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Pope Francis and the Next Generation of Theologians

School is beginning again. . . and I was asked a question to which I am not sure I know the answer.

Will the example of Pope Francis attract peple with different sorts of interests and ways of viewing the Church to graduate studies in theology than did the examples of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI?

I myself didn't go to a Catholic college, so don't remember thinking much about who the Pope was (a youngish JPII) when I decided to go on. It was the questions in the field broadly construed --Catholic, Protestant, secular, that I found realy interesting. 

What do you all think?  

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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For interreligious theology and Jewish-Christian theology, John Paul II should have been a massive source of inspiration, despite the negativity propagated by the CDF with "Dominus Iesus" etc. The insularity of theological communities all too ready to obsess about "Catholic" issues such as "contraception", thus playing into the hands of the ever-virulent right, is one of the factors behind the decline in status of theology in recent years. Of course the various pathologies of university culture and the general hammering that the humanities have undergone have played their part as well. 

While "The Joy of the Gospel" is impressive and compelling, the range of other statements -exciting as some are- are so diffuse that they are more challenging to parse although the direction seems clear. More time adn documentation will be necessary - especially from international gatgherings and trips and seeing how the many sex abuse issues of different nations are resolved.

Since Pope Francis seems to be inspiring vocations it it possible that his example and his thought will draw some to study graduate theology.  I suspect, however, that they will be few, as long as the job market for the field is so grim.  With colleges and univsersities hiring more contingent faculty, there really isn't much incentive for entering the academy.  That is not to say that theologians cannot re-invent themselves and find some creative things to do with a theology degree.  It is indeed lamentable, but the market factors strongly deter graduate education in the liberal arts.

Good lord, I hope not. 

Abe, Wrap your degrees into a resume, send it out, and see what you get. Meanwhile, practice tying an apron.

Has it been popes who have in the past been the chief inspirations for aspiring theologians? I don't think so, and so the question asked of Cathy strikes me as odd.

I believe a combined mathematics and theology degree may be the answer. For one thing, it would get theology into the ever more popular STEM curricula, which would then be STEM-T.

Math might be able to demonstrate, without recourse to faith arguments, that seven is the only correct number of sacraments, and it surely would bring fresh insight to the angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin discussion. From the other side, theology might provide the last little revelation needed to prove Goldbach's Conjecture and other problems that seem beyond mere human ingenuity.

Anyway, it would be fun to be able to say, "I have an MA in mathematical theology" or "I have a PhD in theological mathematics."

Joe, have you not heard of self-styled JP2 priests?

I posed your question to my second-year UCBerkeley son and my high school senior son.  Both gave me reactions that recall the universal symptoms for blockage of the esophagus.

I suppose theological studies will continue to attract only a small percentage of the young coming of age as long as the church/religion remains mired in questions and rejected ideology about human sexuality and patriarchy.  

The kids just don't get it whatever it is that religion doesn't get about the 21st century.  For example, young peoples general embrace of equal rights for all sexualities is quite stunning when you think about it.  Religion, Christianity in particular, has a long way to go to reach out spiritually to these young people.

Papa Francesco's genuine humility and humanness are very attractive to young people.  But, I doubt that that alone will be enough to overcome the tawdry, corrupt image that religion/church now carries around its neck like an albatross. 

Well, my college age children certainly aren't studying theology, including the one who is committed to obtaining a true liberal arts education.  When it is made clear that the answers to most of the important questions already exist as a matter of dogmatic truth, and that your role will be mostly to figure out a clever way to reinforce or explain what has already been decided, it is unlikely many people will respond positively to an invitation to study or contribute to the field of theology. 

I hope that's not too cynical of a response.

Grant:  I thought the question was about people choosing to do graduate studies in theology.

My children have no interest in theology either. Yet my daughter recently developped an interest in history. She said that she had always hated it, having been told that one "needs to know history in order to avoid repeating it", and finding that argument nonsensical. Now, having started graduate studies in Israel, where history weighs heavily on current events, she said that she has discovered that the goal of history is to help one understand the present. Suddenly history has become not only interesting but even vitally important! Maybe some day another discovery will get her interested in theology.

