The Catholic Theological Society of America’s highest award has been celebrating distinguished theological achievement for 46 years, and the National Catholic Reporter reports that for the first time, an African-American has been honored with the John Courtney Murray Award. M. Shawn Copeland received the John Courtney Murray Award at this year’s CTSA convention in Indianapolis.
At the convention, she was called a “ground-breaking pioneer in black Catholic theology” whose “pioneering and prophetic scholarship … confronts us with the uncomfortable truth of the cost of discipleship” by CTSA president Mary Hines, who presented the award at the June 9 banquet. Copeland, in her acceptance speech mentioned that the award “is not just about me, it is about us; this is our story,” as she named and praised the scholarship, advocacy, and generosity of dozens of others, including James Cone, the founder of black theology who died in April.
“Honoring me also calls us to engage the work of scholars who, in response to the Incarnation of our God, have placed the life, dignity and flourishing of God’s human creatures at the center of their intellectual praxis: theologians who insist that women’s lives, differently-abled lives, migrant lives, refugee lives, queer lives, trafficked lives, persecuted lives, brown-and-red-and-yellow-and white-and, yes — black lives — all matter,” she said.
Copeland is currently the professor of systematic theology at Boston College, where she received her doctorate 27 years ago. She has taught at a variety of institutions, though, including St. Norbert College in DePere, Wisconsin; Yale University Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut, Marquette University in Milwaukee, and the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in Louisiana. Her other accomplishments include being the first African American president of the CTSA and had previously received the Ann O’Hara Graff Memorial Award from the society’s Women’s Consultation in Constructive Theology.
In her speech, she also mentioned how 45 years ago, the CTSA’s first discussion of black theology included a report in which Edmundite Fr. Joseph Nearon said that “as I look around at this convention, I note that I am the field this morning.” “Because of grace gifting our small corner of God’s wide world … this evening I can report: ‘I am not the field,’ ” Copeland said. Today, black theology is “authentically black and truly Catholic,” she said.