February 20, 2022 Essay: The Birth of American Catholic Theology

Feb 17, 2022

One of the beauties of youth consists in the illusion that the world has always been the way one finds it. One of the deeper characteristics of maturity is to know that it was not. When a young person asks, “What is a fountain pen?” you suddenly realize and gasp at the difference. We are approaching the point where many take American Catholic theology for granted. This lecture intends to show that at one time, not so long ago really, there was no American Catholic theology. Catholic theology was either Roman or perhaps more generally European. Today there is an American Catholic theology.

Time also mediates the ability to understand what this theology consists of. One might think that a thorough description of what is going on in the theology departments of our universities would do the trick; but it can’t, at least not adequately. Each of the features of Catholic theology as it unfolds today arose because in various ways the ground under our theologians’ feet shifted. Things change from generation to generation. Prior to Vatican II, certain features of theology were in place and had been for a long time. Then, like water rising behind a dam when Vatican II shook the Catholic world, the dam was breached, and a flood of new ideas swept through the minds of Catholic theologians.

Much of what was released by the Council could be called at the time “experimental,” projections of new ideas that may or may not have taken hold. But other ideas corresponded with what everyone knew were true because they corresponded with knowledge from other sources and other forms of everyday life. Once spoken, these kinds of basic expressions of experiential knowledge could not be called back. The ten to fifteen years after Vatican II were both confusing and creative. This was when the birth of American Catholic theology took place. But like a child on unsteady legs gradually learns to run and jump, the next forty years gave American Catholic theology plenty of time to come of age.

This is a story that still needs to be told in depth and detail. But two sources are readily available for the impressionistic but documented account that this lecture will provide. They are the Jesuit-sponsored theological journal, Theological Studies, which began to publish Catholic theological scholarship quarterly in the spring of 1940. The other mine containing rich deposits is The Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, which came into existence after the war in 1946. It contains the record of the yearly discussions of this professional society that was founded in that year.

What is the conclusion to this story of American Catholic theology? I’m sure that nobody would be surprised by the easy answer that there is no conclusion because we participate in time, which is always in motion. But we should be able to do a little better than that. One form of the conclusion might attempt evaluation. But one need not praise the computer at the expense of the fountain pen. Valuation is far too complicated for a short talk. Another form of theological conclusion can more objectively appeal to Catholic conciliar thinking. Whatever may be said about American Catholic theology, it has performed what Vatican II called for: to adjust Catholic thinking to the culture it inhabits.

— Rev. Roger Haight, S.J., Union Theological Seminary

Join us on Monday, February 28th at 7 PM in the Church and via livestream for the lecture The Birth of American Catholic Theology, presented by Fr. Haight. For more information, please click here.