Two Years Among the Liberal Theologians

The brain-blowing combination of asserting that what is not Catholic teaching is somehow Catholic teaching and then shrieking like a frightened schoolgirl when the word "heresy" is uttered is what the American Catholic/Jesuit theological academy is all about

Once, I was a theologian.

But, to tell you the truth, as a believing Catholic who seeks to understand what it is she believes, I am still a theologian. I was taught this on the first day of my “Method in Theology” class in Toronto, and it wrote itself permanently on my heart. All believing Catholics who seek to understand what it is they believe are Catholic theologians, which means that Ross Douthat is a Catholic theologian. His academic critics are … academics. Some of them may be Catholic theologians, but I wouldn’t assume that—especially not if they got their training at Boston College.

“Own your heresy” tweeted Douthat, and Father James Martin, SJ seemed to throw up his hands in holy horror. Oh, how irresponsible! Oh, how potentially damaging to a career! Oh, how the CDF will swoop down like a wolf upon the fold. Except it won’t, and it almost never does—and they’re too busy packing up Monsignor Charamsa’s office right now anyway.

The brain-blowing combination of asserting that what is not Catholic teaching is somehow Catholic teaching and then shrieking like a frightened schoolgirl when the word “heresy” is uttered is what the American Catholic/Jesuit theological academy is all about, and I should know. I was in it for two of the most miserable years of my life.

As the Affair Douthat unfolds, I keep attaching faces to the names I hadn’t heard or seen for many years. One of them belongs to an active homosexual who brought his boyfriend along on the departmental retreat and shared a room with him. Another belongs to an active unmarried heterosexual who brought his girlfriend along on the departmental retreat and shared a room with her. They were both very pleasant and cheerful men. I liked them very much—which does not erase the facts that they did not believe the teaching of the Catholic Church concerning sexual morality and that today they are professional Catholic theologians.

Boston College. It’s been ten years since I first turned up for “Accepted Students Day”, and eight years since I left with my professional hopes in tatters, but the very name still plunges me into depression. The contrast between the loving, thoughtful environment of my Canadian theologate and the neurotic, boastful, overrated, double-faced snake pit that was the Boston College theology department transformed me from one of the “rock stars” of my Canadian college—successfully juggling coursework and three jobs, graduating magna cum laude—into a hysterical wreck, unable to read print.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola composed a prayer that begins, “Take, Lord, my liberty, my understanding, my entire will”. In the post-Vatican II era it was set to a jolly tune, and I had sung it blithely in Toronto without the slightest clue what losing one’s understanding might mean. In my case it meant forcing myself, in agony, to make the little black marks on the page make sense and then exploding in fury when the document before me was merely some speculative nonsense about a “Markian” community that may or may not have existed. “Might”, “should”, “it could be”: the weasel words of academia.

I had worked enormously hard to get to Boston College—three years of busting my brain and non-stop reading, writing, volunteering, ministry placements, jobs—and I had loved it. When I got the phone call on February 24, 2005 telling me I had been accepted for the Boston College PhD program in theology, my heart ached with joy. My life—I was still a single woman then—was finally on track: I would finish my PhD, get a job in a Jesuit college, walk forever in the groves of academe, well paid, serving God doing what I loved best.

Reality slapped me in the face when I arrived for “Accepted Students Day”—April 1, I believe. April Fool’s Day. The Holy Father, John Paul II, was dying. This was uppermost on my mind, and when, at a meet-and-greet, I found myself face-to-face with a celebrated (in the USA and Canada, that is) professor, I said something like “Isn’t it sad about the Holy Father?” and he said—to me, whom he had just met—”I think he’s dead already and they’re just covering it up.”

I was staggered. I don’t know what I replied, but no doubt it was Canadian-polite. At one point I was mysteriously whisked away by a plainclothes nun-professor who had a conspiratorial air. She chatted about her own time in my hometown, and I had the impression I had been singled out stealthily. But why?

That was what it was like for the next two years. Outrageous gossip about professors and theologians I respected as heroes. (“So, Dorothy, does X have AIDS?” “Y was a drunk, of course.” “I hope it’s true Z had a mistress.”) Conspiracy. (“Tell me, Dorothy, what does Professor Q say in his classes about….”) Outrageous remarks. (“Bishops are thugs!”) Boasting. (“And I said, ‘Senator…’”) And paranoia. Insane paranoia. (“Dorothy, don’t write that down!“)

To my amazement, I discovered that a professor I admired was nervous of me because he thought I was “conservative”—not a good thing to be in the Boston College theology department, let me tell you. (“But I thought I was center-left”, I wailed to a friend from home.) And after a visiting priest-professor had a neurotic hissy fit aimed at me before all my classmates—because I questioned his view that the ordained priesthood and Sunday Mass attendance were ultimately doomed—and I complained to the priest-professor in charge of this class, he suggested that this man, too, was afraid of me.

