Catholic universities have sure raised a ruckus in recent years about the state of their theology courses and majors. The University of Notre Dame had its flap about curriculum review and the place of theology courses a couple years ago. While that university ended up keeping its theology requirements, other schools face similar questions or concerns. Providence College has had such conversations; so has Georgetown University. Most recently, St. Mary’s University is facing the loss of all three of its theology majors. This is a problem – but not necessarily for the reasons people might expect.

Part of the debate has been conducted in the same kinds of ideological camps we’ve come to know and be annoyed by: the Cardinal Newman Society and more conservative Catholic campuses urge protection of theology courses. Not even “religious studies” courses will do, they say – since that smacks of secular liberalism.

On the more progressive side (at least in terms of university administrations) might be the shrug of shoulders, the realistic admission that many students these days are “nones” and don’t want religion on their campuses – Catholic or no. Religion – so it seems – is a private affair, not really real like biology or engineering, dealing with the squidgier stuff of life. How could religion have a place on a campus – even a Catholic campus?

The history of theology departments at Catholic colleges, and the place and role of courses and majors, is more crazy than the ideological argument would have us believe. While theology might be taught in seminaries in the 19th century, theology as such was not part of undergraduate college education.  (So I have learned from Sandra Yocum’s history of the College Theology Society , which includes several discussions on the history of “college theology as academic discipline.”) Thomistic philosophy might be taught to undergraduates, but theology was reserved for those who had achieved mastery of the philosophy.

Theology for undergraduates emerged from a sense that lay people needed to be educated in order to serve others and promote faith in the world. At the undergraduate level, the purposes and definitions of theology in the classroom had to be developed almost from scratch – and the struggle to identify those purposes and definitions continues to this day. The definitions of theology necessarily linked to the academic conversations being had: Thomisms (which derived from seminary education), historical critical method in scripture, Marxist philosophy – and later, liberation theologies, and engagement with the questions of a post-modern world.

An additional question arose – one that continues to be part of conversations – to what extent should departments be catechetical, and to what extent should students be exposed to the serious theological questions of the day?  I suggest that what made Catholic campuses Catholic in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not that there were departments of theology, since those often didn’t exist then – but rather that religious orders and dioceses had instituted these campuses. There was a shared sense of Catholic culture. By contrast, later in the century, theology becomes significant because popes decided that lay people needed education for work in faith. Catholic culture is still presumed in mid-century, but now education takes on added significance.

The difficulty these days is that everywhere, such a Catholic culture has been lost. I have quoted my colleague Bill Portier more than once at this blog, with his point that we American Catholics have lost a Catholic subculture. We don’t have shared geographical parishes, a shared sense of hierarchy or even of lay roles in the Catholic church. We don’t in fact collectively know that you don’t eat meat on Fridays in Lent, nor collectively attend the sacrament of reconciliation – that is for just an ever smaller portion of the Catholic population. I cannot depend on my students knowing who Abraham is, or when the consecration happens at the mass – EVEN if they’ve been in Catholic schools all the way through. And for as much as Catholic discussions about sex and abortion appear in the media – Millennial Catholics have looked sociologist Christian Smith in the eye and told him that Catholics have no particular teachings about sex. (See here for his essay on that point.)

Put differently: I think theology departments in colleges and universities arose out of a need to educate lay people, and in the midst of a strong sub-culture that was confronting modernity. At one time, we didn’t need departments of theology or religious studies because of that subculture, and because of a certain view about the role of lay people in the church.

Theology departments have, in my estimation, become merely the last bulwark of a time when a Catholic sub-culture did exist. Most other markers of Catholic identity have fluttered away – so it seems that departments of theology, and their majors, too, flutter away bit by bit – till we get to the point of a Notre Dame or an SMU. I don’t want to say modernity won – but I would say that modernity has indelibly changed the shape of what it means to be Catholic.

So what does all this mean for theology today? Should we have theology departments and courses? Majors and minors?

I think the answer is: No, if your theology department is going to be the only thing that makes your campus seem “Catholic.” Theologians – no matter how great we are – cannot be expected to hold up Catholic identity in the face of secularity. We are not gods. We should not be so self-important as to think we can solve all the problems related to American Catholicism.

But I think the answer is: Yes, definitely, if there are a significant number of people from both within and outside the theology department (or, yes, religious studies department, as at UD) who are interested in exploring what it means to be Catholic. That is – to be Catholic means that you’ve got to have a collective enterprise – people who are engaged together in teaching the whole person, soul, mind, and body. I think there are a lot of institutions that have this kind of group of people – though they may not talk about it or know how to access it. (By the way – I support the SMU theology department’s ongoing revisions of their majors – I think they’ve got some good reasons to maintain and develop their majors….)

Because here’s the thing: I can’t do my own work as a theologian unless I know that the economists and the biologists are also at least holding open the question of faith (even if they have their own doubts). For example, my students are caught up in, and highly anxious about, science versus religion debates. They get deep science, but they haven’t gotten deep theology – at least not deep enough to match their learning in science. There’s something of a Catch-22 in our work – our students don’t have enough background to access the deeper theological questions like, “What is the nature of God?” – and yet, I suspect that their interest would be held far more if they did have a sense that theology is deep – that the supposed science versus religion debate isn’t in fact a debate for Catholics – nor does science interfere with faith. That faith is part of rationality. That belief in God isn’t just like having belief in a flying spaghetti monster. That faith doesn’t just get dismissed as a Sunday School exercise that belongs more to the 1950s than to the contemporary digital age.

But to be able to do that kind of deep discussion requires my own conversations with biology professors, and theirs with me. I think Ex Corde Ecclesiae didn’t go far enough in naming that being a Catholic university requires a whole faculty to care about Catholic identity. That’s not about whether there’s a theology department or a theology major.

That’s a question for a whole community – ideally not only an academic community, but the Catholic community – to engage.


(With particular thanks to Kelly Johnson, my colleague at UD, who provided some very helpful suggestions for revisions and changes.)