More Thoughts on the Future of Academic Theology

A Response to Massimo Faggioli & Michael Hollerich
Egan Chapel, Fairfield University (Wikimedia Commons)

The recent exchange in Commonweal between Massimo Faggioli and Michael Hollerich over the future of academic theology raises a number of interesting questions and sheds valuable light on how we can think about its relationship with the institutional church. But it is insufficiently expansive and needs elaboration.

Faggioli gets directly to the issue with his opening sentence, in part as a way to address the increasing evangelical orientation of Catholic young people. He goes on accurately enough to outline the history of the disengagement of the U.S. episcopacy from American theologians and ends by identifying two problems theologians must face. First, he accuses them of often seeming to disregard the theological canon. Second, he thinks they ignore “at their peril” their duty to the church, perhaps especially to the questions that traditionalist or conservative Catholic students have.

In his response, Hollerich is more concerned with what retrenchment in the undergraduate study of theology in Catholic universities might mean for the future of academic theology in general, and what might be needed for a potential new generation of Catholic scholars to become reality. He affirms Faggioli’s call for a renewed sense of ecclesial connection on the part of theologians but seems gloomier about its emergence anywhere than among more traditionalist, even isolationist, groups in the church.

There is a great deal to be added to and clarified in the picture Faggioli and Hollerich offer, and in his letter in the June 1 issue, David O’Brien hints at some of it. O’Brien, who would not consider himself a theologian, sees clearly that the healthy future of the church may not so much be about resurrecting a canon (if indeed it has been lost) or even getting back to theological basics. Rather, it is more to show to the world, and maybe especially to the young, that the work of theology and the work of the church is a work above all of justice. So here are a few of my own clarifications and challenges to Faggioli and Hollerich.

In the first place, it is not altogether clear what they mean by “academic theology.” There is a considerable difference between the theological training that prepares students to do advanced study with the aim of one day “professing” theology in the academy, and the kind of exposure to theology that undergraduates in Catholic schools encounter—often only one or two courses in theology or religious studies, if that. The former is probably not controversial and should certainly not be partisan. I would argue that in itself it has no direct connection to what we might call the teaching church, though the products of this training may well go on to work in contexts that do have more of an ecclesial connection. The latter is fundamentally an ecclesial activity, educating young Catholics in the basics of what the tradition believes and, in consequence, expects of them. Bishops are for the most part not too intrusive in the classrooms of graduate theological education. They are far more likely to be suspicious of “what goes on” in the undergraduate classroom where, and Faggioli is right about this, the inclination is to move theology closer and closer to Catholic social teaching (CST). But what is wrong with this? There is surely far more to Catholic theology than CST, but without CST what value is theology? Orthopraxis and orthodoxy belong together, but I would venture to suggest that the entry into orthodoxy for today’s undergraduate students, if it is to occur at all, is through the door marked “orthopraxy.”

The parable of the sheep and the goats, carefully presented, makes an iron connection between the need for personal salvation, to which all theology worth the name must be oriented, and social justice, to which all Catholics interested in their salvation had better be committed.

Second, it is a mistake to take one’s own inevitably limited experience and turn it into a general theory of what is wrong with the church. I will not make the same mistake that Faggioli and Hollerich may be making, assuming that perhaps Villanova and the University of St. Thomas are the Catholic world in miniature. But I will put my own experience of thirty-seven years of teaching at Fairfield University alongside theirs, not to reject the truth of their observations but to suggest that the picture may be more complicated than the one they present. Over the years, I have seen very few traditionalist or markedly conservative students in my classroom. I simply do not recognize the alarmist picture Faggioli offers us in his opening paragraphs. I would divide the Catholics I have encountered in more recent years into two groups. The first and by far the larger number consists of those marked by ignorance of and often indifference to Catholic theology or its intellectual tradition. Mostly, they are not hostile to the tradition as a whole, even if they write off its influence on sexual ethics and gender issues. The second smaller but sizeable group is made up of service-oriented kids, many but not all of whom are involved with campus ministry activities, and many but not all of whom possess some mildly (and frankly refreshing) evangelical orientations. Only once in a blue moon does some trainee integralist appear in my classroom, often challenging (not a bad thing) and always respectful.

Third, the particular mix of students in today’s undergraduate classroom presents the classroom instructor with an opportunity to forge a theological awareness that should unite those of different convictions or temperaments. It requires that we shape our classroom around two sine qua nons of any healthy theological or ecclesial perspective. The first imperative is to insist on a steady focus on the message of chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew. The parable of the sheep and the goats, carefully presented, makes an iron connection between the need for personal salvation, to which all theology worth the name must be oriented, and social justice, to which all Catholics interested in their salvation had better be committed. Moreover, there is absolutely no way that this parable is susceptible to partisan reading. Neither liberal nor evangelical Catholics can wriggle off the hook.

