Good Luck to Catholic Theologians

January 13, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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This week, an article in the National Catholic Reporter on-line discusses the struggle of US Catholic theologians to coordinate their roles as scholars and academics with their roles in the church. Written in the wake of the US bishops’ condemnation of Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God,  the article suggests that things on this front are bad and getting worse. In the article, Terence Tilley, the chair of theology at Fordham and a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, says, “If the bishops continue along this path of censuring or making statements without engaging in dialogue with the theologians, theology may be laughed out of the university as mere propaganda.”

Now let’s be clear: contemporary Catholic bishops are not widely noted for their communication with the hoi polloi. A priest friend, the pastor of a good-sized parish, asked me not long ago to write a letter for him to the ordinary of his diocese requesting permission to start a Sunday night liturgy. Fool that I am, I wondered why he didn’t just ask the guy. “You think I talk with the bishop?” he replied.

But the current movement toward turning Catholic theologians into catechists is particular cause for alarm. Bear in mind that theologians–Aquinas, for example, and Rahner–spearheaded some of the most significant intellectual growth (God forbid that I describe it as change!) in the history of the church.

And now, the US Supreme Court, in a ruling passed on January 12, looks to make the situation of theologians in Catholic universities even worse. In Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the court “recognized a ‘ministerial exception’ to employment discrimination laws, saying that churches and other religious groups must be free to choose and dismiss their leaders without government interference.”

The case itself involved a female teacher with narcolepsy, Cheryl Perich, who was fired from a Missouri Lutheran Snyod school and then sued the school for discrimination against the disabled. The case was dismissed because Perich taught religion forty-five minutes a day, though she spent the vast majority of her time teaching secular subjects. Asked specifically about “professors at Catholic universities,” the lawyer who successfully argued the case, Douglas Laycock said: “If he teaches theology, he’s covered (by this ruling). If he teaches English or physics or some clearly secular subjects, he is clearly not covered.” And you can’t even blame the decision on the six (!!) Catholic justices on the court. The ruling was unanimous. As the editors of the New York Times argue, the ruling is far more encompassing than is good for either church or society. But that’s not much help to Catholic theologians whose jobs are now on the line.

All of this calls to mind a recent comment from a dear, life-long friend, an internationally recognized (and moderate) Catholic theologian. “I’m just grateful,” she said, “That the institutional church can no longer burn theologians at the stake, as they once could.” Maybe the institution can’t burn theologians any more, but as for job security, at least in US Catholic colleges and universities, good luck to them all.


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