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Issue Date:  October 31, 2003

What young theologians owe their elders


The impression is steadily growing that today’s young theologians, those born in the 1960s and ’70s, are more pious and conservative than the Vatican II generation.

Post-Vatican II theologians, so the conventional wisdom goes, want theology to be as much spiritual practice as academic endeavor, are less suspicious of the hierarchy, more concerned with intra-church issues and overall invested in developing the distinctiveness of Catholic life and thought. Foregrounding this distinctiveness means fostering a culture of life by shoring up orthodoxy against consumerism and moral relativism outside the church, while resisting Protestantizing elements within the church itself in theology, liturgy and religious education.

In my view, this generalization is true as a generalization. Because a critical mass of post-Vatican II generation theologians must “settle in” before reliable studies on them can be done, we have to make do for now with honest and necessarily anecdotal appraisals from interested parties. And for myself at least, conversations with theologians from various generations in the Catholic Theological Society of America and the College Theology Society confirm this conventional wisdom about young theologians more than they disconfirm it.

But if we are seeing the emerging of a new -- if still hazily understood -- generational identity in Catholic theology, it is an opportune time to invite reflection on it. This is a worthy task, not as an attempt to control this new constellation or to reduce its complexity, and certainly not to stereotype all theologians from the post-Vatican II generation as being of one mind. It is important because these younger generations are increasingly taking on undergraduate teaching assignments (as adjuncts, assistant professors and newly minted tenured faculty), and slowly beginning to make their interests known in professional theological associations. Discerning the broad patterns of how a new generation of theologians sees their identity allows us to inquire into the future not just of Catholic theologians, but of Catholic education as it is affected by the teaching of theology.

On the one hand, a new generational theological identity is unavoidable and necessary; it means that, in ways conscious and unconscious, we “young” theologians are out to find the truth framed by our own postmodern situation. Dealing with the challenges of our own formative experiences in the 1980s and ’90s, we stand on the shoulders of our elders without needing to repeat their projects. (If religious, ethnic or racial pluralism, or media culture, for example, become theological concerns for us, they are so not as “new” situations; they have more or less always been our situation.)

On the other hand, I wonder whether my generation of theologians has thought carefully enough about what we owe to the Vatican II generation. By the Vatican II generation, I mean those whose theology is consciously shaped by the ecclesial and social revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s. Are young theologians in danger of sending Catholic theology into intellectual and political hibernation as an overreaction to what many see as the excesses of our theological elders?

Most post-Vatican II theologians would readily acknowledge their debts to their mentors, many of whom did the hard and often thankless work of tilting the axis of Catholic theology in the last several decades toward a more intellectually broad-minded and more socially engaged discipline.

Yet young theologians owe not just a personal debt to our individual teachers but a communal obligation to theologians now in midlife, through their 70s and beyond. The fruit of the elder generations of theologians’ work is overwhelming and far from finished: achieving the academic legitimacy of Catholic theology alongside other theologies and secular disciplines; breaking out of neo-scholasticism within Catholic theology; developing modern biblical studies; turning to history and culture in feminist, African- American, Latino/a theologies; valorizing conscience and virtue in ethics; the subtle engagement of moral theologians with genuinely new medical and sexual questions; the daring push into politics of liberation theologies and pedagogies and the manifold fronts of dialogue with world religions.

Of course, all of these Vatican II theologians were themselves indebted to their own elders. The intellectual power and pastoral influence of their work permeates church life today as strength for discipleship. Almost every ministry or theology conference I attend witnesses in its foci themes and speakers to the profound impact of the Vatican II generation of theologians. How are post-Vatican II theologians going to respond to that communal obligation to these remarkable achievements practiced by a diverse group of holy and brilliant laity and clergy, men and women?

As I listen to the interests and projects of my age-mates in theology, I often think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s description of his own generation of theologians and ministers, who had to create their own identity after revolutions in the German churches and society. “It will be the task of our generation,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “not to ‘seek great things,’ but to save and preserve our souls out of the chaos, and to realize that it is the only thing we can carry as a ‘prize’ from the burning building. … We shall have to keep our lives rather than shape them, to hope rather than plan, to hold out rather than march forward.”

While we are not in such a dramatic situation, it may well be that one of the tasks of my generation of theologians is an everyday saintliness that does not directly take on big social and ecclesial causes and shift tectonic theological plates. In Bonhoeffer’s words, it may be up to us to “preserve for … the rising generation, what will make it possible for [them] to plan, build up, and shape a new and better life.”

Indebted to Vatican II theologians, we are challenged to ask: What is the cost of our theological discipleship? How are post-Vatican II theologians putting our theological training at risk for the transubstantiation of the church and the world? There is a danger for my generation of theology becoming neither a risk nor a venture, but a career. We have new practical pressures not faced by our mentors: a movement in higher education to hire more adjuncts and fewer tenured faculty; a lack of institutional sponsorship for spiritual formation and a concomitant lack of mentoring for many young theologians; the need to secure tenure in an unsteady economy, with middle-class lay theologians aware of the precariousness of their family’s standing and often overwhelmed by family responsibilities unknown to previous generations of clerical theologians.

Although it is much too early to pronounce anything definitive, perhaps the emerging portrait of today’s young theologians will indeed prove true, and we will not innovate dramatic new forms of theology, organize as frequently in solidarity or dissent, or be as suspicious of the hierarchy.

If, however, none of us is willing to risk being silenced for the sake of speaking the truth in our own names; if none of us is willing to abandon a too-easy dialectical model that assumes that now the “pendulum must swing back to the other side”; if we have not found genuinely new intellectual wineskins for helping people pray, prophesy and persevere, then what will be said of us? And what will we say to the God who cooperates with our costly grace? “I can do nothing,” God declares in Genesis 19, “until you arrive there.”

I am not questioning the goodwill of my generation of theologians, only whether we are in danger of failing to integrate our debt to our elders as part of our theological vocation. While many young theologians today want to make American Catholic theology more Catholic and less American, pretending that the achievements of the last 40 years of Catholic theology are our natural right -- and not an ongoing project to defend and extend -- would mean that our identity as theologians has become too American in the worst sense: too unanchored, individualized and ungrateful.

Tom Beaudoin is visiting assistant professor of theology at Boston College. His latest book is Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are With What We Buy (Sheed and Ward/Rowman and Littlefield).

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 2003

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