The Crisis in Catholic Theology
Editor’s note: This article 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.
Over 30 years ago, America published articles by Thomas O’Meara, O.P., and the Rev. Matthew Lamb questioning whether theology departments at Catholic universities would be able to sustain the theological renewal underway since the Second Vatican Council. The situation was dire. Father O’Meara declared in 1990, “We are nearing a state of emergency in Catholic theological life in the United States.” If theology departments could not train the next generation of the theological guild, it would threaten the future of Catholic universities, for, as Father Lamb declared that same year, “Catholic theology is central to the Catholic identity of any Catholic college or university.”
Today, although concern for the future of Catholic universities remains high, relatively little attention has been given to how the current crisis in Catholic theology endangers the viability of the institutions that house them. Revisiting these two articles not only sheds light on the current crisis, but also suggests that the issue cannot remain an intra-theological debate, but must be on the front burner for university administrators.
Instructors of theology, like almost all university educators, sense that something deeply troubling is afoot at the roughly 226 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. The pandemic has increased the likelihood of an almost certain future: Dozens of our Catholic colleges and universities find themselves in financial peril, with some already shutting their doors and more on the brink of doing so. Cost-cutting measures have made reliance on adjunct professors and non-tenured faculty members the norm. Today’s students, often with a firm nudge from university marketers, increasingly choose a major in disciplines outside the humanities. As publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education remind us almost weekly, the humanities face continued marginalization despite increasing evidence of the broad civic and social harm that results from neglecting them.
Instructors of theology sense that something deeply troubling is afoot at the roughly 226 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.
These wider contextual elements present unfortunate consequences for theology in particular. Compared with the 1990s, fewer Catholic parents encourage their children to pursue Catholic higher education at all, let alone a theology major. With decreasing numbers of students majoring in the humanities, the discipline of theology struggles to find footing.
The current crisis
The gravitational pull away from theology at the undergraduate level has had direct, negative consequences for renewing faculty positions reserved for theologians. Since I began working in the theology department at St. Louis University in 2007, it has witnessed a drop to 22 from 32 full-time faculty positions, with most of the reduction coming from the pool of tenured positions. These trends are widespread at all but the most prosperous Catholic universities. Despite these alarming trends, there seems to be little concerted effort in the network of Catholic schools, and more particularly among the 28 members of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, to collaborate and strategize about how to renew and invigorate theology on their campuses. At the very least, the roughly 215 non-doctorate-producing departments should engage in conversation with the dozen doctorate-granting Catholic universities about future hiring needs.
Within departments of theology and religious studies there looms a related crisis. What is theology for and how should a department be constructed? After the Second Vatican Council, many departments defaulted to instructional categories inherited from seminary faculties—Scripture, history, ethics or practical theology, and systematic theology. During the 1980s and 1990s, certain departments saw the need for religious diversity sooner than others, but now almost all departments offer the majority of their courses outside of the older categories and have hired faculty with proper expertise in these areas. Larger departments that provided advanced degrees felt compelled to maintain a faculty able to equip future catechists, teachers and professors with what were understood, in the broadest sense, as the necessary tools to perform the craft and to convey something of the mission of the Catholic tradition with integrity. These presuppositions are not a given today.
For all their differences, Father Lamb and Father O’Meara shared common characteristics. Both were clerics born in the 1930s who entered religious life before Vatican II and went on to study with leading theologians in northern Europe after the council. This may explain the significant agreement expressed in their pieces. Their point of departure was the sudden theological and institutional transformation instigated by the council. These changes can be best summarized by the term laicization. With fewer men and women religious and fewer clergy as faculty, Catholic universities lacked the financial and human resources necessary to provide competitive salaries for laypeople and to fund additional intellectual and spiritual formation hitherto provided by religious communities.
The gravitational pull away from theology at the undergraduate level has had direct, negative consequences for renewing faculty positions reserved for theologians.
Challenges and opportunities
These challenges, to speak “administrator-ese,” also brought bountiful opportunities. The center of theological scholarship shifted from the seminary—such lions of mid-century Catholic scholarship as John Courtney Murray, S.J., and Raymond Brown, S.S., were members of seminary faculties—to the university, where the money and (more vitally) the best students were to be found. There was now a larger pool of potential theologians, as well as a recognition that one could study more than Thomistic or manualist theology. Biblical studies, ecumenism and the study of other religions were now fair game and drew many eager students. The face of theological scholarship became decidedly less clerical, and also less male, although it remained overwhelmingly white.
