On August 1, Michael Lee, Ph.D., was appointed director of the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, succeeding emeritus director Christine Firer Hinze, Ph.D., who now chairs the theology department. Lee, a professor of theology who joined the Fordham faculty in 2004, recently sat down with Fordham News to talk about his plans for the center.
Q: What is the most exciting thing about taking over the leadership of the Curran Center?
A: As I think about the Curran Center’s mission—advancing knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of American Catholicism within the academy, the church, the broader religious community, and the general public—I think what’s exciting is that’s really at the heart of Fordham’s own mission as a Jesuit university in New York City.
Our world, the church itself, is going through so much right now. The voices of fear and despair are loud. Yet, I believe Catholicism is a deep well that has resources to speak to our times and to be a small part of the faithful-critical retrieval of that tradition is such an exciting prospect.
Q: What sort of things are you hoping to expand upon and grow?
A: I’m really fortunate to succeed two amazing directors, so in part, I just want to keep their momentum going. One of the ways that we can grow is by thinking about “American” in a hemispheric way. My parents are from Puerto Rico and so I grew up in an intercultural household, and my Catholicism was intercultural too—going to Mass in English in Florida and in Spanish in Puerto Rico.
We can rethink “Catholic” too. Catholicism has this capacious, inclusive vision, and a sacramental imagination. For me, it’s the motto of Ignatius of Loyola, “to see God in all things.” So our conversations at the center are ecumenical, interreligious, and with those who have no faith tradition. There are so many members of the Fordham family who are not Catholic and yet they’re a crucial part of who we are and that search for truth and goodness.
Q: What kind of programming would you like to see in the future?
A: The first area is American Catholic thought and Catholic history. Catholicism has an extraordinary history and some remarkable figures in it, and we have a duty to explore that legacy and hold dear that tradition, even as we do so critically. We also must retrieve marginal figures who weren’t appreciated in their time or were erased in some way.
I would like to see us continue doing work on Catholic social teaching as well. Catholicism has a strong tradition of speaking to the most important social, ethical, economic issues of our time. Issues of racism, the ecological crisis, public policy, the economy, our global interconnection—these are part and parcel of what Catholicism addresses today.
Another thing that comes to mind is this notion of a Catholic imagination. That sacramental imagination of Catholicism comes through in its art, music, and literature. For my own Curran Center class, the first reading is from Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography. Here’s a guy who has a profoundly Catholic vision of his Irish and Italian ancestry, his neighborhood, the people he grew up with, the church. [Exploring artists is] a way to expand that imagination. I think of Rosario Ferré, from my own Puerto Rico, or Isabel Allende or Carlos Santana.
There’s also the bread and butter ecclesial issues in Roman Catholicism today. What’s going on in the pews, in church leadership? Should there be women deacons or married priests? That has to be a part of what we do at the center.
Q: Your expertise is in liberation theology, which has a particular emphasis on justice and care for the poor. How will that factor into your new role at the Curran Center?
A: Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, whom many call the father of liberation theology, always says that the heart of liberation theology is the preferential option for the poor. It’s now at the bedrock of Catholic teaching, but it’s often misunderstood. It’s not condescending or simply paternalistic charity. It’s recognizing that those people at the margins are actually at the very center of the story. I would have the Curran Center really put its focus, as Pope Francis would say, on the peripheries, not as a gesture of nobility but because that’s where the real world is and that’s where we find truth.
I wrote my first book on Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., the president of the Jesuit university in San Salvador and one of the martyrs assassinated in 1989. His vision of the university is really powerful, and three things, in particular, have influenced my thinking. The first is imagining the university focused outside of itself. The second is that he used to call the university the “critical conscience” of the nation. Con-sciencia means “with science.” That is, research and knowledge is a power that we must use for good. Finally, there was a little saying he used with impatient seminarians who were very eager to be active. He understood that activist impulse, but he would say to them, “We do our work en un escritorio, pero no desde un escritorio.” We do our work in a desk, but not from a desk.
You don’t want to turn your back on the very important power that comes from study and research, but there’s always that temptation to be in the ivory tower. We want to do our work in a way that is intellectual but grounded and engaged.
Q: What would you say are some of the most pressing issues in Catholicism that you’d like to tackle?
A: The Catholic Church faces a profound crisis, and if I needed a word to sum it up, I think I’d use authenticity. Can it be meaningful by example? There’s no avoiding the clerical sex abuse scandal. The church really needs to act, and it needs to act with humility, with openness, and mercy. The center is part of a very large grant to carry out a project we’re calling Taking Responsibility, about Jesuit educational institutions and confronting the causes and the legacy of the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
The second thing is the lingering vestiges of clericalism. Many Catholics still live in a two-tiered society where priests and bishops occupy this higher place. What we need to do in is tap into the great ability, talent, and desire that is present among laypeople, and especially women, whose gifts for so long have been on the margins if not refused altogether.
Finally, our political culture wars here in the United States have infected some sectors of Catholicism. I’ve seen students who have a profoundly Catholic imagination, this amazing perception of grace, of beauty, of truth in the world around them. But they hear talk in the church that is really hateful towards LGBTQ brothers and sisters or racist, and they say to themselves, “Well, if that’s Catholicism, then I’m no Catholic.” I want the center to be part of clarifying that to be Catholic is not necessarily to participate in the culture wars in that way. Faith calls one to take important stands in terms of justice, defending human rights, of building international solidarity, but it’s a tragedy for many young people to self-disqualify because they have a distorted image of what Catholicism can and should be.