The Role of Young Theologians

This week I had intended to write on the lack of U.S. media coverage of the Burmese Cyclone that hit May 2 and the devastation and countless deaths that followed as a result of the tyrannical Myanmar government, but John Allen published a very interesting article in NCR on Friday, and I couldn’t pass up discussing it since there are so many young theologians contributing to this blog. So I will offer two links to begin this post. First, if my lead off on the de-facto genocide taking place in Burma, which has actually been going on for 40 years, has peaked your interest, please visit to find out more and take action if you feel called.

As for young theologians, Allen’s article,, offers a discussion on what theologians face today that previous generations have not. Maureen O’Connell, an assistant professor at Fordham, is Allen’s protagonist. She recently addressed the Theological Society of America whose annual conference focused on Generations: Pre-Vatican II, Vatican II, Post Vatican II, and Millennial Catholics. O’Connell believes that “[young] theologians are often expected to carry the weight for broader debates in the church about Catholic identity – including…growing pressure to be the ‘right’ kind of theologian for Catholics of widely differing theological and political outlooks.” Essentially she is arguing that those of us who formally study theology are called to represent not only the entire Church and the comprehensive Catholic identity (not even the pope can do that!) but also our entire generation in nearly every encounter we have. I attended a wonderfully small, liberal-arts Catholic university in Portland, Oregon—the “least churched state in the country” with more people ascribing to no religion than to any organized one—and the theology department, both faculty and students, were regularly called to represent and answer for all things Catholic. Everyone seemed expected to be in full agreement with the Church on every issue yet be open minded so as not to offend any student or interested party that came near. Because of the climate of the “Godless Northwest,” there are very few students who study theology (there were THREE of us in my graduating class of nearly 600), and we were consistently being asked for formal interviews, and more often, personal advice from other students. I once asked my Methodist roommate why so many conversations with very diverse people, including my friend-group, always seemed to turn to theologically related topics with me playing expert and pastoral counselor? She said it was because that most people didn’t know any other non-threatening (read “non- proselytizing”) people who had both formal answers but also a pastoral sense. I would argue that O’Connell is right in that theologians can no longer be the strict academics that they once were and are instead called to be everything faith related to everybody. The theology department even developed a new award to be given to outstanding seniors inspired by the changes in the millennial generation; the Henricus Baasten Memorial Award is given “in acknowledgement of outstanding creative practice of theology in ministry to the Church and World.”

“O’Connell said, many younger theologians today feel a need to try to be of pastoral service to the church – working with disparate movements such as Voice of the Faithful, the Focolare and Sant’Egidio, for example, or writing for non-specialized audiences outside the academy. Those activities, she said, represent an attempt to ‘fill in the pastoral gaps.’” In a world where so many people seem to be in need of pastoral care and discussions of faith, why is it that people are finding a place for discussion with theologians rather than their parish priests or pastoral associates? Is it fair that we formal theologians are being called to be everything to everybody? As for me, I think we are being asked to do a lot, but it is not necessarily a bad thing—just a bit overwhelming. Theology must be practically applied to people’s lives (even if they don’t realize that it is theology), in order to more holistically reach people and help them on their faith journeys. Perhaps our society’s divorce of religion and culture will actually lead to more integrated individuals who do theology in every aspect of life, a realization that all of us in fact are theologians.

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.


3 thoughts on “The Role of Young Theologians

  1. I’d say what you describe is true, not just of trained theologians but also of us amateurs. Speaking for myself, I often find myself called upon in casual social situations to be the “Voice of the Church” — again, because I have a pretty good sense of what I’m talking about (most of the time) but I don’t come across as an evangelical Bible-thumper.

    I remember in particular a former boss of mine when I was a projectionist at a movie theater in Portland, Maine. When we got Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” he kept bugging me to go see it so he would know what to tell customers who asked about it.

  2. As someone currently in theology studies with the hopes of working professionally (in some dimension as a theologian), I resonated a lot with what both you and Maureen O’Connell had to say. I also found the comments underneath John Allen’s article to be very interesting.

    I feel like a lot of this debate as to do with identity: what are you, at your core? Am I a theologian, who as an academic is trying to speak within a discipline about Christianity, who has an allegiance first and foremost to academic excellence and integrity? Or am I a Christian who talks about God in some sort of professional context whose primary allegiance is to the Church in which I find myself?

    I feel like there is a third answer. I am a Catholic theologian, which means I live in the tension between the academic and pastoral worlds. It means I live in tension between what I believe, what the Church believes, and what the world expects me to believe. It means that I have allegiances both to the academy and to the Church and these two things are somehow integrally related. It is not an either/or. It’s a both/and which makes it all the harder, all the more complex, and ultimately, all the more blessed.

    I think that our generation, like the generations before it, is struggling to figure out what we are called to in the current state of the world. And that happens to be a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

  3. Is it possible that as the unchurched population grows they grow in their inability to discern spiritual things and therefore reach out to anyone who may be able to discern it for them?

    Jesus spoke to people the way He did because He knew that those with faith in God and more importantly, Himself, would be able to discern the spiritual. Those who came for bread or the miracles were only looking for the physical and most missed out on what He said and meant. Imagine missing the point when Jesus spoke!

    Regarding “She said it was because that most people didn’t know any other non-threatening (read “non- proselytizing”) people who had both formal answers but also a pastoral sense.” Imagine if Jesus Christ had never said anything “threatening”? I guess He never would have been crucified and we would still be in our sins. What things are we not saying because we are afraid of being crucified?

    Dear Becky C,
    Have allegiance with Jesus Christ and you will never go wrong. You may suffer for it, but you will never go wrong.

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