the upcoming Synod on the Family, this paper will thus examine the rhetoric of “risk” as it proposes a theological perspective on the inner resilience of “catholicity.” from Dallavalle’s abstract

The other highlight (and I almost didn’t go) was the plenary , Racial Injustice and Religious Response from Selma to Ferguson with Imani Perry, Princeton University, Cornel West, Union Theological Seminary, and Ruby Nell Sales, SpiritHouse Project, Atlanta, GA. This description is from the program abstract:

The annual meeting focuses on “Valuing the Study of Religion,” which includes pondering how religion has been valued—and devalued—in public spaces. Addressing a variety of social spaces from the legislature to the streets, this panel analyzes religious responses to racial injustice. In 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of the historic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, attending to injustice seems more morally urgent than ever. Considering both the historical trajectory that led us to this painful moment and the religious resources activists have employed, this conversation brings together notable voices to offer their assessments of the contemporary situation. Ruby Sales, the human rights activist and public theologian who joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s and later founded a non-profit organization dedicated to “racial, economic, and social justice,” will join Cornel West, distinguished religion scholar and democratic intellectual, in a conversation with Professor Imani Perry, a celebrated scholar of African American Studies and Law who has written eloquently about racial injustice and “pathways to freedom, equality, and enriched democracy.

I have lots of thoughts and reaction to this plenary, but I think sitting on them a bit longer would serve me well before I start making trite comments.  It was a powerful plenary and I am glad I went.  In passing, however, West and Sales engaged a growing generational debate about the new and evolving movement for racial justice (Black Lives Matter).  This has to be unpacked.

[Look at me using conference language.]

Tomorrow is another day and I haven’t even visited the Book Exhibit yet.  Who knows what new worlds I will find there? Apparently there are two levels!

A Late-night Post for the AAR/SBL 2015

Atlanta 2015 Annual Meeting Banner

Well, the annual meeting of the AAR/SBL is underway.  It started yesterday and today with pre-meetings. I arrived in sunny Atlanta this afternoon.  I haven’t seen much, but did get to walk around the conference hotels, pick up my Tote Bag and lanyard for my name badge.  So far, this historian has not seen much, but I am keeping my eyes and ears open!

Until tomorrow, in case you haven’t heard, there is an interesting new blog, Sisters of Lazarus, and its author wrote a short reflection on the Vatican II conference I attended the other weekend.  “In Our House” offers some important questions for us to consider about the future of Catholic women, theology, and the Church.

A Guest in My Own House?


Last weekend, I attended a conference at the Gannon Center at Loyola University in Chicago. The conference, “Still Guests in Our Own HouseWomen and the Church since Vatican II,” looked at women and the church and explored just how much their lives have changed since the Second Vatican Council.

This conference was first and foremost a theology conference.  As a historian of American Catholic women, I have a particular interest in Vatican II and how women’s lives changed.  Vatican II factored heavily into my book about the Chicago Sisters of Mercy. Plus, I had never been to Loyola Chicago.  My very talented sister-in-law, Diane, also decided to go to the conference and we had a Girls Take on Chicago Weekend.  What’s not to like?  So, I braved a theology conference.

The conference began on Friday night with a keynote address from M. Shawn Copeland.  Copeland’s presentation set a very good tone for the next day.  We heard about the gender and racial disparity in Catholic theology and what we might think about to, well, do better.  Kathleen Sprows Cummings responded to Copeland’s talk and gave a different type of context, one that challenged our thinking both generationally and historically.  Copeland and Cummings set the tone by asking why did women’s ordination matter when the millennial generation of women were not showing up to church (I paraphrase…)?  Cummings is a historian, while Copeland is a theologian. And there was the running joke of the next twenty-four hours.  “I’m just a historian, but…”

Some highlights for me from the conference were Emily Sammon‘s paper, “Womanhood in the Church: Natural Ideal, Theological Decoration, or Unacknowledged Reality?”  Sammon challenged her audience to engage in open dialogue with the church, to have conservative and liberal voices hear one another.  Mary Henold pushed her audience to consider what happens when women lose their access to a “pulpit,” (voice) as in the case of the Catholic Daughters of America who found Vatican II removed their voice within the Church.  Henold’s paper, “Does Anyone Miss the Junior Catholic Daughters?: Assessing the Response of Laywomen’s Fraternal Organizations to the Second Vatican Council” was for me, the Best Paper of the Conference.  But, I am just a historian….  As is Henold who wrote the very important book about Catholic women and feminism.  However, besides the keynote, the most challenging panel was the last one I heard, “Doing Catholic Theology in a Multigenerational Context of Women” and more specifically, Susan Abraham’s paper “Mentoring (in)hospitable Places:  Collegiality in Catholic Academic Contexts.”  Abraham asked her audience to think hard about what do we mean by Vatican II and why, why, why do we only think about it in Western context.  Yes, why?

