The annual gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) took place last week in sunny San Diego, but there were storm clouds gathering around the meeting’s agenda (see here and here and here). As I continue to ponder Duke Professor Paul Griffiths’s plenary address to the society, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady persistently pops into my head—and not just because of Griffiths’s charming English accent. Harrison’s Dr. Henry Higgins famously asked, “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” In the end, I think Griffiths’s talk amounted to the question, “Why Can’t the CTSA be more like the Academy of Catholic Theology (ACT)?” The answer to that question, I think, properly shapes the response to another, more pressing matter that arose at the CTSA this year: what can or should the organization do to be more welcoming to “conservative” theologians? To the extent that advanced theological education helps to shape the larger debates within American Catholicism, this is not merely an academic question. 

What would it mean, concretely, for the CTSA to be more like ACT? Griffiths suggested that the task had both positive and negative aspects. He argued that certain theological topics should be nurtured and supported by the CTSA but others actively “discouraged.” My worry here is that this narrowing of focus is actually inconsistent with the mission of CTSA, which seeks to encourage a more free-wheeling discussion then does ACT. In fact, if you look at their respective membership rosters, mission statements, and conference programs, it is clear that the two groups operate with different understandings not only of what theology is, but also of the purposes of their own meetings.

Over thirteen hundred scholars and teachers belong to the CTSA, which was founded in 1946. More than four hundred members normally attend the annual meetings, which include wide-ranging plenary addresses as well as more specialized sessions on disparate topics. Themes are generally broad, meant to spark discussion in a wide range of sub-disciplines, from moral theology to systematics to sacramental theology. For example, the 2014 theme was “Identity and Difference: Unity and Fragmentation.” In 2015 the theme will be “Sensus Fidelium” (.pdf). Most significantly, the CTSA’s official mission is capacious: “Our purpose, within the context of the Roman Catholic tradition, is to promote studies and research in theology, to relate theological science to current problems, and to foster a more effective theological education, by providing a forum for an exchange of views among theologians and with scholars in other disciplines.” Despite the claims of some, there is no ideological test for membership: anyone can join who possesses the appropriate academic qualifications, normally a doctorate in theology or related studies.

In contrast, ACT is a much smaller and narrowly focused organization. Founded in 2007, it has about a hundred members. ACT conferences tend to take up very specific themes, such as “Catholic Thought in the Wake of the Enlightenment” (2013); “Faith Theologically and Philosophically Considered” (2011); and “Blessed is She Who Believed: The Role of Mary in Catholic Faith” (2008). Membership is closely regulated; prospective members are nominated for election by current members, who vote (in a closed ballot) at the annual meeting. The tight control over membership reflects the mission of the organization: “The Academy of Catholic Theology’s principal purpose is to foster theological work of the highest intellectual standard that is faithful in the Spirit to the Revelation of God in Christ, as that Revelation has been handed on in Scripture and Tradition, and authoritatively interpreted by the Magisterium.” While the larger Catholic tradition in fact provides a nuanced account of magisterial authority, and endorses certain forms of theological critique, the members of ACT seem to place a high value on avoiding any sort of conflict with the magisterium.

A special evening session in San Diego was devoted to theological diversity at the CTSA—and specifically to the question of what the CTSA could do to make conservatives, many of whom belong to ACT, feel welcome. As the foregoing comparison of mission and culture reveals, the question is really this: what should a group that has a broader and more free-wheeling account of its purpose do to accommodate others who have a more focused, and arguably narrower view of the task at hand?

My own view is this: The CTSA should be open, positively, to considering topics, questions, and positions that “conservatives” believe have been neglected. More discussion is good—of Mariology, of traditional devotions, of metaphysics, of obsequium to the magisterium. Yet the CTSA must not acquiesce to negative pressure to narrow its discussions and deliberations to fit the parameters of ACT. To do so would be to abandon its own mission. This is especially important when it comes to how the CTSA is governed. The society’s Ad Hoc Committee on Theological Diversity noted that some “conservatives” have complained that they aren’t elected to officer and board positions in the CTSA. But an official leadership position is not simply an honorific; it triggers a fiduciary duty to fulfill the basic mission of the organization. So the question to be asked of all candidates for CTSA offices is whether they are committed to that mission. I would not vote for anyone—“liberal” or “conservative”—who disdained the broad forum to which the CTSA is institutionally committed.

Griffiths’s critique of the CTSA raised another question for me. Why, actually, do “conservatives” want greater participation in the CTSA, given the fundamental nature of their disagreement with its goals? Griffiths sketched a view of the nature and purpose of theology that is sharply divergent from that held by many in the CTSA. If the disagreement about first principles between CTSA and ACT is as fundamental as Griffiths suggests, why isn’t the best course of action for each group to wish each other well in the pursuit of different paths, the values of which will eventually be known by their fruitfulness?

On the other hand, many distinguished members of the CTSA leadership are deeply committed to broadening participation by conservatives. For some, it is a question of ecclesiology: they believe it is somehow not “Catholic” to have various groups pursuing theological inquiry independently of one another. They believe we all need to stay together. My view is somewhat different. I want the CTSA to accommodate as wide as possible a range of theological opinion. All members should be treated with respect. No one’s views should be ridiculed. At the same time, I do not think it is a breach of ecclesial communion if one group decides it can do better work within a more narrowly defined theological context. Leaving the CTSA isn’t leaving the church. An academic conference is not the Body of Christ, after all. And within the church, there has always been ample room for different groups to pursue their calling in parallel, inconsistent, and sometimes contesting ways. Jesuits aren’t Franciscans, who in turn definitely aren’t Benedictines. If the members of ACT think they can do better work in a less pluralistic academic setting, God bless them. CTSA members can and will read their work, and find other settings in which to engage them. What the CTSA should not do is compromise its distinctive mission of fostering a more open conversation between the Catholic theological tradition broadly construed and other areas of human learning. It would indeed be a sad irony if the CTSA acquiesced to pressure to constrict its conversations about neuralgic topics in the name of promoting inclusiveness.

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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