Richard Gaillardetz Bridges the Pews With the Academy

The clergy are to lead and the laity are to follow.

There’s no room for members of the LGBT community in the Church.

Tradition forbids female ordination.

These are some of the myths Richard Gaillardetz debunks as chair of the theology department and Boston College’s resident Catholic Mythbuster. In his 14 books, doctoral seminars, and 1000-level core classes, Gaillardetz proposes a theological understanding that recognizes the immense diversity of thought and experience within the Christian tradition and approaches the Catholic Church not as a relationship between the clergy and laity but one shared among the entire baptized faithful.

After recent revelations detailing decades of sexual abuse cover ups in the church, prominent clergy and theologians have pushed forward their opinions on how the church ought to act in response to what some estimate to be the most pressing crisis since the Reformation. Some of these essays can read like political manifestos, and invoke theology that is black-and-white and top-down.

But Gaillardetz’s strain of theology recognizes complex theological discrepancies in light of the grand scheme of Christianity, and the even broader context of man’s attraction to religion.

Balancing between close attention to minute theological discrepancies and broader metaphysical questions and then making the information graspable to 18 year olds is something colleagues have identified as distinctly Gaillardetz-esque.

“He’s fully in-touch with sophisticated features of intellectual traditions,” said Brian Robinette, an associate professor of theology at BC. “But he’s always on the lookout for how that can be communicated to a broader audience. Not just with clarity or precision but in a way that really captures the imagination.”

For the past seven years, Gaillardetz has researched, read, and wrote as part of the theology department that is ranked sixth in the world. Within this faculty are professors who publish in the most prestigious academic journals and the most commonly read Catholic periodicals. It is in this balance—between rigorous theological academia and everyday encounters of faith, a freedom to criticize the church and a freedom to embrace Catholic identity with a community—that Gaillardetz thinks the church is at her best.

“I think the future of the church is going to depend on whether people are going to catch on to Pope Francis’s vision of reform and renewal,” Gaillardetz said.“Which is to step back from the attempt to reassert the differences between clergy and laity and instead ask how the church can be more robustly engaged with the pressing questions of our age.”

Drawing on contemporaries like English theologian James Alison, a former Dominican priest noted for his work with the LGBT community, Gaillardetz asks his students to consider the Church metaphorically as a restaurant and a halfway house to deconstruct preconceived misconceptions about the Catholic tradition. Through contextualized explanations of centuries-old Church councils and personal stories about his own faith experiences, Gaillardetz is able to make Catholicism seem approachable to students because he was once in their position—the product of a fragmented, word-of-mouth religious education.

Gaillardetz grew up in a military family, moving around the country throughout his childhood, and spent the first three years of high school in Fairbanks, Alaska.

I would say it was a fairly perfunctory practice of the Catholic faith,”  Gaillardetz said. “We were Catholic but I wouldn’t say my parents were strongly committed Catholics. There were periods in my childhood where we weren’t going to Mass on a regular basis, followed by a return to the Church.”

His parents retired in Austin, Texas before his senior year of high school, when Gaillardetz became involved in diocesan retreats and developed a real interest in Catholicism.

But he found something lacking.

The experience of parish life was a tepid experience of the faith. The liturgies weren’t all that great and there was just a lot about my experience of Catholicism [in my] late high school years that just wasn’t all that satisfying,” Gaillardetz said.

He went on to the University of Texas, Austin, and soon met some students involved in an evangelical Christian group called Campus Crusaders for Christ (CCC). In CCC, Gaillardetz found a religious passion that was missing in his parish life in high school.

“I was immediately taken by their sincerity, their passion, but probably more than anything, their sense of fellowship,” Gaillardetz said. “This was a tight-knit student organization where people really were developing strong bonds of friendship and mutual support.”

But a byproduct of this zeal for Christianity that he found so attractive was a disdain for intellectualism that he could not stand.

“I had problems with literal interpretations of the Bible, with challenging evolutionary theory,” Gaillardetz said.

Gaillardetz was invited by a Catholic friend in CCC to daily Mass at the Catholic Student Center, which was staffed by Paulist priests.

There, Gaillardetz met a priest named Bob Rivers, who invited Gaillardetz to take a course he was teaching that year on Catholic understandings of the Bible. Gaillardetz enrolled in the course, and a whole world of theology opened up to him.

“The Catholicism that was unsatisfying to me had largely been a child’s model of Catholicism,” Gaillardetz said. “It was CCD, or Catechism Catholicism, and he helped me see a whole world  of contemporary Catholic theology, the work of the Second Vatican Council, the contributions to theologians like Karl Rahner that answered so much more compellingly some of the intellectual questions I was struggling with.”

Rivers encouraged him to become a student-leader and develop a more Catholic model of evangelization. Gaillardetz organized coffee house ministries and tried to foster a community of students who shared both zest for Catholicism and a curiosity about its tantalizing mysteries.

At the time, UT Austin did not have a religious studies department. Gaillardetz switched from business to humanities and was able to “cobble together a religious studies program by taking some courses in the classics and a sociology of religion course,” he said.

