What is the role of a public theologian today?
John Courtney Murray, S.J., appeared on the cover of Time magazine on Dec. 12, 1960. The iconic cover features a painting of the famous Jesuit by the artist Boris Chaliapin, set against the backdrop of Volume One of the complete works of Robert Bellarmine, S.J.. Clad in clerics and half-framed glasses, Father Murray displays a stern expression that became the defining image of the public theologian in the Catholic mind.
Published mere weeks after John F. Kennedy’s presidential election, the story, by the writer Douglas Auchincloss, set out to understand Father Murray’s vision of the role of Catholics in U.S. public life. And while Kennedy, as a candidate, had been featured on the cover of the magazine on the day before the election, Auchincloss only hints at the election’s significance for understanding Catholicism’s place in U.S. public life: “It did not take the 1960 election to establish—though it well served to recall—what a unique encounter of diverse traditions is contained in the words ‘American Catholic.’”
Half a century later, Catholic participation in democracy is now taken for granted in the U.S. context. Over 30 percent of members of the 116th U.S. Congress are Catholics, as are five of the nine current U.S. Supreme Court justices. So, too, are at least eight of the candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. When Pope Francis spoke to a joint session of Congress in 2015, he was flanked by the Catholic leaders of both chambers, representing two different political parties. Beyond the realm of electoral politics, Catholics have also been at the forefront of some of the most formidable political and social movements of our time, from the Special Olympics to the United Farm Workers to the antiwar and nuclear disarmament movements.
John Courtney Murray, S.J., worried that the U.S. political and social consensus was crumbling and that democracy would not be able to survive without it.
Mr. Auchincloss, who also wrote cover stories for Time on the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein and the Dead Sea Scrolls, later described his essay on Murray as “the most relentlessly intellectual cover story I’ve ever done.”
Murray’s erudition, however, did not disqualify his theology from public significance for the life of democracy in the United States. Murray worried that the U.S. political and social consensus was crumbling and that democracy would not be able to survive without it. He employed natural law to articulate a public philosophy capable of holding democracy together in a pluralistic and democratic society. The idea resonated with Catholics and non-Catholics alike, influencing thinking about religion and public life in the theological academy and beyond.
Murray’s theology also offers insight into our current political climate. He warned that undermining democratic norms for the sake of political expediency would lead to political breakdown that would “doom the best political skill and dedication.” In Charlottesville, Va., the Unite the Right rally of Aug. 12, 2017, illustrated a frightening consequence of eroding democratic norms fueled by hateful white supremacy: the increasing mainstream acceptability of violence and intimidation of racial and religious minority groups.
Murray’s contributions to both academic and public discourse about religion and public life reminds us why he emerged as a leading Catholic public theologian of his day, read by people, as Auchincloss wrote, “of all sorts and conditions.” And yet, Murray’s pre-eminence underscores the contested nature of the category of public theologian in our current moment.
Nearly six decades after Murray’s appearance on the cover of Time, public theology is still seen as limited in terms of who does it and where it is done. The popular image of the Catholic public theologian is often still that of an academically trained theologian who is white, male and ordained and writes theology from a position of institutional power. The power of universities in shaping professional theological structures contributes to the production of theological research that engages neither the church nor the world beyond the halls of academe.
It is tempting for theologians today who write from a position of privilege within the academy to shield ourselves from the violence associated with racism, white supremacy, sexual misconduct and other social threats to our community in the interest of maintaining critical distance in our research and scholarship. But public theology today demands a response to the threats posed to the most vulnerable members of our society.
Public theology today demands a response to the threats posed to the most vulnerable members of our society.
