Theologians: Young & Older

A Response to Christopher Ruddy

Christopher Ruddy ["Young Theologians," April 21] has written an intriguing and challenging essay on the state of academic theology and its relation to the church [see also, Correspondence, this issue, page 4]. He thinks the mandatum—formal episcopal approval to teach theology—will not "scare away" potential students of theology, even though it appears to be more an "instrument of control" than a means of cultivating a genuine ecclesial theology. Despite that, Ruddy seems to have doubts about the value of academic freedom and the "shrillness" of its defenders on Catholic college and university campuses.

Ruddy writes that theology should be more "effectual," that is, "make a difference in the life of the church." It’s hard to disagree with this goal. And Ruddy thinks that academic theology can do so only if young theologians are given spiritual formation and encouraged to focus their efforts more on writing for popular journals than for "myopic and arcane publications" that are produced "for the sake of gaining tenure and promotion." He proposes that theologians write and speak in a more popular vein, and that tenure committees give these activities more weight in their deliberations.

Ruddy overlooks the fact that theologians spend a great deal of time teaching college students, and that this is where their impact is felt most broadly. The classroom is the context in which students are most likely to ask, or be asked, critical questions about social justice, moral integrity, political responsibility, sexual morality, and ecological concerns. This is where theology is "most relevant" to the church, for the classroom provides a sustained, disciplined opportunity for students to deepen their understanding of the faith, and it offers them an unparalleled chance to ask questions, air grievances, and debate matters of theological import within a constructive context. The vast majority of American Catholics never read America or Commonweal, but many are brought into the world of theological inquiry through Catholic higher education. This is where the theologian who publishes in even the most "arcane" and "myopic" journals makes an important difference in the lives of ordinary Catholics; it would be unjust, and inaccurate, to ignore this.

Ruddy makes valuable points, but his essay suffers from a lack of clarity and balance. He complains that too few theologians write about issues of concern for the contemporary church, but this is clearly not the case. I know many theologians who engage in public theological discussions, both in print and at conferences, that appeal to a broad audience. Theologians are not professional journalists, but most are willing to contribute to popular journals when they think they have something to say that will shed light on an important issue. And no wonder some theologians have reservations about taking a public stance on a contentious issue. Had Charles Curran stayed in a scholarly "cocoon," he would not have been dismissed from The Catholic University of America. But more to Ruddy’s point, contributing to popular journals is neither more nor less "ecclesial" than publishing in scholarly journals. Writing an essay for Theological Studies or the Heythrop Journal contributes to the life of the church, even if it is not something folks will mention over the dinner table or at the neighborhood block party. John Courtney Murray’s famous Theological Studies articles on religious liberty may not have been immediately discussed in rectories or from pulpits, but they had a major, long-term impact on the life of the church. Theologians, after all, are called to contribute to theological knowledge for its own sake. As in the other liberal arts, theology is not merely a means, as Cardinal Newman observed in the The Idea of a University, but "an end sufficient to rest in and to pursue for its own sake." Newman’s view seems to contrast sharply with Ruddy’s, who, in demanding that theology be "relevant," adopts an American pragmatic approach to the value of the discipline. True, we value theology for its positive effects on the life of the church, but we also recognize, with Newman, that it ought to be valued for its own sake.

An additional consideration: The serious study of theology takes a great deal of time, training, and focused energy. To produce a sound, informed, and scholarly article, say, on Saint Thomas Aquinas’s theory of the soul, is not the same exercise as cranking out an op-ed piece on the rescue of Elián González. The scholarly training that is essential to theological studies—in languages, history, doctrine, philosophy, etc.—takes many years to master. In fact, it continues throughout a theologian’s career. Graduate students and junior professors are wisely advised to devote their time and energy to developing scholarly skills so that some day they will become competent, productive theologians. How else, given theology’s richness and complexity, will young theologians be able, as Ruddy desires, "to pass on the church’s liturgical and social riches to our own and future generations"? Perhaps Ruddy is correct in saying that the mandatum will not drive away young theologians from Catholic settings (though I have my doubts, and even some anecdotal evidence, to the contrary). But changing the criteria for tenure and promotion to give priority to popular writing and speaking would, over the long haul, have the effect of "dumbing down" faculties of theology, and it would seriously compromise the academic credibility of theology as a discipline that belongs on university campuses.

Ruddy makes an unsupported generalization that scholarly publication is "all for the sake of gaining tenure and promotion." Career advancement is, of course, no less a motive for academicians than for other professionals (including journalists). But Ruddy ignores the counterevidentiary fact that many of the most prolific writers are academics who already have tenure. Some write, to be sure, out of a need for ego gratification and public acclaim. But many others publish precisely because they care about the discipline of theology, the public good, and, yes, the church.

Nor is it apparent why Ruddy dismisses scholarly journals as "myopic," when in fact specialization is a necessary prerequisite for the advancement of scholarship, Christian scholarship included. It was, in fact, the massive scholarship of Congar, de Lubac, Chenu, Rahner, and others that prepared the way for Vatican II.

It’s hard to tell to what extent Ruddy speaks for "younger theologians." I suspect he expresses the point of view of one segment of this group that would like a richer sense of Catholic identity and that feels the intellectual activity of theology needs to be complemented with a deep personal piety and communal identity. This desire is laudable. But it is a need that ought to be met not by theology departments per se but by active engagement in campus prayer groups, retreats, service programs, and the ordinary life of a local parish. It can be addressed more radically by becoming involved in intentional communities like those of Sant’Egidio or the Catholic Worker. Spiritual formation, like moral growth, therapeutic healing, or political and social responsibility, is a good thing; indeed, spiritual formation is essential to discipleship. But the academic study of theology is not to be confused with monasticism. Though its prerequisite, effect, and complement, spiritual formation is not the proper focus of theological education.

Lay theologians, as Ruddy notes, do not have the institutional supports that were given to their clerical forebears like John A. Ryan or Bernard Lonergan. On the positive side, this absence forces lay theologians to take active responsibility for their lifestyle, spiritual formation, and participation in the life of the church. Lay people most often become devoted to theology as a result of having begun to appropriate their own faith. They do not take up the study of theology because a bishop needs them to fill a slot on the seminary faculty. Most Catholic students I know who decide to commit to a lifetime of teaching, studying, and writing theology do so because they have discovered, to use von Balthasar’s term (die Sendung), their own sense of personal "mission." Often this calling is pursued in spite of misunderstanding by peers, discouragement from family, and short- and long-term financial sacrifices.

It seems, then, that the last thing we need to do is minimize the contribution of theologians to the church or to lament their academic professionalization. Rather than create an unnecessary and false dichotomy that separates thinking ex corde ecclesiae from thinking ex corde academiae, we need to understand more deeply that the latter is, in its own distinctive and rigorous way, a special kind of participation in the former. In this way we are more likely to become, to quote the Vatican’s Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, "servants of the word and of the people of God."

 


Related: A Second Opinion, by Edward T. Oakes
The Author Replies, by Christopher Ruddy
Something New, by the Editors

Published in the 2000-06-02 issue: 

Stephen J. Pope is a professor of theological ethics at Boston College. He is the author of A Step Along the Way: Models of Christian Service (Orbis, 2015).

Also by this author
Broken Covenant

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Culture
Books
Collections