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Why isn't academic theology conservative?

Are conservatives underrepresented in the theology and religion departments of our nation’s colleges and universities?

This was one of the questions discussed at the 2014 annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America and already here on this blog. It’s a question I’ve been pondering for some time, and I wrote about it once in these pages.

The basic answer is Yes. When compared to the overall percentage of conservatives in religious communities or society at large, conservatives are underrepresented in academic theology.

However, when compared to conservatism as represented in other academic fields, theology is not very different.

That’s why I think the more interesting question concerns academia on the whole, of which theology is just one field that fits the trend reasonably well. The results of the limited sociological studies on this issue, notably that of Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner (good summary here) and, more recently, that of Neil Gross, show that self-selection is the primary reason the professoriate leans liberal. There are few conservative professors because, under the current conditions, few conservatives want to become professors.

This is not to dismiss the many poignant anecdotes from conservatives who have experienced real, overt, and consequential discrimination against their research, conclusions, syllabi, religious beliefs or practices, etc. After my article three years ago, I heard plenty of them. Anecdotes of discrimination can certainly create a chilling effect that might freeze out potential conservatives, but I (following the sociologists) don’t think these come close to accounting for the magnitude of this trend.

On this issue, I don’t think that academic theology can be set apart from the analysis of the professoriate in general. One’s place of employment and its metrics for success, promotion, and tenure have a significant, even determinative influence on how one’s career proceeds. And throughout academia there are multiple intertwining characteristics that cause conservatives to be drawn away from the professoriate and toward other career paths.

In my previous piece, I emphasized the role of temperament:

Four conservative traits in particular would, I think, severely discourage a person from pursuing an academic career—independent of any external discrimination. If you are a young man or woman who (1) values the maintenance and passing on of intellectual tradition, (2) plans to marry and have children, (3) wants as much individual freedom as possible, and (4) avoids irrationally risky behavior, then you’re not likely to undertake a PhD and even less likely to finish one. At some point during or after college, you will decide against this career path. If you possess only one or two of these traits, you might still make it work—I myself have two of them. But if you have three or all four of them, you will almost certainly choose to do something else for a living.

After considering criticisms of my argument, I agree that number (3) was too loosely described to be very useful.  But I stand by the others. Number (2) absolutely holds true across the academy and, in truth, many other professions with high percentages of liberals. Conservatives tend to seek higher, more secure salaries, and liberals are more comfortable with lower earnings. (I assume this has to do primarily with aspirations for child-rearing and the possibility of a sole breadwinner, although other cultural factors are at work too.) Revisiting my argument with regard to theology specifically, I would probably strengthen my remarks about (1) and (4).

For better or worse, I do not think most academic theologians in current conditions regard their primary job to be the reception of doctrine as a “deposit” or “gift” and the transmission of it to the next generation. At a research university especially, transmitting received knowledge may be a function of introductory classes, but the rest of one’s job description (upper-level classes; graduate education; publishing) lies elsewhere. That is to say, academic theology shares a similar model for research as the rest of the university: one must consistently produce new knowledge about the world; the process of double-blind peer review is the gold standard; notions of scientific repeatability in analysis are also applied to the “data” of theology and religion. Theology as done in the university is usually investigative, exploratory, and boundary-pushing. If a pre-tenure professor does not have those qualities to some significant degree, the chances of tenure and promotion are low. One might criticize here that I’m describing the modus operandi only of the “R1” universities, but those departments are the primary source of the Ph.D.’s who populate smaller colleges and thus spread the research culture.

In the wake of my previous article, I was accused of “armchair psychoanalysis,” which was descriptively true. (I was in an armchair while writing it.) But I wasn’t just making stuff up, having incorporated and cited the sociologists who had gathered data on the matter. Since then, I have actually increased my regard for the explanatory power of sociology and psychology on these topics. As Neil Gross argued, for several historical reasons, conservatives in the 20th century dramatically stopped wanting to pursue graduate school and academic careers. A large part of it is social “typing,” such as happens in other career paths.

Other research has shown that what we commonly think of as religious or political polarities are more often manifestations of deeper, psychological root causes. Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, for instance, is the most influential version of this. While the moral intuitions of liberals almost exclusively rely on Care and Fairness, the spectrum of conservatives’ moral intuitions is more complex. Conservatives do regard Care and Fairness in moral, political, and religious reasoning, but they also give great credence to Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity/Purity. Conservatives are, in this sense, much more complex (flipping the script on the stereotype of simplistic conservatives and sophisticated liberals). Are these moral foundations at the heart of polarization in academic theology too?

In fact, Moral Foundations Theory explains well some aspects of the keynote address at the recent convention, the one which sparked contentious discussion. As I listened to Paul Griffiths, chaired professor of Catholic theology at Duke Divinity School, offer his take on what theology is, is not, and is for, I kept noting how well it fit into Haidt’s categories. While I must rely only on my notes here until the text is published, I can say that Griffiths repeatedly relied on Authority and Purity as central metrics by which theology is to be judged. “To be a theologian is to be under authority.” Theological speculation is “a pure activity of the intellect.” Metaphors about boundaries were also frequent, and many sections of the talk seemed directly reliant on Cardinal Wuerl’s description of bishops as “umpires” who judge the means by which theologians play the language “game” of theology—always under authority, always to stay within the rules, and proceeding under the assumption that the rules never change and the authorities are always right. “The lifeblood of Catholic theology” is thus “agonistic” engagement, in order to discover “right from wrong.”