Theology and Its Publics
The Rev. David Tracy’s classic conception of the “theological publics,” as articulated in his book The Analogical Imagination, offers a framework for examining the status of public theology today. He identifies three related but distinct publics for the theologian: society, the academy and the church. These publics are more than just sociological categories; they are theological in nature. Stephen Okey, an associate professor of theology at Saint Leo’s University and the author of A Theology of Conversation: An Introduction to David Tracy, emphasizes Tracy’s inclusion of diverse realms as sources for public theology:
Theology is a discipline of thought that responds to fundamental human questions, and essential to those in society are how we ought to live, what kind of society we ought to form, what we mean by justice, freedom or liberty. Theology responds to these kinds of questions, and people who are part of society who take theology seriously have the right to propose their questions and answers and to engage in public discussion of them.
Although religion in modernity has often been framed as a private matter, Father Tracy argues that God’s universal character necessitates attention to theological concerns in each one of the publics. According to Professor Okey, each public is shaped by distinct concerns: “Tracy's approach to the publics is to understand them more in terms of the types of questions they are responding to, the types of rules they have for discussion, and what is considered evidence to them.”
Okey also highlights the limits of Tracy’s framework: “He is really focusing on the public commitments of the theologian, and he formulates his model in the late 70’s early 80’s. So he wasn’t thinking about mediatization, globalization, corporatization when doing so. It’s not clear where those phenomena fit with respect to his publics, or whether they might propose new publics that have more or less significance for the theologian.” Nonetheless, Tracy’s framework offers a helpful heuristic for thinking about how the work of academic theology, grounded in a specific public with its own particular questions, rules and evidence, interacts with realms beyond its own.
David Tracy identifies three related but distinct publics for the theologian: society, the academy and the church.
Theology in and from The Academy
Evaluating the state of public theology through Father Tracy’s theological framework also helps bring some problematic issues into view. While academic theology has often been the central catalyst for theological education, critics worry about the retreat of theology into the academy, where its perspective and imagination are limited by university power structures. Despite increased interest in theological education among those interested in positions in lay ministry, nonprofit work and public service, undergraduate- and graduate-level teaching in theology is calibrated toward academic research. Theologians who earn doctorates in the field are strongly encouraged to seek positions teaching in universities. Those with positions in the university are neither incentivized nor rewarded for publishing theological works that address non-academic publics, even as those works often more effectively communicate significant advancements in theological research to readers both within and beyond the academy. The academic journals in which Murray published shy away from topics, methods and even writing styles that resonate with broader publics and their concerns.
Additionally, seismic shifts in the landscape of academic curricula and employment have forced the theological academy to grapple with its own relevance. In several cases, curricular redevelopment initiatives at Catholic universities have attempted to reduce the number of theology requirements for students. This past spring, Wheeling Jesuit University announced the elimination of its theology department entirely, opting to keep only degree programs with practical relevance. (The school’s board of directors and the Society of Jesus agreed to end the university’s Jesuit affiliation at the end of the 2018-19 school year.)
Seismic shifts in the landscape of academic curricula and employment have forced the theological academy to grapple with its own relevance.
But there are forces beyond the job market and university restructuring that are challenging the academy’s monopoly on theology. Like Murray, theologians today confront monumental challenges to the survival of American democracy. People far beyond theology departments want to know how theology speaks to the challenges we face as a church and a society. Theologians writing in the context of a democracy in crisis do not have the luxury of demurring from our public task. There is an urgent need for clear and cogent theological voices in public life.
Identifying and empowering these voices, however, is made difficult by public theology’s enduring lack of diversity. This deficit is exacerbated by the way “public” has often been read as a masculinized concept that walls it off from the private, designating public matters to men and private matters to women. Our definitions of “public” have also long held a normative view of whiteness, viewing “contextual” theologians and theological reflections as irrelevant to common concerns in the academy, the church and society alike. This conception of public still finds its way into much of our thinking about public theology, making it difficult for many Catholics to conceive of non-male theologians and those from marginalized groups doing the same work as John Courtney Murray.
“I do think that the presence of women and people of color in the public sphere is something society is still grappling with,” says Natalia Imperatori-Lee, an associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. In 2015, Professor Imperatori-Lee provided commentary on CNN, MSNBC and a local New York City television station during Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. “I was frequently the only woman in the room, and certainly the only non-Anglo person in the room. We have a ways to go to get non-white, non-male bodies seen as legitimate experts in theology.”
