The CTSA Kerfuffle: Struggle On Sisters and Brothers


*Please see a note of clarification from Holly Taylor-Coolman in the first comment in the comments section below


As I wade into the discussion about the recent happenings at the Catholic Theological Society of America’s (CTSA) annual convention in San Diego (see here, herehere, and here for instance) I am aware of multiple issues I would like to address. In fact, one could probably write a book-length analysis of the ways in which concepts and practices such as theology, diversity, inclusion, and so on, have been construed and deployed by various interested parties.

Fortunately, a blog post inevitably limits my considerations, and so, while acknowledging there are many important points to which to attend, I will here restrict myself to two: one, as I just mentioned, is the notion of “interested parties;” the second, involves consideration of what actually constitutes the practice of theology. My treatment here will be insufficient – again, this is a blog post – but perhaps I can offer something of worth to the conversation.

Power, Interest, and Diversity

In his recent post over at Catholic Moral Theology, Jason King reminds us that the CTSA wields power. While true enough, I suggest that the amorphous term “power” can be more precisely defined as the ability to forward one’s interests – and by “one” here I mean individuals, societies, parties, corporations, or whatever kind it is that is under consideration – in a particular sphere of life. In this sense, power is wielded on varying levels by each and every one of us; we are all interested parties. The more pertinent question, I think, has to do with the actual interests themselves. In other words, what are the motivations behind attempts at and uses of power?

Let’s take the issue of theological diversity. On the surface, the concept of theological diversity appears to be about opening up space or spaces for a range of multiple theological articulations. That’s fine for what it is. On a deeper level, however, the question of theological diversity is one of power. This is to say that theological diversity is a question of motivation; a question of who is attempting and/or able to move forward whatever interests. Thus, rather than any sense that diversity simply means the equal representation of different voices, the bigger issue, I submit, is the substantive content and hence the interests behind what is being articulated.

Diversity and its Cooptation

The first wave of voices calling for greater diversity and inclusion sprang from the lived experience of those whose interests have been consistently and systematically marginalized. This marginalization takes place in the social, political, economic, and cultural arenas (S,P,E,& C) and historically has coalesced around the markers of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Those with certain markers – such as white, male, capitalist, and heterosexual – have consistently and systematically been able to forward their own interests precisely by wielding the social, political, economic and cultural power to marginalize the interests of others. The original calls for diversity were, then, not simply about equal representation of voices, but about the ability to advance the social, political, economic, and cultural interests of the marginalized.

This, of course, does not mean that every person of color, every woman, everyone outside of the economic ruling class, or every GLBT person (noting here that these groups are not so discreet and tend to intersect) has the same analysis of their historical situation. This throws a wrench in the concept of diversity. A gay, black republican will not have the same interests as a straight, white socialist. Thus, it is not simply membership in one group or another that fully determines one’s interests (although there is, to be sure, a strong correlation, and members of historically marginalized groups have de facto priority in articulating their experience and interests and must be listened to in good faith). In the end, one’s politics are ultimately chosen and are the result of many factors.  This is precisely what I mean by the interest or motivation behind different voices being more important than literal representation.

We have as an example the recent cooptation of “diversity” and “inclusion” by conservatives (calm down my post-partisan friends, I acknowledge labels are imperfect, but I also acknowledge that they are indispensable). Rather than focusing on the (S,P, E, & C) marginalized, diversity has been deployed in these quarters to mean working against any attempt by the historically marginalized to forward their own interests. Take the issue of civil marriage between gay/lesbian folks. It’s not hard to find instances of self-proclaimed heterosexuals (both individually and as a class) who believe that their opposition to such marriages now renders them marginalized and that the values of diversity and inclusion are violated every time their voices are silenced by courts and public opinion. This understanding of diversity occludes the question of interest and motivation, that is, it covers over the fact that these particular heterosexuals are interested in maintaining the marginalization of gay/lesbian interests. Instead, the emphasis is on representation, as if every group or class should be equally represented despite the substance of what they are representing.

