Saturday, October 24, 2015

An Entirely Wrong-Headed Proposal for USCCB Funding of Lay Theological Education at America Magazine: My Critical Response

As I've mentioned here in the past, I have given up on reading the Jesuit weekly America, even though I read it faithfully for many years, from my undergraduate days at a Jesuit university where I was taught by an esteemed Jesuit who played a key role in the magazine from its early days, until . . . well, until I gave up on America. Having comments I made on its discussion board, in which I considered myself to be defending gay folks against slander, and thought I was using rational and inoffensive statements to pursue that end, soured me on America. Having these comments deleted without any explanation offered to me soured me on America and its "open" discussions of Catholic issues.

The anti-gay comments were allowed to stand as examples of acceptable Catholic discourse. Mine were expunged. And then America brought on board Helen Alvaré, who has never been a friend of the gays, and announced it was doing so to keep its conversations open and balanced and inclusive.

(But the anti-gay comments were allowed to stand as examples of acceptable Catholic discourse, while those seeking to counter such comments with alternative Catholic discourse found their words expunged.)

So I struck America from my list of sites to read online daily some time ago. But yesterday, I was tempted by an email announcement America sent me about its latest issue to click and read.

I read an article by Dennis Holtschneider about eight ways the Catholic church in the U.S. might strengthen itself right now, and am astonished at the portion of that article addressing the issue of theological education. Father Holtschneider maintains that it's getting harder for Catholic institutions to find young theologians these days as well-trained as those of a generation ago, and he thinks this weakens the church and its ability to pursue its mission. He calls for the U.S. Catholic bishops to fund the theological education of lay theologians.

In my final years of Ph.D. studies, I myself wrote a letter to an official (a priest-theologian) of the Catholic Theological Society of America connected to USCCB, asking whether CTSA might propose to USCCB to offer funding for lay students seeking graduate degrees in the field of theology. I received a hot reply to my letter that amounted, in essence, to the statement, No way, José. 

So I'm not in the least opposed to this proposal. I myself thunk of it as I struggled along to pay for my own graduate education in theology. As does Father Holtschneider, I think it's important for the mission of the church that Catholic institutions have access to well-educated lay theologians — and if USCCB cares about the mission of the church, it ought to care about seeing that lay students who feel called to the vocation of theology receive good educations.

It's not Father Holtschneider's proposal itself that astonishes me. It's how he goes about building his argument for such USCCB support for funding for lay theology students that amazes me. He argues that theologians of the previous generation (my generation, I suppose) in the church were for the most part members of religious communities or priests belonging to dioceses, and as a result, they had access to funds that allowed them to study widely, at leisure — to obtain good theological educations.

He argues that those good, well-rounded theological educations soundly grounded in Catholic tradition then enabled these theologians to step into Catholic universities and teach a wide array of courses in fields as diverse as scripture, philosophical theology, church history, sacramental theology, etc. By contrast, he thinks that lay students of the current generation have to pursue their theological educations in haste, and so (he implies very broadly but clearly) their educations are defective in comparison with the theological educations of students — priests and religious, for the most part — of the previous generation. Their educations are narrow and focused in a way in which the broad educations of priests and religious who have become theologians have not been.

And as a result, they cannot give such good service to the church, because they simply don't know enough, despite the credentialing letters after their names. They are not — this seems to be the point, though it's not this bluntly stated — incorporated into the institutional life of the church in the same way that priests and religious are. Hence the need for funding from the USCCB: this will enable these lay students to pursue a good theological education with the same leisure and support afforded to priests and religious studying theology, and it will also tie these theologians in an institutional way to the church.

As a lay theologian who had to struggle very hard to obtain a graduate education while I watched the priests and religious with whom I studied pursue their studies with no worry at all about money (or time), I find that Father Holtschneider's argument doesn't sit well with me on any number of levels. Since the priests and religious with whom I did my graduate studies almost to a man and woman walked out of graduate schools with assured jobs waiting for them, while we lay students had to struggle as hard as we had struggled to attain an education to find (and keep) jobs in Catholic institutions, I find it's somehow . . . inelegant . . . to suggest that the very strictures imposed on lay students seeking theological educations have caused them to obtain inferior theological educations.

I find this suggestion inelegant in the same way I find any blame-the-victim argument inelegant.

I wonder why Father Holtschneider doesn't ask, instead, about the injustice of an institution that has tacitly promoted the graduate study of theology for priests and religious, while it has tacitly denigrated and impeded the graduate study of theology for lay people. I wonder why his article doesn't ask whether the message the leaders of the Catholic church in the U.S. have given to lay theologians following Vatican II is that their gifts and talents are simply not wanted — since there has been no financial support for their study of theology, and not even the assurance of employment once they have finished their degrees.

I wonder why his proposal doesn't state frankly that theology is a field for those who are embedded in the structures of the church in such a way that they will not and cannot raise searching questions about the church, its connection to culture, its fidelity to or betrayal of its core traditions: the kinds of critical questions that are the very soul of the theological enterprise. I wonder why Father Holtschneider doesn't address the question of whether Catholic pastoral leaders and the leaders of Catholic institutions have created the very problem about which he laments now — the lack of a generation of well-trained lay theologians in Catholic institutions — because they have resisted relinquishing power and control to lay Catholics in general.

As their own numbers as priests and religious have waned, and as it has become imperative — if they expect their church to have any kind of bright future — that they stop playing invidious games of power and control with lay members of the church, but begin to permit those lay members to exercise their Spirit-endowed gifts in the church . . . .

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