The Theological Calling: Professional Illiteracy

In a recent address, Fr. William Byron, president of the Catholic University of America, was reported as saying that “Theology professors must explain and not proclaim the faith.” In his desire to distinguish catechesis from theology, he noted that university-level theology should “presuppose an earlier proclamation of the faith.”

In our present situation the distinction between explanation, provided by the Academy, and proclamation, provided by the Church, is not so neat. I agree that a theology professor grades neither the level of students’ faith nor the degree of their piety. Nonetheless, theologians cannot divorce themselves from the ministry and responsibility they have assumed to pass on the faith of the Church.

What could be more idyllic than a classroom full of young Catholics who are well catechized and familiar with the fundamentals of the faith? Perhaps this situation exists among Catholic University students, though I have my doubts.

Every college professor I know laments precisely that we cannot presuppose any such fundamental catechesis among today’s freshmen. Long gone are the 1950s, when Catholic students arrived at university ready to plunge directly into the Summa. Often a young Catholic’s first systematic encounter with the faith is in the college classroom.

Teaching theologians cannot ignore this. However unwillingly, instructors must come down from their ivory towers and accept their students’ unpreparedness. Like all teachers, theologians seek to remedy ignorance—in this case, ignorance of the Catholic faith. To attempt theological explanation without assurance of a previous living proclamation turns theology into a branch of “religious studies.”

No discipline advances to the critical stage without the necessary introduction. In theology, this introduction must be the lived faith of the believing community. Consequently, it is the responsibility of the Catholic university to provide this essential instruction, an instruction which is necessarily proclamation.

As in any subject, such “traditioning” is best realized by those who both believe and live what they teach. Unlike their colleagues in religious studies or sociology of religion, Catholic theologians take as their point of departure the mind of the Church. With their rigorous method, they do more than explain the faith. They proclaim it by their disciplined inquiry, their zeal for the truth, and their love for Christ and his Body. Another disturbing observation of Fr. Byron is his suggestion that if the local bishop “is seen by the courts to be extrinsic to the college… there could be trouble.” The president of CUA wants to warn us about the possibly negative consequences of episcopal oversight of theology. Keeping the bishops out of the Academy, he seems to say, is the only responsible thing to do if we are to preserve Catholic higher education at all.

Two issues are at stake here. First, neither the bishops nor the pope are at all “extrinsic” to the study of theology. Theologians depend upon the magisterium as the very condition of the possibility of doing theology. The “mind of the Church,” which theologians examine, is authoritatively determined and passed on by the successors of the apostles. Without the magisterium, theologians would have no content to study!

The bishops, as John Paul II reminded us at Xavier University in 1987, “should not be seen as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic university.” Not only is the bishops’ teaching itself vital to theology, so also is their concern for its authentic transmission to others.

Second, Catholic colleges must overcome their apologetic stance with respect to accrediting agencies and the federal government. Religiously affiliated colleges are not in danger of losing accreditation or federal aid for being subject to the control of their sponsoring bodies. Indeed, the American system of higher education specifically allows for an effective measure of “institutional control” by religious or other sponsoring bodies. The bishops’ role as guardians of the Revelation is intrinsic to the method of theology itself. To suggest otherwise is to reduce theology to a study about religion. Catholic colleges need not, indeed should not, abandon their commitment to faith—the Church’s faith—which seeks ever greater understanding.


  • Rev. J. Michael Miller

    John Michael Miller, CSB (born 1946) is a Canadian prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. He is currently Archbishop of Vancouver and its 475,000 Catholics. Miller, who prefers to be known as J. Michael Miller, succeeded to this post in January 2009, after serving as Coadjutor Archbishop from June 1, 2007.

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