Theological Diversity

With all this in mind, my question about the concern for theological diversity in the CTSA is, “To what end?” The simple representation of different voices is not, in my view, the point of diversity. Rather, diversity is always about opening space so that the interests of the historically marginalized are able to be put forth and advanced. More concretely, this means proffering a critique and analysis from a political position committed to undoing white-supremacy, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy. While I do not have the space to argue in full that these three systems are historically responsible for the lived experiences of oppression that triggered the original calls for diversity and social transformation, suffice it to say that it is not unreasonable nor unrealistic to claim that it is only in working against these systems that one can truly be said to represent the (S,P,E,& C) interests of the historically marginalized. As much as there may be individual members of marginalized groups who claim otherwise, reality bears forth the opposite truth, allowing for a vigorous and realist defense of this position (which again, in what is sure to be read as a cop-out by some, I cannot give here without writing a chapter or two on the subject).

So, what are the aims of those who claim that theological diversity means including the representation of conservative voices? Is this simply a procedural move that defines diversity and inclusion along the lines of equal representation despite content? What are the actual interests behind conservative articulations of theology? Does the content of conservative theology really advance the kind of diversity I have defined as forwarding the interests of the historically (S,P,E,& C) marginalized? Does it actively work against this latter definition?

Theological Interests: Paul Griffiths

Of course, all of this is implicated in how one understands the point of doing theology. What is the interest, motivation, or aim of practicing theology? Listening to Paul Griffiths, I understood his answer to this question as involving three things: discovering content from the magisterially defined Tradition; interpreting what has been discovered; and speculating rationally over what has been discovered and interpreted. A further caveat holds that all of this is no more than a matter of clarifying magisterial teaching, and as such, is always subject to final magisterial approval and correction.  Thus the aim or interest of theology, as Griffiths states it, is “to bring the Church to greater cognitive intimacy with the LORD… The LORD wants us to know him as best we can, and the theologian contributes to that knowledge, or may do so if her work goes well.”

While I am sure no one would begrudge Griffiths’ aim of furthering cognitive intimacy with the LORD, when combined with his understanding of theology, I find his notion of intimacy to be all too reductive, indeed, privatized. This is a contextless and ahistorical understanding of theology, profoundly oblivious to the social, political, economic, and cultural situations in which it is practiced. Further, it lacks any sense or understanding of power and the ways in which various interests are caught up in discovering, interpreting, and speculating on the Tradition. The interests of the magisterium in this understanding are also defined in narrowly reductive and privatized terms – as if the Church and its teaching authority float above the conditions of historical existence.

Ultimately, Griffiths’ ideas are based on a truncated understanding of revelation as something that is itself immune from history. While this revelation is strangely said to come from within history in the form of Jesus Christ, it appears from Griffiths’ comments that once Jesus gave this “deposit of faith” to the Church’s magisterium, revelation as a historical reality came to an end. Nothing more is left for us to do than to continually discover, interpret, and speculate about this very specific deposit while the magisterium keeps us within the proper bounds, that is, from allowing merely historical circumstances and conventions to tarnish the purity of the original deposit.

What is being promulgated here is a theology without social, political, economic, or cultural interests, a theology whose only concern is advancing cognitive intimacy with the LORD; an intimacy that, as such, is separate from concern for any other goods such as (in Griffiths’ own words) “social justice, perhaps; or world peace; or the preservation of the created order—as if pursuing these things were theology’s primary task.” The LORD, and theology’s concern with the LORD, is here separated from the vicissitudes of the world

Theological Interests: Integral Salvation

Along with others, however, I refuse this false separation between the LORD and the world, between spirituality and materiality, between doctrine and revelation. As Stephen Okey said in private correspondence (and this definitely DOES NOT mean that he agrees with anything I’ve written here), what’s lost is “the body and experience from theology, which is a problem for people into the incarnation.” Revelation is God’s self-communication  made incarnate such that we can no longer claim a separation between the divine and the world (even as there is clearly a massive ontological difference or gap between God and creation). This is to say that it is precisely from and within creation that intimacy with the LORD can be discovered, interpreted, and speculated on. This means that we can find God in all things, that our experience, our politics, our economics, our history, our daily lives, and so on, can reveal (or conceal) the divine.

