Do Catholic Theology Departments Have a Future?

A Response to Massimo Faggioli
University of Saint Thomas walkway and arches (Runner1928)

In an online column that appeared earlier this month, Massimo Faggioli discussed the dilemmas facing what he calls “Catholic academic theology.” He expressed a desire to see a stronger “ecclesial commitment” on the part of the practitioners of said theology, both for the well-being of the field and of the church itself.

The article hit home for several reasons. First, Massimo is my good friend and former colleague at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul. It felt at times as though I were reading about my immediate neighborhood, no surprise given his history here. Readers may be interested to know that our department’s central mission in the university is staffing a three-course theology requirement for our undergraduate student body of about 5,500 students. The remainder of the sixteen four-credit liberal-arts courses in the core consists of two classes in philosophy, two in English, three in languages, three in math and science, and one each in history, social sciences, and fine arts. Many students complete portions of the core before entering St. Thomas, though theology and philosophy have been immune to those short-cuts. The three-course theology requirement supports a large department of about twenty-five full-time faculty and perhaps as many adjuncts.

Our standing in the university will change, however, under proposed reductions in the core curriculum that would significantly reduce our share. Behind the proposed reductions are familiar factors like pressure from outside accrediting bodies to expand major offerings, student (and parental) anxieties about employment, and St. Thomas’s expansion from a small college to a university with several professional programs. As my department looks at curricular Armageddon, we find ourselves on an island, so to speak, with our closest ally a similarly threatened philosophy department whose conservative profile doesn’t make us easy partners. Other parts of the university respect our relatively high academic standing but generally regard us with incomprehension or disinterest. Which is not surprising at a university that can’t or doesn’t want to hire for Catholic identity. (A previous academic vice-president used to say proudly that he did not know the number of Catholics on our faculty.)

Before getting to Massimo's important observation about ecclesial commitment and academic theology, I want to add a little more context. Catholic academic theology is undergoing a severe stress test, and not just at my university. The stress is coming from two directions. From the institutional/budgetary/curricular side, our hold on the undergraduate curriculum is mostly circumstantial and historical, the continuation of a program approach that emerged after the Council, when schools like ours could still act as though we were a secure part of the Catholic educational archipelago. The cultural and social soil of the islands on that archipelago has been eroding for a long time now. These days it’s disappearing faster than the Louisiana delta. As that happens, schools like mine are faced with the need to go big or go home—meaning that we have to turn more and more to pragmatic vo-tech educational goals, since we don’t have the cultural prestige of Notre Dame or Georgetown to live off the moneyed elite able to afford us. That leads to hiring policies that further secularize the institution.

We need to ask ourselves: Who now wants to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in theology?

The other side of the stress test is coming from the character of those who are just beginning their scholarly careers or still considering graduate school. They do not have our experience of growing up Catholic, nor do they share our set of concerns about academic freedom and integrity. They are far more likely to be anxious about identity questions—what it means to be “Catholic” at all rather than something else. In a situation of market freedom, people choose the specific, not the generic. From the younger generation’s perspective, we can look and sound like generic, dying, irrelevant mainline Protestantism shading toward nothingism. We need to ask ourselves: Who now wants to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in theology? Not people with the same ambitions as my generation, college students in the sixties who went to mainstream Catholic colleges and then wanted to do doctoral work at secular institutions or non-denominational divinity schools in universities like Yale or Chicago or Duke. The next generation of scholars, who went to college in in the eighties and nineties, favored Catholic doctoral programs but came from the same undergraduate “feeder” schools. It seems to me that today’s doctoral candidates are as likely to come from places like Hillsdale College or Steubenville as from Notre Dame or Boston College. And one wonders where those eager doctorands will ever find jobs if Catholic colleges and universities continue to reduce core requirements. And if there aren’t required undergraduate courses to teach, why do we need those doctoral programs either? I can tell you it’s not because the hierarchy is waiting breathlessly for the latest fruits of our research.

My perspective on younger people in the theological sector of academe may be shaped by my own sub-discipline of early Christian history, which is a favorite refuge for those looking for a normative fallback when fleeing from doctrinal free-fall (it’s either patristics or Thomism, and the Fathers are closer to the Bible). It’s attractive to recovering fundamentalists and Evangelicals who may be replacing a discredited authoritative Bible with an authoritative church and tradition. I have long argued in my own department that we need to be better at seeing students like this as potential recruits rather than as objects of condescension. There are reasons why our undergraduates opt for a major in St. Thomas’s Catholic Studies department—an inter-disciplinary program that engages in the “formation” of its students in a supportive if rather anodyne environment—rather than in theology, which may look to them like a collection of free thinkers who are just winging it.

 

So that’s the context: our university home is reducing our stake in its mission. And our own future colleagues in the profession may think we’re problematic. And we probably are.