Surveying a massive, incomplete reconception of theology a quarter century after the council, Father Lamb and Father O’Meara feared that theology would go adrift. There was a danger that administrators would simply ignore the consequences of these demographic shifts. For Catholic theology to survive, let alone thrive, according to these two observers, Catholic universities needed to provide more than lip service and a place in the core curriculum for theology. Money was needed to allow working theologians the time and resources to engage the tradition more deeply. Only by this means could the new generation transmit a deep and lively understanding of the theological tradition to a future generation of students.
Beyond money, theology departments require a corresponding commitment to Catholic identity.
In large part, Catholic universities have stepped up over the last three decades. Doctoral programs as a rule now cover tuition costs, offer health insurance and provide stipends that make it possible to study theology as a full-time job. In addition, numerous institutes have arisen to promote Catholic scholarship, some of which are attached to universities (like the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Advanced Study, modeled on an institute in Princeton, N.J., or the Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California). Others are independent or have only a loose affiliation, like the Lumen Christi Institute in Chicago. At Saint Louis University, generous benefactors and administrative prioritization have made it possible for faculty members in the humanities to receive funds and course reductions for ongoing scholarship. Such initiatives are mirrored at some of the other better-funded Catholic universities.
Safeguarding the tradition
Beyond money, however, theology departments require a corresponding commitment to Catholic identity. Father O’Meara was quick to explain that one cannot equate that identity “with orthodox catechisms and papal control,” but with “the general principles of Catholic interpretation of Christianity” and “the fields and traditions of a millennium of reflection upon faith.” Lamb, meanwhile, advocated the preservation of “Catholic memory” and found it imperative that “serious, long-term research projects into Catholic theological traditions, and their significance for our American culture, be more intensely fostered at Catholic universities.”
Father Lamb and Father O’Meara had been formed before the council and rejected a return to theology’s pre-Vatican II state. They had in mind a deep, wide retrieval that could be conversant with the pressing matters of the day. Something like this would require real and continuous cultivation.
The very mechanisms that led to the boom in lay theology also created unanticipated problems, including one that both mention in their discussion of graduate training. Father Lamb and Father O’Meara worried that the lack of first-rate programs at Catholic universities would lead the most promising theologians to Protestant or secular universities for study. “The trend,” Father Lamb wrote, “is for Catholic theology departments to hire more and more of their faculty from Protestant and state programs,” even when hiring in the opposite direction did not happen at the same rate.
Theological journalism, even when done expertly, cannot replace the long and sustained scholarly pursuit needed to train students in the craft.
Father Lamb aptly describes this situation as “one-way ecumenism.” Father O’Meara notes the same trend, writing that denominational, nominally Protestant and public universities “are more or less closed to Catholics in any numbers.” Father O’Meara asked, if the best Catholic students are trained in Ivy or para-Ivy schools, will they “be introduced adequately either to the central theological areas or to the important theologians of Catholicism”? And if the future generation of Catholic theologians does not gain a deep understanding and vision of the task of theology, will they care whether that tradition is transmitted?
The common labor of a world church
For Father Lamb, the crisis was already manifest in 1990. The wider Enlightenment milieu of American culture disparages theological discourse, and in the Enlightenment’s wake, public discussion of religion offers only a stultified contrast of “conservatives versus liberals, progressives versus reactionaries.” Without a deeper engagement with the tradition, and without formation in practices that join the spiritual and the intellectual, departments of theology risk “producing more theological journalists than theological scholars,” whose arguments are “as predictable as some Catholic papers, known for their routine conservative or liberal stances.”
The generation of Father O’Meara and Father Lamb both experienced and broke free from waves of narrowness. In the old system, Catholicism was Roman Catholicism, theology was Thomism, and patristics was Western. Creating a new framework meant discovering a tradition deeper than what had been on offer. The story of 20th-century Catholic theology can largely be told as the story of this discovery, whose fruits were manifested in the liturgical, ecclesiological and ecumenical triumphs of Vatican II. Despite occupying very different locations on the landscape of theological and ecclesial politics, Father O’Meara and Father Lamb shared this story and wanted to ensure its next chapter.
