Catholicity as Gift and Task: A Reflection on St. Bernard's Academic Conference - St. Bernard's

Catholicity as Gift and Task: A Reflection on St. Bernard's Academic Conference

Nov 8, 2022

Charles Hughes Huff, Ph.D.

The call to papers for St. Bernard’s recent conference — “Catholicity as Gift and Task: The 50th Anniversary of Communio — asked a series of questions about the theological journal Communio: International Catholic Review. These questions were adapted from those asked of the journal at its 25th anniversary by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He wrote:

“I cannot help but think about a sentence of Hans Urs von Balthasar: ‘It is not a matter of bravado, but of Christian courage, to expose oneself to risk.’ Have we been courageous enough? Or have we in fact preferred to hide behind theological learnedness and tried too often to show that we too are up-to-date? Have we really spoken the Word of faith intelligibly and reached the hearts of a hungering world? Or do we mostly try to remain within an inner circle throwing the ball back and forth with technical language?”[1]

Communio theologians like Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Pope Benedict XVI are familiar to St. Bernard’s students because they are so important for so many St. Bernard’s faculty. Many of our faculty even studied with editors of the United States edition of Communio. It is important, then, that these questions be asked of the journal that these theologians founded for the Church. And it is important, too, that we ask them of ourselves.

Dr. Nicholas J. Healy's Friday evening address titled, "Reflections of the History of 'Communio'"

Communio’s practice is different from some international, academic journals with branches in various countries in that the journal does not issue a series of articles from a central location to be translated into various language editions. Rather, each seat of Communio — presently Germany, France, Argentina, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Croatia, the US, and Brazil — solicits and publishes its own articles, only some of which are shared (ideally) across the other editions of the journal.

The questions posed must then be answered in different ways by different people in the global Church. This is the very point of a journal entitled Communio: it is not a marketing word for a particular brand of Catholic theology, but a commitment to a specific Catholic ecclesiology, to people of all kinds and vocations regardless of hierarchical position or cultural situation, as the very lifeblood of the Church, deeply involved in the Church’s language about the gospel in the present moment.

The conference weekend concluded with a panel of all our keynote presenters (from left to right): Tracey Rowland, Ph.D.; Rev. Jacques Servais, S.J., Ph.D.; Jean-Luc Marion, Ph.D.; and Jean Duchesne, Ph.D.

This conference was therefore international and drew on the experiences and perspectives of a wide variety of people. Even in the keynote talks and panels it became clear, for instance, that Belgian, French, and American Communio editors and theologians do not always agree with each other. Wonderful! Not because diversity of perspective is the end goal of thought, nor because academic debate is fun (though it is!), but because it reminded us that good theological discourse is not swapping shibboleths, but real people addressing the realities they uniquely see.

The papers I was fortunate enough to moderate were beautiful — an absurd claim, as anyone who’s ever been to an academic conference knows, but accurate. Some asked: how could what is good and true in Communio theologies be extended — in homiletics, in literature, in hermeneutics, in the traditional theological disciplines? Others asked how themes from this tradition could be refined, critiqued, and treated with the light touch of grace. Two papers showed how Pope Francis’ theological and pastoral writings coalesce with the sources and concerns of Communio beloveds like Romano Guardini — a welcome embrace of the present as communion with the past.

For all these reasons, the vision of Communio and Communio theologians that emerged was not static. There was a forward motion, a freshness that counted dear the past things by not pinning them behind glass. Jean Duchense told many stories of his old friends Bouyer, de Lubac, and Balthasar, but also cheerfully averred that that was then and this is now — and that his French Communio has helped steer the path by accepting, with love, the present realities and looking forward to the good yet to come.

Dr. Jean Duchesne's Saturday evening address titled, "Challenges and Expectations in France in the 1970s"

St. Bernard’s, then, asked questions in the conference proposal, asked them again in the months of reading group meetings leading up to the conference, asked them urgently during the conference, and asks them still. This is not because no answers were achieved. Rather, I think these questions attempt a return to the Cross, the fundamental question that when seen truly unmasks all pretensions. It is to admit that communio is a gift given by God, not by consensus. As Balthasar writes in the initial program for the journal:

“...the God who reserves this judgment to himself is the same who in Jesus Christ went down into the dereliction of the absence of God which is that of all egoists, all spiritual privateers, and the dropouts of every community, into the abyss of all godforsaken and inhuman loneliness. Consequently no human being has the right any longer to accord the same rank and dignity to the attitude and task of criticism as to the fact that community has been bestowed. In every contact with his fellow-men, even if it fails and breaks off, beforehand, in the course of it and then even afterwards, he has to presuppose the existence of an all-embracing communion.”[2]

And as Marion wrote for the 40th anniversary of Communio, translated and distributed for St. Bernard’s conference:

“So there is all the less need to undertake a re-conquest, since, if Christ has already and forever conquered everything in order to hand it over to the Father, we, by contrast, are not yet entirely won over to Christ, hardly more so than those who say they remain strangers to him. Our tragedy is not that not everyone is a Christian but, first of all, that we — we are not saints.”[3]

I thank the organizers of this conference — Matthew Kuhner, Lisa Lickona, Daniel Drain — and the incredible support staff — Katharina Nieves, Kelly Brunacini, Bernadette Brobrowski, Mary Colleen Drain, and Matthew Brown — with much gratitude for the opportunity to share communion with the many rich, particular people that graced our halls. Thank you for your hard work and thoughtful planning in every detail. Thank you for eschewing bravado and embracing the risk of Christian courage.


[1] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “Communio: A Program,” Communio 19 (1992): 449.

[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Communio: A Program,” Communio 33 (2006): 160 [Reprint of Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Communio: A Programme,” International Catholic Review 1 (1972)].

[3] Jean-Luc Marion, “Communio 40 Years Later: How and Why?” Unpublished English translation of “Communio, 40 ans après: comment et pour quoi?” Communio XL (2015).

Dr. Charles Hughes Huff is Assistant Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, NY. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 2019 and studies how ancient authors portray social practices in narratives and language to covey ritual authority. He also investigates how scholars use modern ethical stances to evaluate ancient Middle Eastern social practices. Hughes Huff teaches courses in Bible, ethics and social justice, and archeology. He's an Area Supervisor and Historian for the Baluʿa Regional Archaeological Project with excavations in Khirbat al-Baluʿa, Jordan. Outside the classroom, he enjoys hiking, cooking, and digging up old dirt.