Why is that? Because “Catholic academic theology” is not a self-evident reality. It looks to me like something that only had a viable place in colleges and universities for about thirty years, roughly the first postconciliar generation. During that time it was still dominated by the liberal Catholic clerical establishment. I remember attending the CTSA meeting in New York in 1997, which happened to be the fiftieth anniversary of the CTSA. Down in front for a plenary session were: Richard McBrien, Richard McCormick, and Charles Curran. Perfect. The Irish liberal clerical equivalent of Tammany Hall! All priests, remember. Those guys still spoke with authority to the hierarchy, even when they made bishops angry. They were perceived as players, even if disloyal players, because they were priests and subject ultimately to clerical command and control. The same does not apply to us lay folk, who are mostly irrelevant to the closed world of the celibate clergy. And the more the hierarchy under John Paul II and Benedict XVI became committed to hamstringing the implementation of the council, the more irritating and irrelevant we looked—in part because it’s a hell of a lot harder to command and control us. I remember the low regard in which we were held by former archbishop John Nienstedt, at last report settled in the cushy digs of Fr. Robert Spitzer’s Napa Institute. His successor, Archbishop Bernard Hebda, has been a refreshing and much-needed change in pastoral presence. Constructive efforts are underway on both sides to maintain a mutually supportive relationship between the university and the chancery in St. Paul. But that could change tomorrow in a church where the default is and has always been command and control. In the meantime, archdiocesan personnel and programs seem still to be moving on a track set by Hebda’s predecessor.

Who studied and wrote theology before Vatican II, and where did they do it? From what I know, it was largely the work of members of religious orders at their seminaries and houses of study. Catholic University of America was meant to be something different, set in a university (the undergraduate program came later). But it was created by the American bishops and its academic charter is pontifical. German university theology was always a kind of freak, as were its clones at Louvain and Nijmegen. In Germany, I suspect that Catholic academic theology will last only as long as the Kirchensteuer lasts.

In nearly forty years of teaching, I have worked exclusively at church-related colleges and universities. My undergraduate degree in theology from Notre Dame (class of 1969—only the second class of undergraduates able to major in theology) was followed by graduate degrees from Harvard and Chicago in the history of Christianity. My special expertise is of little interest to most bishops today. Maybe it never was. St. Thomas’s founder, Archbishop John Ireland, was a fervent advocate of higher education and a major backer of the fledgling CUA, but I doubt he would have liked lay theologians. The miters who still dominate the American hierarchy seem to prefer clerical wannabees like the local married deacon in his collar and gray clericals.

If the church doesn’t want what I know, and students won’t enroll in my classes as free electives so that I can satisfy the budgetary buzzards, where do I belong?

So if the church doesn’t want what I know, and students won’t enroll in my classes as free electives so that I can satisfy the budgetary buzzards, where do I belong? I’m not at all sure. I’m a trained historian of Christianity with multiple teaching and research competencies, someone who first of all loves scholarship for its own sake. But I also have an unofficial role as a keeper of the historical conscience of a church prone to amnesia on sensitive subjects. I expect academic freedom to pursue my work as teacher and scholar. The church needs people like me, if it knows its best interest. Do I need the church? Yes I do, in the double sense that I live in it as a practicing member (see Paul Griffiths’s recent article on Catholicism as a form of life) but I also need it as an academic subject: no church, no church history. But I best express my loyalty by being faithful to my scholarly craft and not by devotion to the church hierarchy, which does not understand the concept of a loyal opposition. I believe one can’t easily study what one dislikes or even hates. Especially in historical work, a certain kind of intellectual charity is necessary in order to cross, if only in thought, the divide in time and space. But it can’t be in the form of a sacrificium intellectus—here I am reminded of George Orwell’s consternation at Ignatius Loyola’s thirteenth rule for thinking with the church (“To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it…”).

So what is the future of Catholic academic theology? Good question. I do agree with Massimo that some kind of conscious commitment to the church is necessary for us to survive as members of a theology department (and not just as religious studies), and that as a matter of principle and not just pragmatic adjustment. But “ecclesial commitment” sounds like a weasel word and I would prefer to avoid it. Because the truth is that there is no purchase on the other side of the equation, the clerical-institutional side, for that “ecclesial commitment.” How much time and energy do I want to invest in speaking to people who aren't interested in listening and who don’t think they need to listen, because they have the Holy Spirit? I know there is a theological response to that. But I doubt it matters. I once defended the mandatum in print. I wouldn’t do that today.

If Catholic academic theology has a future, it is may be with those who have withdrawn into safer quarters, a redoubt of some kind, having decided the contemporary university is a lost cause for the faith. There they can pursue their work in common with those who share their presuppositions—and usually their conclusions as well. Conservative donors can be found who will put up money for such efforts, especially if they support free-market ideology. To me this is a wrong turn that will lead to shrinking mental horizons. A tip-off is the idealizing of the past, whether it be “the thirteenth, the greatest of centuries” or the American 1950s. But moving to an intellectual gated community seems a poor way to honor the universalism of the Gospel and a contradiction of the church’s claim to be the sacrament of the unity of the human race. Behind the yearning for a lost golden age is a reluctance to admit that the resented “secular” is not in some cultural space out there but the very air we breathe. But I concede that those who disagree with me probably have a better chance of preserving an educational platform on which to teach and write. Our work never depended on the marketplace but always on patronage of some kind. It remains to be seen where future patronage will come from—and what those patrons will expect in return.

Published in the May 18, 2018 issue: 

Michael Hollerich teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Books
Collections