WASHINGTON — In an effort to make Catholic universities a fulcrum of the New Evangelization, the U.S. bishops’ Doctrine Committee will meet with theological societies in Washington to address impediments to fruitful collaboration and clarify the need for effective catechesis.

On March 16, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit and Bishop John Barres of Allentown, Pa., will address members of U.S. theological societies at a closed-door meeting at The Catholic University of America.

“The goals of the meeting include developing relationships among the academic societies and with U.S. bishops and exploring current theological issues,” read a statement attributed to Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and released March 7 by the conference.

The one-day conference features three separate presentations by a member of the Doctrine Committee followed by responses from theologians. 

Archbishop Lori will address “the relationship between catechesis and theology in a university setting in light of the New Evangelization,” according to the USCCB press release. The respondent will be Aurelie Hangstrom of Providence College, representing the Catholic Theological Society of America.

Bishop Barres will consider “the role of a Catholic university or college in the promotion of the New Evangelization.” The respondent will be Brian Benestad of the University of Scranton, representing the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.

Archbishop Vigneron will address “the intellectual, theological and moral needs of contemporary undergraduates in the age of the New Evangelization,” and the respondents will be James Keating of Providence College, representing the Academy of Catholic Theology, and Sandra Yocum of the University of Dayton, representing the College Theology Society.

The meeting signals the U.S. bishops’ hope that Catholic theologians can help address the intellectual, moral and spiritual challenges to the faith that lead many Catholic college graduates to drift away from the Church under the thrall of an aggressively secular culture.

Further, the discussion marks an ongoing dialogue between Church leaders and scholars regarding the proper role of Catholic theologians, some of whom routinely critique key elements of Church teaching in undergraduate classes.


Appropriate Time

“It is a really good time to be doing something like this, as Benedict will be known for his emphasis on the New Evangelization and his constant stress on the compatibility of faith and reason,” said John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, who is leading a campus-wide effort to deepen the institution’s religious identity.

“There has been a tendency among some academics to make theology a professional discipline that doesn’t have much to do with people’s faith and … has no bearing on the way we raise our families or our reception of the sacraments,” Garvey told the Register.

“In fact, the work of theologians is connected with evangelization, and it is a good thing to have theologians and bishops come together, because they are both doing the work of the Church.”

He stressed that the meeting did not reflect an effort “to rein in speculation and make departments more orthodox. Rather, it is a way to help theologians engage in the practice of evangelization.”

The gathering will include members of The Catholic Theological Society of America, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, Academy of Catholic Theology, College Theology Society, Black Catholic Theological Symposium, the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the U.S. and  the USCCB Doctrine Committee.


New Evangelization Partners

Auxiliary Bishop Arthur Kennedy of Boston, a theologian who presently serves as the archdiocese’s vicar of the New Evangelization, welcomed an initiative that would bring together different theological societies and “schools” to address long-standing issues within their academic disciplines.

“It’s the Church inviting theologians to be in dialogue with one another about how they understand their professional work in relationship to their own faith,” Bishop Kennedy said in a Register interview.

He suggested that the meeting was inspired, at least in part, by the 1990 "Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian," issued by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

That instruction concluded with the CDF prefect, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, inviting bishops “to maintain and develop relations of trust with theologians in the fellowship of charity and in the realization that they share one spirit in their acceptance and service of the word.”

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, who holds the Archbishop Harry Flynn Chair of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., said it was urgent that Catholic theologians bring the New Evangelization into their classrooms.

“In their call for the New Evangelization, both Blessed John Paul II and Benedict reminded us that this is an all-hands-on-deck exercise: We need every part of the Church involved,” said Msgr. Swetland.

He noted that some theologians engaged in speculative work do not view catechesis as their primary mission, yet most undergraduates lack a basic education in the faith when they arrive on campus. 

“Everybody who teaches theology at the university level realizes that we are often dealing with remedial work,” he said.


A Theologian’s Task

The simmering debate over the proper role of theologians has fueled tensions between university scholars and Church leaders. In 2011, the USCCB Doctrine Committee made headlines when it publicly criticized a book widely used in undergraduate theology classes, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, written by St. Joseph Sister Elizabeth Johnson.

Sister Johnson was the former president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society, and her many allies in the academy attacked the USCCB committee, in part, for allegedly acting on a mistaken view of a theologian’s professional obligations.

Subsequently, in an article in the Jesuit publication America, “Beyond Catechesis,” Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler of Creighton University argued that the USCCB committee articulated an overly “narrow” view of the task of the theologian, reducing the “theological task of the theologian to catechesis.”

“Beyond Catechesis” prompted a flurry of responses, including one from Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who expressed the hope that “Catholic campuses all over the nation can be centers for the New Evangelization, providing, in communion with the local bishop, the reasoned exposition of the truth of the Church’s teaching.”

During a March 7 interview, Creighton’s Todd Salzman told the Register that he viewed the upcoming meeting as a “positive” step, but he expressed some caution regarding the USCCB committee’s overall goals.

“There is definitely a need for catechesis. No one would deny that. The question is: Who is primarily responsible for catechizing the faithful?” asked Salzman.

“Theology includes catechesis. You represent what the Church teaches fairly and accurately, and then engage in a process of critical reflection.

“That process can lead to a deeper appreciation and integration of what the Church teaches, but on other issues, like artificial contraception, it can lead to questioning the arguments used to justify that teaching.”

While Salzman suggested that the New Evangelization “is more in line with the goals and objectives of catechesis,” the March 16 meeting will examine the role of theologians in relation to New Evangelization by drawing from various theological schools and a range of viewpoints.


Listen and Learn

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a group that seeks to strengthen the religious identity and theological departments at Catholic universities, suggested that the USCCB meeting was designed to set aside doctrinal disputes and simply remind theologians that the Church needs their help.

“The agenda does not directly tackle points of common dissent among college theologians, so I wouldn’t expect much debate about doctrine,” said Reilly. 

“Instead, the topics seem intended to remind theologians about their proper and productive role in Catholic education. This is greatly needed, and I pray that the theologians come prepared to listen.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.