Bradford Hinze, Ph.D., the Karl Rahner, S.J. Professor of Theology, is working with the Vatican to give voice to those who have been historically marginalized and to help the Catholic Church re-examine its goals.
This year, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development—an office that promotes human development, particularly for migrants and refugees—launched a new project under Pope Francis. The goal of the project, Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheries, was to interview those who are often excluded from conversations in the church and to use their feedback to improve the church and its practices.
The dicastery recruited nearly 100 theologians, including Hinze, to speak with people across each continent. (Hinze is the sole representative from Fordham.) More than 500 people, including migrants, refugees, prisoners, and victims of abuse—people who live at “the existential peripheries,” in the words of Pope Francis—shared testimonials.
Testimonials on Some of the Most Pressing Issues
Last semester, Hinze conducted in-person interviews in New York with about 50 people, predominantly Catholics. He met members of three groups—Black Catholics in the Parish of St. Charles Borromeo in Harlem, LGBTQ Catholics in St. Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan, and Latina Catholic migrants at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Bronx—as well as other individuals.
“I tried to find people who could contribute to a discussion about some of the most pressing issues, especially in the United States. Since I teach theology and in the area of the church, I know that there’s a lot of tension in the U.S. on race issues,” said Hinze.
In videotaped interviews, he asked them to reflect on their experiences in life and with the church. What were their biggest sources of joy, pain, and sorrow? Where did they see God at work—or not? How had their faith helped or hindered them? How could the church have better helped them?
Some questions were targeted toward specific groups. They were asked to consider their struggles as immigrants in the Bronx or in the church. Others were asked about how racism and discrimination against their sexual orientation had caused them to think differently about God and Catholicism.
A Surprising Message of Gratitude
Trena Yonkers-Talz, GRE ’23, who was recruited by Hinze to interview the Latina women in Spanish, said that her group spoke transparently about their painful memories in the U.S. and in their native countries, where they felt rejected by the church for different reasons, including having a family member in the LGBTQ community. In recounting their stories, many of the women wept, she said. But with the help of God, they were able to heal from their past wounds and imagine a brighter future.
What surprised her the most, said Yonkers-Talz, was the message they would give Pope Francis if he were sitting beside them.
“I expected them to want to tell him everything that needed to be fixed, but instead, they wanted to tell him how grateful they are—how much they’re trying to live out their faith and that their faith matters to them,” Yonkers-Talz recalled. “Their posture of gratitude really struck me because our whole conversation wasn’t one of gratitude. Yet at the end, there was still this profound sense of faith and gratitude for the church and its leadership.”
‘That’s a Message That the Universal Church Needs to Hear’
Hinze, who interviewed Black and LGBTQ Catholics, said that the testimonials from both groups were moving and “brutally” honest.
“The Black Catholics were incredibly honest about their experience of racism in the church by priests and bishops, including priests who won’t talk about violence against Black people in New York, Harlem, and elsewhere,” Hinze said. “They spoke from their heart about it—so much that I was quite moved. I choked up, just listening to them. But at the same time—and this was equally moving—they spoke about how deeply connected they are to their Catholic community and how filled and encouraged they are to be in this group. The LGBTQ group did the same thing. … I think that’s a message that the universal church needs to hear.”
After analyzing the interview transcriptions, Hinze contributed his summary to a 120-page collective report from the North American theologians that will be made available to bishops worldwide. On Oct. 12, scholars and Vatican officials met at a conference in Rome, one of their first opportunities to discuss the project reports. They will further discuss the theologians’ findings with Pope Francis two years from now in Rome, at the conclusion of the Synod on Synodality—a three-year process of listening and dialogue initiated by the Pope.
A project of this scale has never been conducted before by the Vatican, said Hinze. He said he hopes that bishops around the world will sincerely listen to the lay people’s stories and their thoughts on how the church can address where it’s fallen short—to “see what life is really like for those who live on the margins and to learn from them.”
“It all goes back to this: The bishops need to invite and listen to people to talk about their struggles and joys in the church,” he said. These conversations should be going on, not just through the Vatican, but in dioceses and in parishes as well. You need to sit with people in your parish and ask, ‘Who’s on the margins? Who has left the church?’ And talk to them.”