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.