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.”