The National Catholic Review
Universities must teach faith across disciplines.

Since the onset of the Francis papacy it has been broadly observed that the current pontiff has a strong distaste for ecclesiastical culture warfare. This represents a significant shift in tone from previous decades of Vatican leadership, and it already is having substantive effects. Not least among these is the growing intuition among Catholic pastoral theologians that it is safe to come out from under their desks. It seems possible again publicly to investigate important dimensions of the ecclesial landscape without thereby incurring suspicion or official censure. The pent-up breezes of pastoral spirits are stirring, and there is these days an apparent tempering of approaches to doctrinal study that have been undertaken from an unapologetically ideological perspective.

Constructive theologies seem to be rediscovering their integrity and their nerve, and the art of posing the legitimately open question is in process of being retrieved as a worthy moment in religious thinking. Both scholars and ministers are being invited to shout less and listen more. This is to be celebrated. But many of the uncritically accepted structural accretions from the decades since the Second Vatican Council remain to be examined, explained and perhaps legitimated. Among the most important of these is, I believe, the Catholic studies department in the 21st-century Catholic college.

The Academic Environment

Until recently I taught for many years in the graduate school and seminary of a large Catholic university. For most of that time it felt to me to be a quite wintry season in church polity. It was not safe in my institution to question the liturgical preferences or the theological dispositions of St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI or the Roman Curia without putting one’s personal reputation and professional career at risk. The rolls of more renowned and scholarly theologians who were castigated publicly in Europe and North America and Latin America during this period suffice to demonstrate precisely this environment. I began my academic career more than a generation ago because I found the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition to be a source of liberation and excitement, permitting thoughtful persons to explore the deep mysteries of both God and this world. Gradually the pursuit of such mysteries in any public and systematically rigorous way became a recipe for career instability. The nascent culture was not one in which theologians ought to have taken much solace, nor one of which any custodians of a truly Catholic tradition ought to have been proud.

This is the horizon against which I wish to raise the question of the emergence since Vatican II in Catholic colleges and universities of Catholic studies departments. Specifically, what does it mean to maintain such a department within an institution that is already, ostensibly, Catholic? Wouldn’t there be something odd about a law school within which could be found a subgroup of students undertaking a “legal studies” concentration? Or a business school wherein some enroll in the “business studies” program? Formally, I am unable to distinguish the difference between those seemingly absurd propositions and that of a Catholic studies department on a Catholic campus. Yet such departments have proliferated during the past generation, and they are often hailed as the bastions of religious vitality for a school. I believe that this matter has both a conceptual and a political aspect, and that both of these need serious and overt reflection and discussion.

The Conceptual Problem

To be Catholic is to be alert to the expectation that God’s grace is abundantly poured forth into our world, and that benevolence may be lurking almost anywhere. This view is part of the traditional genius of the Catholic incarnational and sacramental imagination. Unlike some other theological dispositions, Catholics don’t necessarily feel the need to seek for God “over, above, around or behind” the mediations of mundane things. Rather, Catholics are inclined, at least in their theology, to attempt the discovery of the holy precisely in and through such things. Such disclosures of grace are never without ambiguity, of course, but they are there to be found nonetheless.

A Catholic college or university already appreciates that a student of science is not merely an observer of physical phenomena but is also a witness to an astonishing cosmic order that has been gifted to us by our Creator. A Catholic institution of learning understands that literature mediates God, as do music, the humanities, art, education, history, sports and so forth. Which raises the question: What is the “Catholic studies” part of the perspective at a Catholic college that corrects for or supplements what is otherwise seen to be lacking or absent from the rest of the enterprise? Might not the very perceived need for such a discrete substudy be cause for a Catholic school to rediscover its mission? What is the difference, for example, between reading great books in the English department of a Catholic university and reading great books in the Catholic studies department? Although I did not teach in the Catholic studies department at my institution, my colleagues who did so seemed unable to answer that question when asked.

A greater conceptual question is at issue too. While it is true that Catholic studies recruitment literature does not claim that the department is in the specific business of teaching and learning theology, this is in fact exactly what students believe is the case, both when they enroll and while they study—at least that was so at the school where I worked. My cursory survey of various other Catholic studies promotional literature from American colleges did little to clear away the fog. Purpose statements and course offerings speak of everything from a curious intentional focus on medieval Catholicism to a concentration on “careers in religion” to “knowledge of the Catholic faith” and to the “church’s contribution” to fundamental doctrine. At least one school grounds Catholic studies in fides quaerens intellectum.

It was not uncommon for me to have students in my theology classroom, undergraduate or graduate, who were formally attached to the Catholic studies department as degree candidates. While they were always welcome and positively enriched the exchange of ideas and perspectives in the class, many of them were not skilled at rigorous theological thinking for their having been engaged in a curriculum of Catholic studies. That ought not to have been a surprise. The problem was in the fact that most of those students would be surprised or even insulted to hear such a thing said about them, because most of them did not understand the difference between academic theology and apologetics. That wasn’t their fault, except insofar as our school had failed them in not articulating the distinction. This is, I believe, where the phenomenon of the Catholic studies department is muddled at Catholic institutions, and it is also where the conceptual problems cross over into ecclesially political ones.

