It's a thing now among journalists and religion commentators to ask what has happened to the public intellectuals of the churches in the past few decades — as Catholic commentator E.J. Dionne does in this Commonweal essay. Where have they gone? Why are they not with us any longer — the Niebuhrs (or, as Fred Clark points out, the Martin Luther Kings who never get mentioned in this discussion, and isn't that curious, and noteworthy)?
These questions have been sparked by a Harper's essay by Baylor professor Alan Jacobs. To begin answering the questions, I'd suggest to Jacobs that he look at the recent history of Baylor's own Southern Baptist connection, and how the Southern Baptist Convention has muzzled scholars of religion and intellectuals, made them adhere to loyalty oaths, driven them away from Southern Baptist schools if they would not kowtow to orthodox positions imposed from above.
And I'd ask E.J. Dionne and other Catholic journalists pushing this question to take a look at the list of over 100 well-respected Catholic theologians (Matthew Fox, one of those silenced, puts the count at 105) ruthlessly silenced by Saint John Paul II and his right-wing orthodoxy watchdog, Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict. I'd ask Dionne to think about how John Paul and Ratzinger attacked liberation theology and tried to destroy it — a promising theological movement trying to do precisely what Dionne is calling for in this essay, to comment on religious-themed and moral issues in the public square.
Where are the public intellectuals of the religious academy? They've been muzzled, hounded out of jobs, silenced, told they're not wanted and their contributions are not welcome, by conservative evangelicals and the Catholic community as it allied itself with conservative evangelicals.
And as all of this happened, and as Saint John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger induced deliberate chill in the theological academy by silencing theologians, and as their attack on gay Catholics with Ratzinger's 1986 document on the "pastoral care" of gay people defining gay people as intrinsically disordered laid the foundation for outright oppression of gay employees in Catholic institutions, I have no memory at all of the Catholic liberals now decrying the lack of public intellectuals in the Catholic academy opening their mouths. My memory is that most of the Catholic liberals now lamenting the loss of a strong Catholic intellectual voice in the public square sat by in complicit silence as all of this transpired.
My memory is that, either tacitly or sometimes openly, they supported the pastoral leaders of the church in mounting this ugly purge, and, in some cases, wrote articles justifying it. I certainly don't have any memory that they sought to reach out to the many theologians purged by Saint John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger, or to the many gay Catholics (including gay Catholic scholars) shoved out of the church by these pastoral leaders' attack on gay human beings.
Maybe my memory is faulty.