Matthew LambMay 19, 2021
The "Golden Dome" at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. (Wikimedia Commons/Michael Fernandes)

Editor’s note: This article was published in the May 26, 1990, issue of America.

When the word “crisis” is applied to Roman Catholic theology in the United States, it usually refers to tensions between theologians and the Vatican. Beyond the headlines, however, there are developments going on in departments of theology and religious studies at Catholic colleges and universities that merit more attention than they have received. In a recent issue of America (2/3/90), Thomas F. O’Meara, O.P., called attention to how “we are nearing a state of emergency in Catholic theological life in the United States.” He shows the need for more and better doctoral programs in Catholic theology. There are simply “no programs in many properly Western Christian and Roman Catholic areas.” Theology departments are woefully underfinanced in both their teaching functions and, especially, their research responsibilities. Father O'Meara concludes that “while an ecumenical education in theology is now normal, an education in terms of Calvinist or liberal Protestantism cannot be normal for all future Catholic teachers and scholars. The Catholic education of future theologians is the foundation of every other aspect of Catholic education.”

The present article will consider, first the theological reasons for holding that the education of theologians is the foundation of Catholic education. Then, the hiring trends over the past decades that are leading to what might be called a “Protestantizing” of Catholic theology departments with no reciprocal “Catholicizing” of Protestant or state religion departments will be reviewed. Third, one reason for these trends, the lack of sufficient scholarly and financial commitments to Catholic theological research in the United States, will be examined. In conclusion, some hopeful signs of change and concern will be noted.

Will the day come when Boston College or Notre Dame have relations with Roman Catholicism as passé as, say, Princeton’s relations with Calvinism?

Not a conservative vs. liberal issue

Catholic theology is central to the Catholic identity of any Catholic college or university. Are Catholic schools going to remain Catholic, or will the day come when Boston College or Notre Dame have relations with Roman Catholicism as passé as, say, Princeton’s relations with Calvinism? In American culture there are tendencies toward acknowledging reason as public only to the extent that it is the “calculating reason” Enlightenment empiricists and idealists imagined as operative in the empirical sciences. Reason is thereby secularized to the extent that spiritual realities are excluded, including many pre-Enlightenment appropriations of reason as spiritual. Culturally, the differentiation of universities and churches, which was integral to the emergence of universities in the West, becomes instead an opposition.

Will Catholicism succumb to the tendencies in American culture that secularize institutions of reason and fundamentalize institutions of faith? If so, Catholic universities will be Catholic in name only. Already Avery Dulles, S. J., is concerned that the latter process has begun: “Catholic schools are becoming less numerous and less distinctively Catholic. Catholic colleges and universities, while in some cases expanding, have lost much of their religious character” (America, 1/27/90). What is at stake is not simply an institutional process of secularizing the institutions of higher learning, but also the very soul of Catholic theology in these United States. For, no matter how diverse the many traditions of Catholic theology, all agree that faith and intelligence are intrinsically related. As Cardinal John Henry Newman’s classic The Idea of a University argues. Catholic theology and Catholic universities are lost if the real differentiation of reason and faith degenerates into a separation and opposition. A parallel separation and opposition is found in the Enlightenment tendency to set the past in opposition to the present. The old was rejected in favor of the new, the ancients opposed by the moderns, Catholicism, while acknowledging a differentiation of old and new, seeks a vital complementarity rather than an opposition. The living are not to be cut off from, and opposed to, the dead.

The modernizations at Vatican II, for example, owed much to theologians who had pioneered a recovery of the Greek and Latin fathers, as well as the great schoolmen. Otherwise, there would have been no aggiornamento.

At times it seems that some Catholic theologians are as predictable as some Catholic papers, known for their routine conservative or liberal stances.

Unfortunately, however, public rhetoric about religious issues since the Enlightenment fosters a separation and opposition between conservative fundamentalism or fideism, on the one hand, and liberal criticism or rationalism, on the other hand. The former seems all too ready to perform any sacrifice of intelligence, in order to preserve what is taken to be the faith, while the latter seems all too ready to perform any sacrifice of faith, in order to preserve what is taken to be intelligence. Will Catholic theology follow the path of so much Catholic journalism down that illusory path on which the only “transcendentals” are conservatives versus liberals, progressives versus reactionaries? If so, what will happen to Catholic universities?

