Catholic theologians in their natural habitat, CTSA 2023 (Paul Schutz/Catholic Theological Society of America)

Last month, at the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) in Baltimore, University of Notre Dame theology professor Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP, accepted the society’s John Courtney Murray Award. The honor, bestowed annually upon a distinguished scholar for their contributions to Catholic theology, is akin to a lifetime-achievement award. For Catholic theologians, especially women, Cathy Hilkert is a legend. (If you need proof, just ask her current students, who debuted canvas tote bags with her face on them at this year’s conference.) She completed her doctorate and entered the academy among a cohort of scholars who would form the post-conciliar vanguard in Catholic feminist theology. Since then, she has educated and guided generations of women in the field—including many who, like me, were never even her students.

In her acceptance speech, Dr. Hilkert recalled how the CTSA, especially its early community of women in theology, quickly became a space that sustained her theological vocation. Her words have stuck with me. Vocational sustenance. Where do Catholic theologians seek vocational sustenance today?

By now, readers are likely familiar with the changes reshaping Catholic higher education. Small, regional colleges and universities are closing at an alarming rate. Others have sought solvency by radically consolidating or sacrificing their liberal-arts departments in favor of programs that imply promises of ready employment. Departments of theology and philosophy are typically first on the chopping block. Courses once taught by tenured professors are now fielded by adjuncts, whose part-time labor secures them neither benefits nor the guarantee of sustained employment. Many more institutions have taken the attrition approach, overworking and underpaying theology faculty until, one by one, they simply have no choice but to find another way to make a living. Students pursuing doctoral studies in theology today do so amid warnings about the rapidly constricting job market. Before they ever set foot in the classroom, they are advised to hedge their hopes for a sustainable future in their chosen field.

Over the past several years, many of the brightest lights in my field—friends, mentors, master teachers, intellectual heroes—have lost or left their jobs. Their work hasn’t stopped. In new and different ways, they continue to pursue knowledge and work for transformation in the Church, writing, teaching, and lecturing around the edges of the academy. But they are deprived of access to the terms of labor, tenure, compensation, and institutional support that sustained generations of academics. It should not go unnoticed that this professional contraction has coincided with the nominal opening of the field to scholars from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. As some of the most junior faculty in the academy, they are also some of the most precarious.

Over the past several years, many of the brightest lights in my field have lost or left their jobs.

I write as a Catholic theologian employed in a United Methodist seminary nestled within a major research university. Though the landscape of Protestant theological education is shifting as rapidly and radically as the Catholic one, I have enjoyed what often feels, by present standards, like an astonishing level of institutional security. But none of us is immune to current trends in the academy, and we should not acquiesce to the neoliberal logic that merely separates the lucky from the unlucky and entreats the former to put their heads down and get back to work.

Like Dr. Hilkert, most theologians I know speak of their work as a vocation, a divine calling. It is a response to a movement from deep within, a lifelong working-out of a question posed by the realities and conditions of life itself. I once met a religious sister who framed the issue as a question: “What’s the work that’s mine to do?” What are the marrow-deep questions that haunt my memory, my body? What can it possibly mean to speak of God in light of what I’ve seen and heard, in light of the stories I’ve inherited, in light of what we in this world have done to one another? It is true that such responses need not be worked out within the academy. But it is also true that, at present, no alternative structure exists to support and sustain such work. Every theological vocation buried by the unforgiving market of corporatized higher education is another story not told, another song not sung.

Where, I wonder, will my generation of theologians seek vocational sustenance? It will take some imagining. But I also hope we might continue to find it in the same place Dr. Hilkert did: in professional organizations like the CTSA, the College Theology Society, the Black Catholic Theological Symposium, and the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States. To new scholars, conferences can feel like intimidating sites of performance, places to present papers and network and meet prospective publishers. Gradually, however, they begin to feel like reunions. Late spring is conference season in Catholic theology, and at the end of particularly trying academic years, these gatherings have felt like retreats. Projects that have flatlined are revived. Skeletal ideas are nourished. Collaborations blossom. The past year’s burdens and indignities are properly lamented. Joys are lauded. We pray and sing, eat and drink. We listen to colleagues forced out of their jobs and build the kind of power that can only come with an open-eyed assessment of reality.

I have begun, in other words, to think of academic societies less as sites of professional development and more as vocational nourishment. To attend a gathering like this is a profound privilege, and a costly one. In today’s academic context, it is also vocationally sustaining. Every professional organization has a fund to support members under financial constraint with the cost of attending an annual meeting. I suggest that every scholar with the means to do so contribute to such a fund as a gesture of material solidarity with those in our fields denied the benefits of institutional stability. Against the backdrop of institutional collapse, such contributions may feel like a Band-Aid. That may be true. But, as my colleague Ted Smith has argued, we are presently in “between times.” Old models of theological education are passing away; new models have yet to be born. In-between times call for in-between measures. Here in this valley, let us do what we can to sustain one another.

Susan Bigelow Reynolds is assistant professor of Catholic Studies at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. 

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Published in the July/August 2024 issue: View Contents
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