The recent deaths of two outstanding theologians have caused a sense of profound loss to the Catholic community. With the entry into eternal life of Bernhard Häring and Raymond Brown, Church and academy have been notably impoverished. Their deaths have prompted in me a note of poignancy since their passing marks the end of a Golden Age in modern Catholic theology. They have joined those who have “gone before us marked with the sign of faith”—Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, and Hans Urs von Balthasar to name only several. Our academic community is diminished. I am convinced that I am not a lone, cranky laudator temporis acti when I hazard the opinion that Catholic theological scholarship of their sort may not be matched for decades. Theological recession now grips us. Admittedly creative achievement moves in cycles. Just as there have been decades graced by brilliance in painting, architecture, or opera, so too theological creativity has its ups and downs. Clearly theologians born between the end of World War II (1945) and the close of Vatican II (1965) are scarcely a match for those born during the first three decades of the 20th century. Occasional articles worthy of note do appear, but rare are the brilliant syntheses that once challenged Church and theology.
Why this shift? I would argue that at least five major reasons explain this decline. The causes may be enumerated (and not in order of importance) to include: the diminishing number of theologates or seminaries run by religious congregations; unrealistic demands laid upon theologians at colleges to teach numerous undergraduate courses; estrangement between theologians and hierarchs; growing reluctance among theologians to speak assuredly about complex issues; and, finally, shifts in theology publishing houses. Climatic changes over the centuries have brought changes to the earth. And so just as glaciers and speeding comets have negatively impacted our ecological systems, so too have changes in ecclesiastical climate adversely affected theology.
The shrinking number of seminaries or theologates has had negative results. In days gone by, faculty members at those institutions had more leisure time for research and writing. Seminary professors had lighter teaching loads and could negotiate time off to undertake research projects. Seminary professors are now more stretched as they must assume more responsibilities, as clergy are reduced in numbers.
Many theologians teach in Catholic colleges and universities where they are expected to offer an array of undergraduate courses. Many of these professors are married and carry responsibilities for their family life. Although the pool of theologians has been increased to include more women, more ethnic and cultural traditions, and more diversified experiences of grace, their voices are not sufficiently heard. Teachers all too frequently need to interact with a student body that has minimal theological background and far less familiarity with Catholic culture in general. These theologians have little time for research and exploration.
In many parts of North America and Western Europe, there reigns a climate of suspicion vis-à-vis theologians. Catholics theologians are sometimes portrayed as dissenters, persons who are hyper-critical of directives emanating from higher authorities. This attitude discourages some theologians from attempting systematic syntheses especially if they would appear to be inimical to official teaching. The last quarter of this century has been less productive than were the years prior to and during Vatican II. Reading the initial volumes of the Alberigo and Komonchak History of Vatican II, one is struck by the high level of cooperation among bishops and theologians during the 1960s.
Another reason for a waning of theological discourse is theologians’ reluctance to offer grandiose syntheses rather than partial, more narrowly delineated studies on one time period or one school of theology. Because of the increased complexity of theology, more and more studies are being produced collaboratively such as Initiation à la pratique de la théologie (Cerf, 1983) or Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives (Fortress, 1991).
Finally, I would point to the decline of theological book publishing as a factor in the decline of theological research. Because of a shrinking market, the lack of Catholic reading public, and the cost of printing, publishers are reluctant to sponsor hefty tomes that might have seen the light of day much more easily in the 1950s and 1960s.
When ecumenical hopes for prompt action to effect visible church unity were alive, and when renewal seemed imminent in the first glow of post-Vatican II, I expected the last years of this century to see a wealth of theological research. In fact, publication peaked about 1968 and has subsequently declined to the point where Catholic theology is in doldrums. What will it take to reinvigorate a once promising expectation?