Theology Without God: A New Study Documents the Secularization of the Catholic Curriculum

A silent revolution has been underway in American Catholic university theology departments for nearly 25 years, the scope of which is only now being realized. While most people involved with Catholic higher education —students, parents, trustees, alumni, and faculty —can agree that this change is one of a movement from theology (as solely a Catholic discipline) to religious studies (a more inclusive and less specifically Catholic discipline), few have stopped to ponder the significance of this change in emphasis. What does it mean to study “religious studies” as opposed to “theology”? Is there a significant difference between the two? Could there be any real harm in including studies, of the world’s religions alongside those of the Catholic faith? Is not this change, in fact, a positive movement for the Catholic university —one fostered in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council?

The answer to this last question is yes—and no. The answer is yes in that the Second Vatican Council specifically opened itself to the belief that ideas which are “true and holy” may exist in other religions. But the answer is no in that the Second Vatican Council never anticipated that Catholic theology departments in the United States would begin to teach Roman Catholic theology as only a minor part of an otherwise vast religious studies curriculum, with Roman Catholic theology competing for the very semblance of “truth and holiness” granted, in theory, to the other religions. Yet, this now appears to be the situation in Roman Catholic theology departments only a quarter- century after the Council. What has happened?

What has happened is the secularization of the Catholic religious and theological curricula them-selves. While this appears at first to be a misnomer (how can theology and religious studies be secular?), I believe that a movement of secularization in the religious curricula can be demonstrated quite clearly. Further, one need not be a sociologist armed with technical terminology to witness and assess this change in action. One need only examine carefully the published curricular offerings of the Catholic universities themselves during this period in order to make a reasoned judgment.

The university catalogue is intended, of course, as the “public offering” of the university, and a careful reading of the “public offerings” of course descriptions over time affords a window of observation from which one may compare course emphases in an earlier period with those in a later one. By assessing the “primary argumentative base” of a course, one may determine in a survey of such courses whether a movement of secularization is underway in Catholic theology departments over a certain period of time.

I have recently undertaken an exhaustive study of such curricula and summarize the findings here in order to demonstrate the degree of the shift which has taken place in the curricula in only a little more than two decades. It is the actual degree of this shift which tends to surprise the modern reader, Catholic and non- Catholic alike, in a survey of religious and theological course offerings.

The first step in any investigation of specific curricula is, of course, one of definition. What is secularization? What is religion? How is one to under-stand the concept of theology? And what does it mean to say that courses in the religious curricula may take a secular discipline as a primary argumentative base?

Peter Berger, the Boston sociologist, has suggested that secularization can be understood in the following manner: “Secularization is the withdrawal of religion from an area where it previously held sway and influence.” Of course, religion is the key word here. What is religion? Again, Berger: “Religion is a sacred order within which life makes sense.” Secularization in the Roman Catholic case, then, can be characterized as the withdrawal of the influence and sway of the sacred order of Roman Catholicism over a period of time— that is, as not only a weakening of the inviolate nature of the order itself, but also as a showing of sympathetic interest toward the suggestion that secular disciplines may constitute final authorities of scholarship.

Theology, as classically conceived, then, can be understood as “the investigation of the tenets of a religion from within a particular sacred order” —that is, with final authority inherent in the order itself. Religious studies, as opposed to theology, may be understood as investigations of the variety of sacred orders, often coupling such studies with reliance upon secular disciplines to adjudicate academic disputes, since no prior sacred order is deemed suitable for this purpose.

One can see, then, that a movement from theology to religious studies can be understood as secularization if it can be demonstrated that a movement is underway toward a sole reliance upon secular disciplines as final authorities. It is this particular movement which can be demonstrated clearly from the curricular offerings of several representative institutions.

The Order Promulgated: 1955-1965

In selecting the institutions for this study (Boston College, St. John’s University, Catholic University) it must be made clear at the outset that the primary consideration of selection is one of isolating a representative Catholic institution from each of three major metropolitan areas (Boston, New York, Washington). Thus, the following must be noted clearly: The selection of these institutions is in no way intended to comment upon the character, the institutional practices, or the academic quality of these or any other Catholic institution.

Rather, the representative character of these institutions is the prime motivation for selection, along with the fact that each university reflects a slightly different administrative origin (Jesuit, Vincentian, Diocesan). With this proviso in mind, one can begin an investigation of the curricula by simply placing oneself in the position of choosing courses as a student from the catalogues in the period 1955-1965. What does one find?

