Cornille Named Newton Chair
Published: Thursday, March 21, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 21, 2013 04:03
Before Catherine Cornille, professor of theology, became the first female chairperson of Boston College’s theology department, she was the first full-time female professor in the theology department of the University of Leuven, a 500-year-old university in Belgium. This month, Cornille was appointed to the Newton College Alumnae Chair in Western Culture, succeeding Judith Wilt, the inaugural holder of the chair, who retired in 2010.
In 1997, alumnae of Newton College, which was subsumed by BC in 1974, endowed the chair to acknowledge a class in western culture that they enjoyed and that played an important role in their educational experience.
Before coming to BC, Cornille was tenured at Leuven, itself a Catholic university, but not a Jesuit one. Cornille described the culture there as vastly different from BC.
“In Belgium, it was a Catholic university in a Catholic culture, where the majority of the population was nominally Catholic, but the percentage of practicing Catholics is maybe four percent,” she said. “That gives the university more of a secular feel, paradoxically. It doesn’t affirm its identity as Catholic because that is taken for granted. As a result of this, it became emptied out—it didn’t necessarily mean a whole lot.”
Within that context, the theology department was still very clerical while Cornille studied there and began her teaching. As the only person teaching anything non-Christian and the only woman, she did not feel completely part of the culture. Part of this was due to the low number of women doing graduate work in theology.
“Here at Boston College, I feel like there is a lot more of a reflection on Catholic identity, a commitment to Catholic identity,” Cornille said. “There is a spirit of reflection on those issues that is part of the culture of Boston College. The Catholic identity is much more front and center than it is at Louven.”
Cornille became a full-time member of the theology faculty in 2005, after working part time in the department for several years.
“[Rev. Frank Clooney, S.J.] was teaching at BC at the time and he invited me to teach here,” Cornille said. “From the moment I started to teach here, it felt like the right fit. I love the whole atmosphere of freedom of inquiry and openness towards questions of interreligious dialogue and other religions that was very congenial to my interests and research.”
Since she received her Ph.D. from Louven in December of 1989, Cornille has been interested in issues of interreligious dialogue. Her work focuses on the encounters between religions and cultures and the questions that those encounters raise. One prominent part of this research has been focused on the attitude of Christianity towards other religions.
“For the past 10 years, my research has focused mostly on directly theological, theoretical, and methodological questions in interreligious dialogue,” Cornille said. “In 2008, I published a book—The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue—in which I reflected on the conditions for the possibility of interreligious dialogue and tried to show how difficult it is for particular religions.”
After the publication of that book, Cornille organized conferences on different critical questions in interreligious dialogue every year. These conferences focused on the role for interreligious dialogue in issues such as discernment, hermeneutics, economic development, cultural change, and the role of women.
“I also just finished [another] major work—The Blackwell-Wiley Companion to Interreligious Dialogue¬,” Cornille said. “It’s a 500-page book that brings together both theoretical pieces and a whole series of case studies. There is a description of the history of Muslim-Confucian dialogue, Christian-Buddhist dialogue, Hindu-Buddhist dialogue—so all kinds of dialogues that have been happening and are happening the world are mapped out.”
At the foundation of all her work, Cornille focused on the importance of reflection. She described this as a fundamental necessity for moving constructive dialogue forward between different religious groups. This in turn informs her field of comparative theology.
“[Comparative theology] is how religions, Christianity in this case, can learn from other religions in order to advance its own self-understanding,” Cornille said. “[Part of this is] reflecting on your own tradition in the light of another.”