I’m not a theologian, but…

Chris%2520Robinson%2520%2526%2520Peter%2520Bergman%252C%2520Vicks%2520ads-8x6Years ago, there were some TV commercials for a cough syrup that became “viral” in the 80’s sense of the word, for the tagline, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” This came to mind as I began work on this post, thinking, “I’m not a theologian, but I play one on social media.” Am I an impostor? Yes, I earned a degree from a theological institution, but to be clear, it is a a Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies – not theology. Am I qualified to speak on matters of church?

This is on my mind as a very public war wages on, with me involved in some small way. New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat has been railing on about Pope Francis for quite a while now. Douthat is a Catholic, a convert, and while I am loathe to use this language, is a conservative Catholic. Am I a liberal Catholic? Many might say so, but frankly, I disdain the labels.

One of my social media connections, Dr. Massimo Faggioli, is a theologian, scholar, author, and an expert on Vatican matters. In recent weeks, he and Douthat have been slugging it out on Twitter, culminating in an open letter to the New York Times, penned by Faggioli and esteemed Jesuit, scholar, and author, John O’Malley SJ, and signed by theologians. As you might imagine, this letter has created a social media firestorm. (All of which, this post included, benefits the NYT and Douthat – page views baby, it is all about page views.) The Daily Theology blog published a copy of the letter so that others could have their names added as signers. And yes, it feels a bit awkward for me to look at the post/letter as it exists, to see my own name… and no corresponding institution of higher education listed for me. Dr. Stephen Okey, who posted the letter asked me about what it should say… I could not say either my work or worship parishes, the opinion was my own. And I am a proud alumni of St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, but my degree is not in theology – nor am I a student any longer. In the end, I let it be. As I said, now that feels awkward.

But is it awkward?

9780814647073Yes – and no. Two other posts, and countless other social media posts regarding this issue bring this into focus. Both examine the questions – must one be credentialed two speak about the church in a public forum? That along with a recent conversation (held on social media, natch) with the church social media-ista of them all (see book on left), my good friend Meredith Gould.  I’ll start with that last one… Meredith and I were discussing theology in another context, and whether or not it was a dusty old way of seeing things. For the record, it is not dusty for me, but as always, Meredith shows me other points of view that lead me to new places. Anyway, her point was brought back to me as I navigated this current matter.

The first of the aforementioned posts is from Catholic author Kaya Oakes, writing at Religion Dispatches. Kaya is herself a lecturer in the college writing program at the University of California at Berkley. Kaya, rightfully so, addresses the question, does one need to be credentialed in order to speak or write about the church and matters theological? Read the post, it is a good one. The other important post is “Why I Signed the Letter” from theologian Katie Grimes at Women in Theology. Katie addresses that perhaps all the blowback about credentials -and privilege too. Also a great read, one that has a number of theologians commenting on how they would have signed that letter instead. Me? I am fine with my first signature, but am grateful for the clarity brought forth by Katie, Kaya, and others.

giphyThis momentary firestorm is important for another reason for me, one that I find incredibly frustrating. Did I say INCREDIBLY FRUSTRATING? Sorry, I did not mean to should, but yes, I’m frustrated because of something at large…

Picture this, a New York Times or any other major media outlet for that matter, publishes an op-ed column that is critical of the pope or the church. Oh wait, that has happened, this is but one of a number of examples, or maybe this. (Note, I am not a fan of the first columnist. At. All. The second, it depends.) Perhaps the New York Times is considered anti-Catholic, which I agree it has been over time. What happens? Maybe someone in the hierarchy is critical of the paper, for example, like this. Perhaps the paper even points out some inconsistencies of said cleric.

Is it me, or has there been a real silence around any recent criticism of Pope Francis, the church, the Synod on the Family? Douthat, not for nothing, is remarkably uninformed about church history, theology, doctrine, and typically his writing lacks any context. Yet, does he get criticized by the church proper, as does his colleague Maureen Dowd? If this has happened, I have missed it. Is the New York Times being anti-Catholic when Ross Douthat writes all that he has written lately?

john-henry-newman-quotes-39250That inconsistency is worse than the Douthat thing in and of itself, and I am really struggling. I’m glad that I signed the letter, even if I am not an academic or a theologian. I do believe that the posts from both Oakes and Grimes elucidate the original situation going back to Faggioli and Douthat first going at it. That said, I wish that we would all shut up a bit, me included, (nice to add as I approach a 1000 word count… ugh) and find ways to look at ourselves as church, one Body in Christ.  Anyway, as you consider this long ramble, remember – I am not a theologian, and quite possibly, neither are you. However, we are all members of the big body, and yes – we all must change.


7 thoughts on “I’m not a theologian, but…

  1. Fran, I share the feelings you have expressed here. And, you know I share the same degree. As I added my name to the comments section of the Daily Theology blog, I wondered out loud, should I add Catholic Theological Union in parenthesis after my name? Clearly, I’m not an academic, nor can I claim I am a Theologian. But I have studied, as part of my MAPS degree, and will continue to study, systematic theology. I blog about discipleship, reflecting on biblical and theological themes, but will my credibility also be questioned because I am not a biblical scholar? I am reminded to recall the unnamed characters in Mark’s gospel who understand discipleship before the Disciples do.

