The following comes from a June 16 story in Commonweal magazine.

The annual gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) took place last week in sunny San Diego, but there were storm clouds gathering around the meeting’s agenda (see here and here and here). As I continue to ponder Duke Professor Paul Griffiths’s plenary address to the society, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady persistently pops into my head—and not just because of Griffiths’s charming English accent. Harrison’s Dr. Henry Higgins famously asked, “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” In the end, I think Griffiths’s talk amounted to the question, “Why Can’t the CTSA be more like the Academy of Catholic Theology (ACT)?” The answer to that question, I think, properly shapes the response to another, more pressing matter that arose at the CTSA this year: what can or should the organization do to be more welcoming to “conservative” theologians? To the extent that advanced theological education helps to shape the larger debates within American Catholicism, this is not merely an academic question.

What would it mean, concretely, for the CTSA to be more like ACT? Griffiths suggested that the task had both positive and negative aspects. He argued that certain theological topics should be nurtured and supported by the CTSA but others actively “discouraged.” My worry here is that this narrowing of focus is actually inconsistent with the mission of CTSA, which seeks to encourage a more free-wheeling discussion then does ACT. In fact, if you look at their respective membership rosters, mission statements, and conference programs, it is clear that the two groups operate with different understandings not only of what theology is, but also of the purposes of their own meetings.

Over thirteen hundred scholars and teachers belong to the CTSA, which was founded in 1946. More than four hundred members normally attend the annual meetings, which include wide-ranging plenary addresses as well as more specialized sessions on disparate topics. Themes are generally broad, meant to spark discussion in a wide range of sub-disciplines, from moral theology to systematics to sacramental theology. For example, the 2014 theme was “Identity and Difference: Unity and Fragmentation.”

In 2015 the theme will be “Sensus Fidelium” (.pdf). Most significantly, the CTSA’s official mission is capacious: “Our purpose, within the context of the Roman Catholic tradition, is to promote studies and research in theology, to relate theological science to current problems, and to foster a more effective theological education, by providing a forum for an exchange of views among theologians and with scholars in other disciplines.” Despite the claims of some, there is no ideological test for membership: anyone can join who possesses the appropriate academic qualifications, normally a doctorate in theology or related studies.

In contrast, ACT is a much smaller and narrowly focused organization. Founded in 2007, it has about a hundred members. ACT conferences tend to take up very specific themes, such as “Catholic Thought in the Wake of the Enlightenment” (2013); “Faith Theologically and Philosophically Considered” (2011); and “Blessed is She Who Believed: The Role of Mary in Catholic Faith” (2008). Membership is closely regulated; prospective members are nominated for election by current members, who vote (in a closed ballot) at the annual meeting.

The tight control over membership reflects the mission of the organization: “The Academy of Catholic Theology’s principal purpose is to foster theological work of the highest intellectual standard that is faithful in the Spirit to the Revelation of God in Christ, as that Revelation has been handed on in Scripture and Tradition, and authoritatively interpreted by the Magisterium.” While the larger Catholic tradition in fact provides a nuanced account of magisterial authority, and endorses certain forms of theological critique, the members of ACT seem to place a high value on avoiding any sort of conflict with the magisterium….

To read the entire article, click here.