Commenting on what he terms “the intramural internecine hostility” between these opposed camps of Catholics, Walter Burghardt, S.J., observes that Catholicism now presents to U.S. culture the spectacle of a “huge house hopelessly divided against itself. It raises a rough question: Do we actually have a Catholic intellectual community?”(America, 5/6/89). Are we not producing more theological journalists than theological scholars in our graduate programs? At times it seems that some Catholic theologians are as predictable as some Catholic papers, known for their routine conservative or liberal stances.

Thomas Aquinas insisted, in the tradition of Augustine, that the virtue of faith is needed in order to heal and enlighten the human mind and heart.

Reality of God, reason and worship

The Catholic faith and the genuine practice of Catholic orthodoxy are too important to leave to these kinds of squabbles. Catholic faith and doctrine are not simply sets of propositions or ideas. Thomas Aquinas insisted, in the tradition of Augustine, that the virtue of faith is needed in order to heal and enlighten the human mind and heart.

The light of our minds and the love of our hearts could, if left to themselves, dim and die before the horrors—the sinful horrors—of all the evil we do to each other, as Augustine put it so forcefully in Book XIX of his City of God. The intellectual and moral virtues are threatened with extinction without the theological virtues. A millennium and a half later, Nietzsche spelled out the consequences of rejecting the realities mediated by faith, hope and agapic love: Intelligence resigns itself to be no more than a tool for survival and conquest in the struggle of existence.

But are the realities of faith taught and nurtured in the graduate programs at Catholic universities? How can our faithful awareness of the Triune God be deepened without a life of prayer and worship? How integral are these to theological formation today? Do not most programs, perhaps in deference to the separation of church and state, presume a separation of intellectual training and spiritual formation? There is a great danger that the study of religion and theology will degenerate into no more than a conceptualist exercise in contemporary universities.

There is a danger of reducing the public dimensions of the church to mere bureaucratic management and their personal dimensions to a therapeutic “self-help” individualism.

Theology and the study of religion have been so privatized and separated from the churches (in this issue, “unchurched”) in the United States that the only required institutional events in most theology or religious studies departments are exclusively academic and professional. In a strange Hegelian twist, possible only in the country that boasts of realizing the Enlightenment that Europe only imagined, it is as if the American Academy of Religion subsumed all the many churches and synagogues and mosques. Faculty and students need reminding, as Father O’Meara points out, that there is no such reality as “the ecumenical church” or “the public church.” There are only concretely existing churches, and their presence is hardly “private” in our culture. Without serious theological scholarship, there is a danger of reducing the public dimensions of the church to mere bureaucratic management and their personal dimensions to a therapeutic “self-help” individualism. The latter is the only avenue sketched out for religion in John Naisbitt’s and Patricia Aburdene’s best-selling Megatrends 2000.

But how are faculty and students at Catholic universities to realize the intrinsic relations between intellectual, moral and spiritual formation? When theology is taught in the seminary context, prayer is meant to be integral to the overall seminary formation. Until the last quarter-century. Catholic theologians were almost exclusively religious or clerical. In that context the connections between a prayer life and intellectual scholarship were institutionalized in, for example, the Divine Office, prayed by the theologians daily. This may not be transferred to contemporary graduate programs in Catholic theology, but how are we to establish new forms of integrating spiritual discernment and formation with serious intellectual scholarship? Without such spiritual formation, how will students come to a knowledge of the mysteries of faith as not just words and ideas, but realities? In the foundational categories of Bernard Lonergan, how will theology departments promote moral and religious conversion as integral to intellectual conversion? In the categories of Karl Rahner, how will theology departments nurture an intellectual life in the presence of the Triune Mystery of God?

How are faculty and students at Catholic universities to realize the intrinsic relations between intellectual, moral and spiritual formation?

‘Protestantizing’ Catholic theology 

This is complicated by the fact that many of the graduate students in theology at Catholic universities are not Catholic. In the tradition of Protestant interdenominationalism, many Protestant students are being accepted into Catholic theological programs, while many Catholic students are taken into Protestant programs. Roman Catholics make up the largest denomination of graduate students at the Protestant divinity schools of Chicago and Harvard, while among the seven doctoral programs at Catholic universities (Boston College, The Catholic University of America, Duquesne, Fordham, Marquette, Notre Dame, St. Louis) there are several with more Protestant than Catholic doctoral students in theology. Nor is it surprising that many Catholics in the United States are going to Chicago, Harvard or Yale for their doctoral studies in theology.

