My dissertation director and professor at
, Dr. Jim Hanigan, and I used to attend the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America. In a 3 1/2 day period there would be four plenary presentations (major talks) and four break-out sessions. Eight ninety minute talks in a long weekend is a lot of listening. Jim was of the opinion that if only half of the talks were decent, you were blessed. Nobody bats 1.000. Duquesne University
I have adopted this lower expectation for any public presentations or talks I attend. When one is good, I am very grateful. So it was when last Friday, September 23, I attended the
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Town Meeting, on the topic of "Religion in the Public Square." It was excellent. I felt the buzz of anticipation when I walked into the hall at the Pittsburgh History Museum and found it filled with 700 people. Who knew religion was so popular? (Excuse my lame attempt at humor.)
The forum was co-sponsored by the
for the Study of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame and underwritten by PNC . This gave moderator and P-G executive editor David Shribman in his introduction the chance to riff, "The Rooney Center at Notre Dame studies democracy and religion in the universe. The Rooney Family in Rooney Center is the center of our universe." Much of the conversation centered on the findings of what is described as a "groundbreaking examination of religion in Pittsburgh ," American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Professors David Campbell (Notre Dame) and Robert Putnam (Harvard) published this analysis of several comprehensive national surveys on religion in our country last year. After attending the forum and listening to these two engaging teachers, I ordered the book from Amazon.com when I got home. I look forward to reading it. America
Also on the panel were Rabbi Jamie Gibson from
Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill, Ann Rodgers, religion writer for the Post-Gazette, and Gerald Seib, the bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. Washington
What made the town meeting interesting? A timely topic, very knowledgeable speakers, humor, and brevity. Moderator Shribman took questions from the audience via written cards and text messages -- and avoided those bloviating, irritating folks who are supposed to use the microphone to ask a question and instead give a rambling speech. Obviously religion in the public square struck a chord with the attentive audience, because four pages of proffered questions went unasked. And I learned stuff. For example, Dr. Campbell said they deliberately placed "divides" first in the subtitle of their book, because religion does divide. This is particularly true between Muslims in our country and all other faith groups. Yet the divisions are declining. Today one out of five of each person's best friends in the
is of a religion different than yourself. Dr. Putnam (author of the influential book Bowling Alone, an analysis of the decline of community groups and organizations in the 1990s) said that almost every family has an "Aunt Susan," a close relative who is of a different religion or denomination from the rest of the family. But because she is a relative, and because the family members see her as good and loving, their attitude to people in different religions softens and improves. United States
There was a range of opinions on whether the speech (and its content) given by then-candidate for president Senator John Kennedy to the
ministerial association in the summer of 1960 could be replicated today. In response to the question why evangelical Christians are sparse in western Houston , Ann Rodgers said our neck of the American landscape is quite different. The leadership of evangelicals here resides in the mainline Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches, Republicans are mostly pro-choice on abortion and Democrats are mostly pro-life. Political columnist Seib said he knows first-hand the finding in American Grace that Catholic parishes are the most diverse of all church groups in the U.S. (because of the growth of Hispanic and other immigrant groups). He said he attends a parish in Pennsylvania , in which both the late Senator Ted Kennedy and conservative commentator Bill Bennett were members. (I'm guessing that is Holy Trinity Parish, Washington, D.C. .) Seib also opined that we might see a Mormon elected president (two are running, Romney and Huntsman), but he doesn't expect to see a Muslim or an atheist elected president in his lifetime. Georgetown
Much time was devoted to analyzing that growing group, SBNR. Never heard of them? "Spiritual but not religious." These folks, mostly in the "millennials" (today's cohort of 18-30 year olds), do believe in God, but reject the organization of religion and its institutions. They pose particular challenges to us who represent, and love, the church, not just as a community or tradition but also as institutionally embodied.
Rabbi Gibson credited the Second Vatican Council's declaration on the relation of the church to non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate, for the excellent (and vastly changed) relationship between Jews and Catholics. He also said this document, in which Catholic doctrine affirms the Jewish faith and their enduring covenant with Yahweh as a religion separate from yet valued by Christians, avoids supersessionism, a major roadblock in relations with most evangelical Christians. Rabbi Gibson should know about the healthy relationship here, dating back to then-Bishop Wright interfaith efforts in the 1960s. He and Father Dan Valentine are co-convenors of the priest-rabbi dialog in
, at which I've been privileged to give several presentations. Pittsburgh
This forum was one of the few times you went to a panel discussion and left saying, I wish it had gone on longer. Kudos to the Post-Gazette, all the panelists, and the co-sponsors for a wonderful, enlightening 90 minutes. Would that political discourse could be so civil and ennobling.