A course which may be called a Category 1 course in the study is one in which authority resides solely within the Roman Catholic sacred order. Take, for example, the following course from Catholic University in the 1958-59 catalogue:

607, 608. God One in Three, Creator and Giver of Life. The existence and attributes of God in the Hebrew revelation and Western theological tradition. The mystery of the Trinity; divine procession, relations, person, temporal missions. Trinitarian nature of Christian life. God the Creator and the various orders of created beings, angels, the visible universe, man. Divine Providence in the conservation and governance of things.

It is clear from such a course that reliance upon the authority of the order itself is paramount. There is no concern expressed here that the order itself requires that within the curricula of this period a fixed and inviolate body of teachings constitutes the Roman Catholic sacred order.

A similar representative course concerning the Church may be found in the 1959-60 catalogue of St. John’s University. Note here the stress upon classical elements of the order — incarnation, sacraments, salvation:

4. Christ and His Sacraments. A detailed study of the Incarnation and its results. Christ the Savior: His life, sufferings and death. The Sacraments as instruments of salvation in the Church; each sacrament in detail. The temporal end of man’s life and its consequence: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell.

Is there not a sense here in which the sacred order of Roman Catholicism is actually promulgated as constituting legitimate teaching and scholarship? This concentration upon sole authority within the sacred order can also be noted in the following course from Boston College in the 1958- 59 catalogue.

Th. 22. Life of the Church. Th inner life of the Church: praying with the Church in her perennial renewal of the dogmatic facts of redemptive history; the development, structure and meaning of the Mass in the Roman Missal. The theology of the inner life and prayer of the Church: The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ; the public worship of God by the Mystical Body.

The emphases in this course may sound odd to the modern ear (“praying with the Church in her perennial renewal of the dogmatic facts of renewal history”). Nonetheless, it is difficult to dispute the contention that within the curricula of this period a fixed and inviolate body of teachings constitutes the Roman Catholic sacred order.

But what is the contrast with later courses in the same curricula? Surely courses offered since the Second Vatican Council cannot be expected to rely upon such a rigid and fixed order, it might be argued, since much of the order itself is reconceived or at least retranslated in the Council. Even granting this point, however, a clear pattern of change begins to emerge toward what may be called Category 2 and Category 3 courses—courses which begin to take seriously the possibility of final authority lying “outside” the Catholic sacred order.

The Order Questioned: 1965-1975

A course falling into Category 2 is one which begins to introduce, as legitimate, sources for scholarship slightly beyond the Roman Catholic sacred order— either the theology found in Protestantism or other Christian traditions, or, often hesitatingly, the authority of another world religion or a secular discipline. Category 2 courses, in fact, tend to be rather uncertain about where this primary argumentative base lies; nonetheless they retain at least some sympathy with the theoretical concept of a specifically Christian, if not Roman Catholic, sacred order.

An example of this unclarity within a Category 2 course comes from the 1974-75 catalogue of St. John’s University:

11. Faith and Unbelief. New approaches to examining the rational foundations of the Christian faith with special reference to questions arising within the Roman Catholic traditions. The study includes a critical examination of the sources of modern unbelief and solutions to the conflict of faith and reason in contemporary secular, scientifically oriented culture.

This course is clearly an honest assessment of a changed situation from the period of the predominance of Category 1 courses earlier. But the question is often raised in such courses whether one’s authority for theology can, in fact, be shifted legitimately from the traditional sacred order of Roman Catholicism to that of a secular discipline.

This very question is asked in the following course from Catholic University in 1967-68. How is one to address the “tensions” suggested by the course?

509. Seminar: Key Problems in Contemporary Theology. Causes and cures of tensions between theology and church life; understanding present dangers in theology; man, evolution, and original sin; significance of “Death of God”; myth and revelation; nature and grace; Secular Christianity.

Even in its reference here to Secular Christianity and the Death of God, is there not in this Category 2 course at least some degree of sympathy with the idea of a Christian (note the absence of “Catholic”) sacred order? Late in this period, however, a number of courses begin to appear throughout the curricula which begin to suggest not only that the world religions must be presented solely on their own authorities without reference to Christianity, but that secular disciplines might be trusted completely to adjudicate theological dispute. Note, for example, the following Category 3 course from Boston College as it appears in the Catalogue from 1971-72.

Th. 173 Group Dynamics and Theological Models. This will be a classical group dynamics seminar, conducted in the form of a T-group, in which the participants use the experiences generated in the group to further their learnings about themselves, the other participants, and group process. Openness, honesty, interpersonal risk – taking, trust-building, constructive use of conflict, intimacy issues will be explored; attempts will be made to create a new climate where new behavior can be safely tried. Conceptualization of learnings will be encouraged in terms of models derived from applied behavioral science, but additional emphasis will be placed on viewing these models in terms of their significance as theological models, i.e., ways of conceptualizing such process issues as acceptance, forgiveness, judgment, concern, prayer, self-denial, etc., as the occasion arises.

