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Thomas F. O'MearaMay 19, 2021
Ford Memorial Tower, Burns Library, Bapst Library and Gasson Hall on the historic middle campus of Boston College (Harvey D. Egan, S.J/Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: This article was published in the Feb. 3, 1990, issue of America.

For decades, American Catholics have pursued higher education with some intensity. Today among the 30 percent who have completed college, 16 percent have done some graduate work, with over half of those completing an advanced degree. This status of Catholics in higher education is mirrored in theology and religious studies. A new generation—laity as well as priests and religious, men and women educated in universities rather than seminaries—makes up the faculties at the over 200 Catholic colleges and universities and, to a lesser extent, teach at state universities and in private schools. In the 1970’s the involvement in theology of Catholic colleges and universities equaled and surpassed that of the seminaries. A look at the membership of the Catholic Theological Society of America illustrates the declericalization of theology in America and its centralization in university life.

Vatican II not only altered rapidly the profile of teachers in the various areas of theology in higher education but vivified and expanded theology. After 1962 Catholic schools moved rapidly from being centers of neo-Scholastic catechesis taught by priests to larger departments with a variety of areas more and more taught by laymen and laywomen. One might sketch the chronology in this way. Up to the council future college teachers were priests and were educated in Rome (some in Louvain) or at The Catholic University of America; in the period from 1962 to 1972, the next generation went frequently to places in Northern Europe, like Paris, Munich, Tübingen, Münster, Edinburgh and Cambridge. Northern Europe had prepared theologically for the great event of the council, and there a student could learn the theory of the changes occurring in the church firsthand. During the 1960’s religious women had discovered schools in the United States and in Europe where they could receive graduate degrees.

Vatican II not only altered rapidly the profile of teachers in the various areas of theology in higher education, but vivified and expanded theology.

The next generation of the early 1970’s saw yet more Catholics committed to teaching and research in theology, but they set Europe aside and turned to American universities. (In 1968 there were over 50 Americans studying at the University of Munich, while in 1978 there were less than five.) Americans more and more stayed in North America because they had experienced a historical, contemporary and ecumenical education at Catholic schools. The drawbacks of education in Europe are clear: the need to master the language; the cultural alienation; the separation from a rapidly changing U.S. church and society. Roman schools, with some improvement and a few important specializations, do not have uniformly high standards. German theology has remained valuable in historical and philosophical areas, but in terms of creativity it is rather unchanged from 20 years ago. France offers a few areas that are of a rigor comparable to that of the United States, while England focuses on historical scholarship.

These shifts—expansion, declericalization, Americanization—now lie 15 years in the past. The following remarks explore two issues in graduate theological education: 1) the need for Catholic university faculties of adequate number and quality; 2)the problem of educating Roman Catholics in schools largely separate from the numerous Catholic areas and traditions.

A few years ago, a meeting of the chairmen of the theology departments at Catholic universities with doctoral programs in theology was hosted by Duquesne University. The schools were Boston College, The Catholic University of America, Duquesne, Fordham, Marquette, Notre Dame and St. Louis. The meeting was taken up with a presentation of information by the seven schools on the structure, clientele and goals of their doctoral programs. (Doctoral programs sponsored by seminaries or by clusters of schools with a seminary component were not included in the meeting.)

Catholic University has programs a century old while Duquesne’s doctoral program has existed for less than 10 years; the others have been functioning for 15 to 25 years. Three of the programs are on the East Coast, three are situated in the Midwest, and Duquesne in Pittsburgh lies in the middle of these two groupings. None of these doctoral programs in Catholic universities lies south of a line reaching from Washington, D.C., to St. Louis, and none is west of Missouri. Perhaps as a result of this, these theology faculties do not mirror Catholicism as it exists in the United States today with new populations in the South and Southwest, in the West and Mountain areas.

What emerged from surveying these theological doctoral programs was not a picture of healthy diversity but a series of problems and deficiencies. Catholic educators, university administrators and chairmen of departments may not be aware that Catholic education at the doctoral level is in a state of need. Relatively unexamined during the past decades, these programs, central to the life of the church, need direction and support. Moreover, this fragile group of programs is not where many American Catholics now pursue their doctoral education. At a time of theological expansion and pastoral vitality in Catholicism, its future theologians are being educated outside of its history and life. Thus a number of difficult issues surface when one considers the doctoral programs in theology at Catholic universities.

