Young Theologians

Between a Rock & a Hard Place

The fate of young theologians has been a recurring theme in the controversy surrounding Ex corde ecclesiae. Margaret Farley, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, has voiced concern (New York Times, November 18, 1999) that the implementation of Ex corde might lead many young Catholic theologians to seek employment at non-Catholic universities, thereby escaping the canonical requirement to seek a mandatum to teach theology. Taking the opposite tack, Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of First Things, has written that young theologians who would be scared away by the mandatum probably shouldn’t be teaching at a Catholic university in the first place.

As a young theologian, I share Farley’s concern for the integrity and freedom of theological research and teaching, but suspect that it is misdirected. At the most practical level, young theologians need jobs and—as Catholic colleges and universities represent a large market—will do what is necessary to obtain them, for reasons both good and bad. More fundamentally, I think that the mandatum will not scare young theologians away from—or keep (or bring) older ones into—the theological fold. Its more serious failure is that it does not address the more radical problem facing Catholic theology today: its increasing captivity to the mores of the academy and its concurrent ecclesial deracination. Institutional self-policing and episcopal intervention by themselves cannot remedy these problems. Young theologians are particularly affected by this shift to a more academic model for theology, since it is the context in which they are being formed, hired, and socialized. At the risk of alienating all comers, let me explain why.

I did my undergraduate work in English literature at Yale, my master’s in theology at Harvard Divinity School, and I am completing a doctorate in systematic theology at Notre Dame. Moreover, because my dissertation touches on some contentious issues concerning the episcopate and the papacy, arguing that the church would benefit from internal reform and renewal, it might cause some concern to a mandatum review board. Nonetheless, I hope my dissertation will help me get a job. At most, I hope that it is the beginning of a vocation of serving the God and the church I love.

However, much of the public response to the proposed implementation of Ex corde confronts me with two unappealing options: the academy’s occasionally shrill defense of academic freedom and the still uncertain shape of episcopal involvement in the appointment of theologians. Underlying both these concerns are deeper questions: How does theology relate to the academy and the church? How do bishops relate to theology and theologians? How do young theologians deal with this situation?

First, the increasingly academic nature of theology. In their underappreciated struggle for theological integrity and excellence, most theologians have taken the academy as their dominant model. They rightly insist that the university is not a catechetical school and they are not propagandists. Theology, in this model, functions as an academic discipline like any other, such as classics or chemistry, and the theologian is responsible primarily to his or her professional colleagues. The theology department has the institutional integrity necessary to conduct its own affairs, while academic freedom enables the theologian to pursue truth in an atmosphere of dialogue and critical questioning, free from outside interference. The fruits of such professionalism and freedom are self-evident, as are the dangers when they are compromised.

Too often, though, much of the rhetoric about academic freedom and institutional integrity owes more to autonomy than to communion. With a cry of "Leave us alone," academic freedom is defined largely in negative terms (freedom from interference) rather than positively (freedom for inquiry and truth), when, in fact, it involves both. Moreover, such shrillness masks a deeper problem for Catholic theology: it is not that episcopal intervention might compromise academic freedom, but that theology today is often simply nonecclesial and irrelevant to the needs of church and society. Answering first to the academy and second (perhaps) to the church, many theologians have become concerned primarily with addressing other scholars, speaking a shorthand unintelligible outside the academy, and piling up increasingly myopic and arcane publications, all for the sake of gaining tenure and promotion. How often, for example, do theologians—other than the usual suspects such as, to name a few, Lisa Sowle Cahill, Avery Dulles, and Joseph Komonchak—write regularly for the educated, nonspecialist Catholic public that reads such publications as Commonweal, America, and First Things? Where is the next John A. Ryan or J. Bryan Hehir?

With relatively few exceptions, theologians under the age of fifty are noticeably absent from the broader public debate, both within the church and in society at large. In part this is so because their academic formation and ethos have not encouraged or trained them for it. Hiring and promotions committees aren’t concerned with publishing in non-peer-reviewed journals or involvement in civic and ecclesial associations, and, as a result, many theologians have lost—or never possessed—the ability to speak in a direct, intelligible fashion to the theologically unwashed. After all, what young theologian, faced with a family to feed and loans to pay, will take on work or develop skills that will not help her or him get tenure and professional honors? In short, professional and pragmatic concerns militate against theologians addressing, in David Tracy’s terms, the three "publics" of academy, church, and society. In this situation, how are the ecclesial responsibility and vocation of the theologian to be renewed?

Whatever else the agenda of Rome and the American bishops may be, they are right to pursue such a renewal. Many bishops have reason to be dismayed that some Catholic theology is insufficiently Catholic, deeply critical—even dismissive—of the church’s teachings on ordained ministry, its necessary role in the church’s life, the unique salvific role of Jesus Christ, and life issues such as abortion and euthanasia, to cite but a few. As those who, by definition, exercise oversight (episkope), the bishops have the duty to maintain faith and morals. Those who argue that the bishops have no place at Catholic colleges and universities are mistaken: episcopal authority is extrinsic to theology only if theology has become so purely "academic" and removed from the ecclesial community that theologians are in effect answerable only to themselves.

At present, however, the bishops seem to be making greater demands of theologians while doing virtually nothing themselves—intellectually, spiritually, or materially—to help theologians meet them. At the simplest level, how often does a bishop meet with young theologians or graduate students in his diocese to tell them that they are performing an essential service in the church, one for which they receive little recognition or recompense? How often does he ask them for honest feedback on what they perceive to be contemporary problems, hopes, and needs? This lack of contact sends a message: either the bishop is uninterested in theology or he appears as a reactive policeman, arriving only to lay down the law when it is too late. To use another analogy, bishops often end up practicing emergency, not preventative, medicine. In such an atmosphere, the bonds of trust and respect between bishops and theologians—so much in evidence at Vatican II—are virtually nonexistent. In their absence, is it any surprise that all parties are edgy and defensive?

