At the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), I had the opportunity to be involved in two conversations of unusual depth and significance. As an audience member for the first panel, called “Critical Catholic Studies: Scholars Confront the Field,” I found myself energized by the speakers’ incisive, various, and compelling visions for the future of Catholic Studies. At the second panel, entitled “Trouble in Paradigms: Research Challenges in American Catholic Studies,” I saw several younger scholars (myself included) offering their own visions for the future, this time springing from specific research puzzles they were confronting. In conversations with colleagues after these events, I became convinced that the scholars I had heard, along with the panel organizers and the Steering Committee of the AAR’s Roman Catholic Studies Group (RCSG), had begun a conversation that warranted extension.
We are grateful to the editors of American Catholic Studies, whose willingness to publish revised versions of the papers has made it possible to sustain the intellectual momentum these panels generated. Six of the eleven original talks are reproduced here. An additional paper, from the co-chairs of the RCSG, describes their vision in developing and supporting the original panels.
These brief papers advance the subfield of Catholic Studies with punchy, forward-looking, and theoretically sophisticated explorations of fundamental problems and interdisciplinary opportunities facing those who study Catholics and Catholicism. The works expose and test assumptions, identify blind spots, and problematize the familiar channels into which our work flows. We specifically tried to avoid rehashing old lamentations about the subfield’s roots or past conflicts; instead, the papers set up signposts and map trajectories toward the [End Page 1] future. Our hope is that, in part because of their brevity, these essays will provoke conversation and reflection among scholars of Catholicism as they craft their own research, develop calls for papers, and design courses of study.
Appropriately, the conversation begins with an essay by the RCSG’s co-chairs, Jeannine Hill Fletcher and Amy Koehlinger. Here Koehlinger, an historian, and Hill Fletcher, a systematic theologian, explain their rationale in putting together the group’s program. Exploring the historical and contemporary relationship of Catholic Studies to the wider academy, they challenge the subfield’s “internalist” orientation and seek to initiate a move beyond Catholic “distinctiveness.” Instead of endless worrying about Catholic marginalization, they call for approaches that open outward – purposely moving through the study of Catholics to broader questions of “meaning, authority, pain, and flourishing.” The papers that follow take up this call by suggesting new constellations and new networks through which the subfield can move into the future. As I outline briefly below, forum contributors successively consider “by whom,” “about whom,” and “for whom” Catholic Studies might best operate. Considering these basic queries offers traction on the kinds of broader questions Hill Fletcher and Koehlinger identify as the future of Catholic Studies.
The sheer disciplinary variety of the scholars writing here partially answers questions of the networks making up Catholic Studies. Contributors to this forum come from a variety of academic settings, including philosophy of religion, systematic theology, ethics, and history. This diversity is a credit to the RCSG, which by including a range of voices is leading the way in shaping a conversation about Catholicism that moves across formerly sharp boundaries. If the essays in this forum are any indication, it appears that Catholic Studies may help put to rest simplistic (yet persistent) divisions between normative and descriptive interpretations of religion. But Catholic Studies needs to continue to widen the circles of its conversations. Contemporary anthropology, with its unique combination of empiricism and bold theoretical creativity, offers one promising and under-utilized set of conversation partners. As moral theologian Bryan Massingale suggests in this forum’s first essay, critical race theory may offer another. Massingale exposes the “idolatrous” and “normative” whiteness of Catholic Studies and calls for a “Catholic Malcolm X.” This figure, Massingale argues, would do much more than simply diversify the cast [End Page 2] of characters at work in the subfield. This change would mean a much more basic reconstitution, grounded in the admission of the failure...