At a time of theological expansion and pastoral vitality in Catholicism, its future theologians are being educated outside of its history and life.

The purpose of doctoral programs

What is the purpose of the doctoral programs in theology at Catholic universities? Are they to educate teachers or scholars, or both? If they are aimed at graduating teachers, where will they teach? In Catholic schools? In Protestant denominational colleges? In departments of religious studies? If aimed at future scholars, how will they reach a level of theological recognition by their peers nationally and internationally? Should these programs serve a church that is Roman Catholic in a global as well as an American sense? Or do they aim at producing teachers and scholars whose attitude toward Christianity fits a non-denominational department in religious studies?

These and other issues have not been fully discussed since the world of Catholic theology changed after Vatican II. There is today no interest in returning to the non-ecumenical, neo-Scholastic climate. Three phenomena suggest a need for specialized faculties in theology within the Catholic traditions: 1) the intensification and expansion of Catholic self-understanding since Vatican II; 2) the growing vigor of theological discussion and educational institutions in the United States; 3) the ecumenically attractive and valuable theological traditions and ecclesial experience of Catholicism. (Catholicism is a multiplicity of traditions in speculation, spirituality, liturgy, ethics; there is no “Catholic tradition.”)

Doctoral programs focus on areas of specialization, and these fields demand considerable resources of faculty and library to educate a diverse but limited student body. Schools that claim their specialization to be “history” or “ecumenism” or a collection of texts in some large field have an unclear goal and will attract a disparate constituency.

Are there too many or too few programs? In one sense there are too many doctoral programs. At the seven universities, financial support and highly qualified students do not exist in abundance. On the other hand, there seem to be too few doctoral faculties. Areas important for the religious tradition of Catholicism are missing. For example, medieval theology, pastoral liturgy, specializations within ethics, even the thought of Thomas Aquinas, lack strong programs and faculties. For instance, we cannot point clearly to two doctoral programs (or sometimes even to one) that have a recognized excellence in ethics, ecclesiology or specializations within systematic theology and the history of dogma.

If some universities’ efforts began with the general goal of preparing faculty for teaching in Catholic colleges, certain departments’ programs are quite specialized. Obviously schools with many areas need to consider each one’s feasibility, excellence and contribution to education and the church.

One suspects that the proliferation over the past 20 years of institutes and centers of continuing education, without any link to graduate degrees, has diluted resources at the doctoral level. Hundreds of summer programs at colleges and motherhouses offer a theological education for teachers and ministers who see no purpose in pursuing a lengthy doctoral degree. So, paradoxically, the very explosion of theological and ministerial education in the U.S. Catholic Church has distracted educators and church leaders from its source: doctoral education.

The proliferation over the past 20 years of institutes and centers of continuing education, without any link to graduate degrees, has diluted resources at the doctoral level.

The power of money

If doctoral programs in Catholic universities intend to compete with leading programs in non-Catholic private universities, they are far from that goal. Financial aid for doctoral education in the United States has two components: tuition and a cash stipend for living expenses. The stipend’s amount and duration in all Catholic universities are not competitive with the better non-Catholic universities. Viewed from a realistic point of view in today’s graduate world, several of the Catholic universities offer quite low stipends, have few scholarships and give funding for only two of four or five years. Some universities’ stipends are less than half those of schools like Emory and Princeton.

The financial arrangement of the doctoral programs of these seven universities reflects their ecclesiastical past. When priests, brothers and sisters made up the student body, expenses were low because the dioceses or religious orders supported the education of their members. Financial arrangements geared to the situation of religious and clergy 25 years ago obviously make it difficult today for young people, married men and women, and members of other church traditions to attend Catholic universities. Even those Catholic universities with the best resources cannot compete, from the standpoint of stipends, with their prestigious counterparts. Meager support, not just in tuition, but in living expenses, leads to some doctoral education at Catholic universities being done part-time. At a few departments individuals are not economically free for leisurely study beyond two or three years: They must teach large classes of undergraduates (which is more demanding than serving as a teaching assistant) or find outside employment. This does not advance first-rate education or future scholarship.