No one would deny that the activities so described are part of academic theology. But neither do they exhaust theology. On the other hand, in one of the only moments when Griffiths described what he thinks is not theology, the not-theological things fell under the moral foundations of Care or Fairness. “Social justice, world peace, and the preservation of creation” are not under the purview of theology, by his definitions.

In conclusion, the convention reinvigorated some questions for me, questions which I am now trying to consider in connection to my increased personal understanding of how the contemporary research university functions and also how psychological profiles relate to these issues.

Which conservatives, then, are likely to find a calling to the academy, as it is currently organized? I would say those who are substantively conservative (e.g., have conservative topics of inquiry, scholarly conclusions, or policy prescriptions for society) can in most cases find a successful and happy spot in the academy, as Matthew Woessner's research has found. But that substantive conservatism will probably need to be combined with a liberal temperament that continually seeks newness and a research procedure that challenges at least some authoritative traditions in ways that secular peers recognize. It also helps to have a strong financial foundation for the purposes of child care, either from inherited wealth or a high-earning spouse or partner.

One last caveat: I’m not saying that what is the case about academic theology in its current context should be the case, but rather honestly trying to describe what I see and what the limited sociological data shows. All lines of work ought to seek diverse viewpoints and temperaments, and academia could certainly stand to diversify. That being said, relatively high degrees of social typing and reproduction exist in many other fields: trial lawyers, bartenders, elementary educators, artists, and social workers lean liberal; engineers, law enforcement, dentists, building managers, and military officers lean conservative. Since people tend to sort themselves, on the whole, into like-minded groups, there may not be very much we can do about it.

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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Professor Peppard aptly cites Jon Haidt on the distinct moral matrices of liberals and conservatives but Haidt is much less sanguine about the self-selection as a satisfactory explanation. He is convinced that, in his discipline of social psychology, "there really is a hostile climate for conservatives, and conservatives are likely to face active discrimination when they try to publish or apply for grants or jobs." His presentation at the 2011 convention of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology created a firestorm.

Per Haidt, "Megan McArdle, at The Atlantic, wrote a balanced blog post on the controversy: Unbiasing Academia. But she was shocked by the vehemence of many liberal commenters on that post. She then wrote a second post (What Does Bias Look Like?) in which she takes these commenters to task. This is a deep and nuanced examination of the nature of biased thinking. For example, she notes that many of the commenters select the narrowest possible definition of bias, use it to acquit their side of bias, and then go on to blame the victims of the bias for deserving the bias. She notes that this is the same rhetorical strategy normally used to deny and then justify racism. As she puts it: 'So while in theory, it's true that you can't simply reason from disparity to bias, I have to say that when you've identified a statistical disparity, and the members of the in-group immediately rush to assure you that this isn't because of bias, but because the people they've excluded are all a bunch of raging assholes with lukewarm IQ's . . . well, I confess, discrimination starts sounding pretty plausible.'"

Haidt cites the abstract of more recent research on discrimination within his discipline: "A lack of political diversity in social and personality psychology is said to lead to a number of pernicious outcomes, including biased research and active discrimination against conservatives....In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists admit that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. The more liberal respondents are, the more willing they are to discriminate."

Theology isn't social psychology of course. But are they so very different in terms of their tribal dynamics? Practicioners of both disciplines would seem to be particularly invested in rooting their identities in justice commitments. The ingroup of each discipline might find compelling the narrative that conservative perceptions of discrimination are merely anecdotal and attributable to a not terribly flattering personality profile. The outgroup in each discipline, on the other hand, might not be as sanguine.  

It seems to me that all conservative studies present a problem to scholars which is intrinsic to their fileds:  by definition conservative fields are old, even very old, even extremely old.  As such they've been around at least a long time, and depending on the age of the field they have been the object of scrutiny for a long time.  A friend of mine studying at Harvard wanted to do his doctoral dissertation on Chaucer, but he realized he didn't have a chance of getting a topic approved because by that time (the '50s) Chaucer had been "done".  There was nothing new of note to spend a year or two or three researching.  The same is more or less  true of *all* conservative studies.  

This implies, sadly, that conservative experts are less likely to have anything interesting to say to their colleagues.  Sure, the non-conservatives usually need to have their ideas off the old ideas corrected at least somewhat, but the old ideas have finished baking, so to speak, and while they might be nutricious they're often stale.  So who wants to lunch with such experts?  

The problem then becomes for the conservative to show the relevance of the old ideas to the new ideas and circumstances and problem.  But many conservatives, I fear, just aren't interested in what's new, and their research (when it is mainly nitty-gritty stuff) just doesn't really *advance* learning, and learnng is one of the two great goals of higher education.

The problem was a great one for Scholastic philosophers, and it is often assumed that there is bias against Scholasticism.  And there is, I think, a good deal of ignorance of it.  But when fine Scholastic scholars who appreciate the new as well as the old engage with other traditions they are often very well received.  Just consider Gilson and Maritain and Anscombe several generations back.  And there are now some up and coming Scholastics -- but they also know and appreciae the new philosophers and show the relevance of the old to the new.

