From May 30 to June 2, the College Theology Society gathered on the campus of Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska for its fifty-ninth annual convention. I first presented a paper at a CTS convention back in 2003 and, with only a couple of exceptions, have attended every year since. The fact that I have only been a professor for seven of those eleven years demonstrates one of the endearing characteristics of the society: it nurtures graduate students and young scholars while remaining a serious forum for the established names in Catholic theology.
This year’s theme, “Teaching Theology and Handing on the Faith: Challenges and Convergences,” coalesced with the ongoing tensions between American Catholic theologians and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, which in recent years has offered criticisms of the works of noted theologians such as Elizabeth Johnson, Margaret Farley, Todd Salzman, and Michael Lawler. Bishops such as Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. have defined the vocation of theologians as “collaborators in the New Evangelization.” Wuerl insists that given the lack of formation for many young Catholics entering colleges and universities, “it is necessary to recognize that the student entering the ‘groves of academe’ too often comes in need of evangelization and faith formation more than theological speculation. The sharp blade of precise theoretical investigation and speculation should be affixed to the handle of basic, firm faith formation.”
This blurring of the line between evangelization and theology has rankled many theologians. For one, Wuerl is very clear that “it is precisely the truths of faith, taught by the magisterium, that constitute the subject matter of [theologians’] work.” Theologians fear that the bishops see their task as merely expounding upon truths already clearly defined by the bishops. Also, theologians who spend much of their time in the classroom realize that Wuerl’s insistence that they engage in evangelization and faith formation is highly problematic when an increasing number of their students belong to other faiths or are among the “nones” identifying with no religion.
The troubled relationship between theologians and bishops was a major focus of this year’s convention. Society president Sandra Yocum reported on a March meeting between the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine and representatives of six theological societies: the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA), the CTS, the Academy of Catholic Theologians (ACT), the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, the Black Catholic Theological Symposium, and the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians in the U.S. (ACHTUS). According to Yocum, the meeting was productive, not least by bringing members of ideologically divided theological societies together in a shared task and by informing the bishops about the realities faced in the classrooms of Catholic colleges and universities.
One of the highlights of the convention was an “open forum” planned by a number of CTS members and led by Maureen O’Connell of Fordham University. The CTS Board of Directors had issued statements in response to the USCCB’s criticisms of Johnson and Farley, but while standing behind these statements, the society judged that they were also too reactive, concerned with outlining what the theologian’s task is not without offering a positive vision of what it is. At the open forum, participants were divided into small groups and asked to reflect on two questions: “Why do you do what you do?” and “What gives you hope in your work?” The responses, which were surprisingly consistent, themselves offered a remarkable sign of hope for Catholic theology’s future. Overwhelmingly the participants reported that what motivated them was an overpowering joy and passion arising from the faith and theological wisdom they have received from the church and from their teachers. The theologians involved see their task as passing on this joy, mediated through theological understanding, to their students. The participants also identified their students as an important source of hope, through their insights in the classroom and their engagement with the world.
This self-understanding differs markedly from the perception of theologians emanating from the USCCB. In a 2011 address to the ACT, Thomas Weinandy, the out-going Executive Director of the Committee on Doctrine, claimed that many theologians see theology as an “intellectual game,” motivated by “the fun of being cleverly and sophisticatedly entertaining, or the thrill and buzz that comes with academic sparring.” He even suggested that some theologians do not “know God.” (For some CMT.com responses to this address, see here, here, and here.)
The March meeting and the CTS open forum make this position harder to maintain. Conversations at the CTS revealed that theologians are acutely aware that tensions exist between their ecclesial and academic identities, but it is grossly unfair to insist that they have sacrificed the former for the sake of the latter. The recognition that both bishops and theologians begin with a love for the faith and a desire for truth can help keep the focus on the issues of real disagreement, on the scope of magisterial authority and its proper exercise, and the relationship of theologians to the bishops’ magisterium.
Theological societies’ business meetings and public statements get all the press, but the real heart of any theological convention is the papers that are given. As a co-convener of the CTS’s Justice and Peace section, I did not get to experience the full variety of papers offered this year, but I can offer a sampling of the papers from my own section that demonstrated the passion for handing on the faith expressed at the open forum. In the first installment of a three year special session on service learning and global immersion, Nicholas Rademacher of Cabrini College discussed how Catholic social teaching and service learning have provided an opportunity for his students to reflect on faith in an environment of religious diversity and non-commitment. Mil Thompson of Bellarmine University presented on the struggles of incorporating Catholic social teaching into a senior seminar course at his own institution. Both demonstrated the theologian’s task of coming together to reflect on the meaning of our shared faith and how to hand it on to future generations.