Navigating the Future of Theology: Ethnic Diversity, Religious Illiteracy, Rise of Laity among Challenges

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, November 14, 2008 | Go to article overview

Navigating the Future of Theology: Ethnic Diversity, Religious Illiteracy, Rise of Laity among Challenges


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


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Maybe it was never easy to teach Catholic theology in America, but today a gaggle of new challenges are making it an increasingly complicated enterprise. Across the country, leaders in theology and religious studies departments are struggling to navigate multiple transitions, all at the same time.

Snapshots of those transitions:

* Students taking theology classes at Catholic colleges and universities these days are usually far more catechized by pop culture than by the church. As a result, they're often functionally illiterate in terms of what they know about religion, with a skeptical stance toward institutions and authority. A sizeable share also isn't Catholic, which can create tension between fostering both Catholic identity and respect for pluralism.

* By way of contrast, a small but important minority of Catholic students brings what William Portier of the University of Dayton, Ohio, has called a spirit of "evangelical Catholicism." They're eager for a robust sense of traditional Catholic identity, perhaps in reaction against the very cultural forces that have shaped so many of their peers. Accommodating both the doubters and the devout, sometimes in the same classroom, can be a tricky business.

* There's also a changing of the guard among theology professors. New faculty, mostly born after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), often feel little investment in the liberal-versus-conservative battles of the post-Vatican II era. As a consequence, theologians in their 20s and 30s are sometimes less interested than their older colleagues in playing the role of the church's "loyal opposition." Whether that's the dying of a dream or the beginnings of rebirth depends upon who's doing the looking.

* Demographic change is becoming more obvious. Depending upon who's counting, anywhere between 25 and 40 percent of American Catholics today are Hispanic, with that number expected to reach 50 percent by midcentury. The growing ethnic diversity of the Catholic community is beginning to affect both the kinds of questions that are being asked, and the nature of the scholars who are trying to supply the answers.

* Finally, at a moment when popes and bishops are insisting that Catholic theology take as its point of departure Ex Corde Ecclesiae--"From the Heart of the Church," the 1990 document from Pope John Paul II on the Catholic academy--the theological guild has become an overwhelmingly lay-led enterprise. Relationships between theologians and pastors today aren't formed naturally at priests' council meetings, or around the rectory dinner table. They have to be intentional, and virtually everyone acknowledges that fully successful models have not yet been developed.

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Basically healthy

Despite those difficulties, one can make a good case that the discipline of theology on Catholic campuses is basically quite healthy. Undergraduate requirements on most campuses include two courses, ensuring that virtually all of the roughly 700,000 students at some 245 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, no matter what their major, will be exposed to university-level theology at least twice. Graduate enrollment most places is either holding steady or going up.

"The big battles about minimizing theology requirements seem to be, for the most part, in the past," said Terrence Tilley, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and chair of the theology department at Fordham University in New York.

Typically, the first undergraduate requirement on most Catholic campuses is a basic survey course--trying to make the point, as Tilley put it, that "it's not unreasonable to believe." For the second course, options vary widely. At Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., for example, students can choose from scripture, theological renewal, ethics, and peace and justice; according to Elena Procario-Foley, chair of Iona's religious studies department. …

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