The Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) has just released an important report from an ad hoc committee on diversity. The committee calls CTSA members to a deeper commitment to ideological diversity. For the sake of integrity, intellectual rigor, and concern for the future of the church, theologians need to heed this call.
The report’s most damning passage reads:
“In sum, the self-conception of many members that the CTSA is open to all Catholic theologians is faulty and self-deceptive. As one of our members put it, the CTSA is a group of liberal theologians and ‘this permeates virtually everything.’ Because the CTSA does not aspire to be a partisan group, both attitudes and practices will have to shift if the CTSA is to become the place where all perspectives within Catholic theology in North America are welcome.”
As evidence, the committee reports:
*Conservative theologians are rarely chosen as plenary speakers or elected to the Board.
*Presenters often make jokes that assume liberal politics or stances toward the Magisterium.
*Liberalism is associated with intellectualism and conservatism is characterized as backward-thinking.
*Resolutions that are favored by the liberal majority pass, leaving conservatives to feel ambivalent about belonging to an organization with stances they cannot affirm.
*Many conservatives are leaving the CTSA for other organizations, such as the Academy of Catholic Theology, which leads to fragmentation.
Although I have been a plenary speaker at the CTSA, I have not been a frequent attender. This is not because I feel alienated ideologically, but only because I feel more at home in the casual setting of the College Theology Society, which always meets the week before the CTSA on college campuses and hosts a legendary sing-a-long after the Saturday night banquet.
However, I have been to enough academic conferences over the last nearly 20 years to know that much of what the ad hoc committee is saying is true. Other studies confirm that the bias against conservatives is not only a problem in the theological guild but in academia as a whole. Although I do not identify as a conservative theologian (Note: the report acknowledges that these the terms liberal and conservative are problematic but, in my judgement, rightly claims that “they carry enough meaning to indicate what we’re aiming at.”), I can hear and see the bias. Perhaps because I married into a conservative extended family or because I went to graduate school at U.S.C. with both liberal Protestants and evangelicals, it has troubled me for a long time.
I am grateful to CTSA President Richard Gaillardetz and committee Chair Daniel Finn for their willingness to bring this contentious issue to light. Gaillardetz’s letter details the Board’s commitment to help the CTSA expand its concern for diversity “to include an equal concern for a diversity of theological perspectives and ecclesial convictions.”
I am confident that members will rise to the challenge. As academics, we are committed to integrity, which means that we evaluate arguments based on their merits and strive for objectivity (though knowing that we are always situated, limited human beings). We are committed to intellectual rigor, and know that we will do better theology with diversity than without it. We are committed to the future of the church, and know that just as the church (as Pope Francis reminds us) opens its arms wide to include all kinds of people, so too must the theological guild be a “big tent.”
There is no doubt that it will sometimes be difficult, for liberal Catholics are the ones who are used to feeling silenced, challenged, and excluded. Unlike Michael Sean Winters, who writes, ” I am not much of a fan of what has passed for professional theology in recent decades,” I am very grateful for modern theology, feminist theology, liberation theology, and all theology that questions the received wisdom of the tradition when that tradition harms. I acknowledge that it is deeply satisfying to be among people who affirm that you can be such a fan and also be a faithful Catholic. It will be hard to give up that comfort and open up to the true and uncomfortable diversity of the church.
But I hope that CTSA members will find the challenge energizing, and know that if we are serious about intellectual humility and solidarity, not to mention the mystical body of Christ, there is no other way to go.