Here's another recent article about why so many liberal profs, but it doesn't get into theology profs.  It's  Stephen Hayward's The New Criterion on "Conservatives and Higher Ed".

Conservatives & higher ed by Steven F. Hayward - The New Criterion


About the money ... a number of conservative (and liberal) Catholic theologians are vowed religious, so that probably wouldn't be a factor.  And if you believe that a tenured professor doesn't make enough money to raise children, I think you must be living on a different planet than me ;)

Crystal --

The problem is that there are not nearly as many tenured teachers as there used to be -- the reliance on that wandering band of gypsies called "adjuncts" is truly scandalous.  (They, of course, are often qualified -- but administrators find it cheaper not to admit the fact.)    Further, those who do get tenure do not all make professor.  And those who make professor usually do so only after their kids are in high school or college.  So the early years of a college prof's career  are very often quite rough financially.  

This is such a good article--balanced, insightful, and fair, all of the virtues by which liberals are known!--that I feel compelled to respond. First, thank you. Second, your self-reflections and self-criticisms are inspiring. Here is a suggestion: think a bit more about the idea that the liberal environment of the academy requires boundary-pushing explorations that liberals are more prepared to undertake. In my experience, liberal scholarship in the humanities is pretty conventional, repetitive, and, in a word, conservative. Questions about gender, race, sexuality and so on are limited to tight parameters. Theologians often follow suit, repeating what their peers say while dressing it up in religious language. I have found that liberals are much more interested in policing boundaries than conservatives. Indeed, much liberal scholarship is heavily invested in just that, while conservative scholarship is much more risky, much more daring and, even, pushy. It takes a pretty radical personality for someone to challenge the academic/liberal status quo. This is even more true if you teach at a small college, where consensus is valued on intellectual issues and diversity praised only in terms of certain acceptable categories. If I were to use psychological language, as do you, I would say that this is the final prejudice of liberals, and such a deep one that it borders on delusional thinking: that they are the radicals, the challengers, the defenders of the marginalized, the risk takers. Liberals have found a very safe home for their views in the academy, and they will do everythng in their power to defend their safe homes, including using their own best tools--their ability to rationalize, reflect, and project--to convince themselves and others that they are the keepers of innovation, of change, of progress. That is only human nature: self-interest combined with a bit of self-delusion. Again, thanks for this piece! Keep writing...



Thanks to Mike McG for reading and for linking to other pieces that I left out.  The reason I didn't include McArdle's posts on Haidt is that, to my mind, the sociological research of Woessner and Kelly-Woessner far surpasses McArdle's interpretations of Haidt (though I love reading McArdle!).

If you read their work, they found significant differences in first-year college students on many of the criteria that would lead one to a Ph.D. and later a career in the professoriate. I hasten to add that they, as some of the few Republicans working in the area of social psychology, were commissioned by the American Enterprise Institute to do this research. A summary:

Quite surprisingly, whatever impact college might have on students’ academic ambitions, left-leaning first-year students begin their education with a far greater interest in eventually pursuing a doctoral degree than their conservative counterparts. Whereas liberal and conservative students have very similar grades and nearly identical levels of satisfaction with their overall college experience, right-leaning students are far more likely to select “practical” majors that are less likely to lead to advanced degrees. Their emphasis on vocational fields such as business and criminal justice permits them to move directly into the workforce.

In contrast, left-leaning students are more apt to pursue majors in the liberal arts, such as sociology and philosophy, which, absent additional graduate training, provide fewer career opportunities immediately on graduation. Even within a major like political science, college seniors of different political leanings have different expectations with regard to their forthcoming careers. Whereas students on both the left and the right place a premium on securing a comfortable salary and having the time to raise a family, conservative students consistently rate these priorities as more important than do liberal students. In addition, while neither liberal nor conservative students are particularly drawn to writing original works or making a contribution to science, liberal students tend to rate these priorities as more important to their future career. In every instance where students’ career expectations might encourage them to enter a doctoral program, liberal students enjoyed an advantage over conservative students.

Next they did a large-scale study of professors, and found that conservatives, while outnumbered, are no more likely to self-report discrimination or unhappiness in their university work environment:

Looking at survey data from all of higher education’s primary constituencies, I began to realize that Republicans and conservatives, while vastly outnumbered in academia, were, for the most part, successful, happy, and prosperous. Fewer than 2 percent of faculty (Republican or Democratic) reported being the victims of unfair treatment based on their politics. Only 7 percent of Republican faculty believed that discrimination against those with “right-wing” views was a serious problem on their campus, compared with 8 percent of Democratic faculty who expressed concerns about discrimination against those with “left-wing” views. Asked to consider what they would do if given the opportunity to “begin your career again,” 91 percent of Democratic faculty and 93 percent of Republican faculty answered that they would “definitely” or “probably” want to be a college professor. Similarly, few rightleaning students or administrators claimed to have been the victims of political mistreatment. Like their Democratic counterparts, most were satisfied with their experience in higher education.