The project succeeded in part because it did not just make the project of Catholic theology, memory and engagement with the modern world compelling to a range of future theologians, clergy and laypeople. There were also those on the outside looking in—a multitude of formerly Protestant theologians and graduate students who sensed something living and real in the Catholic tradition. The number of North American theologians and aspirants being received into the Catholic Church is inconceivable in most of Europe, and gives evidence of the renewal aspired to by Fathers Lamb and O’Meara.
The narrative was also shared by my mentor in Tübingen, Germany: Peter Hünermann (b. 1929), who was trained in the old “Roman system” and was intent on finding a new path forward in modern theology. He took seriously the claim (both empirical and normative) made by Karl Rahner, S.J., that the church was no longer European, and he spent significant time teaching in South America. When I was allowed to participate in his doctoral colloquium roughly 20 years ago, I sat around a table with students not only from Europe, but also from Africa and South America. They presented their research in German and English, but also in Spanish and French. They were writing dissertations about whether Europeans had brought salvation or merely religion to Africa, in addition to working out the implications of liberation theology and feminist theology for different doctrines.
I understood my own project on retrieving the 19th-century Catholic Tübingen School to be part of a common labor of a world church, made possible by the very best theologians and a longstanding financial commitment that enabled this. In the university town of Tübingen in southwest Germany, I got a sense of a global Catholicism, an experience that James Keenan, S.J., has fostered among ethicists in recent years. Yet despite the increasingly international network of Catholic theology, there has been little effort to make departments of theology in the United States look more like the worldwide Catholic Church, sub-equatorial and in contact with the poor.
What are the forces shaping the guild today, and what will their impact be on Catholic theology? Before treating the thorny matter of hiring, it is helpful to take up Father Lamb’s worry about theological journalism. The proliferation of outlets of theological opinion, many of them online, offers a greater number of platforms to discuss the pressing issues of the day. These days one can hear President Biden cite Augustine at noon and read about his application of the City of God later that evening. Given the poor state of religious literacy and the harm done by non-credentialed theologians, good public theology is a service to the church and reflects well on the guild.
Given the poor state of religious literacy and the harm done by non-credentialed theologians, good public theology is a service to the church.
The problem, then and now, is confusing journalism with scholarship. Theology departments desperate for prestige have given endowed chairs and offered honoraria for prestigious lectureships to figures who traffic primarily in theological journalism. These decisions send the message that Catholic universities value what is of the moment more than what is deep and lasting. Theological journalism, even when done expertly, cannot replace the long and sustained scholarly pursuit needed to train students in the craft. Those entering the guild can be given the impression that one should make one’s mark with journalism, rather than scholarship, and such a conclusion can hardly be a harbinger of serious theological renewal to come.
Taking Catholic diversity seriously
The opportunities lost by favoring theological journalism pale in comparison, however, to the negative consequences of poor hiring. Departments beset by the aforementioned reductions face additional pressures, including the nebulous imperative to “diversify.” Hiring with an eye toward diversity helped make departments less clerical and less male, so that they would more closely mirror the demographics of society rather than of most seminary faculty, and this obvious step often took too long.
Diversity also applied to specialization and denomination; departments learned the benefits of having not just non-Catholic Christians, but non-Christians on their faculty. On the level of graduate education, the ecumenical turn allowed departments to offer the possibility of comparative theology, while providing expertise on figures like Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth, who were mostly absent from Catholic seminary syllabi and textbooks in the 1950s. Diversification was also a necessary response to changing student demographics and desires. Among deans, chairs and other stakeholders, however, there was a shared understanding that these faculty positions designated for theologians would supplement rather than supplant the central role of Catholic theology at a Catholic university.
If good philosophy and good history made for better theology, the same can be true for the impact on theology from fields like ethnography and disability studies.
This consensus concerning the central role of Catholic theology has no doubt been lost. In the current political and academic climate, strong pressures and deeply felt ethical imperatives compel particular kinds of diversity hiring. Greater gender and racial diversity among the faculty is a good demanded by justice. The Catholic Church claims over 1.3 billion members worldwide, and roughly 70 percent of them live outside of Europe and North America. Surely if Catholic universities take Catholic diversity seriously, they should look at long-term strategies to recruit the brightest graduate students and to hire the most promising faculty members, who can both convey and embody the present state and future course of global Catholicism. Yet few Catholic universities are deliberately seeking collaboration with institutions in places like Brazil, China, Nigeria and the Philippines.
