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The Power of the CTSA

Paul Griffiths’ keynote address to the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) has caused quite the stir, with commentaries here, here, here, and here.  Cathleen Kaveny’s “No Academic Question:  Should the CTSA Seek ‘Conservative’ Views?”  is the latest.

While I have a broad agreement with Kaveny’s insistence that the CTSA, “should be open, positively, to considering topics, questions, and positions that ‘conservatives’ believe have been neglected”, there is one piece of her argument I want to address, a friendly amendment if you will.

Toward the end of the essay, she indicates that the CTSA and the Academy of Catholic Theology (ACT) are quasi parallel societies and, as such, perhaps “the best course of action for each group [is] to wish each other well in the pursuit of different paths, the values of which will eventually be known by their fruitfulness.”  She continues,

At the same time, I do not think it is a breach of ecclesial communion if one group decides it can do better work within a more narrowly defined theological context. Leaving the CTSA isn’t leaving the church. An academic conference is not the Body of Christ, after all. And within the church, there has always been ample room for different groups to pursue their calling in parallel, inconsistent, and sometimes contesting ways. Jesuits aren’t Franciscans, who in turn definitely aren’t Benedictines.

I worry that this argument fails to account for a genuine difference between the CTSA and the ACT.  Kaveny’s argument assumes that these are purely theological differences. For me though, the reason why the CTSA should remain open and inclusive is because of the power it wields in the field of theology, a power that the ACT does not have.

Last year, I was with a bunch of my theologian friends and expressing my then hesitation about the CTSA.  Since they were members of the CTSA, they insisted that it was not as narrow as I believed.  (It was a reality that I found to be true.)  One of the arguments, and I remember it clearly, was, “if you want to have an impact in the field, you have to belong to the CTSA.”  It was not a cynical or critical statement.  It was descriptive. The CTSA wields power in at least two ways.

First, the majority the CTSA members are associated with institutions that grant PhD’s in theology. Those that are doing the majority of scholarship in the field and those that are training future theologians, these are the ones who constitute the majority of the CTSA members.  This is not a critique. The CTSA focuses on scholarship, so it stands to reason that these scholars would gravitate to the organization and conference.  Moreover, as these professors mentor their students, they would introduce them to the field through this setting.  As one who came to the guild without this kind of mentoring (I was a math major as an undergraduate at a non-Catholic Christian college and found my way to graduate school not by being familiar with the field but by way of the institution that was most affordable), I truly appreciate this work.  In fact, many of the members of the CTSA have provided me with such mentoring even though I was not one of their students nor attended their institutions.

Still, the CTSA has immense power to introduce people to the theological guild.  The idea that they lack theological diversity should and did bother the organization.  It is why they commissioned a self-study on the issue, called a special session at their annual meeting to discuss it, and voiced support at this meeting for greater theological diversity.  It is why they invited Paul Griffiths to give a plenary speaker. Since the CTSA is one of the major entry ways into the theological profession, a narrowing of focus is de facto a narrowing of people. Thus, while other groups might be able to limit their focus—and be completely justified in doing so—because the CTSA has such power over the field, they have a responsibility to serve as a broader theological community.

Second, the CTSA also has immense power because of its financial resources.  The organization has so much money that the last two years, someone at the business meeting has asked whether it was ethical for the organization to have so much of it.  To be sure, lots of the money goes to help the broader field of theology, including grants to support other theological organizations, scholarships to help scholars attend the CTSA, and donations to help scholars abroad organize and attend their own societies.  There is much good that is done with the money.

Still, wealth always comes with challenges.  Right now, the CTSA tends to meet in expensive hotels and big cities and poses a problem for those on a limited traveling budget.  Typically, those working at Catholic colleges and universities get funds to travel to one conference a year or get a set stipend that limits them to one conference a year. It means that many of us have to prioritize the conferences we attend.  Given the factors about the CTSA’s power in the guild, the CTSA so often becomes the priority.  Moreover, with high dues and expensive locations (in 2016, the CTSA convention is Puerto Rico for example), it frequently becomes the only group one can practically belong to.

