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.