The changing face of the Catholic Church and broader society requires acknowledgment of the significance of these theological voices to each of Father Tracy’s distinct publics, recognition that many power-players—both individuals and institutions—in theology are still not ready to grant.
Even so, theologians are responding to these challenges by learning to speak, write and teach for multiple publics. For today’s emerging generation of academic theologians, engagement with publics beyond the academy is just shy of compulsory. Whether in doctoral dissertations or blog posts, public talks or Twitter takes, marching for racial justice or running for public office, the new generation practices theology with keen awareness of multiple publics and the necessity of engaging questions of broader public concern.
The theological academy continues to diversify, albeit slowly and unevenly. Women are opening new space for making theological contributions to public life, speaking to topics beyond those traditionally relegated to women, like gender, motherhood and beauty, while continuing to advance conversations about those topics in authentic, honest and nuanced ways. Carmen Nanko-Fernandez, a professor of Hispanic theology and ministry at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, emphasizes the diversity of public contributions made by black, Latinx and Asian theologians working in the United States: “Theologians from these groups exercise their public roles not only as scholars and professors but as activists, as composers of sacred music, ambassadors and diplomats, commentators and columnists in popular media, pastors and ministers at borders [as well as] accompanying vulnerable communities.”
Scholars who have been marginalized in academic theology have seized significant national and international platforms, preparing the way for generational transformations in public theological contributions.
Every so often, a list appears in print or social media naming public theologians of influence both within and beyond the academy. Lists like this make implicit arguments about who qualifies as a public theologian, asserting authority over the category by who is included on the list—and who is not. Inevitably, these lists provoke discussion, debate and disagreement. Deliberations about the specific names included on these lists help engender awareness of the breadth of public engagement among theologians in the 21st century. This is especially important for calling attention to public theologians from underrepresented groups. Nonetheless, repeatedly defining and debating public theology’s in-crowd does not help us to understand the activities, characteristics or priorities of public theologians today. Examining these traits might help us to better understand theology’s public significance in the 21st century and the place of theologians in communicating its significance.
For today’s emerging generation of academic theologians, engagement with publics beyond the academy is just shy of compulsory.
Public Theology Today
Auchincloss weighed in on Murray’s qualifications for the designation of public theologian: “He is particularly well fitted for this role—by intellect, by temperament and, just as important, by a life that has been largely insulated from the psycho-sociological problems of the Catholics in the U.S.” Beyond his accomplishments in academic theology, he implies, Murray was a keen observer of Catholic life while standing at a distance from its most pressing problems. This image of the theological genius coolly detached from the urgent societal issues of his time—racial, gender, sexual and economic justice, to name just a few—stands in stark contrast to the qualities associated with the work of public theology today. Public theologians of our time often speak from positions of direct experience of today’s most pressing social problems.
Theological insight and creativity is still a central expectation, of course; it is significant that the Catholic Theological Society of America’s highest award is named in honor of Murray. But accomplishment in academic theology is not sufficient for public theology today. A public theologian must know her public. As Jeremy Cruz, an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at Saint John’s University in New York explains, “They know their audience, they know what time it is, and they are connected to social movements.” This sense of timing requires attention to the lives of specific communities and specific people. For the public theologian today, this means knowing when to leave the sidelines and join the game.
Public theology today also requires an embodied commitment to solidarity. While public theology is not synonymous with prophecy, some of the most significant public theologians of our times are found not only in the halls of academe but speaking on behalf of protest movements and marginalized populations. The public theologian participates in the incarnational character of the church. If the work of the public theologian is grounded in the faith of the church, her work must guide her to be in solidarity with the publics with and for whom she writes.