Woessner ultimately argues that the best evidence for discrimination comes in the blind peer-review stage of things, and here I think he's got to be correct:

The more pernicious problem occurs when right-leaning scholars submit their work for blind review with prestigious publishers or in peer-reviewed journals. Even if we presume that most journal referees are sincerely trying to judge a work based on its scholarly merits rather than its social or political implications, a jury pool dominated by left-leaning scholars will almost certainly subject right-leaning papers to greater scrutiny, highlighting their methodological shortcomings and challenging their overall conclusions. If the academic universe were evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, the unconscious tendency to challenge dissenting viewpoints would hamper the publication of conservative and liberal work at roughly the same rate. However, with a vast majority of academics falling on the left side of the political spectrum, this is an issue that, in all probability, tends to hamper the publication of conservative-leaning ideas. Thus, professors whose political instincts are right of center must either focus on non-ideological scholarly questions or endure a special degree of scrutiny as they seek to secure publication of their ideas.


To Crystal Watson:   Agreeing with Ann here, and pasting a paragraph from my previous article. It's the combination of prolonged apprenticeship and financial insecurity that is the main issue. Many fields have one or the other, but not many have both qualities lasting throughout almost all the years of potential childbearing.

Neither is the path toward academic tenure a comfortable one for young families, a point made persuasively by Woessner and Kelly-Woessner. It takes six to ten years for a woman with a bachelor’s degree to get a PhD, and another six to ten years to find out if she’ll get tenure—that is, if she’s fortunate enough to have found a tenure-track job. It’s biologically risky to wait until after all this to have children, and professionally risky to take huge research breaks for pregnancy, adoption, or child-rearing. It’s not impossible, but it is exceedingly difficult. For someone who intends to be a breadwinner, the academic career path is an utter disaster. In this field, success means spending five to ten years earning between $0 and $25,000 through a graduate stipend, then landing a tenure-track position that earns between $40,000 and $65,000. From there the income growth potential is very small, except at the top universities. Prolonged apprenticeship and financial insecurity make the traditional family structure difficult for young academics to sustain.

Some "tenured teachers" get fired for professional incompetence.  

Leftist predominance among Catholic theologians can prove counter-productive. Occasionally the right gains strength when the left attempts to portray conservatives objectively.  Here's a (non-Catholic) libertarian response to the recent Catholic U symposium mentioned in an earlier post on this site:

"notice how tone-deaf and uninformed the Cardinal is. It's always a good sign when those who attack us show little understanding of history or economics. It's an especially good sign when that happens at a conference where people who present had a fair amount of time to put their presentations together. If that's all they've got, then the struggle should be easier than I had thought."


Reply to Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga




A question: In contrast to standard issue, liberal academia, Catholic academia seems to have sprouted numerous universities that are conciously more conservative in their orientation, plus any number that pride themselves on a more conservative approach. The University of Dallas, Steubenville e.g., as well as Notre Dame and CUA, where conservatism is the default mode. Do their theologians not attend CTSA, and what about "bias" against liberals at those places?

If this thought is off the wall, disregard it. (I think it may be nuts, but I do wonder about it.)

Aren't there scads of think tanks where conservatives with social science, or soft-science, instincts can go to enjoy fellowships and attain chairs and produce papers and books without the annoyance of students, who tend to be either bored or over-zealous, and where the umpires, in Cardinal Wuerl's metaphor, are funders whose limits are clearer and less subject to whim than the limits of ecclesiasrical or academic umpires?

 I understand about the uncertainties of becoming a full professor - it took me a year to get a masters after a ba but I was afraid to then get a doctorate, thinking that finding a job as a professor would be too difficult.  But I think the salaries certainly seem enough to support a family ...  an assistant professor at Duke gets $135,000+ ... ... at Fordham and assistant professor makes $90,000+ ... ... as assistant professor at Boston College gets $100,000+ ...

I think David Gibson is right--and I suppose one question I have for Michael is whether "liberal" and "conservative" in Catholic theology map onto "Democratic" /"Republican" categories. To some extent, I suppose they might, in the sense that "conservative" theologians tend to place a high priority on backing the bishops, and the U.S. bishops have in recent years placed a high priority on backing the Republican Party. I guess I would look down the roster of the Academy of Catholic Theology as a rough proxy for conservative theologians, not the Republican donor list.

I think the biggest barrier to faculty from places like Steubenville attending CTSA is cost--I am flying back from San Diego right this minute, and I can tell you, my hotel bill was not insignificant. I would guess $1200 would be the average cost of this meeting. Many of the smaller conservative schools don't place as high a priority on research, so don't have a generous
conference budget. That's not true of Notre Dame, of course.

Crystal, I took a quick look at your website on BC salaries and something seems off. Associate professors seem to make on average only a couple of thousand more than assistant profs on that list. That is not true. And I saw no full professor salary. One other possibility is that it is averaging salaries across schools--a new business school prof makes much more than a new theology prof. My guess generally is that a new hire in theology (not talking about BC here--I have no specific knowledge) $60,000; an associate prof about $85,000; and a full prof about $100,000. Obviously, the longer in rank, the greater the salary. Many people don't make full before age 50. Some never do--and there is a study somewhere that shows that women often have trouble making the leap from associate to full, because of family responsibilities or they get slammed with service requirements.

About David GIbson's comment:

I was wondering that, too.  Did any of the 21 members of the theology dept. at Steubenville attend the CTSA’s convention?  (Eighteen are men, and of the three women, only one teaches theology.  The other two teach catechetics.)

Scott Hahn is in that dept.  (He and Raymond Burke, Cardinal Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, provided blurbs for Mariology, a book Burke thinks should be a standard textbook in seminaries.  See back cover.)

