LMUTW sat down with James T. Bretzke, S.J., a professor of theology at John Carroll University and the author of “Handbook of Roman Catholic Moral Terms” (Georgetown University Press), “A Morally Complex World,” and “Consecrated Phrases: A Latin Theological Dictionary” (Liturgical Press). Bretzke, among the most respected modern moral theologians in the U.S., is visiting LMU as part of the Jesuit Scholar Program. Here is our conversation.
LMUTW: Why did you choose LMU?
Father James Bretzke: I came here very happily. In the Jesuit Community at LMU I have five former students: Eddie Seibert, S.J., John Galvan, S.J, Lan Ngo, S.J., Mark Bandsuch, S.J., and Brian Reedy, S.J. I was also ordained the same year as Michael Engh, S.J. So, there’s all sorts of people here that I know. And I’m very happy to be here.
It’s a lovely community. My room, which is in the Arrupe Wing of the Jesuit community, is gorgeous. It looks out on the Pacific Ocean and the grass is green. I can tell you that in Cleveland right now, the grass is not green; it’s white and buried under a couple feet of snow. It’s very pleasant to be here.
LMU is special. It is the only Jesuit university in Greater L.A. and it has a lot of wonderful programs and is a lovely campus. It’s an excellent Jesuit university in the sense of what is Jesuit university is supposed to do, it’s doing that well.
LMUTW: What are you teaching?
JB: I’m teaching a course called “Jesus and the Gospels in Film,” which I had never taught before. And I’m not a film studies expert by any means, but I thought it’s a good way to talk about the New Testament, about Jesus Christ, in a way that the students seem to be interested in.
I’m taking Gospel themes and Gospel events and examining what the Gospel says. I’m asking students to read all four Gospels in their entirety with at least two English translations, one a fairly straight forward one, like the New Revised Standard Version, and the other can be more of a looser translation. So, they get a sense of how translations can differ.
Then I am asking my students to imagine that we’re doing an adapted screenplay. The Gospel is the original text, and now we’re taking that original text and adapting it for this Gospel. In other words, taking the original story the same way you might do a film screenplay adaptation of a novel, or something else like that.
LMUTW: What do you appreciate about your students?
JB: I appreciate how diverse the student body is at LMU. The terms diversity, equity, inclusion are contemporary academic buzzwords, but in reality, have always been of value. God has made the world diverse. God has desired that all be included and God has desired that all be included in an equitable manner. Diversity, equity, inclusion, I believe are part of God’s providence. The greater diversity you have, the more people that you include, the more creative individuals’ voices you hear, the more enriching the conversation will be for all of us.
Diversity is a gift to the students it is a gift to the teacher and is a gift to the world.
LMUTW: Let’s talk about some issues today that include moral theology. What do you think about the moral issue as it relates to some Catholics suggesting President Biden should not be able to receive communion?
JB: OK. You can frame it as a moral issue, but technically it is better framed as a canonical issue. It’s a church discipline, who gets to go to Communion or not. You can say it’s a moral issue and to some extent it is, but it’s narrowly speaking it’s a Church discipline issue. So, for example, a murderer would not be denied Communion because the person is a murderer. So, it’s a Church discipline issue. But the question, if it’s a canonical issue, then you have to address it carefully on canonical grounds. I am in solidarity with Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington D.C., who is President Biden’s religious superior, that there are not sufficient canonical grounds to deny Biden Communion.
LMUTW: What Does Catholic theology teach us about the COVID-19 vaccine or Church authorities? What’s your position on that?
JB: Well, my position is identical with the position of Pope Francis and the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith that the vaccine is moral to take. It was produced morally and because of its ability to safeguard against serious illness and death in individuals who take it and then collectively for the human community, that everyone has a primary duty of self-preservation.
Pope Francis, the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the vast majority of bishops, and the vast majority of credentialed moral theologians are in unanimous agreement that this vaccine not only may be taken, but should be taken. And so, if you don’t take it, you have to have legitimate reasons not to take it [such as an allergy].
LMUTW: What are your thoughts about poverty today?
JB: Poverty, I’m against it. It’s a very broad and complex issue, so if you’re going to address poverty, you have to look at, well, what causes poverty. The causes, can they be better analyzed? Can they be better addressed? So, I’m reading right now a book Wealth, Virtue, and Moral Luck: Christian Ethics in an Age of Inequality,” by one of our former graduate students of Boston College, Kate Ward, and she’s talking about wealth and the causes of poverty and the notion of moral luck. She articulates that one of the real causes of poverty is income inequality. And so, if you want to address poverty you have to do a deeper dive into what causes it, what can we fix? And so, it’s not overly helpful to take a bumper sticker and say, “End poverty now.”
I’m all for, ending poverty now, but putting stickers on bumpers isn’t going to do it. So, we need to address some of the causes of poverty.
LMUTW: You will be giving a public lecture at LMU, do you know what your topic will be?
JB: It is called “The Scholar’s Stone (水石): Utilizing Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ Movie Motif in Decoding Racism and Class” It will take place Thursday, March 10, in Ahmanson Auditorium at 3 p.m., followed by a reception. I’m going to be doing an analysis of that film, “Parasite.” I’m going to be taking one of the leitmotifs of that film, which in English is called the scholar’s stone, which is this natural, mountain or something that was gifted to a man in the beginning of the film, by a friend who is much richer. And it appears throughout the film and I’m using it as a vehicle for looking at how Confucian culture in contemporary Korea still functions positively and negatively. So, the official title is “The Scholar’s Stone and Uncovering the Aesthetics of Critical Race Theory in the Movie ‘Parasite.’”