When Catholic Colleges Abandon Theology Requirements

A major Catholic university is scheduled to consider this year whether it will cut its meager two-course requirements in Philosophy and Theology to one or none. Why, you may ask, would a Catholic institution be inclined to cut the two disciplines that have traditionally been entrusted with the task of imparting the specifically Catholic elements in a Catholic education?

The first thing to note is that these aren’t the old debates of the 1970s and 80s when a new generation of scholars set out to displace the Thomistic orientation of Catholic philosophy and theology departments with an ostensibly more “modern” and “pluralistic” sensibility. Aquinas was out; Kant, Heidegger, and Analytic Philosophy were in—even though it was the Thomistic Revival spearheaded by Pope Leo XIII that had energized the tired old Catholic philosophy departments of his day, most of which had been doing little more than tired knock-offs of Kant and Hegel. So too in theology departments, Aquinas was out; Rahner, Lonergan, and Schillebeeckx were in—even though all of these newly preeminent theologians had themselves been steeped in the thought of Aquinas during their own education.

These forces continue to dominate many philosophy and theology departments in Catholic universities across the country, with the Boomers who dominate these institutions showing no signs of ceding power any time soon to the succeeding generation of Millennials. Having raged against “the Establishment” in their youth, they are now firmly ensconced in it themselves, having become what they most hated: old fogeys who resist change and insist on living in the past.

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But something new is afoot as well. Clearly when the Boomers took over these departments, they had no intention of seeing the old requirements in theology and philosophy slashed. Undoubtedly they thought things would go on much as before, only now in exciting, new non-Thomistic ways. But things haven’t turned out that way. Like the other humanities, Philosophy and Theology are increasingly on the wane. It’s not merely that such departments aren’t especially “orthodox” any more—they haven’t been for years—it’s that they are increasingly seen as irrelevant to the current mission and goals of their institutions, having left themselves with very little to argue against their diminished position.

At the root of the current problem, I would suggest, is a trend that has been gaining strength for decades in the academy: the increasing secularization and professionalization of the disciplines.

On the one side, we have Catholic university administrators who want their schools (with some justification, given the rewards that come with prestige) to be considered among “the best”—among the “top 25″ or “top 10″ in the college rankings. But to be considered among “the best” in such rankings means “the best” as the culture-at-large understands that term, not “the best” with regard to promoting Catholic faith and intellectual life.

So in essence, it comes to this: If Harvard and Princeton don’t require such courses of their students—if the majors in Engineering and Business and Science at those schools aren’t “burdened” with theology and philosophy requirements—why should ours be?

The demands of specialization and professionalization of the disciplines means that each group wants ever more classes in its own area, “unburdened” by any of those pesky “general education” requirements that used to make up a good part of a college student’s education at the best institutions across the country.

How about on the other side of the equation? Are philosophy and theology departments fighting an assertive rearguard action against their marginalization? Not really. Naturally they don’t want their required courses cut, but since they haven’t seen it as their job to transmit a “Catholic” education for decades—busying themselves, rather, as every other department has “specializing” and “professionalizing” their discipline into increasingly narrow sub-specialties, seeing their role primarily in terms of preparing students for graduate school rather than, say, life—the result now is they have no real resources with which to fight back against the forces currently arrayed against them.

If these departments had over the last decades taken upon themselves the duty of imparting a broad-based, ethically-informed education to all the students of the university, rather than focusing their efforts largely on training majors for positions in elite graduate programs, then they might now have a strong case for their inherent value to the mission of the university as a whole.

As it is, the other disciplines see scarce reason to pad these two departments with course requirements that provide them students they otherwise would not have gotten in an “open market,” resulting in faculty lines they otherwise would not have been provided, and departments of an unnaturally large size compared to the relatively minimal value they are thought to offer the general student population.

Do students read better after such classes? Do they think more critically? Are they any more ethical? Do they understand their faith any better? The answer is usually no, and this is really no surprise since these departments long ago forswore those goals in their headlong pursuit of their own professional specialization. Accordingly other departments see little reason to continue Philosophy and Theology’s special “cozy arrangement” with the administration, and they want to end it.

In all of this, it’s important to see that the traditional goals of a liberal arts education and those of an authentic Catholic education go hand-in-hand and are both opposed by the representatives of the modern secularized professions, for whom any considerations other than those related to technical proficiency in the sub-discipline are not only irrelevant, but often enough distressingly foreign.

Just ask the usual, run-of-the-mill professor of finance whether he or she really wants a theologian intruding social justice concerns into his or her class. In business, we maximize profits and increase share-holder value. Allowing another set of goals or considerations to intervene would render our students “less competitive” in the global marketplace. Our students would “fall behind” the others. We wouldn’t be “ranked” as highly. It’s not that “ethical” considerations are assumed to have no place in these technical disciplines; it’s simply that they have a distinctly subsidiary role, when anyone deigns to consider them at all.

Catholic universities are failing in their educational mission because, although they like to chatter on endlessly about “leadership” (every secular institution does too), they have actually become the ultimate followers, constantly sucking up to the modern purveyors of “prestige. In following this well-worn path, they have failed to become leaders in their own right, unafraid to challenge current cultural paradigms and boldly forge a new educational vision.

By refusing to be “Catholic” in the fullest sense, they have forfeited the greatness they could have achieved, not merely in terms of religious piety, but also in terms of an authentically fresh, paradigm-changing sort of intellectual leadership in the academy.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Georgetown University, a Catholic college notable for abandoning its Catholic identity.


  • Randall B. Smith

    Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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