ot every professor gets a two-day conference in celebration of her retirement. Then again, not every professor is M. Shawn Copeland.
A professor of systematic theology and African and African Diaspora studies at Boston College since 2003, her resume alone could fill a book. She has taught at six universities and received honorary degrees from six more. She was the first black woman to be president of Catholic Theological Society of America, served as the associate director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, and once convened the Black Catholic Theological Symposium. She has learned from and worked alongside some of the most influential theologians of the four decades.
Copeland’s journey to BC was neither speedy nor direct. She first studied at Madonna College (now University), joining the Felician Sisters who conduct the school. After graduating with a B.A. in English in 1969, she stayed in her hometown of Detroit for two years, initially as a high school teacher.
Theologians, like the rest of the United States, were in a tumultuous state at the time. The late ’60s had brought a myriad of issues to the forefront of society—most prominently the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, but also the Vietnam War and second-wave feminism, which focused on the workplace, reproductive rights, and sexuality. Theology absorbed it all and inspired approaches to meet those needs.
Black theology particularly was growing and changing. Copeland picked up James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power, which helped define the distinctiveness of black faith at the time.
“There was a lot going on,” Copeland said. “So you have all these ideas and you’re thinking about all this, and time goes on and black theology becomes something that we all know about.”
But, as black theology emerged and grew, the Catholic Church failed to engage, instead devoting attention to liberation theology. Despite the movement’s concern for the poor and focus on liberation for oppressed peoples, there was no connection made to segregation and racism in the United States. The subsequent focus on Latin America created a “discontinuity,” according to Copeland.
“In a lot of ways, that’s understandable, Copeland said. “But in making that option, we left really a ton of people unintended to and unlistened to.”
Copeland charges that this choice represented a failure to understand the social impact of how people see God in the world—an absence of political theology at a time when the country was in desperate need of one.
“[Political theology] is asking the big questions about the political meanings and the cultural meanings,” Copeland said.
Instead of bracketing things into separate subfields, political theology, according to Copeland, looks at all of them together, creating a comprehensive whole out of the parts.
Such thinking significantly informed her work at the time. She began to protest the Archdiocese of Detroit’s attempts to close schools in African-American communities, which caused some discomfort within her religious order. She then transferred to the Adrian Dominican Sisters in 1971, where she remained for the next 23 years.
“In a lot of ways, that’s understandable. But in making that option, we left really a ton of people unintended to and unlistened to.” M. Shawn Copeland
That same year, Copeland moved to Pittsburgh, becoming the Special Projects Director—and later Executive Director—for the National Black Sisters’ Conference. Tasked with developing programs for the group, Copeland took the opportunity to read and think about theology more and more.
It was around this time that Bernard Lonergan, S.J.—a Canadian Jesuit and famed theologian-philosopher—piqued her academic interest. After first hearing about him at the 1975 Eucharistic Congress, she later found his book Method in Theology. In it, Lonergan outlines eight tasks for theology, all of which describe the concrete impact the field can have on the past and the future. Copeland found that his “functional specializations” spoke to her desire to apply theology to real lives.
In 1976, she began her work for Theology in the Americas (TIA), a coalition of Catholic and Protestant groups seeking to apply the teachings of liberation theology to the United States. A staff member on TIA’s Black Theology Project, she worked with Baptist Minister Muhammad Kenyatta to organize the first-ever national consultation on black theology.
“We were meeting people around the country, holding meetings,” she said. “And it became clear to me that while, yes, I knew some things, I didn’t know my tradition in a theologically responsible way.
“What I wanted to know is, what does my tradition have to say about all these things?”
opeland resolved to continue her education, hoping to orient herself toward the real-world impact that theology could have by focusing on battling oppression and discrimination.
“When I got ready to go to school, I wanted to know Catholic theology,” Copeland said. “I knew other theology. I knew liberation theology, I knew black theology, I knew feminist theology. What I didn’t have at a graduate level was Catholic theology.”
