Francis Fiorenza on His Esteemed Teaching Career, the Pluralization of Theology, and Studying with the 'Stars of the Stars'

July 29, 2021
Francis Schüssler Fiorenza
Professor Francis Schüssler Fiorenza

Harvard Divinity School celebrates and honors the distinguished career of Professor Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, who, in July 2021, retired from full-time teaching at HDS and now serves as the Charles Chauncey Stillman Research Professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies.

Fiorenza first joined HDS in 1986, and his primary interests are in the fields of fundamental or foundational theology, in which he explores the significance of contemporary hermeneutical theories as well as neo-pragmatic criticisms of foundationalism.

His writings on political theology engage recent theories of justice and have dealt with issues of work and welfare. He has also written on the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century theology, focusing on both Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians.

In addition to more than 150 essays in the areas of fundamental theology, hermeneutics, and political theology, among his numerous publications are Foundational Theology: Jesus and the Churchone of his earliest and best-known books—and Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives, edited with John Galvin.

Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Professor of Theology at Fordham University in New York City, HDS graduate (MTS ‘96, ThD ’01), author of The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism and Religious Diversity in America, Motherhood as Metaphor: Engendering Interreligious Dialogue, and Monopoly on Salvation? A Feminist Approach to Religious Pluralism, and former student of Fiorenza’s, recently spoke with him about becoming a lay theologian, his journey from New York to Germany to Harvard, and the current state (and future) of theology.

Jeannine Hill Fletcher: Francis, I have great memories of you being a fantastic mentor to me. I remember once, between my master’s degree and my doctoral work at Harvard, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we had just gotten back from the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, and you met with me in your office to help me prepare the final version of my PhD application. 

When I think of a mentor, I think of somebody who is willing to journey with you, as you did, but I also think about having been mentored by you and now passing that on to students that I will mentor. I’m curious about the folks who mentored you. When you think back on your graduate program, who were the scholars who influenced your thinking?

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza: Let me start by going back much earlier to my fifth-grade teacher. When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher found out that I hated my name, Francis, because classmates had teased me that I had a girl’s name. I asked my parents to change my name and threatened to run away from home if they did not. When this teacher learned this, she took me to the library and said, “Stay here until you read this book.”

It was God’s Troubadour: The Story of St. Francis of Assisi. A central chapter of this book focuses on his interacting with a wolf and helping the wolf and villagers to live in peace with one another. This had a great impact on me. I had been fascinated by Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which described in graphic incidents the law of the wild: “Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.” St. Francis, in getting the villagers and the wolf to live in peace, showed a different way of life: one of friendship and peace.

I saw Francis embodying Christianity as a way of life in contrast to the call of wild. His care for the poor, his actions on behalf of peace, his reconciliation of the wolf and the village made me proud of my name. That moved me to a religious interest and vocation. That same teacher pulled me aside during release-time and introduced me to the priest in charge of busing the public school children to church for religious education. She told him I would make an excellent altar boy, which I became, and I came to admire that priest.

That same teacher said something else that still puzzles me today. When my mother came to the school for a parent/teacher meeting to find out how I was doing, the teacher said, “Fine. But I have one piece of advice for you. I think when Francis grows older, he will become a college professor. Therefore, don’t put him in the Italian class, as most Italian parents do. Put him into the French class because in order to be a professor, you have to have a doctorate, and for that you need to know French and German.” I still can’t figure out what made her think that about me. At that time, I had thought about maybe joining Tonto and the Lone Ranger, not teaching in college.  

But it was important to me because, in middle school, I was therefore place in a French class that was almost all Jewish. There were only two other Italians in my middle school classes because of that decision, and being in those classes gave me a much broader and more diverse religious background.

The importance of the language recommendation eventually proved significant. When I became attracted to Karl Rahner because of an English article that I read, I wanted to read more Rahner and ended up reading him in French. So little of his writing was in English! I became enthusiastic about Karl Rahner, reading him in French.

Jeannine Hill Fletcher: Wow. How old were you when you became enthusiastic about Karl Rahner?

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza: Maybe around 16.

Jeannine Hill Fletcher: How unusual is that!

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza: When I was in high school, I had a fantastic confessor, Father Gerald Fogarty. At the time, I wanted to become a saint. And so, in order to become a saint, I realized most saints wore hairshirts. So I went down to New York City, to Gimbels, and said, “How can I buy a hairshirt?”

Jeannine Hill Fletcher: You did not.

