09 January 2009

Why do Catholic theologians dissent?

A note expanding on my post below about Fr. Roger Haight's difficulties with the Vatican.

I get asked a lot why Catholic theologians seem to stray into heresy so often. There are many, many reasons for this--adolescent attention-seeking, need for approval from the secular culture, embarrassment over the Church's use of dogmatic language and authority--but one thing I've never posted about is how the university system pushes academics to the edges and keeps them there.

What most normal people (i.e., non-academics) don't know about the academic world is how professors are hired, promoted and tenured. Every university has an elaborate system detailing every step in a professor's career, from the day he/she applies for a job to the day he/she is retired.

In this description I will have to stick to the liberal arts b/c I know nothing about how the natural sciences, business, medicine, etc. run their shows. I know the lib arts. Here's how it goes:

The theology department needs a new professor to teach systematic theology. The chair of the department informs the dean of the college who then approves (or not) the request to hire a new professor. If approved, the department, using incredibly narrow university guidelines, advertises the position in relevant academic journals. Most ads will lay out the necessary academic qualifications for the position (Ph.D. "in hand" or A.B.D, "all but dissertation") and list teaching and researching requirements. Applicants flood the department's hiring committee. This committee vetts the applications for compatibility and picks several applicants to interview. For the most part and at this point in the process, the committee members are looking for someone they believe will "fit with" the department and at the same time add something different to the mix. Successful interviewees are invited to campus to give a public lecture and meet the deans. Eventually, one of the applicants is hired.

Once hired, the new professor (usually an "assistant professor") begins teaching courses in his/her field. Along with the teaching is the universal requirement to "contribute original research to the field." This means lots of research, lots of writing, lots of publication. Initially, the new professor will begin revising his/her dissertation for publication. Good start. But it's not enough for promotion to "associate professor." For that, the new guy will need to keep a good teaching record, a solid history of service to the univeristy (usually committee drugery), and publish new research. Make no mistake, in most of the U.S.'s research universities, publishing and getting grant money is ALL that really matters when it comes to promotion and tenure. Teaching is something grad students and lazy researchers are expected to do.

It's the "publishing new research" that often lands our Catholic theologians in hot water with the magisterium. Why? In order to progress with an academic career, a professor has to publish books and articles. To get books and articles published, his/her research has to make an "original contribution;" that is, a junior theologian will go no where fast in his/her career if he/she simply articulates and defends already well-estabished theological research. It's got to be new. Who decides what counts as "new"? Research up for publication is peer-reviewed by other academics in the same field. Anonymous reviewers critique the work for originality, reliability, etc. Of late, it has become standard operating procedure in some lib arts fields to critique new research on purely ideological grounds, i.e. "does this manuscript support the oppression of women, minorities, etc. or does it promote diversity, difference, etc.?" Do not imagine for one second that Harvard University Press will be publishing a book any time soon that harshly critiques the field of "women's studies" or one that strongly defends Catholic theological orthodoxy.

Here's where the real trouble starts: if your contribution has to be new, then it follows that you cannot rely too heavily on what has already been done. Older theologies are based on well-established methodologies and certain well-respected texts and authors. To be new and improved, you have to either ignore these, find sources outside your field (psychology, philosophy, etc.), or invent your own. In orthodox Catholic theology, you never totally depart from what has already been done. You can improve arguments; dig up new evidence supporting the Church; sharpen distinctions and clarify differing opinions; you can even ask hard questions that the magisterium ignores or dismisses; but inventing new theologies is out of the question. . .if by "new theologies" we mean writing against the magisterium of the Church.

If you manage to research, write, and publish a new theology or a significant challenge to orthodoxy, you will likely be rewarded by the university with a promotion, tenure, or both. If you are really good at this sort of thing, you might win an endowed chair of some sort and never have to teach again. If you are the best at this sort of whole-clothe invention of theological novelty, you will be called to the Vatican for a spanking.

So, some of the blame for Catholic theologians who stray from the faith can be reasonably laid at the feet of American academic culture. Universities thrive on novelty, edginess, rebellion, and academic star power. They pay for it, reward it with prestige, and encourage it for P.R. purposes. Why do you think that every time the Vatican slaps a theologian on the wrist, the Catholic professorial world screams bloody murder about "academic freedom"? What they know is that if the Vatican too closely monitors their work and calls them on their errors, they may lose power and funds in the world that matters most to them: their department and the university's tenure committee.

What's interesting is that Today's Cutting Edge Research is tomorrow's Old Hat. We are already starting to see in academic theology in the U.S. younger theologians throwing off their feminist/Marxist oppressors and liberating themselves by researching and defending Catholic orthodoxy. However, because the dissenters still control the purse strings in the department and the hiring/promotion/tenure process in the university, these orthodox theologians do not get hired at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Notre Dame, etc. And given the rise and proliferation of smaller Catholic universities dedicated to the tradition, who cares if the moldy Ivy Leagues schools look askance at their orthodoxy?

But it's only a matter of time before the next generation steps up. . .let's pray they don't mess it up.


  1. Great post!

    The articles in the theological journals published by Harvard, Princeton, etc, always strike me as being "old hat". The authors are doubtless regarded as "radical", but it's yesterday's radicalism.