I don't know if studying philosophy is like studying theology but i did major in philosophy because I wanted to discover the secrets of the universe, the answers to all the ultimate questions about life  :)  I did study some theology through philosophy classes - Anselm and Augustine and Aquinas and Kant, etc.  But theology isn't like philosopjy ... in philosophy you try to find the truth, but it seems like in theology someone (your church) has already told you what the truth is, and you only get to elaborate within those limits.  Probably not many young people find that appealing.

Perhaps every theologian should get a sciance degree. It might be a way of bringing theogy  into the 21st century and making it more relevent to the world we live in. This may attract younger members and at the same time give them another means of support. It would't surprise me if there are  still theologians in the church who think evolution is a theory.  Maybe we could bring the language of theology into the into the lagage  of quantum physics, and create a union beween science and theology. We're still exressing theology with the language of Plato and Arstotle, and Aquinas.

I don't recognize theology, the most beautiful of the sciences as Karl Barth claimed, and the one in which the greatest of discoveries remain to be made as Teilhard claimed, in any of the negative comments on it recorded above.

First, Scripture is the soul of theology (Vatican II) and the scholarly study of Scripture is one of the greatest success stories of the modern university. Second, theology has maintained a sophisticated interchange with philosophical questioning; there are profound theological takes on every major philosopher since Descartes, Third, theology has a vast historical sweep and theologians have a deep and complex sense of historicity that one will find in no other discipline. Fourth, theology is increasingly located in an interreligious space and its dialogues with Judaism and Budddhism are bearing great fruit. 

Pope Francis brings a compehensive pastoral vision within which theology as a church activity can thrive afresh.


The frist thing that is already happening is that discredited theologians and theologies are already getting an ear from Francis. The preferential option of the poor which liberation theology pushed is embraces by Francis. Oscar Romero's cause for Sainthood has been unblocked. So present theologians will be mostly affected. With the theologians from VII being read more and theologians who were intimidated by JPII will emerge with their writings. So the field will be definitely affected. Council of Trent theologians will have less of a forum as Vatican II and Francis theologians will be more welcome. 

As far as I am concerned Francis is a paradigm change. We are talking reforming the fourth century. It will only be a matter of time before the schools will reflect this. 

I don't think most New Testament scholars  think of themselves as teaching or studying theology, but maybe I'm wrong.  Many pf those theologians who have taken science or other denominations/religions seriously have been censored by the Vatican for doing so ... Roger Haight SJ, Michael Amaladoss SJ, etc.  Catholic theologians that dares to follow the truth where ever it seems to lead often end up teaching at non-Catholic universities because ot that.

It was under Pope Francis that Fr. Amaladoss was investigated ...

Joe: I know a few priest-theologians. But I suppose I could be clearer: Just because you don't personally know anyone whose decision to study theology was inspired by a pope doesn't mean such people don't exist.

Well, Duh, Grant, thanks for reminding me of the obvious, but not for misrepresenting my point.

One of the most insidious effects Church leadership can have on theologians is to inspire self-censorship in the name of getting or keeping a job. I've heard this many times from colleagues, theologians starting out and students alike. The pressure is felt by laypeople, religious, and priests, though in different ways. Such a dynamic spells doom for the discipline, too, when controversial (and often urgent) topics are apparently ignored by theologians.

To change this dynamic, Pope Francis would need to ride herd on bishops who attack theologians in the name of an unchanging, ahistorial, and too often scientifically untrue  vision of the requisites of "orthodoxy." No sign yet that he's willing to do so. 

Speaking of history, my daughter once told me she'd learned more about her religion in a college church history course than in 8 years of theology classes in Catholic high schools and university.   Sigh.

Lisa, I think there are signs that he is signalling to theologians to talk about important matters rather than culture wars. Helping the poor for one and not living sumptuosly. He even attacked priests for using smart phones. Dolan talks of the Francis effect. I think it is happening. The question is how long will Francis live....