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza: Yes, I did, and they said to me, “Well, you have to go to religious store,” so I went to a religious store and said, “How can I buy a hairshirt?” And they said, you should go to Macy’s or Gimbels. I then went to Macy’s, and they didn’t have it, and I said, “How could it be that in New York City, in the largest stores in the largest city in the world, I can’t buy a hairshirt?”

Jeannine Hill Fletcher: You can buy anything in New York City, but you couldn’t find a hairshirt.

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza: I told that to my confessor. And then he asked what else I was doing, and I said, “Well, I’m throwing out the lunch my mother makes me. I’m fasting to become a saint.” He forbade me to that and said, “Instead of coming to me just for confession, we need to talk at length and often.” He got me interested in the liturgical movement at the time and in British theologians that were trying to bring to Christianity a more humanistic viewpoint that emphasized the dignity of human nature—rather than an understanding of Christianity that negates human nature. One that sees Christianity fulfilling what human nature should be. Then when I read Rahner, I saw him as the perfect theologian to link human nature and theology.  

That confessor influenced me as I grew older. He urged me to do some ministerial work in poor parishes. There, I got to witness ministry with families that were poor, African American and Hispanic families. I became involved in organizing work that led to members of local parishes and others to go on the March on Washington, where I heard Martin Luther King’s famous talk. So I would say from that confessor, I gained a social consciousness and awareness of justice, which moved me away from more of a purely individualistic view of what it meant to be a saint. It helped me combine St. Francis’s concern for the poor with a more socially-oriented Christianity. For me, I saw Karl Rahner and J. B. Metz representing that with Metz, as Rahner’s assistant, bringing out the political aspect that Rahner didn’t name as explicitly. 

I wanted to work with both Rahner and Metz. I wanted to become a priest, but I increasingly  thought that what the church really needed was good theology. But Brooklyn had just lost its major seminary, so I thought there was no possibility for me being a theologian. So the thought occurred to me that maybe I should join a religious order. I went to see the vocational director for the Jesuits at Fordham University, and I said to him, “If I became a Jesuit, could I be sent to Europe to study with Rahner and Metz? Could I become a theology professor?”

He told me, “Well, if you became a Jesuit, the most important thing is religious obedience. You would have to do whatever the religious superiors wanted you to do and go wherever they wanted you to go.” So I said, “Don’t give me that obedience stuff. Why should I then join?” We talked back and forth for maybe an hour and a half, and at the end of the conversation, he said to me, “Maybe your vocation in life is not to become a priest, but to become a theologian.” And I said, “I never thought of that. Can a lay persons become a theologian?”

And so I went to go talk to my high school confessor, and he told me Father Bernard Cooke, S.J., chairman of the theology department of Marquette University, was coming to give a workshop in Staten Island and suggested I talk to him. I did. He told me he was working for the development of lay theologians in the church and I should apply for fellowships. I did and I ended up in Münster, where I knew Metz was and Rahner would soon be. Walter Kasper and Joseph Ratzinger [Pope Benedict XVI] were also there at the time. That was my initial group of teachers—they were the stars of the stars.

I started out working with Metz as he was beginning to push Rahner’s theology in the direction of a political theology. That attracted me very much. Rahner and Metz were active in Marxist-Christian dialogue and how to answer the challenges of Marxism at the time. As many college students at the time, I thought the Vietnam war was a big mistake. Kasper, who was just beginning to teach, was especially influential. I sought to combine his theology and Rahner’s. Later, I was introduced to Elisabeth and learned she was also in Kasper’s class. Elisabeth and I became the closest of friends and married three years later.

Jeannine Hill Fletcher: Do you have any stories that might capture for us what it was like to work with these giants in the field? What were Rahner and Metz like? What personality did they bring to this exploration?

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza: Metz was really very kind to me. When the war was ending in Germany, he was captured as a prisoner of war and sent over to the United States to work on a farm in Virginia. He was really young; he was only 16. He shouldn’t have been drafted that early, but the Germans needed troops. He used to take me to meet his mother because I was the youngest of his doctoral students. There’s actually a funny story that I tell. Metz’s mother leaned over to me once when Metz was driving us to a flower show and said, “Do you understand my son Baptist’s writings?” And I said, “Sure, I love them.” And she said, “Oh, that’s wonderful, because I read Karl Rahner’s writings, which he sends to me, and I understand them, but I don’t understand what my son is writing.”

