Theology has no future if students can’t afford to study it.
Editor’s note: This article, a response to “The crisis in Catholic theology” by Grant Kaplan, is part of The Conversation, a new initiative of America Media offering diverse perspectives on important and contested issues in the life of the church. Read more views on this issue linked at the bottom of this article.
“Stay away!” That is the perennial advice of many theology professors to each new pool of applicants to graduate theology studies. It is a warning to avoid the rivalrous acrimony of online forums where applicants commiserate. Yet challenges continue to mount for those fortunate enough to be admitted, perhaps to the point where one wonders whether applicants would be wise to stay away from graduate programs altogether. Grant Kaplan’s analysis of the broader situation seems to me mostly accurate, though I wish to raise further concerns.
Dr. Kaplan’s measured optimism about funding is not groundless. I fear, however, that the situation remains more dire than he lets on. True, it seems that here in the United States many unfunded and partially funded Ph.D. positions have been eliminated in recent years, and in many places students can now receive health care coverage. But none of this remedies the fact that stipends have not kept pace with the cost of living—and not by a long shot in many metropolitan areas.
When Catholic institutions deny health care coverage and tell students they have no right to organize, one struggles to reconcile this with the church’s social teaching.
Moreover, when Catholic institutions deny health care coverage for families or paid family leave and tell students they have no right to organize, one struggles to reconcile this with the church’s social teaching. Reports suggest that recent organizing efforts at Loyola University of Chicago did lead to stipends increasing from $18,000 to $28,000. Administrators often like to argue that being a Ph.D. student is not a full-time job; however, even if one’s duties could be managed in a 20-hour work week and one could secure equitable supplementary income, the underlying message is that these exceptionally talented, credentialed students are only worth roughly $60,000 per year.
Whether this hypothetical income is a living wage in Chicago (let alone in Boston, Washington or New York) is something worth asking of those who have tried to live on it, either alone or with their families. Amid these challenges, the number of casualties steadily increases. Students struggle to immerse themselves in their studies and maintain their physical and mental health. Doing gig work or low- to moderately paid university internships hardly closes the gap. The explicit message is, “Come, devote yourself to your academic formation!” But the material conditions within programs often suggest otherwise.
Catholic institutions can affirm theology’s place within their students’ academic formation by means of concrete hiring practices.
If and when graduates secure jobs—and, increasingly, many do not—the prospects do not necessarily brighten. As Dr. Kaplan notes, the trend is not toward hiring more full-time, tenure-track faculty. The reasons are complex, but the simple logic of supply and demand looms large as each hiring cycle yields a surfeit of unemployed or underemployed Ph.D.s. Institutions feel little pressure to staff a decisive majority of classes with faculty members who have a legitimate opportunity to commit wholly to their students, their research and their institutions.
On the demand end, recent curriculum battles in the upper echelon of Catholic higher education expose just how nervous we are to affirm unequivocally to prospective students that we know just how important theology is to their personal formation, even if they don’t (yet). Even if the message to students is not exactly to “stay away” from theology, the situation requires a strong and reasoned argument in favor of the discipline. It is an odd message when, in fact, theology plays an important role in how Catholic institutions differentiate themselves from their numerous competitors.
I remain hopeful, following Dr. Kaplan’s methodological advice, that American Catholic theology can make such a strong, reasoned argument by inviting students into a discipline that eschews the facile methodological dichotomies Dr. Kaplan bemoans, especially between historically grounded ressourcement and critically engaged contextual work. But that can only happen if conditions within graduate programs make it possible for doctoral students to thrive and if smaller Catholic institutions can affirm theology’s place within their students’ academic formation by means of concrete hiring practices.
More views on the crisis in Catholic theology:
- Grant Kaplan: The crisis in Catholic theology.
- Ligita Ryliskyte: The liberal/conservative divide is hurting theology departments. The way forward won’t be popular.
- Christopher Mooney: Theology will have no future if it does not remain a distinct discipline.
- Carolyn Weir Herman: Theology departments can’t just focus on academics. Spiritual and moral formation are needed, too.