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!

12 responses to “The CTSA Kerfuffle: Struggle On Sisters and Brothers

  1. Just to note one point of fact. It was the CTSA board who (after hearing concern voiced internally regarding the number of conservatives who’d left the Society) to frame this issue in terms of “theological diversity.” More than one person invited by the president of the CTSA to serve on a “Committee on Theological Diversity” (myself included) noted that they would not have framed it in this way.

    • Thanks for this clarification. I’ll update the post with a note to look at your comment. Peace.

  2. Brad, I’m sorry that you seem so skeptical of attempts to have genuine theological diversity at the CTSA. Before making my point, can I ask you to be less condescending to those of us who don’t identify as liberals or conservatives. (Dismissive phrases like “calm down” don’t invite engagement.)

    So, I totally agree with you “about opening space so that the interests of the historically marginalized are able to be put forth and advanced.” Of course, we’d need the qualifications about “whose history?” and “what counts as marginalization?” Your concrete examples are familiar, especially from the standpoint of those of us who are critical of the influence of the academic left in theology: “white-supremacy, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy.” In fact, plenty of today’s secular liberal arts departments–departments which either despise or completely ignore theology–would give the same list.

    Beyond your important examples, and speaking for myself, I’d ask why speciesism didn’t make the cut. Or why discrimination against prenatal children wasn’t mentioned. These concerns raise up marginal, voiceless, vulnerable populations that have been historically pushed to the margins and are victims of the kind of horrific violence that, frankly, makes your examples look like walks in the park. But they didn’t make your list.

    That they didn’t is a classic example of why the question of theological diversity is prior to the important concerns you raise. Only with a commitment to theological diversity–and rigorous argument and debate between people with different points of view–will we have a truly open and honest, critical and academic conversation about who the marginalized are and what ought to be done to aid their flourishing and the flourishing of the common good.

    • Hi Charlie,

      Without getting into a whole big thing (mostly because I don’t have time today), I think you and I differ on what you see as the academic left’s “influence” on theology – as if there’s this pure category called “theology” that is outside of or separate from this other pure category called “secular.”

      As for my examples of historical marginalization, I believe the three systems I mentioned are broad enough to include both speciesism and the not-yet-born. For the link between specisism and heteropatriarchy see Carl Adams’ “The Sexual Politics of Meat.” For the link between specisism and white-supremacy see Marjorie Spiegel’s “The Dreaded Comparison.” The link between heteropatriarchy and abortion has been well presented by much of the research and resources provided by Feminists for Life (, and the Pro-life Alliance of Gay and Lesbians ( has likewise provided insightful analysis along these lines. I certainly was not intending to mean that the systems of capitalism, white-supremacy, and heteropatriarchy only oppress the specific groups I mentioned (women, GLBT, people of color, etc.,). These systems wreak havoc all around and should rightly be called to responsibility – as you do – for many and multiple kinds of suffering.

      • As a big fan of Adams’ book, and a card-carrying (literally) member of Feminists for Life, I’m aware that the categories you invoke (or a tweaked version of them…at least in my view) can be used to lift up the marginalized populations I highlighted.The fact that they are not so used, however, in most circles of academy dominated by the left (especially when it comes to prenatal children…we are starting to get a tiny bit better when it comes to non-human animals), including the circles of power at the CTSA, is telling. The CTSA would do well to allow for more theological diversity such that, whether using these categories or others, we have actual, critical debate about who counts as a marginalized population and what ought to be done about it. It seems wrongheaded simply to stipulate answers to these questions, and then question the priority (and perhaps the motives?) of those who call for theological diversity. Let’s have actual debate between people with diverse points of view.

      • I never called for anything less than “actual debate between people with diverse views” (and I believe clarifying motives is part of that debate). To wit, from my post:

        “…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.”

  3. Brad, thank you for this very thoughtful and insightful reflection. I only wish to add a certain clarification. I think it is a mistake to identify the CTSA board’s concern for theological diversity directly with Paul Griffiths’ own theological project. Inviting him may have been an exercise in the board’s concern to expand the voices that are being heard in our Society but that doesn’t mean his own fundamental theology aligns with either the board or the CTSA committee on theological diversity. It certainly doesn’t align with my own views. Hence I am in considerable sympathy with your critique of Griffiths’ oddly de-contextualized account of the theological enterprise.

    As for the motivations behind expanding theological diversity in the Society, I think it is to further enrich the catholicity of theological conversation. In our quest to receive God’s revelation within history we must be open to the possibility that echoes of God’s Word, through the power of the Spirit, may emerge from difficult conversations with people with whom we may be in profound disagreement. My own theology, as an exercise in discerning what God may be saying to us today, is impoverished when it is not sharpened and tested by substantive argument with others. All of theology is impoverished when the range of views which we engage is narrowed (indeed this is one of the many points at which I take issue with Griffiths and believe his cricket/baseball analogy misses the mark). The motivation underlying the board’s initiative, in other words, was never merely an issue of equal representation as you suggest.

    Finally, it seems to me that the extraordinary richness of the theological conversation elicited by Griffiths’ provocative address on such blogs as Daily Theology, Catholic Moral Theology and Commonweal seems to vindicate this commitment.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Richard (if I may). Between you and Holly, I realize I was implicating the board and their decisions in ways that I didn’t mean to. I was writing partly out of ignorance (I’m a new member) regarding the full history, and partly out of reaction to Griffiths’ talk and the comments made at the evening session on diversity. I appreciate your clarification and certainly stand corrected. I too, as I hope to have made clear in my post, believe that engaging a range of views is both invaluable and necessary. I simply wished to clarify my thoughts on what such “engagement” means. Again, I appreciate your thoughts. Peace.

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