This past month, I had several opportunities to reflect in depth upon my own vocation as a theologian and its place. First, I attended an online meeting that took place as part of the Synod on Synodality, engaging theologians in dialogue about the continental phase document. Second, I attended two conventions of national theological organizations—the College Theology Society (CTS) and Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA)—both of which I engage actively with as a board member and ad hoc committee member, respectively.
The CTS and CTSA conventions were the first “normal” conventions of either society since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within both organizations, there was joy at being back in person (or in the CTSA’s case, in a more comfortable version of such) but also an apprehension about the survival of the profession in coming years, particularly with the “demographic cliff” of college students looming. Indeed, both the presidential address at the CTS and a special session at the CTSA devoted significant space to this set of topics. These troubling realities occasion some reflection.
Theology is a hallmark of Christianity, particularly in the two halves of the “Great Church” (i.e., Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) that emerged from the Council of Chalcedon. The great doctrines of Christianity on Christ and the Trinity are revealed in the New Testament but their form and definition came through the work of theologians. The compatibility of faith and reason lies at the heart of Christianity, and theology has periodically re-emerged from periods of relative quiet into playing a large ecclesial role. This was certainly true in the twentieth century leading up to the Second Vatican Council, when theologians such as Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar formulated insights that greatly influenced that gathering.
The era coming out of Vatican II thus witnessed a renaissance of theology, and in the United States, this meant a growing role for academic theology that went beyond the realm of clerics (such as those at Vatican II mentioned above) to include lay people and religious women, in particular. At its 1970s-1990s “peak,” Catholic academic theology in the United States pushed boundaries (not without controversy) with seminal works such as Elizabeth Johnson’s “She Who Is” Catherine Mowry LaCugna’s “God For Us” and Ada María Isasi-Díaz’s “En la Lucha.” Today’s theologians are no less insightful, but their works have seemingly had less relevance to the surrounding culture and even to the church.
My teacher David Tracy famously argued in “The Analogical Imagination” that theology has three publics: academy, society and the church. The place of theology in society has certainly faded since the days when John Courtney Murray, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich could appear on the cover of Time magazine or be namedropped in the Peanuts comic strip. In the academy, secularization and the dominance of religious studies within the academic study of religion have also marginalized theology. Catholic institutions have been the drivers of what vitality there is in academic theology, and that is fading as many of them cut liberal arts core requirements or close altogether. As the timing of the synodal consultation I attended indicated—it might have been subtitled “better late than never”—the hierarchy of the church in the United States also seems to have relatively little interest in what theologians have to say.
There are versions of this narrative in which there is no great loss to lament here; American theology has largely been a white, bourgeois enterprise that has failed to adequately deal with the horrors of the sexual abuse crisis. For others, largely to be found at other conventions such as the Academy of Catholic Theology or Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, it is a comeuppance for a theological academy too focused on relevance and innovation at the expense of attention to orthodoxy. Some of these critiques make trenchant points, and there is a dire need for Catholics in the United States to engage more deeply with what it means to be members of a global church. Yet there would be a cost to theological knowledge as a Catholic value fading away in the United States.
Absent serious academic inquiry, the dialogue between faith and reason can tend in the direction of fideism. For younger people, their engagement with Catholicism will tend to be through influencers they encounter on social media. Some of these influencers, such as Bishop Robert Barron, are theologically trained yet now deal in simpler messages tending in a culture-warrior direction. Others, such as Father Michael Schmitz, have a similar focus with less intellectual weight (though no little attention to lifting weights); still others, like Taylor Marshall, flirt with outright schism. Pope Francis himself has sometimes appeared to downplay the importance of theology, owing both to his own concern that intellectuals not look down on ordinary people’s faith and also possibly in reaction to his two predecessors’ concerns with theological orthodoxy that sometimes took the form of censorship and investigation.
There is thus reason for ordinary Catholics to be concerned at the peril of academic theology. Without sustained attention to the relationship between faith, reason and culture, space opens for ideologues and demagogues. It is important, then, both for theologians to engage clearly and positively with the church even as they critique it when necessary, and for Catholic institutions to live up to their mandate to continue to foster academic theology despite cross-pressure: to be, in the words of Notre Dame’s legendary Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., where the church does its thinking.
Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.