Even those Catholic universities with the best resources cannot compete, from the standpoint of stipends, with their prestigious counterparts.

The variety of students

These graduate programs educate various groups of students, each with their own religious background and agenda. Previously strong constituencies for doctoral work are beginning to disappear: the religious sister and brother, the diocesan priest. These students had by and large come to graduate study with rich experiences in education and church life. This provided links between the worlds of church and university. Moreover, religious students arrived with funding from sources outside the university and returned to institutions sponsored by their religious orders with their spheres of influence.

Today doctoral programs at Catholic universities have a marked ecumenical student body. Protestant students have entered them for various reasons. First, students from other church traditions are drawn to certain specialized programs like liturgy and patristics. (Over 50 percent of the doctoral students in liturgy at Notre Dame are from Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran or Presbyterian churches.) Moreover, Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists are attending Catholic universities because they expect to find there a basic acceptance of the Gospel and an affirmation of the reality of grace and revelation beyond language and epistemology. Third, in contrast to the previous century and a half, Protestants now view Catholic theologians, ranging from Aquinas and Bonaventure through Teresa of Avila to Lonergan, as helpful interpreters of revelation in our world. While an ecumenical spectrum of students at Catholic universities enriches the departments, Protestant students of a fundamentalist or evangelical orientation eventually face the challenge of understanding the deeper nature of Catholicism. Some, unaware that the “essence” of Catholicism does not lie in verbal orthodoxy (and that Catholicism has its own pluralism), can become confused, disappointed or uneducable.

Gifted students from Africa, Asia and Latin America are studying in doctoral programs and are an asset to them. While it may be motivated by zeal or charity, a program accepting students from Africa or Asia who are below the university’s standards injures itself and those students. Might this imply erroneously that all students in that country are unqualified? On the other hand, are foreign students accepted to fill up the quota of students? Should doctoral students be educated outside their own milieu, particularly in areas of theology that are not historical or highly speculative? Competent students from Africa and Asia are studying in doctoral programs in the United States now, but there is a danger that what has happened in Europe since the 1970’s at some schools will happen here: Namely, some theological doctoral programs will become centers exclusively for educating third-world students.

Previously strong constituencies for doctoral work are beginning to disappear: the religious sister and brother, the diocesan priest.

The next theological generation

More and more future Catholic scholars do not attend Catholic universities for doctoral education. Often, because of the paucity of programs, they have little choice in the matter. The drive toward Yale or Harvard was initially part of the long-term tradition of U.S. Catholics to seek out their education and professional preparation in the world of America’s prestigious institutions so that they will move upward in U.S. society. The necessity of becoming employed competitively in theology and religious studies (a pressure priests and religious do not always face) and the dominant ethos (Enlightenment and Protestant) of the U.S. university world exert upon Catholics a strong pull away from Catholic schools. The faculties, for instance, of Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Duke, Princeton, Vanderbilt and Union are not superior to all Catholic doctoral programs, and certainly not in many fields within theology. Yet these faculties are sought out by young Catholics because these universities are perceived to be among the best: Promising Catholics in the United States should seek their theological fortune there.

Where are future Catholic scholars being trained? This question is the greatest concern not only to universities but to the entire U.S. church. There are few outstanding programs in areas important to Roman Catholicism like ecclesiology or ethics, spirituality in all major traditions, and no center in the thought of Aquinas and the history of the Thomistic school.

At the undergraduate level Catholic colleges and universities are producing numerous theology majors in all parts of the country, and more and more young women and men would like to pursue graduate degrees. Students would not normally do their doctoral work where they did their undergraduate study. So graduates from Catholic schools would today see no alternative to attending a non-Catholic school because the number of Catholic doctoral programs is so small. Consequently, there is a certain absence of Catholic students in doctoral programs at Catholic universities. On the other hand, students now attending Catholic schools have often done their previous education at state and private institutions; even with an obligatory first graduate degree in theology, their acquaintance with the broader scope of Christianity cannot be presupposed. So non-Catholic schools educate students with a strong background in Western Catholicism while Catholic schools educate students with a more diverse education in religious studies. One can only conclude that there must be an adequate number of doctoral programs in diversity and quality. Only then can some future theologians know more than a smattering of the central areas of Catholic theology and theologies.