One of the many bonuses of teaching catechism is that when people hear that I do that, they immediately start telling me their questions about God. I never knew that so many people of all ages and all kinds of levels of religious practice spent so much time asking themselves questions, and were so eager to explore them. 

But usually they're not about the issues that are often considered controversial. Ought women to be able to be priests or gay couples to marry? That's not something most people seem to worry about. They have worked out their own answers to those questions, and do not have anxiety-causing uncertainty around them. What matters to them and what they're eager to discuss if they have a chance are much more basic questions: What happens after death? Can non-Christians be saved? How can a loving God allow evil? Where is God?

I would venture that it is the urgency of such questions that prompts a few people to study theology. I don't see why it would have anything to do with the pope's personality.

What kind of people study theology, and why?

Pope Francis should have more important things to talk about than scolding clergy for having smart phones. 

What kind of people study theology, and why?

I would guess that they need to be a subset of those very particularly gifted people: scholars.  I am grateful for whatever scholarly habits I picked up in my own schooling, but I'm also grateful fthat that schooling helped me realize that I'm not a scholar - it's not what I'm called to do.  And I say that as someone who has spent time teaching and was reasonably successful at it.

 I would think that to do graduate work in theology, you have to have a larger than average appetite for plowing through a lot of texts, in several languages.  I don't have that appetite and I don't have the linguistic aptitude.  I'm one of those people who is fortunate to be able to make use of the contribitutions of scholars as well as I'm able in my ministry.

I would guess, too, that at least some of the people that do have those aptitudes, and do feel called to that way of life, may be able to choose from several different fields.  If I am called to the scholarly way of life, should I pursue graduate studies in theology, or history, or philosophy, or German, or law?  And I think it's possible that Francis might influence that very particular subset of young people to look seriously at theology.


I am clergy, and I do have a smart phone, so I guess I should consider myself scolded.  I have to have a cell phone, for voice and texting, including with my pastor, other ministers, and the people I serve.  I actually do use photography in one of my ministerial activities as well, so the camera functions of my cell phone can come in handy.  I would think a lot of clergy would find the GPS apps pretty useful as well.  On the whole, the smart phone has been a useful tool for me.  I don't think it's the equivalent of driving around in a Lexus.

If clergy are spending their time checking their texts, emails and twitter feeds when meeting with people - well, that's rude, to be sure, but that's not really the fault of the smart phone :-)

Maybe the best thing to hope for is a better focus on Ignatian spirituality, and possible applications to ministry, especially evangelization. My sincere wish is that we will be spared competing "generations" of clergy and theologians. Let the JP2 priests be the last to identify with a particular pope.


Francis comment on Smart Phone may be taken as more symbolic since even the poor have smart phones. Francis is talking about the clergy who always have cuff links and are found associating with affluence and opulence. In general clergy may take 6 vacation trips a year while the middle class person may not. Especially when they are doing it on the charity dime. His remarks were spot on and necessary.

I began studying theology at CUA (Fr. Komonchak being one of my first professors!) during the pontificate of Benedict, whom I admired. But my study of religion began in 2002, and had nothing to do with John Paul II. I think the advanced study of theology requires too much intellectual curiosity to be influenced much by bishops. Was Rahner influenced by Pius XI, or Aquinas by Innocent IV?

The question is whether conservative or liberal, is their an impact on the ordinary college graduate? My opinion is that it is very small. I am not talk about relationships established with a professor. Rather how has the study of theology on a under graduate level impact on the students. Catholic students upon graduation seek to make a lot of money or if they choose liberal arts define themselves by reading or writing literature or poems. These students will parade their business acumen or engineering skills, but you don't see them parading their theology. As I see it, it is the way theology is taught. If anything theology is a proclamation and each student should be challenged to accept it or not. This does not mean there is no objectivity nor research. But theology is nothing if not a proclamation of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

I did not like Ex Corde Ecclesia because it had a obedience to the Magisterium mandate. But I understand the thought where theology is different than other subjects although they have their place. 

Hi Lisa...three questions about your comment.

