'In Theology, Objectivity is a Coin with Two Sides'

The widespread establishment of theology departments and graduate programs in theology by Catholic universities since the mid-1960s has carried with it some negative consequences, according to a prominent Jesuit theologian.

Jesuit Father Joseph Lienhard, professor of theology at Fordham University in New York City, made the remarks in a wide-ranging interview with the Register on the history of Catholic theology programs in America and the current state of affairs.

According to Father Lienhard, unlike European universities in which theology has historically been one of the four major faculties (the others are philosophy, medicine, and law), the much younger American Catholic universities did not always have such a formal program.

Students were given religious instruction as part of their education, but up until about the time of Vatican II, few American Catholic universities had departments of theology. Religion courses, mainly in catechism and apologetics, were taught primarily by priests and religious who often did not have any particular training in it.

In the years that followed, however, the change was rapid, partly as a result of the postconciliar changes that swept the Church.

“To my knowledge the Council didn't mandate it, but with growing awareness of reflection on things Catholic, I suspect religion teaching was seen as not meeting the intellectual needs of the students or not presenting Catholicism in perhaps as intellectually rigorous a fashion as one might expect,” Father Lienhard said.

As the new departments were founded, and faculty with academic training in theology were hired, “it raised the whole level of teaching of religion,” to that of the other departments in the university, he said. At the same time, graduate programs, especially doctoral programs, were begun at several universities.

Today, five Catholic universities in the United States offer a full range of doctoral studies in theology: Fordham, Boston College, Marquette University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame.

“This meant that for the first time, lay people—including women—could get doctorates in theology,” Father Lienhard said. “Before that, it was restricted to clergy for the most part. It was a very small beginning, they were feeling their way.”

‘Professionalism’: Pros & Cons

However, the rapid development of the theology programs brought changes that were not always completely positive, Father Lienhard said.

“I'm not sure people saw it at the time but certain consequences have followed [the establishment of theology departments and granting of graduate degrees],” he said. “Departments of theology have become ‘professional,’ and I use that term with quotation marks; it has strengths and weaknesses. Faculty sometimes want to insist on the objectivity of their teachings, in a way seeing themselves as teaching as objectively as the faculty in physics or mathematics. Whereas in theology, that objectivity is a coin with two sides. If you define theology as faith seeking understanding, then theology will have an element, namely faith, that physics or mathematics at least on the surface doesn't seem to have.…”

“Moreover, the faculty in theology have now been fitted into the process of tenure and promotion—namely publication, peer review, professional societies, and so on. Again this has resulted in some strengths and other weaknesses. Furthermore, especially with the decline in the number of priests and religious, the faculty is, in most places, a majority of lay people.… This is not to say that every priest and religious are totally committed and every lay person is not. That would be simply wrong. But this is moving away from an ecclesiastical atmosphere into something that is a bit different.”

Another unfortunate, though understandable, development has been that many doctoral programs founded recently in the United States were not immediately strong programs, he added. Protestant and former Protestant universities often had divinity schools with research degree programs that were considered much more prestigious than their Catholic counterparts.

When the Catholic programs were founded, according to Father Lienhard, “The purpose then was to provide the large number of Catholic colleges in this country with a wellqualified faculty. And in general we succeeded, and I think succeeded rather well. But these were not research degrees. We were preparing college teachers, not researchers.

“The reputations of the other programs—Harvard, Yale, Princeton come to mind—saw themselves as preparing researchers. So one result is that prestige still attaches to these degrees that does not attach to degrees from Catholic institutions. We have many Catholic faculty trained in Protestant programs and significant numbers of Protestants hired by Catholic institutions, the criterion being training and research and prestige of the degree. There's surely a risk here that these Catholic programs are going to lose their distinctly Catholic identity and be dissolved into more generic Christian programs.”

The Bronx-born Jesuit points out that Jesuit Father Matthew Lamb of Boston College has warned in his writings that among the faculty at these Catholic institutions, an overwhelming number prepared their dissertations on 19th- and 20th-century figures.

Few dissertations are being written on Aquinas or the early Church, according to Father Lienhard, who specializes in the latter. In addition, knowledge of the ancient languages, namely Latin and Greek, is declining.

“[Father Lamb] is concerned, and I think rightly, that knowledge of the fullness of the Catholic tradition is being lost, sensitivity to Catholic questions is declining,” according to Father Lienhard. “Perhaps on the good side, one fine result has been a much better knowledge of Scripture, and the quality of Scripture courses being taught is, to my knowledge, clearly higher. In this area, Catholics have made a significant contribution; Catholic scholars command attention.”

Theology or Religious Studies?

A current bone of contention in Catholic universities is what to call the department—theology or religious studies. Passions are strong on both sides.

“Those words have real meaning packed behind them,” Father Lienhard said. “At Fordham and Marquette, we still use ‘department of theology.’ Other places have used religious studies, which, again, is in line with this quest for academic objectivity. Many secular and even state universities have departments of religious studies.”

While religious studies is the objective study of religious beliefs, “departments of theology in general by the name, still imply a kind of faith commitment. One reason is that, while it is applied to many different religious traditions, theology as such probably best describes Christian reflection on faith. One can speak of Jewish theology, but it is a different sort of thing.”

Father Lienhard entered the Society of Jesus in 1958 and was ordained in 1971. He received his doctoral degree from the University of Freiburg in Germany. From 1975 until 1990 he served on the faculty of Marquette University. He has been at Fordham ever since.

The same year he began at Fordham, the Vatican released its Ex Corde Ecclesiae document, which is intended to define Catholic universities’ relationship to the Church. The document invokes a canon law that requires theologians teaching at Catholic universities to have the approval of the local bishop.

Though the American bishops are still finalizing their guidelines of compliance with the Vatican document, many theologians have felt threatened by it. Father Lienhard is not among them.

“It seems to me that on a very basic level, we're talking about truth in labeling,” he said. “If we tell parents and alumni that a place is a Catholic university, that word should have some meaning. We shouldn't be able to substitute some other word and have the documents work just as well. If the mission statement contains the word Catholic, as I certainly hope it would, or a confession of the existence of God or our savior Jesus Christ, this should make a difference.…”

“Ex Corde Ecclesiae doesn't disturb me personally. On the contrary, from my priesthood I certainly identify with an institution, namely the Catholic Church. And I would be honored to be recognized by the Catholic Church as a Catholic theologian.”

Dennis Poust, a National Affairs Correspopndent for the Register, writes from Austin, Texas