Where are future Catholic scholars being trained? This question is the greatest concern not only to universities but to the entire U.S. church.

New doctors in theology in the United States teach at Catholic, state, Protestant denominational and private (often originally or partly Protestant) schools. But the last two are more or less closed to Catholics in any numbers. At the major state and private institutions only a small number of Catholics are hired, frequently not in historical or systematic theology. Many Catholics will teach in Catholic schools. But this means most future teachers at the many Catholic colleges and universities may be educated at the doctoral level outside their traditions, while Catholic universities devote their resources to evangelicals and foreigners. A large proportion of college teaching positions are in Catholic schools, and, if Catholics are still at a disadvantage in being hired outside Catholic institutions, even there Catholics may well be hired because they are expected to teach somewhat out of their own tradition. So, from the point of view of the market for positions, the student is ill-advised who imagines that an education fully outside Catholic theologies is a positive asset professionally. The current situation, then, is paradoxical: The diploma from a non-Catholic school is prestigious, while the theological education provided by that school may be personally abstract and professionally less practical.

There is no “ecumenical” church; Protestant non-denominationalism is past. Theology can be ecumenical only if it is first the theology of a vital church. The difficulty with doctoral programs at most private and state universities is that they are not ecumenical but non-denominational Protestant, a mélange of liberal and traditional Protestant directions. While a significant percentage of their divinity students have been Roman Catholic for two decades, few Catholics are hired and not in central areas. (Often the Catholic faculty member represents a second “minority.”) This is understandable: It is simply an intention to maintain some general Protestant identity. But Roman Catholicism has its proper interpretations of areas like grace, human nature, church, social ethics and liturgy. While espousing an ecumenical approach, the general theological tradition in these institutions still runs along the line of Luther, Kant, Schleiermacher and Bultmann. Catholic students there will as a matter of course learn more of Jonathan Edwards and Schleiermacher than of Origen, Catherine of Siena and Yves Congar. How can Catholic students at non-Catholic schools be introduced adequately either to the central theological areas or to the important theologians of Catholicism? Ecumenical knowledge of the great Protestant figures of the past four centuries is essential. But, in the last analysis, Protestant theologies seem to Catholics ultimately to be in flight from a synthesis of nature and grace, either into the will of God or into the forms of consciousness.

To discuss these doctoral programs is to touch upon the issue of Catholic identity. This topic is now beginning to occupy the leaders of U.S. Catholic higher education. Colleges and the universities have begun to recognize anew in the 1980’s the challenges and the opportunities surrounding “Catholic identity.” In terms of resources, faith in Christianity and service to the church, there is a desirability and legitimacy of sustaining Roman Catholic theology in U.S. academic life. A Catholic school should find its identity not only in ethos, ministry and worship but in its presentation of the broad history and diverse areas of theology. To do this requires now and in the future numerous, vital, competent and dedicated teachers at the graduate as well as undergraduate levels.

A Catholic school should find its identity not only in ethos, ministry and worship but in its presentation of the broad history and diverse areas of theology.

The overextended faculty

As we mentioned at the beginning. American Catholic universities and colleges have witnessed an extraordinary shift. Once they were circumscribed faculties of priests teaching a fairly thin neoscholastic philosophy of religion. Now they are large faculties of laity, religious and clergy, men and women, with diverse educational backgrounds and specializations. This expansion benefiting the entire university has been accomplished smoothly throughout the United States. The faculty, young and old, of these schools are competent, dedicated and hard-working. They work, however, in circumstances that can impede the education they wish to give.

In Catholic schools with doctoral programs the size and scope of the theology department can resemble a university college headed by a dean. The undergraduate requirements necessitate a considerable number of teachers, and graduate programs mean more faculty. And yet, the resources even after Vatican II for these educational demands sometimes seem suited only to the enterprise of a Catholic college in the 1950’s. A theological doctoral program should not be retained as a sign of prestige; this level of education in a cluster of theological disciplines needs people and facilities.