While Murray demonstrated the power of theology to change public discourse on a broad scale, today’s public theologians can also be found bringing the insights of their study to the lives of particular local communities. They might still be found on the cover of Time, but they are more likely to be found working alongside the most vulnerable members of society, contributing their deep understanding of Scripture, theology, history, ethics, liturgy and ministry in the real lives of communities.
While public theology is not synonymous with prophecy, some of the most significant public theologians of our times are found not only in the halls of academe, but speaking on behalf of protest movements and marginalized populations.
Fame Not Required
On Aug. 12, 2017, Eric Martin’s photo appeared on the front page of The Washington Post. That morning, he had stepped away from his research and writing on Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan and Elizabeth Johnson to stand among other theologians, pastors and community members to oppose the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va. Organized by self-avowed white supremacists in protest of the city’s democratic decision to remove monuments to Confederate generals from its public parks, the rally led to the murder of antiracist protester Heather Heyer and to numerous other injuries. Though a Catholic parish sits adjacent to the site of the rally, Mr. Martin was one of only a handful of Catholics to participate in the multifaith coalition, who linked arms and prayed for peace mere yards away from gun-wielding white nationalists on that day.
The Unite the Right Rally was not just another ritual performance of white supremacy. The organizers promised to bring mayhem to Charlottesville in the months preceding the event. Local elected officials, pastors and university representatives warned community members to stay at home while the storm of violence and hatred rained down on the city, battening down the hatches while praying for minimal injuries and loss of life. But avoiding the fray was not an option for the community, whose neighborhoods were engulfed by hateful anger that day.
Rally participants had already engaged in violence against Charlottesville community members at the University of Virginia the night before. And they had been to Charlottesville on several other occasions over the spring and summer months, wielding torches and shouting “blood and soil!” in the middle of the night in an act of intimidation that invoked the aesthetics of lynching. The rally was yet another campaign in a battle to claim Charlottesville’s public spaces for their cause. As Jalane Schmidt, a Catholic and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, prophesied on the eve of the rally: “Excuse me, America: your house is on fire.”
Unable to leave the vulnerable of Charlottesville to cower in their homes and dorm rooms, a small group of religious leaders from Congregate C’ville—led by the Rev. Seth Wispelwey, the Rev. Brittany Caine-Conley, and the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou—engaged in acts of prayerful nonviolent resistance, standing up to protect their vulnerable neighbors. In photographs that appeared on the pages of many major news outlets, Mr. Martin stood alongside leaders from Muslim, Jewish and Protestant religious communities in Charlottesville. While many of his fellow protesters were dressed in their clerical robes, Mr. Martin wore only a T-shirt, cargo shorts and a thin red and yellow cloth that evoked the imagery of a baptismal stole.
By embodying his theological ideals in confrontation with violent white supremacists, Martin became one of the theologians at the center of the defining political conflict of our generation. But he is skeptical of calling himself a public theologian: “I certainly don’t identify as one; I only have 20 Twitter followers!” He draws a distinction between the work of theologians with wide audiences with whom he marched in Charlottesville, like Cornel West, and his own work. “I am a theologian who showed up in public,” he says. Yet, by showing up on the streets of Charlottesville, Mr. Martin demonstrated the significance of theology engaged across multiple publics to our common life in the 21st century. Fame and recognition are not a requirement for theology relevant to public life.
As Jalane Schmidt, a Catholic and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, prophesied on the eve of the rally: “Excuse me, America: your house is on fire.”
Our society faces monumental challenges to democratic order that threaten the dignity and sanctity of human life. These challenges, presciently predicted by John Courtney Murray, summon forth theological voices in public that can speak to concrete issues in the life of democracy in the academy, the church and society at large. We do not have the luxury of cool detachment when, as Professor Schmidt noted, our house is on fire.
However one defines the role of the public theologian, there is no question of the pressing need for them—in the streets, in the classroom, in the popular and academic journals where nontheologians read their creative thoughts. Responding to our most pressing challenges requires theology to engage its publics in new, embodied, creative and faithful ways.