The book (free at Google) was written by various authors (all male), including Mark Miravalle, another member of the theology faculty at Steubenville.  He wrote the lengthy selections on Marian Private Revelations

Several Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate are among the contributors, including the one who granted a Nihil Obstat to the book.

I don’t think Mariology was on the program at the CTSA convention.  Perhaps its exclusion made the Steubenville group feel unwelcome.   

There were presentations by people from Notre Dame, and (I think), CUA.  



To Crystal:  those numbers are clearly incorrect, and probably because they include law and/or business and/or medical professors, who often / usually come later from private industry and have much higher salaries. I can tell you that my starting salary when I began on the tenure-track, in my early 30's, was the same as my starting salary would have been 11 years previously with a bachelors if I had decided to stick with engineering instead. (I'm not complaining, by the way, just describing.  I knew what I was getting into because I had very clear-headed advice from junior faculty at my undergrad institution. Thanks, Prof. Leyerle and Zachman!)

And this does not even account for the casualization of academic labor over the last generation + the swelling of the adminisrative ranks, which is the main story about the economics of higher ed. The main point, anyway, is that tenure-track jobs are dwindling and even if one gets one, it is often well into one's 30s. All this has been well studied by Linda Ann Mason at the UC system with lots of data.

The other salient factor that complicates any discussion of liberal bias against conservative theologians in the Catholic sphere is that the power in Catholic theology lies with the Vatican, which has wielded it on behalf of conservatives, and done so quite effectively, if unjustly to liberals.

Try to imagine any similar situation in US academia -- where you had, I dunno, the Heritage Foundation as the gate keeper for all academics, and investigating them secretly on behalf of conservatives and silencing liberals and ending their careers.

That is a huge power dynamic differential between catholic academia and secular academia. It seems to make any comparisons difficult or worse than useless.

Moreover, I wonder how that power dynamic affects Catholic theology -- does it push catholic theologians to be more "creative" (or heretical or what have you, given one's preferences) given that the default mode is a very by the book catechetical theology that also has the power to censure?

Michael is right about the "casualization of academic labor." I am currently president of the Society of Christian Ethics, and one of the issues we are confronting is how to include adjunct faculty in the professional life of the Society. Not only do they get no money to attend conferences, they get paid by the course--which means no benefits, let alone any time to write.

To David's question, I suspect that the very same dynamic of out-group disdain and in-group vulnerability would apply in a theology department denominated by conservatives. I also imagine that the in-group in both settings would be well-defended against inferences of bias.

We say we like diversity and indeed demographic diversitis increasingly welcomed. But moral diversity, a lack of consensus about what moral goods are 'given,' is an uncomfortable fit across the ideological spectrum. Haidt believes that research in social psychology overwhelmingly confirms a preference for shared attitudes on core features of one's cultural and moral worldview and a tendency to denigrate those who disagree.

Apropos of Cathy's question: I suspect that conservative and liberal theological sensibilities very roughly map onto Republican and Conservative politcal identities, if for no other reason than the paucity of alternatives for engagement.. Surely theologians are not immune from the very human tendency to cluster, with all of the positive (social validation, unswerving support) and negative (suppressed uncertainties, undisclosed differences with allies) ramifications of clustering.


Mike McG, I'm sure you are right, but the Catholic situation isn't one of group or cultural bias but structural/legal bias against liberals. Whereby liberals have created an alternate culture of sorts.

David, you are right about that as well. And it is even more complicated:  In some cases, senior faculty are theological advisors for the bishops;  At Notre Dame, for example, John Cavadini is on the International Theological Commission, Peter Casarella is a theological advisor to the doctrine committee of teh bishops'  conference.  But the qualifications for tenure, at least a places like Notre Dame, aren't coterminous with the qualifications for acceptability to the doctrine committee--at least as long as a mandatum isn't  viewed by the university itself as a job requirement. 

It is undeniable that some academic work widely viewed by the academy as outstanding is nonetheless not acceptable to these bodies (see, e.g., Margaret Farley and Beth Johnson).A  good lawyer could argue that there is a conflict of interest for someone to sit on a tenure committee who is also on a doctrine committee. Giving tenure to a "dissenting" theologian could be embarassing to them.

So if I were a liberal theologian who was denied tenure, and a key player in my tenure denial was someone on one of these doctrine committees, I'd certainly raise that issue with my lawyer.  And if I were a university counsel, I'd encourage faculty members to recuse themselves from direct involvement in tenure cases if they were part of the bishops' disciplinary apparatus.

Okay, plane is landing in Boston.  God bless direct flights with wi fi.







So the early years of a college prof's career are very often quite rough financially. 

As can be the case in very many professions and work careers.

I once worked in the biopharmaceutical industry and the minimal education requirement for an entry-level research scientist was a PhD.  Those folks didn't set the world on fire financially until (1) they did meaningful post-doc work, (2) had a lot of credible research under their belts, (3) were published in trade journals, and (4) finally found the right job in the right company.

For you guys who are professors in theology, is the percentage of professors who are priests/nuns very large?  Most of the theologians I've read of are priests or nuns ... like Johnson, Farley, Schneiders, Gutierrez, Sobrino, etc. ... but I'm not very up on theology reading.  I would think they are not "paid" in the normal sense of the word and they wouldn't have all the normal expenses.  I wonder if they would also tend to be liberal more than conservative.