1. Especially because so few Catholic clergy/religious are accepted to doctoral programs in theology, can you give supporting examples where the attack of a bishop or bishops on a lay theologian had a negative impact in the way you suggest? The only example I can think of is the COD's response to Salzman and Lawler's book--which, as far as I can tell, did nothing but increase their already good reputation within the academy.  But you may have others in mind?

2.  Can you be more specific about which controversial and urgent issues are "being ignored" by theologians?  When we add the energetic influx of issues like queer theory and racial justice to the already well-established feminist and liberationist discussions, I'm drawing a blank as to what you might have in mind. Indeed, a research agenda that pushes boundaries--in many circles of academic theology--is necessary for it to even count as academic theology in the first place.

3.  The professional pressures you mention are very real. However, it you had to compare the weight of such pressure as it comes from (1) ecclesial power structures with (2) "secular" (for lack of a better word) academic power structures, how would that comparison work out in your view?

Charles, Did you forget abot Ex Corde Ecclesia and the Cardinal Newman Society?


At any rate, despite the protestations of Carlo L, I have always maintained that the Italians are unbelievers  because of their proximity to Rome. Guess who agrees with me?


The Italians owe a  great debt to the Roman Church and its clergy.  Through their example, we have lost all true religion and become complete unbelievers.  Take it as a rule, the nearer a nation dwells to the Roman Curia, the less religion it has!



Though some attribute those words to Innocent III rather than Macchiavelli.

The smart phone remark attributed to the pope reminds me of fuddy duddy profs who warned their students that mobile phones were bad. Often conservative Catholics imagine that to be a Luddite reactionary is a sign of virtue. In reality, middle class standards of living can be a sign of virtue, associated with politeness and cleanliness, as opposed to the holy squalor of peasant clergy in the past. Smart phones are becoming the norm in any case, and people are increasingly expecting one to have them, just as email and mobile phones became mandatory.

Vatican II greatly stimulated the study of real theology. Anyone who says they were stimulated to study theology by John Paul II or Benedict XVI  would strike me as scary, since both of these men are associated with severe crackdowns on freedom of theological research.

Hi Charles,

Sure, i can give examples of self-censorship--I won't name them, because they self-censored in order not to be visible, yes? A former colleague of mine (religious priest,) who didn't study ethics, chose another discipline to avoid being targeted, another who laments that his discipline is coming under closer scrutiny, a current student (a layman) who tailored his program to ask a question tangential to what he really wants to talk about so he might get a job at a Catholic school, another (lay woman) student who did the same, a former colleague, (another religious priest, different order than the first,) who trashed an entire manuscript on advice that it might be controversial, etc. etc. The number of those who are actually censured, I suspect, is far lower than those who avoid censure by ducking questions. And that's before we get to the deafening silence from priests on questions like women's ordination, homosexuality, etc. A close friend entered a religious order only to be told that he absolutely could not speak publicly about his homosexuality--he left the order and the Church. I can't count the number of priests I've had say to me "Of course, I think [some position in tension with current magisterial teaching], but I'll get in trouble if I say so, so I keep quiet." Again, my comment was on self-censorship. It's hard to quantify, yes--any sociologist out there looking for a thesis topic?

Ignored topics--when people "adjust" their work so as to avoid notice, it changes the nature of theological investigation. Certainly there are theologians doing groundbreaking work on any of the usual hot-button issues. How many are at diocesan seminaries, which used to be centers of Catholic thought? How many are at religious seminaries? (More than at diocesan seminaries, I suspect, and the degree of academic freedom in practice is widely variable.) How many seek cover in universities, and sometimes secular universities with religious studies departments?  

Comparative pressures of ecclesiastical force vs. academic force? Absolutely. I think it's principally economic/professional pressure that inspires self-censorship by laypeople. And there are certainly pressures of "academic orthodoxy" that play a role, too. But that's a separate topic.


