By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Catholic theologians just coming of age today, one of them says, find themselves between a rock and a hard place in a way that older colleagues never experienced, and may struggle to understand fully.
Maureen O’Connell, who earned a Ph.D at Boston College and is now an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University, said she and her peers face pressures to meet secular standards of academic excellence, especially publishing and research, in an increasingly competitive market of American higher education. In some cases, she said, this evaluation is carried out by scholars outside the field of theology, many of whom aren’t Catholic.
At the same time, she said, theologians are often expected to carry the weight for broader debates in the church about Catholic identity – including, O’Connell said, growing pressure to be the “right” kind of theologian for Catholics of widely differing theological and political outlooks.
Joking that the stresses of dissertations, job searches and the quest for tenure remind her of the “growing pains” of her teenage years, O’Connell said that this unique confluence of pressures can induce “a kind of paranoia for those of us in professional adolescence.”
O’Connell made the remarks in an opening presentation to the Catholic Theological Society of America, the main group for professional Catholic theologians in the United States, which is meeting this year in Miami.
The theme for this year’s CTSA conference is “Generations.”
O’Connell had been asked to reflect theologically on a presentation from Catholic sociologist James Davidson of Purdue University, reviewed data from surveys of what he identified as four distinct generations of American Catholics, grouped with respect to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65):
•tPre-Vatican Catholics, meaning those born before 1941, representing 17 percent of American Catholics;
•tVatican II Catholics, born between 1941 and 1960, at 35 percent;
•tPost-Vatican II Catholics, born between 1961 and 1982, at 40 percent;
•tMillennial Catholics, born since 1983, at 8 percent.
Davidson proposed that generational differences should be taken seriously alongside other markers of diversity such as race, gender and class in both academic programming and pastoral ministry.
Davidson argued that the results of surveys from 1987, 1993, 1999 and 2005 show a clear trend, amplified in each succeeding generation, away from what Catholic writer Eugene Kennedy calls “Culture One Catholicism,” with a high emphasis on religious practice, clerical authority and doctrinal conformity, towards “Culture Two Catholicism,” emphasizing lay autonomy and the individual conscience.
Asserting that church leaders are today attempting to return the church to a “culture one” model, Davidson said that because the socio-economic status of American Catholics is not in decline and because “laity are not willing to grant control” to the hierarchy, “the percentage of Catholics who are culture one will continue to decline.”
If older liberal Catholics are over-represented in reform groups such as Call to Action and Voice of the Faithful, Davidson said, younger conservative Catholics are equally over-represented among new priests, seminarians, and even theologians.
Speaking specifically about theologians, Davidson said that a growing tendency for younger theologians to reflect a “culture one” mentality reflects “a larger pattern of separation between the laity and the leaders of the institutional church.”
O’Connell largely agreed, saying that one distinguishing feature of her generation of theologians is that it came of age in an era of a “near-total disconnect between a culture one hierarchy and a culture two laity.”
Facing that situation, O’Connell said, many younger theologians today feel a need to try to be of pastoral service to the church – working with disparate movements such as Voice of the Faithful, the Focolare and Sant’Egidio, for example, or writing for non-specialized audiences outside the academy. Those activities, she said, represent an attempt to “fill in the pastoral gaps.”
In that light, O’Connell proposed that amid today’s tensions over Catholic identity, perhaps a defining characteristic of what constitutes a “good Catholic theologian” ought to be what she called “pedagogical excellence” – meaning a commitment to teaching and formation.
“Perhaps the greatest service we can provide to the church is serving the more than 600,000 millennial Catholics currently enrolled at more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities in America,” she said.
Both Davidson and O’Connell punctuated their remarks with bursts of humor.
Davidson, for example, described himself as a “sociologist of religion” rather than a “religious sociologist.” The former, he said, takes his wife and four kids to church on Sunday. The latter takes his wife and two kids to church, leaving the other two behind as a control group.
For her part, O’Connell confessed to being “almost paralyzed” by the fear of implying that her own perspective was somehow normative for her generation. Yet, she said, in conversations with colleagues, she came to realize that such wariness and self-doubt may itself be a marker of her generational formation, as opposed to older academics.
She said one colleague put it to her this way: “Did Karl Rahner worry about speaking for his generation?”