Theology Professor Awarded Two Prestigious Research Grants

Author: Aaron Smith


Peter Casarella, associate professor in Notre Dame’s Department of Theology, has been awarded two prestigious grants for a book project that will explore the idea of God from the perspective of Latino Catholicism, including the complex challenges of “translating” God in a modern world.

The annual Henry Luce III Fellows in Theology award funds a small number of promising theological pursuits. Since its inception in 1993, only 142 scholars have been named Luce Fellows.

The Louisville Institute’s Sabbatical Grant for Researchers enables “ecclesially-engaged academics and scholarly religious leaders to conduct a major study that can contribute to the vitality of Christianity in North America.”

Both awards will support Casarella’s research and writing of God of the People: A Latino/a Theology.

The Idea of God

“My work will ask whether sometimes people take for granted the idea of God and avoid or ignore the rich reflection upon the meaning of God that is available to us in the Catholic tradition and in our present context,” says Casarella, a fellow at Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies and Kellogg Institute for International Studies.

Casarella hopes his book will enliven discussion on two critical issues. “First, the theology of God in the Catholic Church needs to address the complex and original experiences of Latino youth,” he says. “It needs to listen, reach out, and learn. The future of Catholicism in the U.S. depends upon the outreach to second and third generation Latinos.”

Second, Casarella wants to explore a religious and cultural heritage that extends back from medieval Spain through the colonial period to Latin American and Latino thinkers, saints, writers, painters, baseball heroes, and pop artists.

“That’s a rich and varied resource, and speaks to the contemporary concerns about God and transcendence just as much as Anglo or European sources. We have not even begun to tap these resources.”

The Process of Translation

In pursuing these goals, Casarella’s book will seek to bring the contemporary process of translating God back into the center of theological reflection.

“I am less interested in the narrow sense of translation as the conversion of words from one system of signifiers to another. I am more interested in how we bring our culture, family and religion from one place into another place without leaving behind what we love and cherish from our homes far away, even if these homes are places where our grandparents lived.”

Casarella says there are implications in his research for social justice issues like comprehensive immigration reform, but he will focus on the question of God.

“Speaking about God is always already an act of translation, and God, who is beyond all language, empowers us to see translation as a beautiful gift, albeit one fraught with many dangers, even opportunities, for violent mistranslations.”

A Global Communion

Casarella’s three-semester sabbatical will include research at the Catholic University of Santiago de Chile. When he returns to Notre Dame, Casarella plans to bring back the experience of being at a Catholic University in Latin America as well as new material and ideas for courses.

“I want undergraduates studying theology to develop a palpable sense of what it means to be in a global Catholic communion,” Casarella says. “The Church is much bigger than the U.S. Catholic Church. What we take to be polarizations or hot button issues here may look very different in Santiago, Nairobi, Manila or elsewhere.”

As he pursues his research and teaching at Notre Dame, Casarella says he is grateful for the ongoing support of John McGreevy, I.A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters; Associate Professor Matthew Ashley, Chair of the Department of Theology; and Rev. Virgilio Elizondo, the Notre Dame Professor of Pastoral and Hispanic Theology.

“I am grateful to my Department and to the University for their support in granting me the sabbatical,” Casarella said. “It’s a wonderful gift for a new member of the Notre Dame community. It’s also a responsibility, of course.”

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