Upon graduating, Gaillardetz was invited to start a campus ministry program in Denton, Texas in the diocese of Fort Worth. He found the work rewarding but felt he lacked the skills to communicate adequately with the diocese’s large Latinx community, so he enrolled in an intensive immersion program and traveled to a small mining town called Chalchihuites, in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico.  

In Chalchihuites, Gaillardetz encountered a tradition of Catholicism entirely different from the one he knew back home.

“There’s a much richer non-clerical devotional life that’s part of the Mexican Catholic experience, so there were a lot of lay-led devotions that weren’t really relying on the priest a great deal,” Gaillardetz said.

He returned to the United States with a much richer understanding of the cultural diversity within the church. A bishop working in the dioceses at the time named Joe Delaney thought the future of the church was going to be in lay formation, and he gave Gaillardetz a scholarship to pursue a master’s in theology at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas.

After completing his master’s, that same bishop offered Gaillardetz a job in his diocese in adult education and catechesis. The diocese of Fort Worth has a large metropolitan area, but it also has on its outskirts small, rural, immigrant communities of German and Czech Catholics. Much of his job was driving to the parishes of these distant communities to offer training.

But once again, Gaillardetz felt himself running up against his educational wall, and felt he needed to advance his education further if he wanted to continue working in theology.

So he applied and was admitted to the Ph.D. program at the University of Notre Dame, where he met his wife, Diana, who also works in church ministry and holds her own advanced degree in theology, and together they had the first two of their three sons in South Bend, Ind.

After completing the program, Gaillardetz was offered a position teaching young men studying to be priests in a diocesan seminary at the University of St. Thomas Graduate School of Theology in Houston, Texas.

Gaillardetz was one of the more youthful teachers at the school, and the only one to join the seminarians in games of basketball during recreation time.

There was an academic faculty that taught theology courses and a formation faculty that was concerned with spiritual formation,” Gaillardetz said. “And I used to tell the formation factory that I learned more about the seminarians on the basketball court than they were likely to learn in all their meeting with them because there’s a way in which when you’re on the field of play in sports your true self comes out. The piety gets stripped away and you see who people really are.”

While Gaillardetz enjoyed his time teaching in the seminary, it put him into close contact with some deep-rooted problems he saw in the formation of priests.

“I had the privilege of working with a number of really wonderful, dedicated seminarians,” Gaillardetz said. “I also saw firsthand some of the problems that we are still experiencing in the life of the Church, a kind of clericalism that frankly has only gotten worse in the last few decades. I could already see how that was baked into our whole system of calling forth men to the priesthood.”

Although he loved the academia he engaged with, Gaillardetz also wanted to bring some of those deep theological insights to the lives of everyday people.

New chairs of professors of religious studies were endowed at the University of Toledo, and he was invited to apply to the Margaret and Thomas Murray and James J. Bacik professorship of Catholic studies.

In Toledo, teaching at a state university, Gaillardetz received the opportunity to teach classes he hadn’t previously had the freedom to. He team-taught interdisciplinary courses with the film department on religion in film and with the English department on Catholicism in English literature.

The secular school gave Gaillardetz freedom to explore non traditional paths that stem from Catholic theology, but with this freedom, Gaillardetz sometimes felt inhibited from pursuing his academia as an extension of his Catholic identity. While it freed him in some ways, teaching at a secular school made Gaillardetz feel like he was teaching in a second language, and he yearned to teach not just about Catholicism but as a Catholic.

There was an opening for the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at BC, to which Gaillardetz applied and was then hired. And so in Boston, Gaillardetz felt a new sense of liberation.

“One of the things I appreciate about being at BC is I don’t have to apologize for my Catholic identity,” Gaillardetz said. “But neither do I feel constrained to only talk about it in one narrow form. We are unabashedly Jesuit Catholic in our mission as a university, but we’re also very open to the idea that that doesn’t preclude critical conversation, difficult conversations sometimes about controverted issues.”

One of the environments where Gaillardetz has these conversations is in the theology core class Exploring Catholicism, that he taught for the third time last year. (Editor’s Note: I took this class last year.) The majority of his students are usually not practicing Catholics, he said. Some, grew up in the Catholic tradition but now no longer practice, and some are encountering Catholicism for the first time in their lives at BC.

With such a wide range of experiences, Gaillardetz takes the course as an opportunity to act as a Catholic Mythbuster, exposing his students to different ways of understanding the relationship between the clergy and laity, the history of female deaconesses in the early church, and the problems with imagining God to be what Gaillardetz calls an “interventionist God”—one who zaps lightning bolts to heal brain tumors and change traffic lights green in the same breath.

“A lot of people, including a lot of our students, who may at one point have been part of the Catholic tradition but may have drifted away, I think a lot of reason for that is they were only exposed to a kind of reductive child’s model, and as they grew in maturity and education, it just started to look silly and untenable,” Gaillardetz said.

But Gaillardetz doesn’t attempt to evangelize and convert his students to enroll in RCIA. Instead, he begins with asking what it is about the human condition that has drawn and continues to draw people to religion.

“I want to start with the fundamental questions they have and the presupposition that there is a fundamental yearning within the human spirit that religion responds to,” Gaillardetz said. “And so I try to start with helping students become more aware of that yearning they experience.”

Featured Image Courtesy of Richard Gaillardetz

September 16, 2018