But what would happen if, as Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris suggested recently, bishops saw their primary task as not simply that of verifying or controlling theological truth but as fostering the conditions for a genuinely ecclesial theology? In his intervention at last fall’s European Synod of Bishops (see "La pratique théologique dans un monde sécularisé," in études [January 2000]), the cardinal argued that episcopal responsibility for theology is more broadly constructive than evaluative (although certainly not excluding the latter). It includes the creation and support of vibrant communities of Christian prayer and service; an intimate, liturgical encounter with Scripture, read as the church’s book and not simply as a historical-critical text; a lively friendship between bishops and theologians, built on dialogue and respect for difference; a regard for the spiritual freedom of theologians, exemplified by the doctors of the church.

Is it any surprise, Lustiger asks, that the two greatest medieval theologians, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, were respectively among the earliest followers of Francis and Dominic, whose creation of the mendicant life ranks as one of the most fruitful developments in Christian history? Today, I would add, is it mere coincidence that two of the greatest twentieth-century Catholic theologians, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, were among the most creative interpreters and disciples of Ignatius Loyola and his spirituality? Christian theology cannot flourish apart from the rich seed-bed of Christian community.

Therefore, out of the many pressing needs facing Catholic theology today—a new biblical, patristic, and liturgical ressourcement; greater material support of students—I would cite one area of central concern: the spiritual formation of younger theologians, who are overwhelmingly lay. Nearly all of the older generation of theologians either are or were clerics and/or religious. By the time a Jesuit began doctoral work, for instance, he had already spent close to fifteen years in intense spiritual formation: living and studying in a disciplined community, praying publicly and privately daily, serving in the order’s apostolates. In other words, he came to theology already possessed of considerable intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral formation. Similarly, a diocesan priest would have had the experience of at least four or five years in the seminary (often more than ten, factoring in preparatory and minor seminary studies), possible study in Rome, and been deeply aware of the church’s ministerial and apostolic needs. Older theologians who have fought courageously for academic excellence and freedom may not fully appreciate their own spiritual formation and the way it forged strong ecclesial identification and responsibility.

Now, however, those who study theology, despite their best intentions, often lack such formation and identification. Perhaps they have had little experience of spiritual direction, structured communal life and prayer, or pastoral ministry. In other words, despite the necessarily different forms lay spirituality takes, lay theologians have not had the opportunities and benefits of spiritual formation and ecclesial integration that previous generations of theologians had. If theology—"faith seeking understanding"—is truly to be an intersection of thought and prayer, of mind and heart, of academy and church, it is imperative that any program of theological reform attend to the new spiritual and ecclesial situation of lay theologians. The daunting nature of this task makes it no less pressing.

Simply put, young theologians live and move and have their being in a world not of their own making. On the one hand, how do they find a place in an academy dominated by some older theologians, whose intellectual clocks stopped in 1968 with the ecclesial politics of Humanae vitae, and a middle generation whose theology is often uprooted and diffuse? On the other, how are they to respond to bishops who appear distant and more concerned with control and litmus tests than with solidarity and nurture? Baldly put, many young theologians are not interested in fighting the old battles: in hearing the war stories of liturgical abuses of either the Left or the Right, and the seminary horror stories of the 1950s or 1970s; in practicing a theology obsessed with liberal and conservative camps and shooting down those who dare to see merit in the "opposition’s" thought; in arguing the relative merits of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II; in professing loyalty to the magisterium or to the Catholic Theological Society of America. Younger theologians are concerned with how to grasp more fully the sources of our tradition, address the consumerism of our culture and the cheapness of all life in it, and pass on the church’s liturgical and social riches to our own and future generations that are so sadly ignorant—and in need—of them.

In this work of spiritual and intellectual reintegration, neither repeated calls for academic freedom nor the mandatum will succeed. Seminaries, already and rightly under episcopal control, are not currently distinguished as a group for their theological research, while those institutions which are self-professedly "orthodox," like the Franciscan University of Steubenville and Christendom College, are more apologetical than theological. The mandatum, which often appears more as an instrument of control than of cultivation, does not address the root of the problem. It cannot bring about communities and programs of spiritual formation, lead hiring and promotions committees to give weight to supposedly "nonprofessional" factors like popular writing and speaking, or get theologians to emerge from their academic cocoons. The mandatum may not drive away young theologians from Catholic colleges and universities, but neither will it foster a more thoroughly ecclesial theology.

The fundamental theological problem, then, is not the dissent of a few theologians, but that so many of their rank fail to make a difference in the life of the church, doing theology not ex corde ecclesiae, but ex corde academiae. Nor is the problem that bishops wish to contribute to the truly ecclesial nature of Catholic universities and theology. It is that too often they are doing so in a counterproductive manner. Trust and responsibility can be restored not by fiat, but only by generous and respectful acts on all sides. Today’s heated calls for academic freedom, on the one hand, and the mandatum, on the other, are not the answer. They are simply indicative of the deeper malaise generated by ineffectual theology and unreflective oversight. The question remains, what will become of young theologians?

 


Read more: Theologians, Young and Older, by Stephen J. Pope
A Second Opinion, by Edward T. Oakes
Something New, by the Editors

Published in the 2000-04-21 issue: 

Christopher Ruddy is associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America.

Also by this author
In Defense of Desire

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