A doctoral faculty must be able to do many things and do them well. Professors teach doctoral students even as they pursue their own research and attain a reputation for creative scholarship. An adequate representation of professors is required for the specializations—for instance, Scripture, liturgy or ethics. The doctoral faculty must be adequate for the time-consuming work of conducting advanced seminars and examinations and of reading dissertations. But the administration of the program also includes student advising and teaching as well as recruitment and placement. Consequently, whether the number of students in a doctoral program is small or large, the demand for administration and specialized guidance as well as for outstanding professors remains constant.

Fielding both graduate and undergraduate programs requires resources. Some universities separate their graduate and undergraduate teaching faculties but most do not. Teaching undergraduates keeps them in touch with religious ideas active in life, church and society. But teaching as many as 2,000 undergraduates a semester means that the faculty in these schools do not live in the cloistered atmosphere of seminaries and divinity schools but in broader educational and ecclesial worlds. Catholic universities are frequently involved in the complicated life of the Catholic Church in the national and international arenas. All this, however, returns to the adequate number of teachers. Perhaps nowhere else is the rhetoric of a Catholic school so challenged by reality as in the size of its theology department.

Perhaps nowhere else is the rhetoric of a Catholic school so challenged by reality as in the size of its theology department.

The crisis in doctoral education

What makes a doctoral program flourish or decline? Money! Financial resources bring together gifted faculty and interested students. Money is necessary to recruit, hire and tenure very good faculty needed for the doctoral level. Without considerable financing a doctoral program is a burden to its students and its faculty. Without money a doctoral program leads both students and the department into fatigue and mediocrity. The failure to do something well is in the university an infectious disease.

Only the best students should be accepted into doctoral programs. A doctoral program with minimal faculty and uncertain students is a contradiction. Programs should not be continued solely for reasons ofuniversity prestige, and programs should not be easily begun or stubbornly retained by means of a student population partly incapable of doctoral work of quality. Students should be offered the leisure for doctoral work, teaching as an internship for their profession but not as a job to earn money for survival. In the last analysis mediocre study at the doctoral level is a waste of precious resources.

For U.S. Catholicism, future doctors in all areas of religious studies and theology are essential: They will be the future faculty, scholars, teachers and leaders in the church. We are nearing a state of emergency in Catholic theological life in the United States. First, Catholic higher education in the United States, it would seem, has too few doctoral programs, very few first-rate programs, and no programs in many properly Western Christian and Roman Catholic areas. Second, in terms of faculty strength and finances, university theological life at the doctoral level is frequently forced into a crippled existence. Third, theology departments in Catholic institutions have not striven for excellence at the undergraduate level, with the result that there are not as many teaching positions as there should be. Fourth, while an ecumenical education in theology is now normal, an education largely 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 years since Vatican II altered the profile of faculty and students and caused one of the great explosions of studying and teaching theology in the history of the church. Sadly, 20 years later, university departments lack some combination of money, personnel and focus. If it has become respectable to be solicitous of Catholic identity and theology in Catholic institutions, this concern must be translated into concrete action. Do the university leaders, from provincials and deans to directors of development, appreciate and understand how important theology is to every facet of the mission of university and church? “Catholic identity” has to do not with orthodox catechisms and papal control or exclusively with a new biomedical issue but with the general principles of the Catholic interpretation of Christianity, with the Gospel made appealing, interesting and intelligible within an educated church, with the fields and traditions of a millennium of reflection upon faith. There must be a belief in the Hesburgh principle that doctoral education in theology is the crown of a Catholic university, and in the perspective of Thomas Aquinas that the vigor of university theology can influence Christian life in a particular age.

There are many people who want to study theology and who want to teach it. Each autumn at Notre Dame there is a panel for seniors who are entertaining the idea of pursuing doctoral studies in theology; most are double majors and so have pursued theology out of an intense personal interest. The question “Where should they study theology for a doctorate?” is difficult to answer.

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