David G. wrote: Moreover, I wonder how that power dynamic affects Catholic theology -- does it push catholic theologians to be more "creative" (or heretical or what have you, given one's preferences) given that the default mode is a very by the book catechetical theology that also has the power to censure?

I've heard stories of self-censorship on the part of (especially) the pre-tenured. No making waves until you have a sense of where you're going to land professionally, (secular vs. religious school, e.g.) so a tendency to avoid the "third rail" topics altogether. Religous are sometimes ordered to avoid controversial topics under obedience. So the power of censure has an effect not just after one writes, but even before, with the risk of circumscribing topics of research, and even fields of study, in advance. The means of pressure are different: for laypeople financial considerations hold considerable sway, while for religious it's concern that their community will be pressured to reign them in. 

In terms of financial stresses affecting who gets doctorates in the first place, let's not forget student loans. It's not uncommon for a PhD student to graduate with $100,000 in debt into a very uncertain job market. 

@ Crystal: The % of priests/religious in theology is declining as their overall numbers decline. At CSTA this year, a number of deceased members were commemorated, all but one a member of a religous order. But looking around the room, it was evident that the demographics has shifted dramatically toward layfolk. This is a new situation for theology, and likely dramatically affects and will affect the field in a variety of ways. 


It's not uncommon for a PhD student to graduate with $100,000 in debt into a very uncertain job market.

Is it moral for a university to allow a theology program to allow that to happen to its graduates?



@ Gerelyn: That's an excellent question. 

Is it moral for a university to allow tenured professors to devote virtually all of their time to research and leave the teaching to grad assistants and adjuncts?

If you think so, be sure to have a good argument to present to the parents who are footing a large part of their childrens' bills in the expectation that these kids will be able to bask in the wisdom and glory of The Very Big Names.

Why do Catholic colleges charge so much for tuition?

Lisa wrote, "It's not uncommon for a PhD student to graduate with $100,000 in debt into a very uncertain job market."

... to which Gerelyn asked, "Is it moral for a university to allow a theology program to allow that to happen to its graduates?"

It is troubling.  Yet I suppose the other side of the coin, as we've seen a number of comments note, is that the professors and other instructors who are teaching and advising these PhD candidates frequently are not exorbitantly paid, and at least some of the adjuncts seem to be paid an unjust wage.   If the teaching/advising side of the house is to earn a fair wage (however that is defined), then the income for those wages has to come from somewhere.  I don't know if a university is run on the same principles as a for-profit corporation, in which the financial contributions and drags of profit centers and cost centers are measured and managed, but it seems likely that a theology department isn't generating patents or other intellectual property assets that are going to be profitable for the university.  I'd guess that a theology department is a "loss leader" that depends in great part on the university's commitment to its theological mission for its continued operation.  

Fwiw, somewhat similar financial pressures are at play in Catholic primary education.  Teachers deserve a fair wage (which generally isn't paid by Catholic schools) yet the only segment of the community's populatiion that can afford the (inadequate) tuition prices are the relatively well-to-do, which is fine for them but leaves the working poor shut out from the option of Catholic education; but educating the children of the poor surely is part of the core mission of Catholic education.


According to this past article in The Economist ... ... the Catholic Church spends about halof of its income on its universities (as opposed to less than 5% on charity).  I guess Catholic education is a business.

Is it moral for a university to allow a theology program to allow that to happen to its graduates?

This is a good question; a better one is whether it is moral for a university to allow its theology program to admit graduate students.

Why do any of the private colleges charge so much for tuition?  Those highly paid “big name“ professors who are too busy to teach and therefore need a retinue of TAs and adjuncts to get the job done are part of the problem, as are all the children of faculty who choose to take advantage of the job “perk“ that offers them free tuition.  Then, there's all the high-tech equipment the administration loves to show off to touring parent and donor groups...whether it's needed or not.  Never mind those perennial capital campaigns.  And conferences. And the little voice that whispers “the more we charge, the more will come.“   In other words, it's just the way things are. Move along now.  Next question.

I paid for four kids to go to college (two educated by the Jesuits, one by the Dominicans and one at UMass-Amherst). One is racking up more debt at a Jesuit law school.  The others are working for peanuts. When they were in high school, I use to tease them that if they fooled around, they'd wind up at Hoboken Junior College.  You know what?  Junior college looks like a smart option now.

 I don't see why Catholic colleges must charge as much as elite private colleges - aren't many of their teachers "unpaid" (religious) and aren't they supposed to be helping the downtrodden?  The state of California, with its more resonable tuition at state colleges and universities seems more benevolent than the church.


I couldn't find the figure you cite in the article you cite.  What do you suppose is meant by "the church" in the article, and what is meant by it in your note?

Fr. K,

You mean the Economist article?  It's here ... ... and it's about the US Catholic church's finances, the information gained mostly (I think) from bankrupcy cases.  The figure of how much was spent on universities comes from the pie chart in the article.  I see I  miss-quoted ... the chart doesn't show percentages but $$$ (sorry, bad eyes). Here's a bit of the article ...

"The Economist estimates that annual spending by the church and entities owned by the church was around $170 billion in 2010 (the church does not release such figures). We think 57% of this goes on health-care networks, followed by 28% on colleges, with parish and diocesan day-to-day operations accounting for just 6% and national charitable activities just 2.7% (see chart)."