For some—especially, it seems, those who chose Yale—it was a question of trying to find a program where they could do theological research away from the polarizations jeopardizing scholarship in Catholic departments. Father Burghardt sadly remarks: “During a half century of theology I have watched our incredibly rich tradition pass slowly into museums or, at best, into the hands of appreciative Protestant brothers and sisters” (America, 5/6/89). The programs at these prestigious universities offer fuller financial support, and they have established research and scholarly reputations.

Catholics owe a debt of gratitude to the Protestant divinity schools that have provided scholarly formation to so many fine Catholic theologians. The present, however, is no longer the past, when the students were religious and had already spent years of spiritual and intellectual formation in Catholic traditions before doing doctorates at those divinity schools. These days, neither religious nor laypersons have such extended Catholic formation before embarking on their doctorates. If a Catholic wants to get a doctorate in Catholic theology at a university with serious, long-term commitments to research, he or she will have to go to Europe—even though there is not the same amount of funding available now as there was earlier, especially for laypeople.

The trend is for Catholic theology departments to hire more and more of their faculty from Protestant and state programs.

Another factor is the prospect of getting teaching positions after one graduates with a master’s degree or doctorate. While it should be professionally advantageous for graduates to receive their theological formation in the traditions they are going to be teaching, as Father O’Meara maintains, such has definitely not been the case in departments of theology or religious studies at Catholic colleges and universities. A study of The Directory of Departments and Programs of Religious Studies in North America, published by the Council of Societies for the Study of Religion, indicates that Catholic departments average about 60 percent of faculty with degrees from Catholic institutions and 40 percent with doctoral degrees from non-Catholic institutions. On the other hand, the faculty of Protestant departments average 97 percent of faculty with Protestant degrees and only three percent with Catholic degrees, with a good number of the three percent from European universities. State universities with religion programs are also overwhelmingly Protestant, with only five percent of the faculty holding doctorates from Catholic theology programs.

The trend is for Catholic theology departments to hire more and more of their faculty from such Protestant and state programs. At Notre Dame, for example, 65 percent of theology department faculty have degrees from such non-Catholic programs. At Boston College, 55 percent of its faculty have such doctoral degrees. In just the past year, of the seven faculty hired to teach theology at Catholic universities with doctoral programs, six had their doctorates from non-Catholic institutions. At Chicago, Harvard and Yale, however, the hiring process has been different. At each of these three divinity schools, almost 50 percent of the faculty received their degrees from the school at which they are teaching, another 18 to 25 percent received their degrees from one of the other two schools, with the remaining quarter of the faculty hailing from the rest of the academic world. Yet none of these schools, not even Chicago or Harvard, with so many Catholic students, has more than one (Chicago) or two ( Harvard, Yale) faculty with doctoral degrees from Catholic theology departments. There has been a one-way ecumenism in the theological academy.

Do not imagine that this hiring disparity has gone unnoticed by prospective and present students. As one doctoral student wryly observed: It seems that one’s chances of being hired by a Catholic theology department are much better if one has been educated out of the Catholic tradition. What does this say about the doctoral programs at Catholic universities? With the theology department so central to the self-understanding of Catholic universities, it would seem that, if present hiring trends continue, Catholic universities are heading for more of an institutional identity crisis than they already have.

There are many personal and cultural reasons for the disparity, with the resulting “Protestantizing” of Catholic theology departments. But a central reason is the lack of sustained and well-supported research in Catholic theology at Catholic universities. The response should be, not less education and learning, but more. Is it not time to institutionalize more vigorously a Catholic theological research focus? What will be the long-term viability of doctoral programs that educate fewer and fewer Catholic students with fewer and fewer faculty who know Catholic theological traditions? Without very strong research components in specifically Catholic theological traditions, how will Catholic universities maintain any serious Catholic identity as universities? Will we be able to fulfill our teaching responsibilities adequately without some such program?

What will be the long-term viability of doctoral programs that educate fewer and fewer Catholic students with fewer and fewer faculty who know Catholic theological traditions?