Self-censorship happens accross the board in Catholicism, I believe, not just among theology students or clergy. Many times I am in the presence of Catholics whom I don't know very well, and I am careful to avoid being labeled an extremist. For example, if I say I like the Salve Regina, I will immediately be suspected of sympathizing with the Lefebvrists. But if I say that it made me uncomfortable last Sunday at Mass that the 20 people involved in various ministries during the liturgy were all male, I will immediately be suspected of advocating for women's ordination and for the destruction of family structure in Western civilization. I cannot simple be myself and be seen as I am, not as a cartoonish caricature of a Catholic. Things are too tense, and new acquaintances are looking for clues to classify me. They view Catholicism as one dimensional, on a single trad-to-progressive axis, and want to figure out whether I am on "their" side. If they decide that I am on the other side, then they won't want to interact with me. 

But I want to interact with all of them. So, to avoid being eliminated early on and burning bridges, I try to avoid all "controversial" statements (such as the ones above) until they know me better and are less likely to rush to judgment. The atmosphere is too heavy to allow freedom of expression, the divisions are too deep. Only in small groups, with people I know, can I be less careful. In public I have to avoid controversial topics (or else, weigh my words extremely carefully), under penalty of being pushed to the extremes.

(Actually, besides the two extremes, there is a third extreme: the "orthodox" Catholics, that is, those who like to go by the rules, who listen to their bishop and who think exactly as their bishops thinks.)

It is one reason why I am interested in questions such as "What will the afterlife be like?". They are no as polluted by those trad-or-progressive labels, and so it is possible to discuss them freely and hear what people really think. That makes them more interesting.

So it's not just "economic/professional pressure that inspires self-censorship by laypeople". It's also a desire to keep communication lines open in a divided world.

I identify with what Claire wrote.  I've lost count of the Catholics online who've told me I'm a heretic or that I'm not really a Catholic because of what I do or don't believe about Catholicism.  At the bottom of that desire to control what others think is a ton of fear.

PS - this makes the few who do stand up for controversial views seem brave  - Thomas Doyle on sex abuse, Snadra Schneiders, William Barry, Rovert Egan, and  Roy Bourgeois on women's ordination, James Alison on LGBT issues, Jon Sobrino on Christology, George Coyne on intelligent design, etc.

Self-censorship has indeed been rife in the Catholic theological world. Thirty years ago biblical scholars at the Biblicum in Rome deliberately avoided touching hot-button areas in NT scholarship, such as the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, ministry, divorce, just so as to avoid trouble. If that is true of the highly respected area of biblical studies how much more must it be the case in moral or dogmatic theology?

Many people in the pews, including those teaching catechism have no idea of the culture wars and censorship.

A clear example of suppression is the changes in the Liturgy which most pastors opposed until the bishops put pressure on them. They then became reluctant apologists.

I find it surprising if younger people aren't interested in the study of theology and/or religion.

Religion is increasingly crafted, not inherited; it is a seeking rather than a dwelling. --  It is not true that as the world becomes more modern it becomes less believing.  John Micklethwait & Adrian Woolridge, “God is Back:  How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World” (Penguin 2009).


AllAll the more reason to study and satisfy curiosity rather than bolster weak beliefs.



Yours is an eloquent explanation of the study of philosophy, but my sense is, at the end of the day, the professor of philosophy will reveal the truth to the student and the student would be wise to regurgitate the truth back to the professor, who is, after all, the custodian of the truth.  Universities tend to stifle the truth.  Better to seach the truth a la Jack Kerouac.  Your professors will be diverse, life experience will point the way, no exams to prove you have learned the correct truth. 

I began my graduate studies in theology in 1981, three years into the pontificate of John Paul II.  I wrote my dissertation in 1984 on his prepapal sexual ethics, which I found far richer than the sterile revisionism of Richard McCormick and Charles Curran that was then de rigeur in Catholic theology faculties.  On my doctoral examination committee, made of three Jesuits, a diocesan priest, and a Mormon--it was the Mormon who unabashedly said "John Paul has some good ideas."  As a young academic in the 1980s, I found it sometimes impossible to publish (so essential to an academic perch) because John Paul was deemed so "out of touch" with the political orthodoxy prevailing in American theology.  That's why, even today, I publish in Rome and Europe--because the American "mainstream" theological guild cum echo chamber is largely closed to these views, focusing instead on its irrelevancies and its desires to find excuses to justify modernity over Catholicism.

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