I do not mean this as a criticism but rather a recognition of the power of the CTSA.  If the CTSA is to use its power justly, it has to be theologically open and broad in a way that few other organizations have to be. I think Kaveny is correct in her inclusive vision of the CTSA, but I also believe that this inclusive vision is not just a theological one.  It is a justice one, one attentive to the proper exercise of power. I believe that the CTSA has used its power well and hope, in the midst of these latest challenges, it continues to do.



  1. Jason, thanks for this reflection.
    I think the problem us that Griffiths et al. want to narrow the CTSA– not just broaden I think the CTSA needs to be very careful to resist the narrowing portion of his agenda.

    I have seen first hand over the years, people committed to a broad faculty try to include those with a narrower vision in name of diversity– who then turn around and drive out the broader minded folk in the name of purity.

    What you say raises a problem for me though: are you saying that it is not that so called conservatives actually want to talk with those at CTSA– they just want the power and influence of the organization– the external goods?

    But the power and the influence came about because he CTSA is hosting a conversation or conversations that many people want to be part of. I think if it defined theology the way Griffiths does– it would wither and die.
    You might ask yourself: how many people would join ACT if it were an open membership?

    Your last point is the most important. The biggest barrier to getting more and different voices at CTSA is the expense of the meeting– in an era where many schools have scant jobs -and even scantier conference funds. It is also the biggest barrier to getting young people to the meetings.

    • As one of the writers of the report, I feel I must reply to Cathleen Kaveny, whom I do not know. Our desire was to call the CTSA back to its original mission of providing a forum for Catholic theological exchange. Such exchange requires a diversity of viewpoints and the CTSA’s behavior over the years, we believe, has been a detriment to such diversity. We did not in any way ask the CTSA to become the ACT. Besides begin completely impossible, it is also besides the point.

      Our point was that the CTSA, because of its centrality, its size, and its influence, has a special responsibility not to behave in overtly partisan ways and we listed a number of such behaviors. You need not agree–clearly you don’t. Fair enough, you are not our audience. Rather, we hoped to reach folks like Jason who believe that it would simply be better for the CTSA to be more inclusive. A sign of that inclusivity is that disagreement, which is an important source for good theological work, is a regular occurrence. The simple fact is that those members of the CTSA who are more conservative are best placed to see where in-group dynamics are at play. That is why we were asked to produce to the report. We accepted because we care about the CTSA and its future health.

  2. Thanks, Jason for this reflection and reminder! You have named precisely something that has been nagging at me but I was unable to identify what it was–power. The ACT wields a kind of power and I suspect that reality heats some of this conversation’s intensity. But the CTSA wields power, too, exactly as you described and I (a CTSA member) needed that reminder. I had been finding it difficult to acknowledge exactly that aspect of the dynamic.

    And I also agree that less costly locations for these meetings would be very welcome! The CTSA is very good in so many ways to reach out to new scholars so that they can speak and be heard. This is another way in which we could be more hospitable.

  3. I haven’t said much in this post-conference online debate, partly because I was given an opportunity to speak at the annual meeting itself (as a representative of the ad hoc committee on “theological diversity,” at a panel discussing that committee’s report). At this point, though, I have a couple thoughts, points that are not being made elsewhere, as far as I know.
    First, although I think Jason makes some good points about the power dynamics involved in CTSA involvement (and more could be said here), those dynamics are not what motivate my own involvement in the CTSA. Nor, to be honest, am I primarily motivated by what Prof. Kaveny describes as the real draw: a conversation that I want to be a part of. I’m always able to find a few sessions that look interesting, and there are things to enjoy once I get there (including some really wonderful people). But, like everyone else, I have limited time, money, and energy, and what has really led me to invest quite a bit of time (and as Jason helpfully notes, quite a bit of money) in the CTSA is one thing: my deep discomfort with growing polarization and division, and my own attempts to respond to that situation as faithfully as I can. I can only speak explicitly for myself, but I can say that I know this to be the case for other regular attenders, as well.
    It’s unclear who Professor Kaveny means to indicate in her “et al” above, but her charges don’t apply to me. My hopes for the CTSA actually require a “large tent.” As I said at the meeting, the fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church in the U.S. is looking more and more like the divided, polarized society around it. For reasons, again, that I tried to outline when I spoke at the meeting, I take this to be a serious problem. It seems to me that theologians have a responsibility to bring their gifts and training to bear on this challenge, dealing specifically with its many theological dimensions.
    I’m concerned that Prof. Kaveny’s message to more conservative theologians, including me and many others, seems to be a simple one: goodbye and good riddance. Whether the membership as a whole delivers the same message remains to be seen.​​