Another thing about Metz that’s really very funny. He wanted to do something innovative. In the German university, professors gave lectures, and there were no questions. So Metz decided he was going to have a session one hour a week where students could come and ask questions—he was going to be innovative with the German system. I would come, and I would be the first one to raise my hand. Metz would take 45 minutes to answer my question, and then the session would be over. That happened three weeks in a row. And then he said, “We can’t let Americans take over this course. Are there any Germans who want to ask a question?” And so somebody asked a question, and he answered in around 10 minutes, and then I asked another, and he spent the rest of the session trying to answer. So that’s the thing I remember most about Metz from the first year there.   

Karl Rahner came to live in the dormitory where I lived. He knocked on my door once, and he saw my books and said, “Oh, I wish I had time to read books like you do as a student. When you’re busy writing, you have so much less time.” Once I was knocking on his door, and he was at his typewriter. We had to talk about something. And he said to me, “Francis, sometimes I’m sitting here at my typewriter, and it takes me two or three hours to finish one sentence.” And I felt like saying (but I kept my mouth shut), “Professor Rahner, sometimes when I’m reading you, it takes me two or three hours to finish one sentence.” But I was very polite. Rahner used to like to walk out at night and take walks through the town, so he was very friendly. He tended to get up around 4:30 in the morning and celebrate mass at around 5 am. I would offer services as an altar boy. I couldn’t think of a more friendly person. I got a on very personal level with him.

There’s one other interesting story. Elisabeth and I had become friendly, and Metz had not known that. Metz invited Elisabeth to talk about a new book on women in the church, and he learned she was a refugee. During that conversation, he talked about his experiences in America and she about her refugee experience. He told her that he had a young American student from the United States, and he was really worried about me because he feared I might be very lonely being separated from my parents as he was in America. Without saying a word about us, Elisabeth said, “Professor, I know Francis Fiorenza very well. You don’t have to worry about him being lonely.”

So that was Metz. We ended up asking Metz to marry us. Rahner was at our wedding. And then Metz came up to me after the wedding and said he wanted me to accompany him around the United States on a lecture. Elisabeth likes to joke that instead of going on a honeymoon, which we hadn’t planned because we had no money, I went to the United States with my professor as a replacement.

Kasper was also very personal as a university professor. When the Pope came out with an encyclical against birth control, he invited us both to his house to tell us, “You two, don’t actually worry about it. You should feel free to follow your own conscience.” And, of course, Elisabeth’s came from an area where Cardinal Dophner was who had issued the Vatican document calling for change. We were convinced that that position would change. But we were really touched that he had such concern for us.

Jeannine Hill Fletcher: In your own description of your experience and the timeframe in which you were undertaking your graduate programs, you were really part of the first generation of lay theologians. There was a real turning point there. Do you have any thoughts on the transition from clergy to lay theologians?

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza: When I was elected president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, I was one of the first laypeople. There was Monika Hellwig right before me, and I forget whether Bernard Cooke got elected after he had left the Jesuits. But it was really unusual for a layperson to move up the ranks in the CTSA.

When I began teaching, the College Theology Society consisted mainly of laypeople, whereas the CTSA had many priests. Over time, that has really shifted, and there are so many more laypeople teaching in seminaries. It’s the same situation that took place in Germany, where to be a university professor, you had to be a priest. This started to break down, first with the increasing presence of laypeople and women and then with lay professors. Then there were some more fundamental changes that took place in the very nature of theological studies.

Jeannine Hill Fletcher: So you’ve spoken about who is doing theology now and the shift to lay theologians. Can you help us see the changes in the way theology’s done or the landscape of the field from the beginning of your career to now?

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza: Let me just add that when I talk about who’s doing theology, I mentioned myself as a lay person. I’m a white lay male. If you’re going to ask about who, you have to realize that there are also women who are lay theologians. There’s also been a shift to the localization of theology through the diversification of theology. This has led to what I might call the pluralization of theology. I think this is an important shift in topics: what’s being discussed and how.

Jeannine Hill Fletcher: As you were describing the diversification, you pulled Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith off the shelf. He was talking about diversification even in his time, but you’re describing a broader diversification—not just a diversification of methods or the introduction of different philosophical standpoints, but also the diversification of human experiences that are being woven into the theological project. Can you say more about where you think theological studies is going with this diversification?

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza: Elisabeth and I recently received an honorary doctorate from the Jesuit School of Berkely (connected with University of Santa Clara), and for my commencement speech, I revisited a talk Rahner gave where he said that the church has to be a world church, and it’s just beginning to become a world church. I think he was right about that, but I think it’s now being spelled out in ways that he didn’t even envision. He identified the shifts from Judaism to the Hellenistic period to the modern period, and now we’re having a third shift from the Western European colonial church to a world church. We’re now just in the process of working that out.