Theology’s raison d’etre
Father Lamb and Father O’Meara worried that the new generation of lay students would lack training in basic theology and the languages needed for serious theological work. Today, the crisis seems to pivot on whether one really needs to spend time with basic sources and questions. Bernard Lonergan, S.J., spent years “reaching up to the mind of Aquinas,” and one senses that Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, S.J., Karl Rahner, S.J., and Edith Stein felt a comparable sense of having really discovered something when they read early Christian sources. Many students today, however, receive the impression, often conveyed intentionally, that one survey course on pre-modern theology suffices.
Students are encouraged, explicitly or by suggestion, to integrate theological questions with methods (critical theory, ethnography) or fields (trauma studies, disability studies, environmental studies) adjacent to theology. In practice this is nothing new, and integrating these methods can have real theological payoff, much as did the application of philology and history to theological disciplines for previous generations. But two problems arise. First, doing this well requires time that cannot come at the expense of theological coursework. Otherwise the impression is given that the tradition can be had cheaply, or, even worse, that it is not worth the effort. Second, one needs to reconceive theology for the 21st century, as Johann Sebastian Drey of Tübingen did for his time in his Brief Introduction to the Study of Theology (1819), when the understanding of theology in relation to other disciplines was going through an analogous transformation.
If good philosophy and good history made for better theology, the same can be true for the impact on theology from fields like ethnography and disability studies. For theology to maintain identity and coherence, the application of supplementary disciplines and methods needs to be paired with an appreciation for theology’s historical achievements, which the faculty should embody and articulate through a palpable love of theology. Otherwise, departments risk losing their raison d’etre.
Too many upper administrators treat the discipline of academic theology as if it were safeguarded from harm in today’s environment.
It is hard to disentangle what departments should look like from how they should hire. In my experience, however, there is almost no coordination among Catholic universities on this matter. If an international collaboration can help realize greater catholicity, national collaboration would help answer the ethical question about whether Catholic theology departments should be granting doctorates at all. If the dozen U.S. Catholic universities that grant doctorates in theology knew that the remaining universities were committed to hiring practices that would reward departments who trained students to retrieve and reimagine Catholic theology in creative and dynamic ways, it would be easier to justify continuing these programs.
To be clear, what is needed is not a renewed call for “Catholic hiring,” but for deliberate strategies to seek theologians and scholars of religion interested in continuing to think, remember and imagine with a broadly Catholic pattern of doing theology. The cohesion of a department relies on a coalition of members engaging in a common activity that can be recognized and named. The vitality of the common endeavor requires new colleagues who stretch and expand a vision of theology that claims to be Catholic. The schools most concerned with Catholic identity too often settle for a parochial identity instead of a vitally Catholic one. Such negative examples, however, should not dissuade more mainstream departments from taking steps to imagine their Catholicity in thoughtful and serious ways.
The practice of Catholic theology done largely by lay theologians at institutions outside of ecclesiastical control is relatively new, yet too many upper administrators treat the discipline of academic theology as if it were safeguarded from harm in today’s environment. Too many faculty members and chairs are content to follow trends that currently prevail in the academy, as if Catholic institutions have the same needs and ends as their secular counterparts. If theology departments are winnowed down to a variant of cultural studies, in which the discipline of theology is replaced by a medley of methods and fields, there is a real question whether lay theology will continue. Catholic theology may retreat to its traditional place, in the seminary, to be done by (mostly) clergy for (mostly) clergy. Such a move would be a great loss for the study of theology, for the life of our Catholic universities and for the Catholic Church as a whole.
More views on the crisis in Catholic theology:
- Christopher Mooney: Theology will have no future if it does not remain a distinct discipline.
- Ligita Ryliskyte: The liberal/conservative divide is hurting theology departments. The way forward won’t be popular.
- Ty Monroe: Theology has no future if students can’t afford to study it.
- Carolyn Weir Herman: Theology departments can’t just focus on academics. Spiritual and moral formation are needed, too.