July 19 2024

Rev. J. Bryan Hehir Wins Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion

by Erik Owens, Boston College, for the Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion

The AAR’s Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion is pleased to announce that public theologian Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, of Harvard University and the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, is the 2016 recipient of the Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion.

Now in its twentieth year, the Marty Award recognizes extraordinary contributions to the public understanding of religion by individuals whose work has a relevance and eloquence that speaks not just to scholars but other “publics” as well.

The Committee honors Father Hehir for his important scholarship on the ethics of statecraft, war, and peace, and for his influential work as a public theologian who for more than forty years has constructively engaged scholars, church leaders, diplomats, elected officials, military leaders, policymakers and social workers on a range of issues at the intersection of religion and public life.

At this year’s Marty Forum (session A20-252, Sunday November 20 at 3:00 p.m.), Fr. Hehir will join interlocutor Shaun Casey, Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs at the US State Department, for an extended public dialogue about his life and work. All Annual Meeting participants are encouraged to attend.

Throughout his career Rev. J. Bryan Hehir has moved seamlessly among his roles as parish priest, professor and policy advisor, while maintaining a remarkable commitment to the public dimensions of his work in all three areas.

Born in 1940 in Lowell, Massachusetts, he was ordained a diocesan priest in 1966 after completing his AB and MDiv at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. From 1973 to 1992, he worked on the staff of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), directing (at different times) the Office of International Affairs and the Department of Social and Political Affairs. Hehir was the chief author of the US bishops' 1983 pastoral letter on nuclear weapons, entitled The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response, which interpreted Church teachings on the use of force in international conflict in light of the threat of nuclear war. The pastoral letter gained national attention and served as a paradigmatic example of public theology that would be followed by future pastoral letters from the Catholic Church as well as other religious communities in the United States. Hehir received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1984 in part as recognition for this important work.  

Hehir’s professional academic career began with his appointment in 1984 as the Joseph P. Kennedy Professor of Ethics at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Having completed his ThD at Harvard Divinity School in 1977 (while working at the USCCB), he rejoined his colleagues there in 1993 as a professor of the practice in religion and society at Harvard Divinity School. By this time he was recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on just war theory, particularly the challenges presented by terrorism, humanitarian intervention, and nuclear proliferation. In 1998 Hehir was asked to lead the school through a period of turmoil, and he became its first Catholic head—though he declined the title of dean and continued to serve as parish priest at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge.

Amidst his scholarly work, Hehir has also continued to serve the Catholic Church in leadership positions in social policy and service. From 2001 to 2003 he served as President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, the umbrella organization for more than 1,400 Catholic social-service agencies across the country; in 2003 the new Archbishop of Boston, Sean O’Malley, called him home to lead the archdiocese’s robust Catholic Charities organization. He was soon elevated to the position of Secretary for Health Care and Social Services, with responsibility for the archdiocese’s work with healthcare, education, poverty, refugee resettlement, and more. He continues to serve as one of (now Cardinal) O’Malley’s closest advisors, even after returning to Harvard as the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at the Kennedy School of Government.

For more than forty years Bryan Hehir has been among the most prominent and influential voices of American Catholicism, in large part because of his commitment to the public dimension of his academic and ecclesiastical work. He has engaged in long-term working relationships with diplomats, elected officials, military leaders (and cadets), policymakers and social workers on a range of issues at the intersection of religion and public life.

For this important work, and much more, the AAR’s Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion is delighted to honor Bryan Hehir with the 2016 Martin Marty Award. We hope you will all join us for the Marty Forum on Sunday, November 20, at 3:00 p.m.