Last Thursday night, the Woodstock Theological Center held a forum on “Religion and the Renewal of Civic Society.” A board of three experts spoke before a large crowd of mostly non-students in ICC auditorium. Joan Rosenhauer, who works for the Office of Social Development and World Peace, a section of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, sat on the panel. Also participating were Fr. William O’Neill, S.J., an associate professor of social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, and John Farina, a fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center and co-director for the Catholicism and Civil Renewal Project.

The discussion was moderated by E.J. Dionne, Jr., an opinion-editorial columnist for The Washington Post.

The forum discussed what roles that Catholics and the Church should play in renewing civic society. All of the panelists agreed that it was necessary for Catholics to participate in and contribute to their communities.

Rosenhauer maintained that the Church must be a factor in the renewal of civil society. “It not only can, but it should . There can be no greater or more important time for the Church to speak out about moral and ethical dimensions of the current events,” he said.

O’Neill added that it was a Catholic’s job to work for the sake of humanity and to be involved in both the local and global communities. “It is not a duty to help people, it is expected.”

Despite the expressed need for Catholics to increase their roles in the community, there was a general consensus that the recent sex abuse scandals presented a major obstacle. The panelists felt that the scandals prevented the Church from fully contributing to society. Farina said that the crimes “may restrict the Church’s liberty.” The three experts, however, maintained that Catholics must work to repair the damage done to the Church’s image. “We are more than the mistakes of some of our members,” Rosenhauer said.

All three experts noted that the Catholic Church and the faith itself had much to contribute to society. Rosenhauer pointed out that the Church had extensive experience caring for people on the margins of society because of its dealing with poverty, repression, disease and war. This experience should be channeled into positive public policy initiatives, she said.

Farina added that the Catholic drive to benefit the common good could be a valuable asset. “If we can get our act together, Catholics can bring a much needed resource to society,” she said.

The experts made several different suggestions as to exactly how individual Catholics and the institutions as a whole should work towards civil renewal. Rosenhauer felt that it was important for Catholics to be involved in the government and speak out about the ethical dimensions of public policy. “Participation in the political process is a moral obligation . as individuals we can contribute by sharing the message that every Catholic has an obligation to be politically involved,” Rosenhauer said.

Panelists firmly agreed that it was crucial for all Catholics to come together and play an active role in working for the common good.

O’Neill closed the discussion by predicting that there would be a rise in the importance of the laity and of women in the near future. He felt that “a renewal from the bottom up” is pending.

The Woodstock Theological Center is a non-profit institute at Georgetown that was founded in 1974 by the Society of Jesus. It is named in honor of a small Jesuit college in Woodstock, Md. The school was closed in 1974, and Georgetown University offered to house the Woodstock Library in the bottom floor of Lauinger Library. Concurrently, it was decided that a new center for theological reflections would be created, and the Woodstock Theological Center came into being.

The center’s mission is to provide a forum for theological and ethical reflections on social topics like politics, the economy, culture and science. In addition to hosting discussions, the center also conducts research and publishes books and articles.

The next Woodstock Theological Center Forum will be held in arch. The focus of the discussion will be on rebuilding faith in the Catholic Church.

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