We have to reckon with the fact that the church went out trying to missionize the world. We often downplay or overlook that that missionization of the world was colonization. Now, we’re seeing more theological reflection on decolonialization. I pointed out that the Jesuit school represented that in part, and Harvard Divinity School was going further with its incorporation of diverse religions into its ministry program.

I think this has a couple of impacts. It means that we have to take into account the degree to which the church was involved in oppression, and it means we have to ask how we can cultivate religious dialogue that recognizes that the history of religious dialogue within the church has a major emphasis on conversion. Can the church really deal with other religions on an equal basis?

Jeannine Hill Fletcher: And what about HDS? How have you seen these shifts playing out over the course of your time as a professor here?

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza: When I came to Harvard Divinity School as Stillman Professor, HDS was a Protestant school of theology. At first, the Stillman Professor was only a visiting position. To keep my predecessor, they gave him tenure, but I was the first one that was tenured from the very beginning. The year after me, Jon Levenson was given a professorship and made chair of Jewish Studies. Now, we have much more diversity in terms of professors, not just as a part of the Center for the Study of World Religions but within the University itself.

We can also see these innovations taking place with the restructuring of Andover Hall to Swartz Hall and the new chapel. As I mentioned, HDS is really trying to forge ahead in new directions and answer how we can become a divinity school that’s pluralistically diverse, ministerially diverse. This is where I see the School changing.

Jeannine Hill Fletcher: It’s fascinating that you describe your chair as being one of the first in terms of establishing some of that diversity, because when I was looking for a graduate program in 1994, Harvard Divinity School was one of the few places where I could study at the intersection of women’s studies and religion and religious diversity, so the religious diversity was already there conceptually, but you’re describing something quite different. You’re describing what happens when you place diversity at the center of your theological project.

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza: That’s an excellent way of explaining it. Religious diversity was present at the Center for the Study of World Religions, but it was apart from the School itself. The question became how to move it from an outside institute and make it part of both the doctoral program and the ministerial program themselves.

Jeannine Hill Fletcher: In light of these challenges and changes, do you see theology as a viable discipline moving forward? What are your hopes for the future of theology?

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza: I think part of theology being viable is for it to be a more interdisciplinary way of going forward. In other words, if you’re going to talk about colonialization and decolonialization, you really have to be familiar with that literature. If you’re going to be involved with critical race theory, you have to be familiar with it, and you have to realize how your own institution is implicated. We’ve been grappling with this at HDS as an institution.

This also brings me back to Rahner. In Foundations of Christian Faith, he starts out with the question, “What is the ultimate meaning of life?” And it comes upon us as a mystery. We could give it various names. Maybe “God,” “primordial groud,” or “abyss” is the appropriate name. But it comes first and foremost as an unknown, and we turn to our religious history to learn. That’s an aspect of Rahner’s theology that could be useful to us now. Rahner has an essay where he talks about how the church is not the object of faith in the way that God is, and we really have to emphasize that. That’s an important part of what doing theology is about. It’s my hope that the Divinity School could be an appropriate place to do so.

Jeannine Hill Fletcher: So theology is about the ultimate meaning of life and the mystery that surrounds us and our exploration into that, but it’s also about who we are to become as human beings. Wrestling with the oppression that theology has been a part of and wrestling with decolonial realities is a necessary element of our search for that ultimate meaning and truth.

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza: Right. And even though he didn’t make those moves explicitly, a lot of this work is still a continuation of Rahner—it’s bringing him to fruition.

Jeannine Hill Fletcher: As we close, I remember one piece of advice that you gave me when I was a young scholar at HDS. You said, “Write a lot. Publish a lot. And then don’t be afraid to look back and maybe even laugh at what you wrote when you were younger because you’re always evolving. You’re always exploring these ideas in new ways.” What kinds of advice do you give to folks who are in the middle of their theological projects now as they’re looking forward? And what hopes do you have for your students?

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza: I would say I give that advice that I gave you to everyone, though I have to admit that I stole that advice from Rahner. It was the advice his older brother gave him. But I understand that advice to mean you really have to be yourself and discover yourself through this process of revision. As for my hopes, I hope that some of my students—including you—will continue developing their own voices and go down paths I’ve never gone down. And I hope your students will do the same.

I think that this will contribute to the globalization and decolonization of theology—through social and geographical diversity of viewpoints. And I think the same is true at Harvard Divinity School. We have to look forward to HDS becoming even more diverse than it has been, although I think it’s been one of the more diverse divinity schools in the country. I’ve been happy at Harvard Divinity School, and I look forward to seeing how it continues to transform and change.