The Political Problem

The designation “Catholic studies department” is, at least in my experience, code for a quite particular theological take on Catholicism, one that stands in some tension with the general ethos of the theology department and thus functions in practice as a foil to it. And while I am loath to use such loaded terms to name the two sides of this tension, it is apparent to me that the so-called “Vatican II (and now Francis) Catholic” students who want to study religion enroll in the theology department degree program, while the so-called “John Paul II Catholic” students go to Catholic studies. Perhaps that would not constitute a problem but for the fact that the students and faculty of both departments understand themselves to be engaged in the study of theology, but with very different credentials and assumptions about what that word means. And rather than pressing for an honest exchange of opinion as to which is the relatively more adequate definition, the blossoming of Catholic studies programs instead has given us a way for the more “John Paul II” students to do “theology” without having to confront the question at all. Is it the purpose of theology to subject the claims of traditional faith to rigorous systematic hermeneutical evaluation? Or is it the purpose of theology to explain why the articulations of certain popes and bishops, and those scholars who agree with them, are already optimally correct? Again, merely to raise this question—which did not seem to be at issue prior to the 1980s—is to wade into treacherous territory. And that is lamentable.

It was clear to me during my days on campus that the Catholic studies program was, relative to the theology department, the greater philanthropic revenue generator for the institution as well as the magnet for conspicuous official ecclesiastical approbation. (After all, every Catholic loves Catholicism, but not all love academic theology.) That seemed to render it unlikely that serious scrutiny would occur, and indeed it did not. Nor would the question about the appropriateness of the very existence of the Catholic studies department be entertained anytime soon.

But perhaps, as reflective communities of thinkers, the administrative leadership in Catholic colleges and universities could endeavor to ask themselves and their boards of overseers just what exactly this is about. To me it seems a self-degrading admission for any Catholic liberal arts institution to have to acknowledge the need for, let alone the advantage of, a Catholic studies degree program to complement that which is otherwise being accomplished. Catholicism is not subject to being compartmentalized or identified with any singular curriculum, at least not in relatively healthy Catholic places of learning. Unless, that is, we are speaking instead of a sectarian or ideological notion of Catholicism, which is a contradiction in terms but which has become quite popular over the course of the past few decades. I hope that the moment is passing away when it is dangerous for a Catholic theologian to speak of it.

Rev. J. Michael Byron is pastor of St. Pascal Baylon parish in St. Paul, Minn., and adjunct associate professor of systematic theology at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary, Collegeville, Minn.


Barbara Sirovatka | 2/6/2016 - 7:23pm

It is ironic that a representative of the theological academy seems so perplexed by the rise of the so-called Catholic studies curriculum. I see it as a beast of their own creation. Its inception in the 1980's was no doubt a response to the pervasive lack of respect for and dismissal of Church history and magisterial teaching in Catholic universities in the 1970's and beyond. Perhaps the "JP II and Benedict" Catholics think it a worthwhile venture to study the teachings of pontiffs who actually participated in Vatican II. Francis is not the sole proprietor of the breezy "spirit" of the Council, as he has well indicated in his writings. Alas, another fabricated division in Catholicism where there need be none.

David Kidd | 2/5/2016 - 8:43pm

I'm having a difficult time grasping the conceptual problem here. As another commenter has pointed out, the "legal studies" analogy trades on a category error: professional schools and universities are rather different animals, and the “Catholic” qualifier in “Catholic university” functions in a different way than “law” does in “law school”. A legal studies department at a law school is an absurdity, but an American studies department at an American university isn’t. Rather, it seems to me that what Rev. Byron calls a "conceptual problem" is simply an objection to the very idea of an interdisciplinary department. I think something interesting could be written about whether interdisciplinary departments make sense, but the idea is hardly self-refuting.

Rev. Byron’s suggestion that Catholic Studies departments are nothing more than counterfeit theology departments in which incompetent, inadequately-credentialed, sectarian, “John Paul II Catholic” ideologues play at theological study while indulging in narcissistic adulation of their favorite “popes and bishops, and those scholars who agree with them,” is much more interesting. The evidence for such scandalous claims must be very compelling indeed. I only wish he’d share some of it.

Rebecca Krier | 2/2/2016 - 5:27pm

I agree with the overall point here, but I don't think the analogy with professional schools works: offering "legal studies" in a law school would be silly, but "Catholic studies" in a Catholic university does not transfer. Yes, the Catholic ethos of an educational institution should imbue the study of every discipline, but that is different than saying that in a Catholic university you study "Catholic economics," "Catholic mathematics," etc. To this end, one can make a case that "Catholic studies" can justify its distinct existence alongside other disciplines. I think the stronger point here is that Catholic studies promotes the "sectarian or ideological notion of Catholicism."

William Rydberg | 1/31/2016 - 1:20am

You must love Land O Lakes...

For those interested in how we got where we are today, considering that the foundation of most of the Catholic Colleges were sourced through the nickels and dimes of hard working Catholics.

It was about academic freedom, institutional autonomy and Catholic presence, and has never been adequately debated in my opinion to this day...

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