    Compare that with a journal like "Nova et Vetera" published out of Ave Maria University. The articles are genuinely original and creative - even cutting-edge - but fidelity to Church teaching is presupposed, and originality is never at the expense of orthodoxy.

    By the way, what you say applies to academic theology in the UK every bit as much as it applies to the situation in the US.

  2. do you see a difference with public universities vs private ones?

    is there any good to be gained from exploring dissenting idealolgies...I mean the profs exploring them in research..

  3. Mom,

    The only difference I know of btw public and private schools is that private school who do not accept federal money are much freer in their hiring practices than are public schools.

    Yes, there is much to be gained from reading dissenting opinions. I taught a whole seminar at UD using nothing but atheist philosophers and postmodern theologians. Our students would have never been prepared for life in grad school otherwise...what I mean is, they would be required to read these thinkers w/o the benefit of the space to read them through orthodox eyes. What a surprise these guys are for the unprepared.

  4. What you're saying here is exactly what one of my professors said a year ago when we had asked this same question.

    We asked how any of them, our profs, had managed to remain orthodox given the culture of dissent, and we of coruse, further question how they've managed to become prestigious in that same culture. But the tide is turning, if slowly.

    One of our profs discussed how it was done in the time of Aquinas, and things we should go back to that. I can't remember the specifics, but if I do remember correctly, they had to basically memorize Contra Gentiles? Or at least that was written in response to that?

    Actually, I'm sure you know what I'm talking about better than I...would you be able to write a post on that when you get a chance? I'm sure a lot of people would find it very interesting.

  5. Adoro,

    In Aquinas' day what mattered was good teaching. They published, but what was published were their lectures and their answers during the public debates.

    Good idea for a post!

  6. Anonymous10:19 AM

    Is that also true for seminary professors? I sure hope that at least in such an environment the Church have a better mechanism...

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  8. Augustine,

    Typically, diocesan seminaries are directly responsible to the bishop. So, depending on the bishop...

    Now, so-called "schools of theology" that take seminarians as students are a different matter b/c these are usually run by religious orders and exercise a lot more freedom. You will find dissenting profs in these babies.

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  10. Anonymous12:13 PM

    That is sad.
    I suppose, if one were to have their dissertation on what you described, it could cause a very BIG spark.

  11. "Do not imagine for one second that Harvard University Press will be publishing a book any time soon that harshly critiques the field of "women's studies" or one that strongly defends Catholic theological orthodoxy."

    No! Really?

  12. Anonymous12:15 AM

    I went to Harvard. I enjoyed the program there a great deal. Your group seems to revel in the uniformity of shared thought. There's nothing wrong with that. However, it begins to be a bit stale at times.

    It's all right to put one's intellect to the test occasionally — if only to see what the Others are up to. It might test your mettle. Or not. There seems to be a sanctimonious element at times in the repetition of thought and intellectual mire. Why not imagine maybe ONE more place on the planet where valuable discourse is taking place. If not Harvard, somewhere?

    I found Harvard to be delightful and interesting.

    And your school? Say more.

  13. Bah! This is so frustrating for those of us who are looking for orthodox teaching!

    There's a professor at my university. Scripture 'scholar', of the modern sort. She was up for tenure last year. She's known for marking students down for referring to God as "he", teaching that Jesus had no knowledge of his divinity, didn't know what he was doing at the Last Supper, women priests, etc etc.

    The president denied her tenure. And then the entire department threatened to quit. So she got tenure.

    How do we get them out? They're the ones in charge of hiring new people, and they despise any sort of orthodoxy.

  14. Kayla, all I can say...the ninnies had better thank whatever god they worship that I'm not their univ president...I would have taken that adolescent threat as a promise and let them quit...then I would have started from scratch and hired an orthodox dept.

  15. Oh, the resolution will come with what Fr. Z. refers to as the "biological solution"...

  16. I should also add that if I were offered a chance to study at Harvard, Yale, etc. I would take it in a heartbeat. Why? These schools have almost as much money as the Jebbies...money for grad study is plentiful. Also, the libraries are amazing. However, I'd rather go back to Oxford...but there's no money for non-EU residents. I'd have to become a subject of Her Majesty, the Queen...maybe, maybe...

  17. Anon,

    I'm very tempted to read your post as slightly condescending but I'll refrain...

    "Your group seems to revel in the uniformity of thought." You are suggesting that there's a diversity of theologian opinion in the Harvard Divinity School? Anyone there oppose female clergy, same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception, embryonic genetic research; anyone there support papal authority, all-male clergy, clerical celibacy, pro-life movement? There is quite a lot of "uniformity of thought" among the liberals. And they use cmte appts, purse strings, tenure reviews, and publishing rights to enforce their own brand of dogmatic orthodoxy.

    My point is not that orthodoxy can't stand diversity. Can anyone who's read Gregory of Nyssa and Aquinas, or St Catherine of Siena and Edith Stein, claim that orthodoxy is "stale" or limiting.

