Young Catholic Theologians: Report from the CTSA

Here at the annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America this weekend, the theme has been "Generations." For me, it has been an exhilarating weekend of hearing much theology, renewing many friendships, and again allowing gratitude for my colleagues and our shared vocation to make a slowly reconfiguring seep into my theological life and work. For the last decade or so, I have come away from each CTSA convention restored, energized, "re-directed" in the many senses one might imagine--not least because of the courage and creativity manifest in the theological life and work of my colleagues. And speaking of courage, Maureen O’Connell of Fordham University gave a courageous response to James Davidson of Purdue University, in the opening plenary session on Thursday night. Davidson presented what many sociologists consider to be theological similarities and differences between the pre-Vatican II, Vatican II, and post-Vatican II generations in United States Catholicism. In response, O’Connell, from the "post-Vatican II/Generation X" cohort of Catholic theologians, offered a carefully stated appreciation for this sociological approach, and then came a presentation of what to this point has only been discussed person-to-person or in small groups of young theologians: the generational shift in the expectations of and demands being made on young Catholic theologians; or stated another way, the changes in the formation, discipline, and management of young theologians--in particular, through the tenure process, which has mostly been saved from any type of theological analysis as it has shifted in the last decade and more. The shift is basically toward more and more intense and unrealistic (not to mention often poorly supported) pressure to publish, toward increasing service obligations without any real "credit" for pastoral work as a theologian, and toward less respect and "credit" for teaching that serves the mission of Catholic higher education; in all, and this is crucial, a widespread failure to appreciate *theologically* the complexities and challenges of a new generation of mostly lay theologians to make for themselves a career in Catholic theology today. While it is true that these shifts are often taking place most dramatically in the bigger and more "prominent" schools, those schools set the pace for almost everyone else, just as the pace for those prominent Catholic college and universities is often set by the secular schools with whom they compete for prestige. Thanks to O’Connell and her tying of the new awareness of pastoral realities in the work of young theologians to the problematizing of what counts as "making it" in the system today, the theme of the generational shift in the formation of young theologians ended up being an important theme of formal and informal conversations before, during, and after panels and papers over the weekend. I would relate the slow, awkward, and fairly uncomfortable emergence of this issue to another issue for Catholic theologians identified last year in Daniel Finn’s presidential address: the reluctance in contemporary Catholic theology to deal with power, including power relationships in our own settings. When Davidson had post-Vatican II theologians stand up together to show how underrepresented they are as a proportion of the CTSA attenders; when O’Connell made her brave presentation; when a Saturday panel of young moral theologians included exactly zero priests (reflecting the extraordinarily few young priests in moral theology); when there was an entire Friday panel devoted to theology and motherhood presented by lay women theologians; when so much of the substance of informal conversation (that I heard, anyway) this weekend, at least among younger theologians, was about tenure policies, family leave policies, salaries, debt, and many other elements that go into the deep shift toward lay women and men becoming the majority of Catholic theologians in the United States, this all tells of a shift in power on the theological landscape, one very complicated and only dimly understood, but whose dynamics were palpable this weekend. It is an exposure of new relations of force that need attention. The issue of the relations of power involved in the positioning of the identities of young Catholic theologians finally rose to the surface in the CTSA, and probably will not go away. How remarkable it would be if the CTSA (and the College Theology Society, as well) could conduct a self-study about generational differences in: experiences of the job market, salaries, cost of living, tenure processes, and academic culture, among other things. The now-substantial literature on the redefinition of academic labor over the last twenty years could now be joined to self-examination on the part of the Catholic theological academy. Davidson made a provocative point during his presentation, which has yet to be fully explored: that the differences among Catholic generations run deeper than differences according to ethnic-racial identity or gender among American Catholics. While further analysis is needed (and I have written about the limits of sociological studies of young Catholics, and have a forthcoming essay attempting a theological critique of such sociological approaches), insofar as Davidson is right, then attention to the specificity of generational experiences of becoming legitimized as a Catholic theologian, and a gainfully employed one, need to be addressed. We need to better understand how the new definitions and practices of academic labor, including in Catholic theology, help to produce ’legitimate,’ ’normal’ and ’successful’ Catholic theological identities. In a word, how might our Catholic academy practice a Catholic self-examination about the way young theologians are able to live and to work? Tom Beaudoin Miami, Florida
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9 years 8 months ago
The issue of power in the Church has not been addressed since the Council of Constance.
9 years 8 months ago
Tom, it seems to me that there is an even larger issue that needs to be looked at, i.e. the question of power. We commonly talk about the problems we have with the Vatican and the local bishops and their exercise of authority and power. However, the same issue is at stake in the political arena, families, elementary and secondary schools. The list goes on. I just came from a celebration of my religious communities 125 anniversary of founding in Kansas. One of the things that we have done is to adopt a new government structure that is truly collegial. Will it work? Only God knows, but we knew we had to more than just talk about the way power and authority are used or abused. Thanks for pointing out an area that I would not normally have in view. SAI


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