Catholic Theological Society of America: Theologians Unbound

For an organization committed to a greater “openness” in the Church, the Catholic Theological Society of America is remarkably closemouthed about its membership. At this year’s annual convention the press guesstimated the membership at 1200 to 1500 members, but the board of directors would not release definitive numbers or numerical breakdowns, blaming a faulty database. After the convention, I asked a generous graduate student couple to analyze the numerical information from the 1996 CTSA Directory. The following profile emerges from their work, as well as studies I have conducted on the 1996 Directory with Bibliographic Profiles.

Of the 1511 members, 1454 are listed with academic degrees. Of these about eighty percent have degrees from Catholic institutions, but the trend is toward degrees from non-Catholic programs. Taking the new members joining in each decade, from its founding in 1946 through the ’60s, there were only a few new members receiving a terminal degree from Protestant or state institutions. In the ’70s the number jumped to nearly twenty-four percent; in the ’80s the number reached twenty-five percent. With figures in for only the first half of the ’90s, the trend does not seem to be reversing. The deans of the divinity schools at Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Vanderbilt, Emory, and others would confirm that no student could be given a formation in Catholic theology in their programs, instead insisting on the strictly “nondenominational” character of their programs. Students can take some courses dealing with this or that Catholic theologian, but there is no sustained formation in any Church-related theological tradition. In this sense the “nondenominational university-related divinity schools”— as they are sometimes called—are certainly carrying on a tradition oriented toward liberal Protestantism.

Moreover, it is evident that CTSA members with non-Catholic degrees are disproportionately hired at Catholic universities that have doctoral programs in theology. At both Notre Dame and Boston College, for example, more than half of the theology faculty received their doctoral degrees from non-Catholic programs. Thus, a study of the graduate theological programs at most Catholic universities would not reveal great differences with those at Protestant divinity schools. There is no doctoral program in North America with a rigorous ratio studiorum that offers an integral formation in the doctrinal and theoretical traditions of Catholic teaching. Few if any candidates applying to such a doctoral program would have the linguistic and philosophical prerequisites for such a course of study, given the present state of M.A. and S.T.L. programs in North America.

More than eighty percent of the 1385 dissertation titles in the 1996 CTSA focus on thelogians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Among the twentieth-century Catholic theologians, studies on Karl Rahner exceed those on Bernard Lonergan, Edward Schillebeeckx, Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, M. D. Chenu, and Henri de Lubac put together. There are more studies on Paul Ricoeur and Paul Tillich, than on Marcel, Gilson, Maritain, and Congar put together. There are more studies listed of Barth than of Balthasar; more on the Reformation than on the Council of Trent. More members list themselves as students of process theology than of Thomism; more listings cite Wolfhart Pannenberg than Ignatius of Loyola; more are concerned with human or civil rights than natural law. There are more listings on feminism and women’s studies than on Christology or the Trinity; many more on spirituality (over 400) than on the Holy Spirit (fewer than forty). Themes associated with liberation or world religions far outweigh those dealing with the priesthood or the Magisterium.

This profile is admittedly preliminary. But it does raise serious questions about the Catholic character of the graduate programs in which Catholic theologians are being trained. The CTSA should undertake a serious and detailed self-study. How many of its members can read Greek and Latin? How many members have had a serious formation in classical, medieval, and modern philosophy? How many of its members have an adequate formation in Catholic theological traditions? For example, how many have studied monastic and patristic theologians, medieval and counter-reformation theologians? How many members know the differences between Catholic and Protestant theological and doctrinal traditions? Indeed, how many of its members have studied the new Catechism of the Catholic Church? These are not antiecumenical questions. One of the major concerns of ecumenically engaged theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, is the need for the coming generation of theologians to know their own ecclesial traditions well.

Few are confident that the CTSA will, in the near term, undertake such a serious self-study. Rather, its present leadership seems bent upon protesting Vatican authority. Of the past ten elected presidents of the CTSA, five have their doctoral degrees from non-Catholic programs. Professor Stanley Hauerwas once observed how doctoral students, after going through the rigors of their degree studies, exams, and dissertations, might well have a stronger affective identification with their alma mater than with their church. Be that as it may, I recall a colleague attending his first CTSA meeting a few years ago. After introducing himself to many members over the course of several days, he told me just before the business meeting, “It makes me nervous that so many laypeople I met do not have children, and so many priests are without parishes. Do they have a real apprehension, in Newman’s sense, of the responsibilities of handing on the faith?” Once asked what he thought of American Catholics, Conor Cruise O’Brien quipped, “They’re Protestants who go to Mass.” Facile as that is, some wonder just how genuinely Catholic the CTSA is, as it continues to protest Roman Catholic Church authorities, and elects to its leadership members who make no secret of their dissent from authoritative Church teachings.

Matthew L. Lamb


Fr. Matthew L. Lamb is professor of theology and the chair of the Theology Department at Ave Maria University. He previously taught for many years at Boston College and, before that, Marquette University.