Lonergan had just begun to teach at BC as a distinguished visiting professor, drawing her eye up north and away from Catholic University.
Copeland, following her insatiable interest, finally reached BC in 1977.
“If I say [the University] was more modest, I would only be saying that it was growing up, beginning to make a turn to the kind of research university it has become,” Copeland said. “There really was plenty of room here to appropriate your tradition in a serious way.”
She recalled how incredibly accessible BC’s faculty was when she first arrived. For her, the open-door policy of her professors helped create a close-knit community, which, in turn, pushed the conversation about theology forward.
“They had some disagreements about what was or was not important, or what could be an interpretation of some particular text or movement,” Copeland said. “But one of the things that was very clear, is that even if there were opposite thinkers, they were all generous with one another and hospitable. And so they gave an example of theology as being able to have conflicting viewpoints, one in which people actually really talk to one another.”
Soon enough, Copeland became an integral part of that community.
Fred Lawrence, Copeland’s advisor, recalled during his tribute to her that she quickly became the “charter member of the Lawrence family rescue unit,” constantly offering her Volkswagon Bug or picking up his children when his own car broke down—a testament to her generosity.
"I knew other theology. I knew liberation theology, I knew black theology, I knew feminist theology. What I didn't have at a graduate level was Catholic theology.” M. Shawn Copeland
Her focus at BC—systematic theology—reflected her interest in understanding the foundation of the various threads of theology she saw out in the world.
“Systematic theology tries to think about the Christian faith in terms of its doctrines, but as they are all connected,” Copeland said.
During her time in Boston, Copeland taught feminist theology at the Women’s Theological Center in Back Bay. The organization provided feminist theology and interpretation for people in seminary who wanted to incorporate the subject into their education. She went on to teach at St. Norbert’s College in Wisconsin for three years before moving to Yale Divinity School, lecturing on Theology and Black Studies. In her five years there, she moved from lecturer to assistant professor to associate professor—all while finishing her BC dissertation.
Lawrence fondly remembers reading that dissertation (A Genetic Study of the Idea of the Human Good in the Thought of Bernard Lonergan), which focused on the thinker whose writing had helped get her to BC. At the conference, Lawrence recalled the first page of the tome’s 400 pages, on which Copeland declared “the deepest commitment of my heart and mind” to the forgotten men and women of history.
“This, then, is the first of many payments to honor my pledge to give a voice to those who live in their bruised bodies the struggle of life over sin and evil, of justice over injustice, of love over hatred and revenge, and freedom over suppression and death,” Copeland wrote.
fter leaving Yale, Copeland returned to the midwest, having accepted a position in Marquette University’s theology department, which was led by Patrick Carey. Copeland and Carey, joined by Sister Jamie Phelps, OP, and John McCarthy of Loyola University Chicago, decided to create a way to facilitate the recruitment of black Catholics into graduate programs, hoping to boost the community’s size.
Although it didn’t pan out at Marquette—in large part due to funding troubles—Copeland enjoyed her time there. But still looking to grow the black Catholic academic community, she turned to her summer work at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, which was housed at the Xavier Institute of Louisiana.
The Institute aimed at preparing black Catholic lay people academically in theology and offered either a Master’s program or a certification program. Beyond fostering a larger community, Copeland also hoped her work would send a message to the broader Catholic community about the resources needed for the endeavor.
“You know, in a larger frame, we need more resources to help people grow their faith and to begin to think about their faith in an increasingly reasoned way, because theology is reason to intellectual inquiry,” Copeland said. “We’re trying to develop a black Catholic theology. It doesn’t exist without us, because nobody else is doing this.”
The black Catholic community is small and too often overlooked, according to Copeland. Over time, individuals found each other incidentally and slowly grouped together. Before attempts at international organization got up and running, there was very little community at all, in fact. Unable to just dip into a pool of candidates, Copeland and her peers had to create one themselves.