This is a good question; a better one is whether it is moral for a university to allow its theology program to admit graduate students.


If the teaching/advising side of the house is to earn a fair wage (however that is defined), then the income for those wages has to come from somewhere. 

That justifies the long con run by theology departments?

Cathy Kaveny,

But the qualifications for tenure, at least a places like Notre Dame, aren't coterminous with the qualifications for acceptability to the doctrine committee--at least as long as a mandatum isn't  viewed by the university itself as a job requirement. 

What about qualifications for promotion?  How is Cavadini a full professor with such a paucity of pubications? What deal was cut to allow that to hsppen?

Alan Mitchell,

John Cavadini's full list of publications may not be listed on the ND theology department's web site. However, his brief bio there mentions that he has "published extensively" in several areas. He seems to have served a long tenure as chairman of the theology department (1997 - 2010) and, while chairman, he welcomed Gustavo Gutierrez to the faculty.  He recently published the "cover" article in the "Theology" issue of Commonweal on 10/11/13. 





I never served on theology's rank and tenure committee and have been away from ND for some time now. I am sure John had a good case. I think there are very good scholars with whom CDF would have no problem. But there are also very good scholars who aren't as congenial to Rome.

My point was simply the institutional one that an excellent scholar deserving of promotion at a research university might be problematic and undeserving from a CDF point of view, and that disparity could create a role- related conflict of interest. It need not -- but in a world in which we eliminate all sorts  of peoe from participation in tenure cases on account of conflicts of all sorts, this is something to consider, especially given potential for lawsuits over tenure denials.

"aren't many of their teachers unpaid (religious) ...?"

Crystal Watson, June 10 @ 7:35 pm:

Crystal, as you know, the number of priests and religious has declined greatly since the 1960s. For example, the Society of Jesus in 1965 had close to 34,000 members. At present the number would be about 17,000.

As of 2011, Georgetown University had 1,292 full-time faculty members and 882 part-time.That number includes the law and medical faculties. I'm chancing my arm a bit, but I would be greatly surprised if the number of Jesuit faculty members three years ago was more than 3%. And that continues. I believe that the only Jesuit now in a senior administrative position is Father Kevin F. O'Brien, vice-president for Mission and Ministry.

At smaller colleges sponsored by religious orders, the percentage would be lower, in some cases even fewer than 1%.

"Unpaid" would also need some unpacking.

This is a good question; a better one is whether it is moral for a university to allow its theology program to admit graduate students.

Abe, I don't understand the comment ... why would it not be moral for a theology program to admit graduate students?

On the admission thing: many programs have cut down the number of doctoral students they admit, so as to avoid producing people who have no job prospects. When I wetn to Yale, the doctoral program in religious studies had about twenty students--at least eight in theoology, philosophy of religion, and ethics. Now they admit about twelve. I think they also don't admit people who don't have funding, any more. This cutting back is across the board in the humanities.

I think it is  a very risky proposition to borrow money to go to Ph.D. work. At the very least, your tuition should be covered by the institution. And in many cases, it is. I also think it is a good idea to ask tough questions about the job placement records of various places you're considering going to school--and where those places are. Certain type of schools feed certain type of schools--certain professors have connections with other professors. So, I wouldn't do a Ph.D. at Union ifTheological Seminary in NYC if  I wanted to teach in the JPII Institute on Marriage and Family--or vice versa!

Finally, I would say even with national schools, there is  still a regional component of education--if you want to work in the Midwest, live in the Midwest, choose an excellent school there, all else being equal. You're more likely to meet friends, find  a spouse, etc., --and end up staying there! That being said, to be an academic means to be prepared to move. You may have grown up in NYC, but if the job is in Colorodo, you need to be willing to go to Colorado.


Jm, Cathleen has pointed out some of the problems with overly liberal admission of new students into graduate programs. I will expand on and probably reiterate some of those points.

In a nutshell, there are lots of grad students and not enough jobs, and most of the jobs that do exist are awful. I think that faculty committees responsible for the admission of new students have been painfully slow to reconcile themselves to the fact that they are bringing students into a terrible situation. As far as I can tell faculties have been blissfully unaware or in denial about what is in store for their graduates. (University administrations, as far as I can tell, have simply gone insane with respect to sustaining a model that has veered out of control). Some programs are actually trying to deal with the issue by admitting fewer students, and only when they can guarantee funding. That is obviously necessary. Only a complete fool or someone with independent means would take on debt to get a PhD. Still, a PhD takes several years to finish, meaning that a student will spend a big chunk of their early adulthood (usually) living on peanuts and earning no savings, just to leave a program with no job prospects. They will be 30+ years old, practically broke, and left to flounder. A few people will get decent jobs on the tenure track, more will get terrible, terrible, terrible adjunct or instructorship jobs. And many more will be left with the realization that the degree they just spent years working on is not going to play any role whatsoever in their working lives. They will ditch academia and enter, at age 30+, the straight world. 

Here's the tl;dr: Don't go to grad school, and don't advise anyone else to, either.

Everything Cathy said is right, except... there aren't any Catholic theology jobs in Colorado.