Languages, philosophy, research

It is not the responsibility of Protestant divinity schools to form Catholic students in Catholic theological traditions, let alone mount intensive and expensive research projects in Catholic theology. If we Catholic theologians are not concerned, we can hardly expect others to assume our responsibility. There has to be more attention given to Latin and Greek proficiency. It is hardly a mark of serious theological scholarship that fewer and fewer Catholic scholars can read these languages. In the United States we seem to go to extremes. From a mandated Latin for all seminarians, we have shifted to no Latin, even for doctorates in Catholic theology. There also has to be more attention given to serious courses in philosophy, especially the many developments in pre-modern philosophy important in the development of Catholic theological traditions, and to the possible transpositions of these traditions in modern and contemporary philosophical orientations.

Indeed, the predominance of survey and introductory courses is evident in almost all graduate programs in theology and religious studies. The language requirements are often pro forma, and the few students who acquire a real proficiency in foreign, classical or biblical languages are the exception rather than the rule. Often, the doctoral student’s dissertation is the only sustained experience of research and writing. For many, if not most, it will be the last time they will have more than a year to devote to research and writing. Many, because of financial constraints, cannot even devote themselves full-time to their doctoral research. If they find a teaching job at a college or university, they are fortunate if they have their dissertation published, along with several articles, by the time they are up for tenure. Then they can look forward to sabbaticals to continue, if by fits and starts, their research and writing. There are no serious and well-funded research institutes or programs in Catholic theology in the United States.

There are no serious and well-funded research institutes or programs in Catholic theology in the United States.

Any genuine teaching orientation presupposes that there is a complementary research orientation. Generally, teaching aims at communicating what is learned, and learning is the aim of continuing theological research. If the research is not institutionalized with at least as much care as the teaching, there is a danger that the teaching will be less and less able to meet relevant questions the culture poses to theology. Those teaching will not be collaborating within self-correcting processes of learning. A research orientation seeks to assure that all who engage in it are continuing to learn.

An illustration of this point from the past: Many Catholic theologians had thought it sufficient to devote their systematic and moral theological work to the production of rather arid, conceptualistic theological manuals for teaching seminarians and religious. Some, if not all, Roman universities adopted almost exclusively a one-sided teaching orientation. Fortunately, however, there was serious theological research going on elsewhere in Europe, in many of the German universities, as well as Strasbourg. Louvain, Paris, Lyons and several theologates and other religious institutions. Imagine what Vatican II would have been, had such research not been done, had such ongoing learning not occurred.

Another illustration might point to widespread concern that we are not educating the younger generation in the faith: “The most important challenge facing the church in the 1990’s is the same challenge it failed to meet in the 1980’s and 1970’s: passing on the faith and traditions of the church to the next generation” (Kenneth Woodward, Commonweal, 11/17/89). Contributing to this failure has been a lack of Catholic theological research in plumbing the redemptive meanings of our great Trinitarian and Christological doctrines. Many American Catholic theologians after Vatican II tended to accept uncritically a liberal Protestant misreading of these doctrines as no more than accommodations to Hellenism. The careful research work of Catholic theological scholars like Aloys Grillmeier and Bernard Lonergan were often deemed too difficult to teach, let alone to continue and advance.

What is needed now is a concerted effort to initiate new patterns of institutionalizing Catholic theological research. Until two decades ago, research in Catholic theology was usually institutionalized in the large theologates and seminaries that could enable at least a few of their faculty to devote themselves to long-term research projects. By way of example, John Courtney Murray at Woodstock College was relieved of most teaching responsibilities when he needed to research such issues as church-state relations, religious freedom and Catholic traditions. Similar patterns held for other Catholic theologians of his generation.

If the Catholic universities do not take responsibility for promoting a research orientation in Catholic theology, who will?

Scholarship or sand?

If the Catholic universities do not take responsibility for promoting a research orientation in Catholic theology, who will? If the research orientation and learning are not institutionalized in an ongoing fashion, what will be the state of Catholic theology in the United States in another hundred years? Generally, Catholic theologians have been educated in Protestant theological traditions more than Protestants in Catholic. The ignorance of Latin and Greek among theological faculty is a scholarly loss since translations are never adequate in conveying the full meaning of an original. There are, for example, no fully adequate translations of even such a “popular” Latin classic as Augustine’s Confessions, especially in the last books so critical to his understanding of eternity and time. Catholic theologians who cannot read the original are at the mercy of translators.