The second requirement is to insist on a service learning component in most if not all theology courses, one that is crafted to meet the course’s particular objectives but that causes students to embrace the message of Matthew 25, indeed to come to love the feel of the hook in their mouths. This is the kind of connection that lies behind the slogan beloved of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, that the experience will mean that you will be “ruined for life.” When I try, as I do, to build my courses around these two principles I inevitably recall the words of Ignacio Ellacuría, who claimed that each day before entering the classroom he would ask himself how what he was planning to teach would help the people of El Salvador, and if he could not answer the question, he would not teach the class. In his case, I am sure, the classes went ahead.

When we do theology or expound the Catholic intellectual tradition in the classroom, we must put it in the concrete context of our world today if we are to have the right to expect our students to pay attention. Theology is not a parlor game.

Fourth, there is a direct and immediate connection between how we should approach young Catholics in our classrooms and what should be the binding force between Catholic bishops and academic theologians. When we look at what Matthew 25 means for us in 2018, both teachers and bishops, both individual Catholics and the church as a whole, we must face up to the genuine perils that accompany the neoliberal capitalist system to which the human community is now enslaved. When we do theology or expound the Catholic intellectual tradition in the classroom, we must put it in the concrete context of our world today if we are to have the right to expect our students to pay attention. Theology is not a parlor game. And what we must ask of our bishops, our leaders in the church, is an awareness of the enormous evil of what Pope Francis has called self-referentiality, which should in its turn lead them to challenge neoliberalism and challenge everyday Catholics to meet it head-to-head. When Pope Francis calls all Catholics to be missionary disciples, sent to the existential periphery, he is not imagining that they will all be expert theologians, but rather that they will act as ambassadors and exponents of Matthew 25. The priorities of episcopal leadership and of academic theology should synchronize around this ecclesial vision, and when this happens, mutual respect builds up and the church is stronger for it.

Fifth, what then of the canon of theology to which Faggioli wants to recall us? Academic theologians are called to a critical appropriation of the whole tradition, and here I am in agreement. But there are two newer realities that complicate this task and put the canon, to some degree, into question. The first is that the enhanced theology of grace that flowed from Vatican II requires us to take account of the wisdom of other Christian traditions, if not also of the truths offered by the other great religions of the world. The canon of Catholic theology must be honored, respected, known, and utilized, but it must not become a fetish. The second new development, this one with important consequences for the canon itself, is that Catholic theology today is a global reality, like the church itself. The “canon of theology,” in the sense that Faggioli uses the term, is still pretty much a product of European and North American scholars, even if a few women have somehow forced their way in. Any “canon of theology” needs to be greatly expanded, and if we admit the voices of women theologians and all the theology of the global south, we should expect and indeed relish the corrections that their voices need to make to whatever the “canon of theology” meant in the past.

I am also in agreement with Faggioli and Hollerich on the need for an ecclesial dimension to the work of theology, particularly with the nuances O’Brien adds, but the correct relationship is, I think, one that theologians were challenged to adopt by the late, great Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. Theologians, she said, should be “professional insiders,” and here is where both bishops and theologians are confronted in different ways. The theologian needs to be a true insider, to do the work as a member of a community of faith, not just because theologians needs sacraments and fellowship like others, but also and more importantly because the community itself is a locus of discernment and a source of insight. A living connection to a faith community adds to the work of the academic theologian a measure of concreteness that exactly parallels what service-learning does for the undergraduate student. And this may indeed be even more important for those whose work is in traditional scholarship, whose heady activity may require a stronger reminder of the background context of neoliberalism that Matthew 25 challenges in the twenty-first century. The bishop, on the other hand, will presumably welcome the theologian’s presence in a community of faith, but he needs to embrace the “professional” in the professional insider. The theologian in the community of faith knows the tradition better and more deeply than the general Catholic population, probably better than many bishops, and brings an authentically critical set of attitudes to the work of communal discernment. Maybe the bishop would prefer not to encounter what he might see as irresponsibility or rocking the ship of faith, and sometimes this may indeed be the case. But surely it is more likely that he will rest easier if it is evident that the academic theologian, in Isasi-Diaz’s sense, is truly a church theologian.

Finally, I personally do not believe that the future of academic theology depends on the church, and certainly not that the future of the church depends on the fortunes of academic theology. The latter had better not be the case, since the incursions of neoliberalism even into the hallowed halls of private Catholic universities are directly connected to the shrinking of general education or core requirements in theology and philosophy in particular, and in the humanities in general. If academic theologians and bishops make the kind of connection that Matthew 25 insists on between personal holiness and social justice, then the basis for a healthy ecclesial community and a vigorous theological classroom is assured. If not, the future may be gloomy indeed.

Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University. His book The Wounded Angel: Fiction and the Religious Imagination (Liturgical Press, 2017) won the College Theology Society award for the best theology book of 2017. In June 2018 he begins a one-year appointment as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

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