  4. Thanks, Jason, for this reflection. As someone who has followed both Prof. Griffiths’ address and the responses to it via the Twitter feed, I am particularly happy to read more and more connected prose.

    My only addition to the conversation is to note that the dynamics of power here are complex. I have no doubt that the theological community consistently underestimates the power of the guild to shape our work–and this includes not just the influence and wealth of an individual organization like the CTSA, but also the day-to-day exigences of teaching and publishing in an increasingly productivity-oriented academic culture. These shape our work powerfully and relentlessly, in ways we may or may not consciously recognize. The CTSA is a major force in this regard; but so is the ACT, et al.

    Within this broader guild, I think it is important — particularly with Holly’s comment in mind — that the situation we face may not be polarization, per se, but fragmentation. For all its present power, there was a time that the CTSA could have claimed a centrality in North America that no longer belongs to it. Setting aside entirely the College Theology Society (in which I have a vested interest), more and more Catholic theology is being done at the ACT and the FCS, to be sure, the AAR national and regional, the SCE, the SHCS, the SBCS, the SBL, the CBA, the Lonergan Workshop and ever stronger scholarly associations in the UK, Europe, South and East Asia, Australia, many parts of Latin America and Africa and, yes, even here in Canada!

    The reality probably is that there will never again be one scholarly association in North American that could claim to be _the_ place where Catholic theology should be done. So perhaps Prof. Kaveny’s suggestion is not, “you people, go home,” but, “it is a fantasy in the contemporary scholarly world to believe that any one association could be all things to all people.” If the latter, then the risk is again not polarization, strictly speaking, but a plurality of mutually exclusive echo chambers (also evident in the political world). The task of all of our associations, perhaps, is to preserve some trace, some place, some memory, some appreciative recognition of all the others as a reminder of our shared communion.

    Common prayer is a good place to start.

    • Thanks for that, Reid. I am a co-chair for the Christian Systematic Theology section at the AAR, and it’s work that I enjoy for many reasons, one of which is the wonderful range of theology that gets done there.

  5. I really don’t think my message is good-bye and good riddance to conservative theologians! I’m sorry if I didn’t make that clear.

    Actually, I consider myself a conservative theologian–I spend a lot of time reading and teaching manuals of moral theology. Maybe the discussion needs to be had about what counts as a conservative theologian. Is it simply and totally agreement with the magisterium on neuralgic culture war issues? Does John Noonan, who has done more to preserve and pass on the Catholic moral teaching than anyone, not count as a conservative simply because he does not support Humanae Vitae?

    If this discussion is going to take place, another issue has to be put on the table: the sense that some theologians who call for the tradition to be developed on terms internal to it aren’t “Loyal” Catholics. I think that is the subtext of ACT. And I think many people are looking at ACT, its mission, and its closed membership and asking: Is this what ACT members want for CTSA?

    My point, as I’ve reiterated again is this: BIG tent: And what I worry about is people trying to constrict the big tent. So to put it bluntly: I want the theological conservatives there. I want the mujeristas theologians there. I want the unreconstructed Thomists there. I am neither a mujerista theologian or an unreconstructed Thomist.

    But I suppose there is a limit: I don’t want people in the CTSA that want to kick other people OUT of the CTSA. And when I listened to Griffith’s talk, and read (at his prompting) the corporate structure of ACT, this worry became very present in my mind.