This last point – the revealing or concealing capacity of creation – brings us around again to the question of theological diversity. The aim of theology, in my perspective, is also to advance intimacy with the LORD, and to do so precisely by taking up the concerns of the LORD as the LORD has revealed them to us. I think the best phrase for these concerns is “integral salvation,” the spiritual and material salvation and liberation of the human person. The primary witness to the LORD’s concern with integral salvation is Scripture, and the primary concerns evidenced in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as disclosed therein is the good news of salvation and liberation to the historically marginalized and the good news of salvation and liberation to those whose interests are advanced at the expense of the marginalized (each group hearing the good news as it resonates distinctly according to their situation). This integral salvation is also mediated through the sacraments, liturgy, the poor, historical experience, the magisterium, the sensus fidelium, doctrine, music, art, experiences of negative contrast, prayer, literature, nature, prophets, and so on (with each of these occupying different levels of importance).

From this perspective, any practice called theology that is not on the side of the historically marginalized and is not primarily concerned with the world (that is, things such as social justice, world peace, or the preservation of creation) as the arena for advancing intimacy with the LORD, cannot rightly be called Christian or Catholic theology.

What Is To Be Done?

This does not mean, in reverse, that anyone writing about social justice is doing theology or that all programs or movements claiming to work on behalf of the historically marginalized are not subject to critique. Instead, this means that we have some realistic grounds from which to discuss, argue, judge, persuade, and even reconcile. In this sense there is no problem with including voices from multiple perspectives, as long as the substantive content is being dealt with forthrightly. The problem comes when we try to gloss over the reality of differences so as to establish some sort of diversity of equal representation.

Thus, if more conservative perspectives are to be entertained, progressives (again, calm down post-partisan readers) must not shy away from calling out the real interests and motivations of conservatives by challenging their assumptions and pointing to the actual effects in the world to which their kind of theologizing leads. Likewise, progressives must be open to interrogation of our interests and motivations, our assumptions, and the actual effects in the world to which our kind of theologizing leads.

Some see this kind of mutual critical interrogation as inimical to the unity of the Body of Christ. They see all division and difference as evidence of breakdown. This, to my mind, is to once again separate the LORD from the world. It is to substitute an eschatological hope for a fully instantiated present reality. It is to ignore the different valences of Jesus’ own proclamation of the good news; the different meanings that were heard by different groups. The attempt to unite divisions by a diversity of equal representation is ultimately a form of idealism – it substitutes the reality of an asymmetrical division of resources (economic, social, ecclesiastical, political, etc.,) with the notion that equal representation in and of itself somehow transforms the latter reality.

The Body of Christ IS divided. Some members eat and drink while others are crucified. Unification comes not from the diversity of equal representation, but from struggle – theoretical and practical – over these divisions, from exposing them to light so that we can see them in all their bloody, discordant reality. To be sure, this struggle must be carried out according to the ends we wish to reach, that is, it must be non-violent, respectful of human dignity, persuasive rather than coercive, making room for the possibility of conversion and change, hoping and acting for the true good and flourishing of the other, and so on. Yet, it must truly be a struggle, and in this sense will be uncomfortable, destabilizing, and perilous for all involved.


I, perhaps peremptorily, end this already too long reflection here, but I want to reiterate that I am fully aware I have not addressed every nuance or detail necessary to fully defend what I have written. I am, in fact, completely cognizant of areas that are insufficiently dealt with. Nevertheless, I offer this imperfect post (what else, after all, could it be) for creative thought and reflection, hoping to take my own advice to be open to interrogation and critique and to do so with respect and with the risk that I might need to change, expand, defend, or give up some of my positions. Thanks, dear reader, whoever you are, for making it to the end!