Far from denigrating the real and important issues our culture raises (e.g., the many forms of class, gender and racial oppression, militarism, environmental pollution, etc. ), such a research orientation would enable students to pursue these questions, while also seeing how such questions both challenge, and are challenged by, the cultural contexts of primary sources and other historical traditions. Indeed, this is important for the above-mentioned issues, which indicate the inadequacy of Western secularist optimism in autonomous progress. One of the truly sad legacies of post-Enlightenment Western cultures is the way that naive optimism biased so many historical reconstruction and repressed much wisdom from living memory. Catholic memory is very much in need of discerning scholarship in order to provide resources for overcoming the cultural inadequacies of a modernity set in opposition both to past and to nature. Otherwise, we do to our minds what modern industry does to nature.

I am afraid that, without more attention to research orientations, the level of debate and dialogue in theology will continue to decline.

Now more than ever, it is important that theological students not be left without the skills to question the historical reconstruction of others. If doctoral students at Catholic universities are not provided the resources and skills for such basic research, then they are going to be dependent upon research going on elsewhere. What is more, they often will not be in a position to evaluate the products of that research. Whether they are building their own work on solid grounds or shifting sand will not be something they themselves can discern. Their questions will be truncated, the range of their learning unduly restricted.

Over the years of teaching doctoral students, I have found that a major frustration for both students and teachers has been the need of continually correcting work that had relied on inadequate translations or reconstructions. What will happen when the present generation of doctoral students are senior faculty if they have not had the opportunity to study primary sources, if they have not been able to acquire the skills needed to ascertain the adequacy of this or that reconstruction or generalization?

I am afraid that, without more attention to research orientations, the level of debate and dialogue in theology will continue to decline. Persons with inadequate or little scholarly formation in theology will too easily flood the “market place of ideas” with their latest cogitations, especially if they are supported by well-paid staff. Scholars devoted to teaching, with meager time for research, will be required to spend more and more of their limited time responding to the misrepresentations, so that learning will come to be less and less creative and more and more reactive.

Catholic traditions are too important to be left to fundamentalists. The issues confronting our contemporary culture are too important to be left to rationalists. Is not one of the constants in Catholic theology the imperative to resolve apparent contradictions between faith and reason? Are not present controversies between Catholic neo-conservâtives and neo-liberals thriving on such supposed contradictions? It is time that serious, long-term research projects into Catholic theological traditions, and their significance for our American culture, be more intensely fostered all Catholic universities. It should be evident that one can at present turn to such universities to learn the significance of Catholic theology for our culture. Some Catholic bishops, finding graduate programs in theology ecclesially inadequate, are exploring possible relations between Roman universities and a few of the larger seminaries in the United States so that these could offer Pontifical graduate degrees. Will this lead to an all too typical separation between church theology and university theology?

Catholic traditions are too important to be left to fundamentalists, and the issues confronting our contemporary culture are too important to be left to rationalists.

Hopeful signs of concern

Already there are hopeful signs at Catholic universities that the administration and theology faculties are recognizing what Father O'Meara calls the impending state of emergency. The School of Theology at The Catholic University of America, the oldest and largest, has maintained hiring practices in which only about 20 percent of its faculty have their degrees from non-Catholic programs. It also has the oldest research orientation, and is seeking more adequate funding. Notre Dame has six endowed chairs, as well as institutes for Catholic history and pastoral liturgy. Boston College has an endowed chair for Jesuit scholars, an Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, a Jesuit Institute to promote interdisciplinary collaboration, a Center for Lonergan Studies, and J. Donald Monan, S.J., the president, just announced a $2 million grant from Thomas J. Flatley for another endowed chair in Roman Catholic theology, and funds for graduate theological research. Similar developments and concerns for Catholic theology are occurring at Fordham, Georgetown and many other Catholic universities and colleges. As long as theology was taught by religious or clerics, budgetary resources were allocated elsewhere. This imbalance has to be corrected if the first steps are to be taken in the long journey toward revitalizing Catholic theological research and teaching in our culture.

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