  6. Maybe it would be helpful for me to report that the ACT has no agenda for the CTSA at all. (Or at least, I’ll say that I’m a member of the ACT, and, if there is such any such conversation going on, I’ve been carefully shielded from it.) I’m speaking as an individual member of the CTSA when I describe the hope that I have for the CTSA, above.

  7. I’ve honored the decision of the CTSA board that the report of our committee on “theological diversity” should not be made public, but I do find myself wishing that that report, on which we spent quite a bit of time, could get more consideration. I hope I’m not out of bounds in excerpting one small section here, in which our group attempted a description of what we meant when we said “conservative.” (This was no small task, as we had a good bit of healthy disagreement on this!) “What the members of our committee understand by “conservative theology” varies. Beyond saying what it is not, we offer a brief enumeration of characteristic features, recognizing that some items doubtlessly converge with the concerns of self-identified liberal theologians.
    a) a substantive engagement with the whole of the Catholic tradition that utilizes a “hermeneutic of reform in continuity.”
    b) an engagement that attends to the resources of the Catholic philosophical tradition and the history and culture of global Catholicism prior to the nineteenth century.
    c) a critical appreciation of the myriad ways in which Catholicism(s) and liberalism(s) have been joined in the past and in the present.
    d) An appreciation of authority as a gift in the Church, and as a result an awareness that a hermeneutic of trust regarding magisterial pronouncements can deepen our understanding of the faith. While the theologian’s task entails raising critical questions, this is most fruitfully done in a way that affirms the hierarchical nature of the Church.”

  8. The report was posted on the members only section of the website. I think many CTSA members read it; needless to say, not everyone agreed with it–or its definition of conservative.

  9. If the definition of “conservative” is at issue – is there a better way to describe the conversation? I don’t much like liberal/conservative labels in describing Catholics myself, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog. Or – can we have more of a conversation about the varied uses of the word? If we can’t, then that to me suggests a desire for an ideological split represented by several conferences (and not just CTSA and ACT)

    I don’t think that it’s a question of ACT wanting to take over CTSA in some way so I want to push against seeing the conversation as “ACT versus CTSA”. Many of the people who instigated the theological diversity discussion at CTSA were not, at the time, members of the ACT, nor are all people who might be so concerned, members of the ACT. I also find it very curious that no mention in all these conversations, including the evening conversation at CTSA, was made of the CTS/CTSA division. CTS has been deemed more friendly to “conservative” Catholics, though I know many who would name CTS as more “left” than CTSA in some respects. Perhaps,as some have said, its partnership with the NABPR has aided in fostering less us/them conversation.

    I find myself largely in agreement with Holly’s concern and would say this: the American Catholic Church is very divided; I wonder whether there are ways not to be so divisive including and especially in the theological guild(s), and whether theologians have a role in helping along any patching up of divisions. (I think we do.)

    Ultimately, to get back to Jason’s last point – I think it behooves us for non-theological reasons to find ways for rapport. This year was the first I had been to ACT, and the second year I’d ever been to CTSA. I didn’t make it to the SCE this year though I wanted to very much, and there are numerous other conferences and conversations that I think are important but couldn’t attend, especially as one who wants to bridge divides. But financially, I can’t do all the dues and the travel, especially when those conferences are at very expensive hotels, and especially as a younger theologian with a young family. Next year I will, as usual, be carefully planning which conferences I can attend in relation to professional commitments, money, and family concerns.

  10. I do not think ACT is irrelevant to the discussion. Suppose some promising , powerful “liberal” theologians got together by themselves, prominently touring their names, their purpose,and their invitation only status. Suppose they included in their mission statement, say, a commitment to the church as the”People of God'” and the need for theologians to discern the signs of the times. And suppose they advertised , prominently on their website connections to
    powerful prelates who had been widely known to harm the livelihoods and reputations of conservative theologians

    And supposes many of the members of that group that adamantly exclusive
    liberal group were asking for more representation in a group in which conservatives felt free and welcome. Don’t you think conservatives (whatever they are) would be a bit jittery!

