What’s a Theology Department For?

Theology should be at the heart of any Catholic university

Aerial view of Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia
Aerial view of Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia (photo: Duane Lempke / Wikimedia Commons / CC0)

Marymount University is a Catholic institution of higher education in Arlington, Virginia, founded in 1950 by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. It currently claims to enroll about 3,900 undergraduate and graduate students.

On Feb. 17 “Arlington Now,” a local media outlet, published parts of a letter from university president Irma Becerra announcing Marymount would axe eight undergraduate and two graduate majors. The undergraduate casualties include a B.A. in theology and religious studies and in philosophy.

The “Arlington Now” article claimed the university was cutting these mostly liberal arts programs because of low enrollments, allowing resources to be reallocated to more popular programs. It said that seven of the liberal arts programs on the chopping block together enrolled 91 students.

The article goes on to discuss the merits of liberal arts studies as preparing flexible graduates for changing job markets, in contrast to more immediately vocationally-directed majors. While I have sympathy for that argument, I want to raise one that “Arlington Now” didn’t explore.

How does a Catholic university call itself “Catholic” if its theology and philosophy offerings are de minimis? (If you have problems with that phrase, it shows you need some classic liberal arts classes.)

The statement say nothing about the future of the 18-credit minor in theology/religious studies at Marymount but, if Marymount eliminates its theology and philosophy degree programs, its claim to Catholic fame will largely be requiring nine credits — six in theology and three in philosophy — to meet undergraduate general education requirements. (In my experience, minors that don’t lead to majors generally don’t have futures.)

Those six theology credits can be introductions to philosophy and generic Christian theology; the “depth” theology course can be a world religions overview. President Becerra told “Arlington Now” that this coursework “is central to our mission and identity as a Catholic university.” 

The University of South Dakota in Vermillion offers a minor in religious studies. If a student takes its “World Religions” course and either its offering in “Early Church” or designs an independent study in “Christian theology,” then adds Intro to Philosophy, he would have essentially the equivalent of the “Faith and Reason” component of Marymount’s Liberal Arts Core. Does that make the University of South Dakota a “Catholic” university? (Maybe an “anonymous Catholic” university for those Rahnerians lurking around?)

If not, why not? The subject matter is essentially what Marymount considers adequate for its graduates as a Catholic university. South Dakota in fact would theoretically have on offer a religion curriculum equal to (if the minor survives) if not more robust than Marymount.

We have reached the point of ludicrousness that a “Catholic” university, apparently without compunction about truth-in-advertising, portrays itself as part of the Church’s ecclesial patrimony while offering minimal theological education. St. John Henry Newman would be turning over in his grave.

A Catholic theology department in a Catholic university is not just another “cost center” that simply needs to justify its existence by tuition dollars. Let’s be honest: if that’s the criterion, then those six credits in “something” religion are largely window dressing to sustain the “Catholic” appearance of an institution. 

But the presence of Catholic theology in a Catholic university is not — or at least should not be — primarily about generating per capita credit hours. In a 1968 article, “Uniwersytet katolicki: koncepcja i zadania” (“The Catholic University: Its Concept and Tasks”), Karol Wojtyła described the uniqueness of a Catholic university as the lens by which it looks at the human person. For a Catholic university, teaching and research is not merely about some subset of knowledge, like health care or psychology or business or computer science. It’s about a vision of the human person and his destiny, which is beyond this world and beyond the limited confines of specific branches of knowledge, whom that knowledge serves. 

Marymount cannot (or at least should not) teach nursing, biology or biomedical engineering the same way South Dakota does, because it ought to have a vision of the human person, human dignity and human integrity that is informed by its Catholic vision. It cannot teach business or economics the way a Chicago does, because it ought to see the human person as more than a consumer. It cannot teach psychology like any secular school, because it ought to see human wholeness and health as inextricably intertwined with spiritual health. 

How does one do that if theology is present in the curriculum primarily to meet an underclassman’s core requirements? “Primarily” is an honest categorization, because that is likely to be the primary workload of a department bereft of a major, even if it keeps a terminal minor. And let’s be honest: if you are eliminating a major, do you really intend to maintain current staffing levels, given that the biggest cost factor in most programs is personnel? (Marymount’s website currently shows three full-time theology faculty.)

How do you maintain an institution-wide conversation about the Catholic identity of the whole curriculum in all its parts if your theology faculty is pruned primarily to meet minimum general education teaching requirements?

I am not naïve enough to believe this is how administrators or even faculty across the curriculum — even in theology and philosophy departments — at Catholic universities in the United States see things. I understand that most typically see academic “units” as revenue generators and that many faculty — including in those theology and philosophy departments — want to keep the Church at arm’s length from their “academic theology.” It seems to me that the dirty little secret is generally between administrators that are more overt about their bottom-line considerations versus those who, out of sentiment, fear of alumni or ecclesial backlash, and/or perhaps even a visceral sense of what Catholic education should look like, realize that the presence of Catholic theology in their curriculum is not going to be a money-producer but, nevertheless, is a vital and indispensably central part of the school’s identity.

Marymount’s statement talks about needing “constantly [to] redefine our offerings and approach” in order to “reallocate resources from those programs to other that better serve our students and reflect their interests.” I’d suggest a Catholic university has — or should have — certain bottom lines about what “serves students” that are independent of whether they reflect today’s student enrollment interests, and that theology is at their heart.

Marymount insists its closures are not “financially driven,” though in the same sentence it declares the resources saved will be “redeploy[ed] … to better serve students and areas of growth.” Sorry, but I don’t see theology program shunted into merely serving a core curriculum better service of students seeking an education from a Catholic university.