In a lecture delivered in February 2005, Sarah Coakley sounded the alarm about the condition of what she called the “church-scholar.” She warned that “the idea of theological scholarship as a specific religious vocation is increasingly under fire in today’s North American climate.” Coakley identified three disjunctions at the roots of this crisis: the disjunction between theology and religious studies in the secular academy; between conservatives and liberals in the churches and seminaries; and between public democratic responsibility and religious commitment in society at large. All three of these disjunctions have become yet more disjunct since 2005, and with ever greater consequences: what Coakley called the “mutual demonizations” in the Catholic Church; “the pitting of religious constituencies against secularism in the sphere of democracy, threatening the very fabric and coherence of democracy itself”; “the allure of practice” as a way of resisting relativism, with sectarianism as its theological consequence.
In her lecture Coakley was dealing mostly with the academic side of the problem. In the past few years there have been disturbing signs that the link between the intellectual vocation of the theologian and the religious vocation of the Christian has become quite weak. In American higher education between 2011 and 2017, the majors that have lost the highest number of students are—in this order—history, religion, area studies, humanities, languages other than English, and philosophy. This has obvious consequences for the future relevance, and indeed the mere survival, of these disciplines. One can no longer take for granted that any of these subjects will continue to shape the education of all college students in the United States. Nor is Europe exempt from this trend: the University of Bologna, one of the oldest in the world, no longer has a self-standing philosophy department. Instead it has “philosophy and communication.” Theology is subject to the same forces threatening all of the humanities. As theology, along with religious studies, becomes more marginalized at American universities, fewer and fewer Catholics will have the opportunity to study these subjects, and most of those who do will be people preparing for either ordination or lay pastoral ministry. This reduction of theology to technical training for pastoral work is something quite different from the “pastorality of doctrine” that Vatican II had in mind.
These changes are also at odds with the growing awareness that the church needs to do something about clericalism. In fact, the growing irrelevance of the study of theology for its own sake, and not simply as technical training for pastoral workers, could well lead to a new clericalization of the theological profession. This would be the end of the short history of theology done by lay people. At the very least, it would likely put an end to the hope that giving the laity access to the theological profession would change and improve Catholic theology itself.