Me: a small 35-year-old graduate student from Canada, a PhD student far from home, completely dependent on my stipend, my future career dependent on the goodwill of my professors. Him: a tall, 50-odd year old American Jesuit priest with tenure at an insanely wealthy American Jesuit university. But somehow I was the scary one, as if I spent my evenings on the phone denouncing all my professors to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As if the CDF really had the time to chase every random American professor in Catholic academia. As if these professors were actually that important or influential. Of course, Benedict XVI was the pope then, and my stars, how the hissy-fit throwing professor hated him.

What I did not know, when I blithely applied to study with them, was that the Boston College professors whose books I had admired did not publish what they really thought. I had no idea, for example, that one woman professor was all in favour of women’s ordination until I turned up in Boston and saw a Charles Dana Gibson cartoon of an elegant Gibson Girl wearing preaching bands stuck to her office door. The delicate balance I had admired, the appeal to both liberals and conservatives while sticking to the bounds of orthodoxy, was just a clever trick.  The profs would say what they liked in class to their students; tape recorders were, of course, banned.

There was also a lot of theological arm-twisting. In one scarring incident, a pastoral theology professor showed up to my PhD seminar class with two large female henchmen-students and photocopies of an article about Archbishop Sean O’Malley’s obedience to the Roman directive not to allow Catholic adoption agencies to give children to same-sex couples. The topic of the seminar turned out to be, “How do we convince the Archbishop to disobey Rome?” As I tearfully (stupid tears!) defended a child’s right to a mother and a father, priest-colleagues stared silently at the table.

U.S. Senators—particularly Catholic Senators—consulted the moral theologians of Boston College on a regular basis. One of my Jesuit professors, to the dismay of another Jesuit professor who ranted to me about it, testified that opposing gay marriage was not in keeping with Catholic tradition. This, I imagine, was technically true, since there had never been gay marriage to oppose before. But, naturally, that was another clever trick.

My theologate in Canada was run for the students; the theology department of Boston College was run for the professors. Students were pawns to be collected and either groomed to continue the professors’ intellectual legacy at other Jesuit colleges, pumped for information about other professors, or bored senseless by Big Names sitting firmly on their laurels.

The emotional damage wreaked on students was certainly not confined to me. One M.A. student from the American South, a Protestant fan of Flannery O’Connor, had come to Boston College to learn about Catholicism. Within weeks she was terribly confused. She asked different students what Catholicism was and cried a lot. She told me she had been told, by a “liberal”, it was better to be a Protestant than a “conservative” Catholic at Boston College. I wonder if she ever did become a Catholic.

You will have noticed that I have not named names. I do not name names because I will not honor my professors’ paranoid fears about me, the “conservative” who came to Boston College thinking she belonged there. I thought I belonged there because I thought it was a Catholic college with a Catholic theology department.

“We don’t like to call it a ‘Catholic’ theology department,” said a professor to me while I was there. But, yes, they do. They do when it’s convenient.

I was very cross with God, naturally. I couldn’t understand why He had allowed me to go to Boston College but not equipped me with the mental strength to survive the PhD. I was furious and frightened when He took away my ability to read print. (I could always read the internet, I discovered.) I couldn’t find Him anywhere on campus, save—occasionally—during the Benediction organized by the undergrad Saint Thomas More Society. I used to visit the (uber-modernist, ragged metal) statue of Saint Ignatius of Loyola to ask Saint Ignatius what was going on, but I couldn’t find Saint Ignatius either.

What would Saint Ignatius have thought, I always wondered, of the one million dollar building named after him? What would he have thought of the $40,000-a-year undergrad tuition-and-board? What would he, who told his Jesuits not to take money for their teaching, have thought about the millions made off the bodies of the football players? Boston College was founded for the poor Irish Catholics of South Boston, but the only Southie accents I heard came from the lips of one ancient retired Jesuit, a secretary and the groundsmen toiling over the landscape so beautiful, manicured and dead.

Today I believe God sent me to Boston College not to become a professor at a Jesuit university, as I then believed, but to meet my housemate Ted, who was a traditionalist Catholic and a blogger. Thanks to Ted’s influence, I too became a blogger, and that has shaped my whole post-academic life. It has also made me more relevant to contemporary Catholic discourse, which is no longer confined to the privileged few who are courted and developed by their professors, but—thanks to the internet—is open to all Catholics who can—and will—read and write.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Dorothy Cummings McLean 26 Articles
Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She is a regular writer for Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.