There were other panels and other presenters, like Jill Peterfeso and Roman Catholic Womenpriests, and Jeanine Viau‘s paper “Not Guests, Still Handmaids: An Analysis of Catholic Feminist Vocations after Vatican II” that were, well, dynamic.

Ultimately, an important question, however, is where exactly do women fit within the Catholic Church?  That’s a big question.  Is the challenge to the traditional church purely a liberal/feminist one?  What happens when there are no options for laywomen outside traditional throwbacks to the nineteenth century?

There is more to understand and learn from this conference.  That is for another day and another post!  Stay tuned.


Things have changed.  I never thought they would change in the way that they have, but so here we are.  I changed positions.   I had for the last four years been the assistant program director of the Lilly Fellows Program.  At the end of August, that position concluded and I started at Purdue University North Central as a Continuing Lecturer in History, which entails administering the history and political science features of its concurrent enrollment program.  Such a change.

It’s now November and I have been teaching a couple sections of US history – for the first time in about five years – and it is such a lot of fun.  I know, I know, I am not supposed to be teaching for my own benefit. I should teach for the benefit of my students, for their edification, their betterment.  Of course, that is the primary goal, but until that goal is revealed as having been reached, I will take small comfort in the fact that I am having a blast.  Sure, sure, I get annoyed when they don’t show up prepared or if they look like they would rather be any where else but in my classroom. I particularly get steamed when I tell them to stop texting and put their phones away, again, but that’s apparently how things are.  Kids today…

When I am not teaching, I put on my administrator hat and coordinate secondary school teachers who teach US History and Political Science in their schools for college credit. This is the Dual Credit or Concurrent Enrollment Program.  I admire the teachers who take on these classes in their schools.  It is added work and they are trying to help their students earn college credit.  I admire the students who want to take on college-level course work as high school students.  There is a lot I need to learn, yet.  I don’t mind.  The worst thing I could do is walk into my classroom or my work as the history and poli sci liaison is to assume I know everything.

This new position also means I am more in the academy than I once was while at the Lilly Fellows Program.  I’ve done nutty things like attend faculty meetings (a first for me).  As a continuing lecturer, I have this position until May of 2017.  (I just learned that my contract will be extended another year.) After that – who knows.  As a trailing spouse (my dislike of this term is growing – not to the level of “alt-ac“- but growing – seriously alt-ac sounds like a fungus or something for which one should get vaccinated), I do not have as many choices as I would like, but I have choices.  (Kelly J. Baker writes well and thoughtfully on the life and career of the trailing spouse.)

When I learned over a year ago that my position at the Lilly Fellows Program would end, I won’t lie, I was nervous.  I wasn’t sure what would be next.  Of course there was the economic concerns, but you’ll have that.  Then the usual questions came up about whether or not I would have a “career” or would I just have a series of “jobs.” Would I ever “make a difference?” Be “successful?” I spent a few months eventually pretending I was going to “take some time” to figure out “what I wanted.”

Yes, I like air quotes.

Because if my immediate future employment meant adjuncting, I wasn’t (and still am) not certain that would be enough.  And I am not even talking about economics although that is important too.  I needed (and still need) to resolve what makes the most sense for me and my husband and our lives here and now.  No one else can make that decision.

(This all seems obvious, but when did any academically minded person see the trees before their library books? And yes, I also like speaking parenthetically.  So?)

But back to change.  I had gotten used to the rhythms of the LFP life.  I had made friends.  What would happen when I left?  Fortunately, the world did not end.  (Phew) My friends are still there. I love my new job.  My students are gems! My co-workers are super (even if one of them is my husband – yes he is – that is a post for another time.)! Change, as it turned out, was not a bad thing. I may have to rethink my entire world view.  Maybe.

So what will be next? Maybe I will post more.  Baby steps.