This week, readers weigh in on the dilemma of Catholic academic theology and the advantages of being part of a Commonweal Local Community. Send your own responses to [email protected].



In reading about the dilemma of Catholic academic theology (“A Wake-Up Call to Liberal Theologians,” May 18), I remembered a story told by David Foster Wallace in a commencement address. It went something like this: two young fish were swimming along in a stream when an old fish approached them. As the old fish passed them, he said, “How’s the water today?” One young fish turned to the other and asked, “What’s water?”

What is the “water” that today’s Catholic academic theology swims in? Dr. Faggioli tells us that the water is liberal versus conservative notions of morality and even dogma. I take that to mean that academic theology has lost its way and gotten stuck in the muddy water of today’s politicized secular and sacred cultures. We need to start over, not only with academic theology, but since everything happens in a context, with the Catholic universities within which academic theology lives.

In the medieval universities, the “water” was the Catholic faith in its academic and spiritual fullness. Those universities took for granted the flowing connection among the natural sciences, philosophy, and theology—and the flow from nature to God. In the 1960s, the priests, nuns, and brothers who taught in our Catholics colleges were the “Catholic water” in which the students studied theology. But then the “water” began to evaporate.

Recently I asked a young man who was newly graduated from a Catholic university, “What difference was your education from the education of your friends who attended a secular university?” He immediately answered, “None. My school got me ready for a career. They tried to teach me some theology. But I didn’t listen. I could just as well have gone to a secular university.”

On another occasion, I spoke to a group of students and faculty from a local Catholic university.  I asked them, “What makes your university Catholic?” I received nothing but blank stares—from both the students and faculty.

So yes, we need to start over again. I see academic theology as fitting into a Catholic university where students are academically formed for a career and a life in the everyday world that is a divine milieu alive with the luminosity of Christ. If this is not true, then what is the difference between a Catholic university and a secular one?

Vatican II showed us the way. It was a council of church renewal and ecumenism. The council gave us a genuinely researched, updated, spiritually powerful way for the church—for all Catholics, including Catholic universities—to live and operate in the world of its time. It placed the church in new “water”: the church does not exist outside the world, it is the saving yeast of the world. The fact that academic theology is being politicized shows that the teachings of the council were never fully understood and implemented, and so have fallen prey to today’s contentious culture.

The council taught that every Catholic, by virtue of their baptism, is called and empowered to be an “everyday mystic,” i.e., someone who, by their personal sensus fidei within the whole church’s sensus fidelium, can discern the presence and intentions of God in and for themselves and our society.

The council also taught that every Catholic shares in Christ’s prophetic office and is an “everyday prophet,” i.e., someone who is called and empowered to work to elevate our humanity and, where necessary, to humbly work to correct it so it will be ever more luminously human in the loving grace of Christ. In sum, together with the whole church, we can learn to discern our true sensus fidei and contribute our life-vocation to the church and our society. How many Catholic university graduates are truly prepared to be discerning, active, everyday mystics and prophets in today’s society?

And for students of Catholic universities, I add: to be mystics and prophets in and for their home parishes after they graduate. There is dire need for parishioners to learn how to live an effective, adult, mystical, and prophetic spirituality in their everyday lives and communities. Isn’t that what the church is really about? Isn’t that what academic theology should really be about? Or is academic theology only for other theologians?

Where to begin starting over? St. Thomas said, and as the medieval universities clearly knew, grace builds on nature. If we get creation wrong we will get God wrong.

In the 1950s, Jesuit Bernard Lonergan said that if St. Thomas were alive then, he wouldn’t be talking about substances and accidents; he would be talking about black holes and event horizons. Are today’s Catholic-university science classes being elevated and completed by theology classes that relate black holes and event horizons to the universal Christian reality?

Today’s quantum physics (better: qualia physics), is giving us an entirely new and exciting way to understand creation and therefore, God—and also, Catholic education. Do today’s theology departments present classes about a unified, luminously graced universe that arises from a single immaterial consciousness, from which all material things and persons emerge in their glorious physical diversity? Do they teach that everything begins with the cosmic unity of one consciousness (which is the created image of God), which shows us that we are all children and images of the One God, all one family of brothers and sisters, all arising from one consciousness? Our glorious diversity and the killing competitions that arise from it can and must be seen within the context of our original consciousness and unity, and our slow ensuing evolution toward wholeness in love.   

But science is not the only field upon which today’s academic theology should be built. The late, great Louis Armstrong said that all music is human. He delightfully quipped, “Did you ever hear a horse sing?” Similarly, all education is human. Every subject shows us a way of being human. In this sense, science, mathematics, theology, etc., don’t exist; humans exist who do science, mathematics, theology, etc. Humans are sacred. And therefore, science is sacred, mathematics is sacred, theology is sacred. The entire secular world is the sacred image of God, despite the fact that some people try to turn it into a profane world.

I remember Richard Rohr saying (I paraphrase) that we could get rid of the theology of the Trinity and hardly anyone would notice. In today’s Catholic universities, God can be presented as Moses understood God at the burning bush, as omnipresent living existence itself who is eternal, infinite, overflowing love. Just as existence is everywhere, God is everywhere. Love is everywhere. Christ can be presented as the loving union of divinity with the universe. Two thousand years ago, when Jesus was born, the universal Christian reality that he took to himself was already 13.8 billion years old.

