Catholic Theology at the University of Virginia


Nichole Flores is Catholic and teaches Catholicism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.  In the May 2017 issue of America she tells us what that is like.

Here is a taste:

Richard Gaillardetz, now the Joseph Chair of Catholic Systematic Theology and chair of the theology department at Boston College, worked for a decade at the University of Toledo. Like Sister Clifford, he found that some university community members were worried about religion having any role in the life of the university. Many of his fellow academics, he says, “presumed outdated 19th-century notions of social scientific ‘objectivity’ and then used that as the basis to negate any place for theology, properly speaking, to be included in the public conversation of the university.” In this theory of knowledge, detachment is consecrated as the first principle. Catholic theology, by definition, cannot be extracted from its foundational principles—faith in the triune God, Scripture as the revealed word of God and the church as mediator of revelation, to name a few—and thus can generate suspicion among those who would seek to protect the religious neutrality of public institutions.

But this drive for scientific objectivity and perfect neutrality fails to account for the ubiquitous presence of religion in U.S. public life. According to the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Study, more than three-quarters of people in the United States claim to be religious. Religious language pervades political discourse from protests to presidential elections. Religious beliefs are implicated in some of the most challenging social issues of our time. Former Secretary of State John Kerry once warned in the pages of America that “we ignore the global impact of religion at our peril.” Failure to attend to the religious dimensions of our common life hinders the pursuit of the common good.

From my perspective as a Catholic theological ethicist, it is precisely theology’s strong, consistent affirmation of the particular values of the Catholic social tradition—dignity, justice and the common good—that allows for its unique perspective on the relationship between belief and practice. The Catholic faith is a public faith, asserting truths that touch every aspect of human life. Its public character emerges from its specific theological claim that each human being is created in the image of God and thus has inherent dignity. Scriptural mandates to care for the most vulnerable members of society pervade the church’s theological and moral teachings. Implementing these goods calls upon Catholics, and people of different faith traditions, to engage their beliefs in a religiously and culturally pluralistic public realm.

I was grateful to find a community of scholars who either shared, or at least respected, the demands of living out a public faith. Faculty members in my department had a range of relationships to Catholicism: some had been raised Catholic, some had attended Jesuit schools and some were theologians from other traditions. As luck would have it, I moved into the office next to a renowned Jesuit historian who helped me connect to a local parish and kept me grounded in all things Ignatian.

But this hospitable and collaborative environment did not always extend to the rest of the university community. In some quarters, I found my scholarship was considered conservative for engaging sources from deep within the Catholic tradition. In others, I was called a radical for my commitment to social justice and my methodological commitment to experience and context as crucial sources of knowledge. Both camps viewed my work as marginal and dangerously close to breaching the wall.

Read the rest here.

At one point in the above excerpt Flores writes:  “Failure to attend to the religious dimensions of our common life hinders the pursuit of the common good.”  Despite this fact, it seems that most secular colleges and universities do not hire people of faith based on the conviction that their religious beliefs will add to the collective life of the university.  Rather, they tend to hire people of faith in spite of their religious beliefs.  To put it differently, they want people who are able to bracket their faith from the classroom and scholarship.

Some scholars of faith searching for a university post have pedigrees and vitas that enable them to keep their personal religious convictions out of the search process.  These candidates know that in order to advance in the search they should probably keep silent about their religious beliefs.  These beliefs, after all, are irrelevant in the modern university.

But those scholars who have attended faith-based institutions, especially evangelical faith-based institutions, do not have the luxury of staying silent about their pedigrees. People on search committees will ask them about it.  As a graduate of two evangelical institutions (including an evangelical seminary) I got asked about this a lot.  Some people were simply curious.  Others were more hostile.  I quickly realized that in order to win their trust I had to always preface conversations about my pedigree with a phrase like “I am not that kind of evangelical.”

I think it’s fair to say that I am not that kind of evangelical, but why did I always feel the need to make this clear?  (This has stuck with me. When I am in secular settings I am always asked about Messiah College. I usually respond with something like “we are not that kind of Christian college”).

Will we ever get to the point where these caveats will not be needed?  Will we ever get to the point where evangelical scholars will land positions at research universities not in spite of their evangelicalism, but because of it?  Probably not in my lifetime.

But Flores’s piece offers hope.  I was encouraged by it.  I appreciate the way she tries to navigate her Catholicism and her teaching of Catholicism in a public university.  And I appreciate that a place like the University of Virginia seems to support her in her efforts.

2 thoughts on “Catholic Theology at the University of Virginia

  1. When one interviewer saw that I had done my BA and MA at Bob Jones, he asked if I planned to use the lectern as a pulpit and the front of the classroom as an alter. I think I responded something similar to “I am not that kind of evangelical.” 😇


  2. Yes, thank you for sharing this! I have attended Catholic universities and received an undergraduate degree in theology. I’m preparing to start doctoral studies in history in the fall, but during the course of my visits to potential schools more than one department head appeared baffled by the theology degree. “But…you’re not in ministry? I thought people only did that to work for a church.” I usually explain that I did it out of personal interests, as well as how I feel that benefited my work as an historian. It’s encouraging to budding scholars who profess a religious faith to see established scholars willing to be open about theirs.


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