Courses which begin to take as a primary argumentative base such secular disciplines as psychology multiply in this period. And additionally, a substantial number of courses in world religions, often taking as their primary argumentative base the secular disciplines of sociology, phenomenology, psychology, anthropology, etc., begin to displace many of the Category 1 courses during this period, as a comparison of all of the courses during the period 1955-1975 shows (see the accompanying table).

The Order Dissolved: 1975-1985

The Category 3 course is a course in which no mention whatever is made of a Roman Catholic or even a specifically Christian sacred order; further, the primary argumentative base of the course becomes solely that of another sacred order (another world religion) or a clearly definable secular discipline. While a number of Category 3 courses appear already in the period from 1965-1975, the Category 3 course becomes the predominant category in this final period, 1975-1985.

As examples of such Category 3 courses from Catholic University and St. John’s University, respectively, one finds:

113. Religious Personalities. A study of the lives and teachings of the paradigmatic figures of world religions: Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and Siddhartha Gautama.

93. Gurus, Swamis, Yogis and the Search for Pure Consciousness. The doctrines of the leading spiritual Masters from the East and their principal American disciples. The significance of Transcendental Meditation, Integral Yoga, Krishna Consciousness and other Eastern spiritual movements.

What constitutes the primary argumentative base of such courses? While one suspects that a secular discipline unifies the understanding of the selected topics for the student, one can at least be certain that it is not the traditional Roman Catholic sacred order of the Category 1 course which constitutes this primary argumentative base. Nor is it even a specifically Christian sacred order. In fact, the contrast with Category 1 courses is rather striking in that “Jesus” and “Christianity” are either given places of equality as only one of a number of religious options, or excised from consideration altogether.

Even more striking in the Category 3 courses are the number of courses which are clearly at odds with the very idea of a Catholic or Christian sacred order. The following course appears in the 1977-78 catalogue of Boston College:

Th 553. Feminist Ethics I. Analysis of the emerging feminist ethos as distinct from “feminine” morality defined by sexually hierarchical society. Examination of the unholy trinity: rape, genocide, and war. The problem of overcoming the unholy sacrifice of women through individual and participatory self-actualization. Redefining “power” and “politics” by living on the boundary of patriarchal institutions.

Wherein lies the primary argumentative base of this course? Is it in the Roman Catholic sacred order? A Christian sacred order? Or is it a secular discipline such as sociology, psychology, political science, or anthropology? While Category 3 courses cover everything from the “African Background of Afro- American Religious Experience” to “Mythic Patterns of Patriarchy” to “The Buddha, Krishna and Christ,” it is clear that all of these Category 3 courses take as their final authority not the sacred order of Roman Catholicism, nor that of Christianity, but rather that of the secular disciplines as applied, in innumerable ways, to the varieties of the sacred orders of the world.

Miraculous Statistics

While it is clear that secularization can be clearly demonstrated in the curricula of the selected institutions, it is probably better to caution against elaborate conclusions drawn hastily from such a survey. Given the modern situation of religious pluralism in the United States, along with the “opening” of Catholic universities to non-Catholic students during the period of this study, one may wonder which of the two constitutes the more miraculous statistic —the 135 Category 1 courses still remaining in the final period of the study, or the 1,135 Category 3 courses which overwhelm them. While there has clearly been an explosion in the number of Category 3 courses over a short period of time, it is also clear that this explosion is coupled with a vast increase in the entire number of courses offered. One must not maintain, then, that each and every faculty member is either fully aware of the situation or inclined to value the degree to which religious studies overwhelms the discipline of theology in Catholic universities.

Still, in light of such evidence perhaps it is time to note the substantial degree to which Roman Catholicism fails to represent its own central perspectives adequately in the religious and theological curricula of its institutions. Should the Catholic Church apologize for still “intruding” classic doctrinal teaching into the religious studies area within its own departments? Or is the Catholic institution perhaps in danger of completely forgetting that it once held a deeply revered sacred order, one for which the founders of its institutions sacrificed a great deal? Perhaps, in the end, a simple reminder is in order: It is only due to the fact that Catholic instructors in former centuries held tenaciously to their sacred order that contemporary Catholic theology departments have the luxury even of being present to consider the current plenitude of options.


  • Frank D. Schubert

    Frank D. Schubert holds degrees in philosophy and religion from the University of San Francisco and the University of Oxford and received his Ph.D. under Peter L. Berger at Boston University in 1987. Schubert’s philosophical interests address how certainties are created and how they are sustained by individuals and communities over time.

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