I was very interested to see a Commonweal article, titled “Obsessed with Continuity: What an Essay on the Mortara Kidnapping Confirms,” by Massimo Faggioli appear in my Facebook news feed this week, especially since I previously had a conversation with Faggioli at this last AAR/SBL lamenting the separation between history and theology. The article is responding to a debate in First Things about the Mortara case (you can read a summary of this event in Faggioli’s article), but Faggioli raises a key concern in the debate, namely a lack of historical understanding, especially in relation to Vatican II.

I’m writing this post in part to draw attention to Faggioli’s article, because I think what he says about history and theology is important, but also to look deeper at the problem he raises.  His main critique with the First Things article and the debate that has followed it is that the conversation is completely ignoring a historical-theological perspective. He argues for the importance of a theological understanding that understands the role of history in relation to theology and, for understanding Vatican II, critiques both “the post-modern/anti-modern Catholic dogmatism obsessed with the exclusive catholicity of absolute continuity and the supposed heresy of discontinuity.” I would propose that going back to the idea of theological development is an important way to incorporate this perspective, but that’s not exactly the point that I want to make in this post.

The point that I want to make is that this lack of historical understanding of theology is ultimately the fault of the structure of theology departments across the United States. My perspective on this is, of course, shaped by my own experience in looking for PhD programs and then on the job market, but the way that our departments are structured lends itself to a non-historical understanding of any theology that comes after the Reformation (and I might be being generous even giving it an end point at the Reformation).

When I began my search for PhD programs, I knew that I wanted to study early modern French spirituality and especially Jansenism. I was interested not only in the theology of the debates over grace and free will and the proper use of the sacraments, but in the historical and cultural context. In reading about Jansenism and those debates, I was concerned about not universalizing content that was tied to a specific time and place. By studying these debates as something of a history of ideas, I am better equipped to understand them, first in context and then in relation to what applicability they might have beyond their time period. Although I did also look into history programs in addition to theology programs, my ultimate interest was not just the history, but understanding the theological import of these debates. That is, what does understanding both the ideas and history of the Jansenist movement help us to better understand about Catholic theology, broadly speaking. Taking a historical-theological perspective, therefore, gives me the freedom to root my research in historical method and context, but to also think more broadly about the applicability of these ideas in a theological context.

Unfortunately, what I wanted from my PhD program barely exists in the United States. The two programs I ended up applying to were the Church History program at the Catholic University of America (and, as I have heard from others, this is basically a history program housed within the School for Theology and Religious Studies, not a historical theology program) and Saint Louis University, which was quite literally the only Catholic university where I could study modern theology from a historical perspective (and, to add a lament from what I’ve heard since I graduated, that is no longer the way the program is structured).

Go ahead and look at any theology department at a Catholic university in the United States and you will see, likely, at minimum a division of biblical, moral, systematic, and historical. If you look at the specializations of the historical theologians, you will find that “historical theology” refers to the period of the early church and maybe the medieval era and, if you’re lucky, the Reformation. Even the historical theology categorization in Faggioli’s own department at Villanova is dominated (as far as I can tell from their website), by specialists in early church. Similarly, if you look at postings on the job market for “historical theology,” they almost always specify that they are looking for someone who does early church or a medievalist.

So, what we, as American academics have done, is relegated history to the past and created the exact problem that Faggioli bemoans in his article:

From my point of view as a historian and theologian focusing on the past century, there is a big problem in terms of how to understand tradition. The original sin of the post-Vatican II era is that Catholic liberal-progressive theologians in the U.S. largely consigned Catholic tradition to a past that is forever past. This opened the way for conservative-traditionalist theologians to, if you will, “kidnap” the tradition, re-baptizing it in an anti-historical, anti-liberal fashion, with the language growing ever more extremist as time has passed.

I agree with Faggioli that a better understanding of history—for the entire tradition of the Catholic Church, not just the early and medieval eras—would help bridge the divide on both sides of the aisle.

In my introductory class on the Catholic theological tradition, I begin the semester now with the concept of theological development. I start off trying to shock my students into this concept, looking on the second day of class at Cyprian of Carthage and the idea that extra ecclesiam nulla salus (that is, outside the church there is no salvation). The following day, we skip forward in history to Vatican II and look at Nostra Aetate. The question I want the students to consider, ultimately, is how to reconcile these two perspectives. That is, how can we accept Vatican II’s teaching on non-Christian religions without rejecting Cyprian of Carthage?

I think it can be done, but I’m not going to get into that in this post because it’s not my focus (plus, I don’t want my future students to be able to google my answer to this question because I want them to try to answer it for themselves). But part of what allows us to answer this question is to understand each of these perspectives in the historical context in which they were written. For Cyprian, that’s the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire; for Vatican II, it’s post-World War II when Christians’ eyes were finally opened to how dangerous anti-Semitic teachings could be.

If we don’t find a way in America to reclaim an understanding of history in the discipline of theology as a whole, I don’t see how we will ever be able to bridge the “liberal” and “conservative” divide within Catholicism and really talk to each other about the important and practical issues facing the Catholic Church today.

4 thoughts

  1. I am not so sure that the “divide,” you speak about only applies to Catholicism, I pretty much feel this way about Mormonism, as well. You hear it all the time (especially from Members in the Mid-west, where the culture of the church is much more conservative .) How can you consider yourself to be a stalwart member of the faith if your not conservative. Drives me a little nuts, but I did enjoy reading your blog.

  2. “The question I want the students to consider, ultimately, is how to reconcile these two perspectives. That is, how can we accept Vatican II’s teaching on non-Christian religions without rejecting Cyprian of Carthage?”

    You take it for granted that they should be reconciled. This is one thing I find so frustrating about Catholicism; the inability to admit that some ideas were wrong and therefore should be rejected.

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