    My problem with most academic theology is that it begins with an idolatrous worship of novelty and opposition to the tradition. Strong, very strong pressure is brought to bear on young theologians who attempt to research and write within the tradition (the longer tradition of the Church, not the nascent tradition of dissident Catholicism). The real idol here, of course, is the idol of intellectual snobbery and sneering condescension. How many times have I been told not to bother with the pontifical universities in Rome b/c they are not "prestigious." Classism and snobbery.

    I've noted before that I taught a course last year at the Univ of Dallas called "postmetaphysical theologies." We started by taking Nietzsche and Heidegger seriously and kept going right on through the deconstructionists, the post-liberals, the radical orthodox folks, the God is Dead group, right up to and including Marion. U.D. is as orthodox a dept of theology you will find. They think the CDF is dodgy! My course was approved and applauded by the dept as a legitimate exploration of thought about God. No objections whatsoever. Now, let's see how the faculties of the Elite Few would react to me offering a course on Thomistic metaphysics as a defense of the magisterium. Such a course, in their minds, would likely appear to be something akin to offering a course in medicine based on Galen's tetxs.

    I'm not arguing here that Harvard, Yale, etc. are bad schools for Catholics...we have several Harvard grads here at the Angelicum...but the search for someone in these places willing to supervise a dissertation on a Catholic topic that holds to orthodox teaching would be arduous.

    Briefly put, my point is that orthodox theologies is the truly diverse theology of the academic world. In my long experience, it's the dissenters who beat up the believers with the dogmas of feminism, Marxism, etc.

    Which school of mine do you mean? Aquinas Institute, the Angelicum, or Oxford University?

  18. Anonymous12:07 PM

    Didn't get tenure, eh?

  19. Anon.,

    Thanks for confirming my earlier suspicions that you were being condescending...and for confirming my charge about snobbery.

    No, I didn't get tenure. But, then again, I've never applied for tenure b/c I've never applied for a full-time academic job.

    All of my experiences with abusive left-wing fascists in the academy happened when I was grad student and couldn't fight back w/o fearing for my future.

    So, any more snotty (and false) accusatios?

  20. Father,

    I wish they would've let 'em quit. A new, orthodox faculty would be more than welcome. The rest of the University is geting the Catholic identity on the right track, but the Theology department is lagging behind a great deal.

    Part of the reason I've switched to a philosophy major. I'll try and do better choosing schools that have good theology when/if I go on for my masters.

  21. Kayla,

    Philosophy is the traditional prep major for theology anyway...good choice!

    Let me know where you are thinking of going to grad school...I might know someone who knows someone...my email is in the sidebar.

  22. Anonymous12:34 PM

    Fr. P,

    Why are schools run by religious orders more likely to dissent? Shouldn't it be the opposite?

    May St. John the Baptist pray for us.

  23. Anonymous2:47 PM

    Fr. Philip,I decided not to post on any of the liberal websites any more as I was told that I was barely literate and that I needed to go back and learn the Catholic Faith because I was orthdox.


  24. Fr. P.,

    One thing that happens, at least on the SJ end of things is that many of them misread the "frontiers of theology" thing. Yes, it is important -- even vital! -- to go to the frontiers...but not so much that by doing so one "goes native."

    As Fr. Vincent Miceli, SJ once wrote:

    Truth is the highest object of theology and philosophy. Unfortunately, it is not always the highest object of theologians and philosophers.


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  26. Augustine,

    There are several factors, I think...

    Since Vatican Two, episcopal oversight of religious orders has been extremely lax. This is more about the ever-elusive "Spirit of Vatican Two" haunting our chancery offices than anything else.

    Also, religious schools operate more as extensions of the monastery or the priory, and these are always more democratic in nature than the diocesan seminaries.

    Think about it: if you and your dept chair are both OSB's living in the same monastery, the chances of your chair calling you out for dissent are much lower. Why? He has to live with you for the rest of his life. Not only that, you might be his abbot one day!

    Also, religious schools are often dominated by sisters whose politics get in the way of their orthodoxy. Bishops can bounce these sisters from their seminaries, but if you are the OP prez of an OP school, chances are you are not going to bounce OP sisters.

  27. Anonymous10:08 AM

    Fr. P,

    Any sign of change in the orthodoxy in religious seminaries, particularly those orders being blessed with many vocations or are the orders which run such seminaries aging to nonexistence?

  28. Augustine, yes, there are signs everywhere!

    Google "CTSA" and "younger generation" and you will likely find a story by John Allen reporting on the seismic shift in this group's ideological commitments.

    The younger generation is bored with Dinosaur Dissent.

  29. Anonymous11:25 PM

    Aspiring said Tne intense and relentless challenge in that world, to fidelity to the Church, does produce a few outstanding and incomparable champions of the faith - strengthened for having faced those challenges. Question. How does such advantage weigh in against the disadvantages of the masses who are vulnerable against those same challenges?

    This is my concern. I am not an academic, just someone who occupies a pew, and I worry that the lecturers in so called Catholic institutions steal the Faith from the young who, coming from Catholic high schools are badly under catechised. A course such as the one you taught is just what is needed if formation has been solid but these days that can't be guaranteed. What can be done about these dissenting lecturers?