Theological Education in the Catholic Tradition: Contemporary Challenges
Edited by Patrick W. Carey and Earl C. Muller
Crossroad. 423 pp. $19.95

Being There: Culture and Formation in Two Theological Schools
By Jackson Carroll, Barbara Wheeler, Daniel Aleshire, and Penny Long Marler
Oxford University Press. 290 pp. $36.

These two volumes, taken together, illustrate the dilemmas of Christian theological education”Catholic and Protestant alike”in our time.

The first of them, a collection of essays on the Catholic situation edited by Patrick W. Carey and Earl C. Muller, originated at a symposium at Marquette University in 1995. About half of the twenty-six papers deal with problems of method: how to integrate Scripture or history or liturgy or spirituality with theology; how to serve African Americans and Hispanics; how to survive the mediocre funding at most Catholic institutions; how to maintain the peace between bishops and theologians. These are constructive and learned essays, and offer evidence of a durable effort to restabilize theology after the backwash of Vatican II.

More problematic are the papers that ask how Catholic theology can exist on peaceable terms at Catholic universities and colleges that claim full membership in the Academy, which all authors agree is an Enlightenment project that regards religion-especially Christianity, and most especially Catholicism-as intellectually trivial or mischievous. With only a few exceptions, such as Matthew Lamb, Joseph Komonchak, and Robert Imbelli, the authors are upbeat about bunking in with the Academy. An early cue to their formula for respectable survival is indicated in the title: they want to teach theology “in the Catholic Tradition,” which is going to be much less offensive than teaching Catholic theology. How to get away with it? It must be presented as a discipline like any other, a “slice of the humanities pie,” “critical of and responsible to the elements of our heterogeneous culture,” taught by practitioners whose loyalty to the human community trumps their loyalty to the Church, and who are ready to promise that they would never dare assume a “distinctive cognitive stance.”

When they approach the all-important issue of recruiting a faculty, the symposiasts blanch at any suggestion that a devout and inquiring Catholic faith could be an academic credential for appointment. One administrator flinched when another “provocatively” called for “the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals” on the faculty, but was put at his ease when assured that all this meant was an “interest” in what Catholics think about. Several agree that hiring interviews are the critical moment for recruiting a faculty of intellectual faith, but their fear that federal laws make “personal questions” about religious faith inappropriate means in practice that while interviewers may be eager to lecture candidates about the university’s “vision statement,” they are hesitant to probe the candidates’ own vision. Since Catholic colleges and universities have for some time now been showing preference for candidates from graduate programs that exclude faith as an intellectual consideration, it is admitted that “there comes a point at which we must ask whether we are losing the critical mass which makes the institution authentically Catholic.” The knowledgeable reader can only agree, but would add that the “point” came some decades back, and all the “asking” ever since has been the standard analgesic for what was already irrevocably lost.

There is a widely shared assumption that communal faith is a dubious accessory for a theologian: it puts one at risk of intrusive and unlettered bishops, yet offers no compensatory theological advantage. Only Francis George points out the folly in this: “Faith then is no longer the basis of life but something added to it. Catholicism becomes ‘our tradition’ rather than the vehicle for the Tradition that unites us to Christ.”

Jackson Carroll’s sociological work has interested itself in the ministerial profession, and in the ideological divisions among Protestants. Those interests combine in a new collaborative field study, Being There , a study of two Protestant seminaries, anonymously tagged “Mainline” and “Evangelical.”

The authors spent three years repeatedly visiting the two schools, residing on campus, sitting in on classes and on student interest and advocacy groups, schmoozing, and interviewing dozens of faculty and students at length. The narrative chapters read fairly and engagingly: even-handed despite Carroll’s better “feel” for the liberals.

Mainline, whose sponsorship by a denomination has minimal effect on its ideological orientation, lives by the abiding conviction that “God’s intention for the world is that all should have access to its resources . . . . Structures and attitudes that deprive some groups of the goods to which they have a right are deeply sinful.” And the students are made painfully conscious of the faculty’s judgment that oppression and injustice on grounds of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation are sins characteristic of mainline Protestant congregations. The faculty at Evangelical, by sharp contrast, teach that “God’s plan for the world and the redemption of human life is an orderly and reasonable” and biblical one. In return for their undeserved salvation and the gift of grace, the students there accept the mission to infiltrate secular society and win converts to a different, disciplined life.

The respective messages both hit classes of newcomers with the force of a Parris Island welcome. At Mainline every rookie is served with a presumptive indictment for unwitting injustice, sexism, racism, and homophobia: even the women, the students of color, the gays, and the lower classes are made to feel a little lousy about themselves. Up the road at Evangelical, newcomers are told from the start that there are no denominations, and very few congregations, where the biblical mandates and the steadfast belief in God’s unmerited decree of salvation are held up without embarrassment. Though the enrolling classes are already predisposed toward the respective ideologies of the two seminaries, the aggressively doctrinaire messages of the two campuses regularly elicit an initial reaction of confusion, complaint, and resistance. The researchers found, however, that the two dominant orthodoxies are so potent that they set the agendas for most of the interchange among the students themselves, and by the end of their programs they have largely aligned themselves with the campus doctrines.

This seems to have been facilitated by the presence at each school of a loyal opposition. At Mainline the dominant diversity-cum-social-justice ideology is under constant critique from an even sturdier feminist and liberationist minority among the faculty, who are more rigorous in their denunciations of the denominations. At Evangelical the dominant “mild generic Calvinism” is under judgment by a more rigorous Calvinist cadre, known locally as the Truly Reformed, who are more traditionalist about church order and significantly less enthusiastic about missions and evangelism, since God has already predestined those to be saved.

Carroll’s group sees the two schools as descended from the classical divide between Calvinists and Arminians. The two opposition groups are located in even more polar positions: the purists at Evangelical are more conservative, with Fundamentalist inclinations, while the purists at Mainline are more radical, with the sound and smell of Modernists. The more polar dissenters at either place seem to create a dynamic whereby the largest group of students eventually settle on the other side from them, more toward the center, as milder social activists or milder Calvinists.

What Carroll & Co. cannot offer yet is a longitudinal follow-up to discern what ideological effect comes from these graduates’ subsequent years of ministry to those congregations for whose salvation neither school holds out much hope. Will they stand fast by what they took in at the theological schools, or will they slough it off in favor of what they can share with Godforsaken laypeople?

The book studies these two schools as not-quite-polar opposites. This reader sees them as not-quite-two-peas-in-a-pod. Both begin intellectually with strong dogmatic presuppositions (the study calls these “cognitive approaches” at Evangelical, but seems unaware how cognitive the assumptions are at Mainline). It is just that one school derives them from the political order; one derives them from the religious order; and both use them as filters to control what the Scriptures can be heard to say. Also, neither education is beholden to the Church, but they both work hard to persuade the students that it is their mission to judge and discipline the Church. And so we are back with Francis George: “Church then is no longer the basis of life but something added to it.”

These two schools are not poles apart; they are islands on either side of a small archipelago into which Catholics have lately sailed and are looking for a friendly landfall. Good luck.

James Tunstead Burtchaell, C.S.C., is the author of The Dying of the Light , forthcoming from Eerdmans.