St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is every human fully alive.”  Every individual thing and person, every academic subject, every job and profession, is united with God in and through Christ and therefore works for our fullness of life. A Catholic university fosters the growth of the Kingdom of God on earth, and thus helps to enhance the glory of God on earth.

The students can be taught that their subjects are evolving and they themselves are evolving.   They are being called to their academic and personal fulfillment in Christ not from the past but from the future and into their ever-evolving future. Their youthful visions of their evolving future are a very powerful experience of God at this point in their lives.

For a Catholic university to be Catholic it also has to be catholic. If the university’s departments live and operate in their own windowless silos and never talk to one another, they present to the students a fragmented view of education, of themselves, and of the world. Theology will have no “catholic water” to swim in. Such a university is anti-Catholic.

The Catholic faculty can teach how their subjects connect with the wholeness of the curriculum, the wholeness of the students themselves, the wholeness of society, of humanity, and the wholeness that is Christ.

How many students would be interested in studying this kind of theology, either undergraduate or graduate?  They would be worthy successors of Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, John Courtney Murray, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Richard Rohr, Ilia Delio, et al.

Non-Catholic faculty will present their subjects with full academic integrity as part of the whole that is education and the university. Understanding that they are in a Catholic university, they would be required not to teach atheism in any way. This includes the question of their teaching a strictly materialistic universe, or materialistic science that automatically excludes spirituality and God. Such a view would be shown to be an example of the logical fallacy of begging the question.

As for grants from secular sources, with the Catholic University of America accepting grants from the Koch brothers, I leave that to the Catholic universities to search their souls and make their own decisions.

Anthony T. Massimini, STD
Woolwich Township, N.J.



Thanks to Anthony Massimini for his thoughtful comments on my article. Speaking as one who has been working in the U.S. academic context only in the last ten years, I do not think that we need to start over again. What I would say is that, even before addressing the issue of what kind of theology should be taught on the campuses of Catholic colleges and universities, the first question is about who or which entity on campus is in charge of shaping the Catholic and theological character of the institution: the department of theology/religious studies, or the office for mission, or campus ministry, or the justice and peace center, or other academic programs? Without ignoring all the other factors determining the course of higher education today, on a Catholic college or university campus this would of course also depend on the ability and willingness of the departments of theology/religious studies to claim a more central role, even though by no means exclusive and proprietary, in defining the character of the school. 



We come together monthly. Professors, doctors, community organizers, social workers, priests, teachers—most are retired—to discuss articles we have read in the recent issue of Commonweal in a Commonweal Local Community.

I joined a year ago hoping to unload my complaints of how I have felt controlled and restricted by Catholic social teaching. Initially, I worried about how I would be received, a feisty Irish-German Catholic who minces no words about the church. Mom was a devout Catholic and Dad was a Protestant who converted because of marriage. Would this group welcome a challenging statement some may view as oppositional? The answer turns out to be yes.

We meet up to wonder out loud, quite liberally, about what the author of a chosen article really means. The process of the meetings focuses on whether we agree, disagree, or really care. I often sense a collective relief as we each take turns talking about what most of us weren’t allowed to talk about growing up: liberal theology, sexual rules, or prayers spoken routinely with little or no effect. Our free-flowing conversation is often playful, a form of prayer itself.

Yesterday, we covered many articles. We wondered about the influence Billy Graham has had on all of us. Does our President really “love all evangelicals?” George Lindbeck’s concept of religion “should be thought of as a model of culture, something that surrounds and shapes you.”

Last month, we discussed building bridges with the gay community, and whether Thomas Aquinas experienced burnout at the end of his life. We reflected on how sharing a meal together, the Last Supper, is prayer unlike the routinized way many pray the rosary. Some theology professors in the group told the real history of the Popes. They helped us see that we don’t know about Catholic history and complained that we had never been taught. Lastly, we talked about the importance of play and leisure in our lives now. Laughing together is good medicine.

My Commonweal friends, without most of them knowing, lift my spirit. They have restored my faith in the power of healing the old-fashioned way, which resembles the way I would watch my aunts and uncles, almost weekly, getting together and chatting about politics of the day, church events, family news, or worries; being curious about the other and engaging with their thoughts was effortless and grounding.

Many of us in the Commonweal group suffered while growing up in the Catholic Church, mostly because of the emotional isolation and controls put in place. Rules that imply feelings are dangerous, especially anger or sexual desire, restricted our normal child development. Assertiveness certainly was discouraged especially if a child tried to speak up about a teacher or clergy member. If one challenged the rule of mandatory weekly Mass on Sundays by skipping out, dire consequences were threatened, including the suggestion that reaching heaven was definitely in question.

I am grateful for our coming together. Strangers united in faith and in our differences, we share a common language; the willingness to be honest about our rule-breaking thoughts, our wishes for leisure with abandon, and the belief that life is worth debating and discussing as we all die a little every day. Letting go of the hurt, facing the painful truths within the church that many have experienced, somehow helps me to know church exists in many forms. In the cafe each month, we share an organic process. One person will bring up an article and soon we are all chiming in. Our monthly meeting is a container for personal reflection, a safe place. The group discussion throws a brighter light on seeing the church as a mortal and fallible mess.

Patricia Gallagher Marchant
Franklin, Wisc.

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