She often tells the story of the black Catholics of Collerton County, South Carolina as emblematic of black Catholic faith and its relationship to the greater Church. When white plantation owners left enslaved Africans behind during the Civil War, these abandoned black Catholics remained alone for almost 40 years. Their church, which had been destroyed in a fire years before, was built again, sans priest. Left behind, the community continued to keep its faith alive, alone and unwelcomed by white Catholics.
Another paradigmatic example she gives: the end of the Federated Colored Catholics, or as it was originally known, the Committee against the Extension of Race Prejudice in the Church. Thomas Wyatt Turner, the group’s founder, hoped to bring black Catholics together, lend support to black theologians, and increase the power of their voices in the Church. But several supporters—most prominently white Jesuit John LaFarge—wanted to integrate the group in both membership and leadership. Eventually, the Federated Colored Catholics gave way to the the National Catholic Federation for the Promotion of Better Race Relations.
“And so the Federated Colored Catholics kind of disappears,” Copeland said. “I’m saying this because we had to learn all this on our own. And by we I mean the black Catholics who were organizing [in the late 20th century].”
In a 2003 interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Copeland commented on the history of black Catholics just as she became the first black woman to lead the Catholic Theological Society of America.
“You’d have to look at the number of black Catholic priests,” she said. “You’d have to look at the number of black Catholic religious women. You’d have to ask about the presence of the church in inner city areas.
“Those kinds of gestures and those kinds of proactive actions—recruiting priests, recruiting women for religious life—would reflect whether or not black Catholics were integrated into the U.S. Catholic Church. I would have to say that historically in a certain way, that we are not as a people.”
fter several years split between Marquette and the Institute, Copeland decided it was time to take on another job. In 2001, she was invited to come back to BC as the Joseph Visiting Chair of Catholic Theology by Robert Daly, S.J., who had been the department’s chair during her time as a student, and Michael Buckley, S.J.
Almost immediately, then-department chair Steve Pope became to recruit her for a full-time position, asking Copeland if she thought she could do her best work back home on the Heights. She did, with the proximity to a city full of students—especially black Catholic students—also intriguing her.
Although the process has taken some time, Copeland has seen progress in BC’s theology department. She pointed to black professors Andrew Prevot, who is Catholic, and Amey Victoria Adkins-Jones, who, like Copeland, teaches both theology and African Diaspora studies.
“We’re trying to develop a black Catholic theology. It doesn’t exist without us, because nobody else is doing this.” M. Shawn Copeland
Prevot, who came a full decade after Copeland was hired at BC as a tenured professor, is the only other black Catholic to join her—and with her retirement, he will be alone in the tradition.
“Working with her has been one of the greatest blessings in my time here at BC, and I will truly grieve her absence,” Prevot said. “As a relatively young black Catholic theologian, I look up to her and owe her a debt of gratitude for all that she has done to pave the way for my own work. I count her not only as a mentor and colleague, but also as a friend.”
Copeland said that the choke point occurs at all levels: There are few Catholic schools in black communities, and even then young black men are encouraged to enter into other professions.
“Which is really important—no argument there. But I’m not sure we’re planting any seeds for theology or philosophy,” Copeland said.
Religious communities are also aging, Copeland said, so there’s fewer young, graduate school-focused people in the picture. At BC, she found herself on the other side of the pipeline: demand, not supply. Despite the difficulties, Copeland looks at her time as BC as a personal success. In her time as a grad student, there were very few women and even fewer AHANA theology faculty.
“I hope that BC will invest significant resources into recruiting and retaining faculty who will continue her legacy of thinking theologically from the perspective of poor, despised women of color,” Prevot said. “This would be the best way to honor her and all those suffering communities whom she has served throughout her career.”
n the academic front, she feels equally fulfilled and takes pride in having fostered the same openness she benefited from all those years ago.
“You want to do some good in the world, you know?” Copeland said. You want to leave wherever you are better than when you found it. And you’d like to contribute to that betterment—not that you’re solely responsible or that you can personally bring it about. It takes the work of many people, not just one person.
“I love it here. I know BC wants to be great. I want it to be good.”
Featured Image Courtesy of University Communications