Why Theologians Trained in Catholic Graduate Schools Can’t Find Work

The furor has died down around revelations in late March that a professor of religious studies at the Jesuit College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, opined in an article that Jesus may have had sexual fantasies about his Father while being crucified. Dr. Tat-Siong Benny Lew, Class of 1956 Professor in New Testament Studies, is apparently Nikos Kazantzakis 2.0: the Greek novelist had Christ delectating on the cross about sex with Mary Magdalene while, in our now “post-gender binary” age, Christ’s predilections have apparently turned same-sex.

The outcry followed the usual, predictable pattern. The story went public. The local bishop made a statement. The college circled the wagons around “academic freedom.” A few commentators thundered appropriate denunciations. Everybody moved on—except, of course, Prof. Tat-Siong Benny Lew who is comfortably ensconced in his endowed, tenured chair.

One can identify many reasons for the pathetic state of “religious studies” and even “theology” at American Catholic colleges and universities. Two immediately come to mind: (1) an entrenched professoriate fighting Catholic sexual ethics all over again, intent on ensuring that American Catholic theology faculties are firmly advancing the “spirit” of the Twenty-Eighth Vatican Council, and (2) spineless bishops who won’t touch the Catholic identity issue of Catholic higher education out of their deep regard for the most important episcopal virtue of “peace and quiet.” We talk about how ideologically monolithic secular higher education has become, professions of “diversity” notwithstanding. Try being an openly orthodox theologian applying for a tenure-track position at the average American Catholic college.

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However, I want to look at the Worcester controversy from a different angle, one related to the ideological and identity aspects but somewhat separate and too neglected. From whence did the Holy Cross Religious Studies faculty get their terminal degrees?

The department website shows fifteen full-time faculty (i.e., above the “lecturer” rank). Of those 15, here is the breakdown of institutions from which they obtained terminal degrees:

Augustinianum                        1
Boston College                         2
Boston Univ/Harvard            1
Brown                                        2
Chicago                                      1
Columbia                                   1
Notre Dame                              2
Princeton                                   1
U Cal Santa Barbara                1
Vanderbilt                                 2
Virginia                                      1
Weston                                       1

Two-thirds of the full-time Religious Studies faculty of a Catholic college have their terminal degrees from non-Catholic universities.

Blame it on my lack of “Ivy Envy,” but I have a problem with that. I have a problem with a Catholic university whose religion program is dominated by academics formed in non-Catholic environments. (Yes, I will admit that one of the Vanderbilt graduates is a priest and so, presumably, also received a comprehensive Catholic theological formation on the way to ordination.)

It was about thirty years ago that I remember attending a workshop organized at a College Theology Society convention in which the late Fr. Matthew Lamb asked why American Catholic colleges were increasingly hiring graduates of non-Catholic universities, even when there were doctoral programs at American Catholic institutions of higher learning. Even the most cursory survey of the theology and religious studies departments of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States confirm that this has only gotten worse since the 1980s.

I look at my own alma mater, Fordham. Of 30 full-time faculty, only eight hold terminal doctorates from identifiably Catholic institutions. Again, the usual range of suspects: Alphonsianum 1; Boston University 1 (a priest, presumably with other theological training); Catholic University, 2; Chicago, 5; Columbia, 1; Duke, 1; Freiburg, 1; Harvard 3; Harvard Divinity, 2; North Carolina, 1; Notre Dame, 4; Oxford, 1; Princeton, 1; Rutgers, 1; Vanderbilt, 1; Yale, 4.

When I was a graduate student there in 1981-85, most of the faculty had Roman degrees, primarily the Gregorian, but also Catholic faculties in Ottawa, Budapest, and India. Frankly, I think there is something wrong when even a “university in the Jesuit tradition” (the style du jour) lacks a clear majority of graduates of Catholic institutions as teachers on its most distinctive faculties, i.e., theology and philosophy.

Why the change? A few reasons:

“Ivy Envy.” Msgr. John Tracy Ellis rightly challenged Catholic universities in the 1960s to match standards of rigor found at secular counterparts. Whether rigor was as lax as perhaps some thought—considering that Catholic universities generally demanded much more demanding philosophical thought than the word games being played in secular philosophy departments—is a matter for debate, but there was room for Catholic universities to act more like universities and less like Catholic parochial colleges. However, at a certain point, it seems that “Ivy Envy” went uncritically in the direction of a belief that Catholic institutions had to learn about being universities from their secular betters (even though universities were born in the cradle of the Church).

“Land O’Lakes.” Coupled with the deference to Ivy League secular universities came the declaration of independence, led by Notre Dame’s Theodore Hesburgh, from ecclesiastical control. A “Catholic university must have true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” Particularly in the wake of Humanae Vitae, which was promulgated about a year after Land O’Lakes, Catholic theology faculties claimed their “true autonomy” demanded but internal review of theological musings—including, presumably, Jesus’s supposed homoerotic fantasies—only by the parallel academic “magisterium.”

Jesuit Congregation 32. Priestly identity itself underwent significant challenges after Vatican II, but the 32nd Jesuit General Congregation also put a significant mark on the Church’s premier teaching order. Emphasizing “the promotion of justice” as an integral part of priestly “service of faith,” many Jesuits sought out new ministries rather than preparing for the classroom. This was quite evident to me as a graduate student in the first decade after JC32: the Jesuits teaching me were men in their late 50s and 60s, and there were not a whole lot of younger ones showing up on campus. When I was at Fordham, there were at least ten Jesuits in the theology department: today, there are three. None of them holds their highest theological degree from a Jesuit institution.

In view of this situation, just how realistic are the Vatican’s constitutions on higher education—Francis’s Veritatis Gaudium or even John Paul’s Sapientia Christiana or Ex corde Ecclesiae—with their focus on pontifical decrees? I suggest it is an unspoken secret that these documents hold sway at a tiny handful of pontifically founded institutions and are a dead letter vis-à-vis the typical post-secondary “Catholic” institution where theology is taught in the United States. 

(Photo credit: Alumni Hall, College of the Holy Cross; Paul Keleher / Flickr)


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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