|Christa R. Klein, Ph.D., is president of In Trust Inc. She lives in Wilmington, Delaware.
Rabbi Joel Zaiman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore is a master teacher. He asked the seminarians at St. Mary's Seminary & University, "What makes you a Catholic?" And then he dismissed every abstract theological answer, looking for a lex orandi, lex credendi response. Literally, that means that the "rule in praying is the rule in believing," or, "what you pray, you believe." The practices of a Catholic are what create one's Catholic identity. Rabbi Zaiman extracted that response as a way of beginning his two-hour session and observed that Jews and Catholics both emphasize religious practice.
The class Rabbi Zaiman was teaching was "Pastoral Ministry in an Ecumenical and Interfaith Context." Its goal was to equip future priests to be informed teachers of their tradition in relation to others and within the guidelines provided by the Catholic Church. The required course was itself mandated by the Program of Priestly Formation, adopted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and approved by the Vatican.
Results for students were noteworthy. Exposed to readings, clergy, and field visits within the major Protestant traditions, Eastern Orthodoxy, Judaism and Islam, St. Mary's native and foreign-born students -- many of them with parochial backgrounds -- grew in curiosity and engaged in genuine and respectful dialogue. They developed a new appreciation for the riches of other traditions while at the same time learning more about their own.
Within the governance structure of St. Mary's, the president-rector and the dean worked with the faculty to position the course and designated a team of faculty members to design it. The board of trustees had little directly to do with this development, except that St. Mary's reputation as a leader in ecumenical and interfaith relations was a great incentive to board membership. St. Mary's 35-year-old Ecumenical Institute of Theology offers an evening graduate master's degree program. Its board chair, Cardinal William Keeler, the Archbishop of Baltimore, is an international leader in ecumenical and interfaith relations.
Like every theological school, St. Mary's response to the challenge of increasing religious diversity in North American religion is shaped by its own identity, history and tradition. There can be no single response appropriate for every school, nor is In Trust about to tell the members of governing boards, administrations, and faculties how best to accomplish theological education amidst religious diversity.
Yet we are here to remind governing boards that a school's vocation to equip people for ministry today invariably requires preparation for leadership in interdenominational, nondenominational, and interfaith settings. (What wedding or funeral has not become such a setting?) The policies that express those commitments are matters of good governance.
Students must know their own traditions in order to engage in authentic interdenominational and interfaith dialogue and to cope in this world. Respect comes from recognizing commonalities and differences -- not papering over differences as if they don't matter or, worse yet, are an embarrassment. Who God is and what Truth is are the bases for a theological education. No theological school graduate, whether in teaching, ministry, or social service, and no congregation member is isolated from diversity.
Do you know your school's values with respect to diversity, and how they are taught and expressed? With this Autumn issue of In Trust, we hope to provide you with an overview of how some schools are meeting the challenge of religious diversity. And we encourage your own reflection about the level of responsibility your school has shouldered to make theological education excellent preparation for ministry in a multidimensional world.