Almost all of what Abe said is right too, except faculty are on the whole aware and not in denial. The solutions to the problems are not obvious or easy, though, and most of them have nothing to do with decisions that faculty make. Each field knows who floods the market and who doesn't, but rarely are the faculty members making decisions about size of classes or cohorts. Decisions are made by administrators. And since 2008, everything has been in such economic chaos that it's hard to separate the signals from the noise.

Michael, I guess what I would say is that, if faculty are aware, they are not, so far as I can tell, being open about that awareness with students. 


I don't know about Crystal's numbers in general, but it is actually a fairly common phenomenon for Associates to be earning only slightly more than Assistants -- it's called "salary compression" and comes about because the starting salaries for Assistants rise faster than the salaries of Associates becuase institutions are anxious to snag fresh talent. I know personally of several cases where after ten years of employment Associates were making only slightly more than newly-hired Assistants.

A strange thing - it appears it's cheaper for aa EU stident to attend many (all?) colleges at Oxford University tah it is for one of us to go to most Catholic colleges here.  I guess Oxford is the UK version of the "state" college.

That is a good point, Fritz. 



I would like to return to an earlier conversation thread before the discussion of faculty salaries, although they are important.  In his blog post, @MichaelPeppard zeroed in on the number of contempoary conservative theologians and isolated some reasons for why they might hold tightly to the tradition and subsequently could they survive the vicissitudes of the Academy.  Peppard then goes onto further amplify two of his former concerns about conservative theologians: (1) values the maintenance and passing on of intellectual tradition and (4) avoids irrationally risky behavior.  

Why the first posture?  I believe that there are a number of theologians that are concerned that before they can engage others in theological discussion, they must first catechize.  In my own experience, I have found that to be true.  However, it is critical to move beyond catechesis or else a teacher can risk transmitting not a "living tradition," but a "static literalism."  Typically, here at St. John's University (NY), I teach two sections of upper level moral theology classes.  Before I can get my students to begin theologize about a particular topic, say "Scripture and Moral Theology," I have to teach them what a Bible is and how to read it critically.  It is unfortunate that they got to their Senior year in college and "missed" some of the fundamentals.  So, I believe it is my task to instruct them in understanding what the Judeo-Christian bible is and how to critically approach it from a variety of contextual and cultural contexts.  If I were to offer them a fundamental lesson on the Bible without any reference to recent scholarship on sacred texts or critique of passages from other religious and cultural perspectives, I would be guilty of (1).  

As for the second posture, the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) comes to mind.  Why did that third individual bury the talent instead of taking a risk with as the other two did?  I believe it is rooted in fear or as Peppard says avoidance of "irrationally risky behavior."  It seems as though, Jesus approves of this latter conduct.  So, in the words of Saint John Paul II, who took quite a number of risks and transformed his own homeland, it would be good for theologians to meditate on the mandate "be not afraid!"  When my own judgment day comes, I want to hear God say to me "Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your master."  I do not want to hear from God "you wicked and slothful servant!  You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bnakers, and at my coming I should I should have received what was my own with interest...And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."  

I better get busy!  

Is academic theology liberal, or just liberal compared with bishops and cardinals, who have chosen the CEO road with its financial perks? 

The CEO road is not what Jesus called his apostle to take. That is the problem. Liberal academic theology is a red herring, a non-problem.    

Jim L. ---

It seems to me that one of the big problems is that although the charism of being a bishop includes most definitely teaching, bishops are no longer expected to be conspicuously good at theology.  Who is the last great theologian bishop of note?  From what I've read, Ratzinger wasn't particularly original, though he's a great explainer, apparently.  JP II's original insights on the theology of the body doesn't look like it's made much of a dent even within the RCC.  

Why should it be surprising that most academic theologians (i.e, non-bishops) are "liberal"?  All they have to do is think, not be administrators or pastors, so they can be expected to be ahead of the thinking curve generally -- it's their business to know more. 

@ Jim Lein: In a word, no. Academic theologians aren't just liberal compared to bishops and cardinals, they're liberal in comparison to the average believer, too. And that's true for Protestant denominations as well.


I recently read some canon law having to do with bishops.  Canon law says that bishops must have degrees either in Scripture, theology or canon law.   (Why, I ask first, should a degree in canon law qualify someone as a theologian, academic or otherwise??) 


Then I did a cursory check in Wikipedia of the academic qualifications of the bishops of the Atlanta and Washington, D. C. dioceses.  (I assume the other U. S. dioceses are similar.)  Of the 20 bishops I looked at several listed no advanced degrees at all, a number had advanced degrees only in education, a couple in philosophy, and there were assorted other non-theological degrees, such as one in management and one in history.  About three bishops had masters in theology, several had degrees in canon law, one had a doctorate in Scripture and one in liturgy.  There were only 3 doctorates in theology/Scripture -- out of a total of 20 bishops -- about 1 in 5 !!  


Judging by the bishops in Atlanta and Washington it looks like an undergraduate degree in theology or Scripture is plenty enough to qualify you as bishop-teacher in the RCC.  Such degrees won't get you a teaching position even in an undergraduate faculty, of course, but they seem to qualify you as a bishop-teacher.


No wonder the deLubacs and Sister Johnstons of this world get into trouble with their bishops -- inadequately-educated bishops sit in judgment of them.  


Has the Vatican no concept of competence whatsoever?  

Oops -- that should have been 4 with theology/Scripture doctorates.

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