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When Catholic Colleges Abandon Theology Requirements

via Crisis Magazine

by Randall B. Smith

randall smithA 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.

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.

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