GU Theologian, Catholic Activist Monika Hellwig Dies

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 6, 2005

Monika Konrad Hildegard Hellwig, 74, an internationally known Georgetown University theologian who defended Catholic intellectualism against a Vatican crackdown, died Sept. 30 at Washington Hospital Center. She had a cerebral hemorrhage.

As president and executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities from 1996 until two months ago, she was a leader in the U.S. discussion of Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Ex Corde Ecclesiae , which required colleges to teach and follow church doctrine more closely.

"The question is whether the task of higher education in our pluralistic, changing society is to lock students into rules -- even rules I agree with -- or to teach them critical thinking," she said in 2003.

Dr. Hellwig, a former nun who attended the Second Vatican Council, was respected by laity, theologians and church leaders even when she publicly expressed differences of opinion with church hierarchy.

In 1986, while president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, she signed a letter on the group's behalf in support of the Rev. Charles E. Curran, a Catholic University professor. Curran had been stripped of his authority to teach in Catholic universities because of his dissent from the church's teachings on contraception, abortion and homosexuality. The statement, which caused a considerable stir, called Curran's punishment dangerous, professionally incomprehensible, unjust and indefensible. It "put [scholars] heads on the block" for possible retribution, Dr. Hellwig acknowledged at the time.

Chester Gillis, chairman of GU's Theology Department and author of "Roman Catholicism in America"(1999), called her a significant presence in the U.S. Catholic church whose written and spoken words were known by people in the pews and pulpits.

"She bridged the gap between the pastoral world and the theological world," he said. "She was a superb spokeswoman and defender of intellectual freedom in the academy, and the Vatican took her very seriously and respected her. Monika was not antithetical to their ambitions, and they knew that. They also knew she was not someone who was going to back down."

Dr. Hellwig, a Silver Spring resident, taught for more than three decades at GU, including six years as the Landegger Distinguished Professor of Theology. She left in 1996 to run the association of more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities. She was a senior research fellow at GU's Woodstock Theological Center at the time of her death.

Colleagues described her as a "pathfinder" in ecumenical and interreligious dialogues who worked on initiatives for women in higher education and theological scholarship and on efforts to foster peace and justice through education.

She worried about Catholic theologians losing touch with the history of the church's teaching. "The cumulative wisdom of the past is less known," she said in 1995 to the Catholic Theological Society. "More and more of us are doing instant theology."

But she also spoke forthrightly against efforts by lower-ranking Vatican officials in Rome to exercise control over U.S. Catholic education. Vatican officials "think they can shape the world over here, and they can't," she said in 1999, warning that forcing change would create problems with accrediting associations, contracts and academic reputations.

Efforts by the Vatican to discipline the U.S. church could backfire, she repeatedly warned. "The major problem the hierarchy faces may be that Catholics simply don't believe in Hell and eternal punishment the way they used to," she said in 1986. "The American laity, especially the college-educated, is well aware that the hierarchy doesn't have many sanctions against them. It's harder to frighten them."

She was born Dec. 10, 1929, in what was Brelau, Germany, to a German father and Dutch mother who was a noted sculptor. Her grandparents were Jewish, so as Hitler came into power in Germany, the family moved to Holland, where her father was later killed by Germans.

After Germany invaded Holland, Dr. Hellwig, then 8 years old, and her two sisters, Marianne and Angelika, were sent to safety in Scotland with the help of a Jewish-Catholic humanitarian organization. Her mother survived the war and reunited with her daughters in 1946, but died two days after their visit.

Dr. Hellwig entered University of Liverpool in 1946 at age 15 and received a law degree in 1949 and a social science degree in 1951. She moved to the United States in the early 1950s and became a member of the Medical Mission Sisters, a small community of nuns based in Washington, before receiving her master's degree in theology at Catholic University in 1956. She was a British citizen the rest of her life.

Dr. Hellwig worked in Washington and Philadelphia as a member of the order and then was sent to Rome in 1963 to observe and work as a correspondent at the Second Vatican Council, an ecumenical gathering that prompted huge changes in the Catholic Church.

She was a ghostwriter and research assistant to a Vatican official and was one of the few women allowed to observe the workings of the often-secret sessions of the Council. She returned to Washington in 1966 and completed a doctoral degree in theology at Catholic University.

Her order released her from her vows, after 14 years as a nun, so she could pursue her intellectual goals.

A prolific author, she wrote or co-wrote two dozen books, both scholarly and popular works, including "Understanding Catholicism" (1981), "Modern Catholic Encyclopedia" (1994), "Jesus, the Compassion of God" (1992) and "The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World" (1976).

She was a visiting lecturer at 11 universities, received 32 honorary degrees and 15 named awards, including the John Courtney Murray Award from the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1984. In 1994, she was awarded the Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC Award for outstanding contribution to Catholic higher education by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

She adopted three children and raised them as a single mother while working as an assistant and associate professor at GU.

Her children, Erica Parker Hellwig of Silver Spring, Michael Quincy Hellwig of Manassas and Carlos Hellwig of Clinton, survive her, as do three grandchildren and two sisters in Europe.

Dr. Hellwig was a member and volunteer at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Gaithersburg.

Gillis said "she understood the people in the pews are the people who maintain the faith. She wanted an intelligent Catholic faith and educated Catholic faith."

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