    My problem with Douthat is that via his NYT byline he opines (complains) about the RCC to a readership notoriously less than friendly to Catholicism. He may be a Catholic, and he may be a gifted writer with a big job, but neither disguises that he (like most of us) still sees only trees.


  2. I saw this in my email so no pictures but as soon as I read the title I knew the reference. It’s probably equally viral as Dr. McCoy on Star Trek, “D*****, Jim I’m a Doctor….”, not a theologian. 😉 But I digress.

    I feel this post. As something of an opinion writer, I have such trouble with the labels and titles and “credentials”. I write primarily about religion and church, writing, travel, and politics. My credentials in fandom are obvious. 😛

    My point is I have a Master’s degree but am I qualified to speak on any of those topics? I feel the awkwardness but I don’t have your skill of expressing why I have the right to discuss those matters.

    Something I learned in my first job out of college: I worked for a government organization as a teacher in their early childhood/day care program. I was hot stuff with my newly minted Bachelor’s in education and my N.Y. state teaching certification. I was hired….as an assistant teacher at minimum wage. My lead teacher was a woman with a high school diploma who doubled as an aerobics instructor. I was…..angry to say the least.

    What I learned from this is that experience is just as important as formal training. I knew nothing about early childhood and she did. I learned so many things from this job, the most important being to be less judgmental about people’s experiences not being equal (or sometimes better) than formal education.

    As for signing your name, you worked hard for that degree, own it. If anyone’s concerned that you’re not a theologian, they can ask and you can say it’s Pastoral Studies but that shouldn’t preclude you from signing an opinion piece or speaking out on any subject you’re passionate about.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So rich and superb that I read this a few times, Fran. Consider this a personal triumph of yours because: 1) I’m under-caffeinated; 2) your post is long; 3) I clicked through to read the stuff you linked. (BIG fan of @kayaoakes). And, oh, where to begin? How about with our conversation.

    If I characterized theology as “dusty,” then I mis-tweeted or was trying to shorten the character length. More accurate: “viewed as too esoteric for everyday People of God to understand or feel the right to participate in with any credibility,” And I believe your distress about your credentials makes my point, as well as why I suggested #SeeGod would be a more used and recognizable hashtag than #VisualTheology for IG pics.

    Moving right along to the issue about who is a theologian: anyone who is deeply interested in and devoted to the study of how God and religious belief is constructed and reconstructed. Do you need formal education? It’s helpful. Does you need an advanced degree? Not really…except when you might be in an environment where that stuff matters. Like the New York Times.

    On that note, I’ll point out that as a sociologist with a freakin’ doctorate in that discipline, I am irked no end by the nonsense that gets trotted out online and in print by people who wouldn’t be able to analyze raw social science data if their life depended on it. And yet, I recognize that increased access to ways of observing human social behavior plus good sense minus personal bias = reasonably good sociology.

    Yes, you have every right to sign your name. You, being you, would not have added (Smart, Educated, Thoughtful Person) as your cred but could have. You also could have added the name of the institution where you studied, as well as the program.

    As for the Douthat (am I the only one who keeps thinking ‘asshat’ whenever I see his name?) dust-up, I consider it weird and convoluted in ways that only a sociologist could really sort out…a sociologist with a PhD.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fran, here are a couple thoughts…
    A theologian reflects upon the mystery of God at work in our world. Does one need credentials to do that? I don’t think so. Women, men, and children do that every day.

    Now, do credentials make a difference? Somewhat. What one has studied should offer depth and breadth to the person’s insight, right? Sure.

    Do theologians make pronouncements that are infallible? Don’t think so. On our better days, what I want to do, that is, intend to do, is engage in a conversation by bringing to it what I have been blest to receive and the insights that have come from so many years of living.

    Therefore, I propose that a theologian would want to 1) admit upfront to personal biases and to the corporate prejudgments of this or that ideologically compatible group one belongs; 2) admit upfront to what insights she/he brings to the conversation in the spirit of “take what you need and leave the rest;” 3) admit upfront that she/he doesn’t know every angle on a given topic and shows it in the language employed in the conversation; and 4) admit upfront motives for writing (“I want to rip your head off” and the like) or at least admit when one is writing in defensive anger or posturing so as not to look like a fool in the eyes of millions.

    What if it’s all about being responsible for how we converse as much as what we say? Just a thought. –roc,sj


    • Roc, I don’t have time to address all of your points, but I can’t help but take a moment to offer this observation… As far as I am concerned, the composers from the early days of the post-conciliar church were the earliest of theologians. How you helped us all to hear, to sing, to embody the liturgy in ways we could have never imagined. That was my own earliest theologizing, every time I sang. To this day, when I suggest that a grieving family consider using Be Not Afraid at the funeral of their beloved one, the tears flow even if they have not been in church for 20 years. THAT is living theology, pastoral theology – that is Christ alive. Thank you for this.


      • Thanks so much, Fran, that’s kind of you. I never thought of the work of composers-as-theologians before. I like it.

        One thing to add. Perhaps Mr. D. is being retained by the NYT to sell more newspapers and to highlight their brand. –roc,sj


        • Roc – you are so right on that last line. This battle wages on and I am turning away. I see my own desire to want to engage, but not any more.

          As for the thought of composers as theologians, I must credit the wisdom of my spiritual director, a CSJ sister. The context of how it came up in conversation in general was that we were discussing having seen John Foley a few evenings before… Everything is indeed connected. Peace, and thanks for reading and commenting.


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