    Another way to put this: why shouldn’t liberal theologians charge ACT with being proudly and covertly theologically discriminatory- and hiding through closed ballot voting?

    Is discrimination okay when done by conservatives? Why aren’t you complaining about the non-inclusivity of ACT?

  11. I’m a junior faculty member who is most active in the CTS and has found the ACHA and AAR engaging enough not to consider CTSA membership seriously. My grad school nurtured CTS membership and I presented several papers there as a graduate student (something I was unable to do at the CTSA–this might be another barrier to list among those restricting young people’s attendance). The sheer proximity of CTS/CTSA annual meetings has made CTSA attendance nearly impossible with a young family. Needless to say, I have not received an ACT invitation. So, I am an outsider to both organizations, though a very interested one.

    I think Cathleen raises an important, maybe taken for granted, point in this last post. In other words, we expect “conservatives” to be exclusive and so we don’t question them for their exclusivity. On the other hand, we expect “liberals” to be open and accepting and theoretically, at least, that exclusivity is subject more readily to internal critique. The results are a problem for the church, especially when the fragmentation that Reid mentions becomes a kind of silo-ization where there is little to no cross-pollination (quota of “ations” reached!).

    However, in the end, her charge simply rests as “well, they’re doing it too.” This strikes me as unsatisfactory. Surely, plenty of “conservatives” have stories of being driven out of departments in quests for greater “liberal” purity. I tend to think that this exclusionary divide is bad for the church across the board. If we are not critiquing the ACT for its practices we should be, though as I mentioned it is much harder to do so on criteria internal to the society. If the results of the CTSA’s study on diversity lead to an openness for new members, this would be great. Perhaps it would engender more give and take, rather than lead to some hostile takeover. Maybe it would even lead to an easing of the relatively unjustified persecuted feelings that may lay behind the ACT’s secret ballots. And, if the ACT were to invite, for example, Rick Galliardetz to speak I would hope that he would go and speak, instead of remaining in a silo. Any way that we can foster interaction among the fragmented theological guild ought to be pursued.

  12. I do not believe that the categories of liberal and conservative are very helpful for thinking about this issue. Griffiths distinguishes between a conception of theology in which “doctrinal discovery” is essential, and a conception of theology in which it is not. What semantic relation does this distinction bear to the meaning (assuming there is one) of the words “liberal” and “conservative”?

    • One other thing. Cathy Kaveny worries what Griffiths’s argument bodes for “some theologians who call for the tradition to be developed in terms internal to it.” But the only way to determine whether any such development really does proceed from terms “internal”to the tradition is by reference to the doctrine of the tradition itself. And this is just Griffiths’s point, it seems to me.

  13. I didn’t say ACT is irrelevant to the discussion, just that I’m concerned it’s being described as totally CTSA versus ACT, which I think isn’t quite fair, especially to those members of the CTSA who are not members of ACT but who seek the kind of rapprochement mentioned in the document. There are several that I met at the CTSA meeting this year.

    That said, I can very much see why people would be, and are, jittery. Holly’s point in her presentation at CTSA that perhaps we simply decide not to do the things mentioned in the document seems, at least based on internet conversation (which isn’t the best measure, I know) to be the way things are going.

    I would simply add that I certainly don’t have the kind of power you describe of ACT members. Can’t it be the case that, I for example, genuinely seek some kind of bridge to a divide and that part of the way to do that is engaging in both groups? Can’t it be the case that others would too? I am just not sure that automatically assuming the worst case scenario is the best way forward.

    Regarding ACT critique: people make those critiques too, internally and externally. I’ve seen theologians across the spectrum make such critiques, in writing and in speech. I don’t think that’s an either/or aspect here. But the question at hand here is the CTSA and what it wants to do; as for why that is significant, I think Jason’s post makes that point.

  14. Maybe I’ll leave it at this: I, personally, would be much more comfortable, if those “conservatives” calling for broadening and inclusivity of their points of view explicitly distanced themselves from Griffths’s suggestion that the CTSA exclude or discourage other points of view.


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