A conversation with Dean Michael McCarthy, S.J.

After his first year at the helm of the School of Theology and Ministry, the Jesuit priest offers reflections and looks ahead

Over the summer, Michael McCarthy, S.J., completed his first year as dean of the School of Theology and Ministry. In this Q&A, he reflects on what he has learned during the past year, the critical issues the STM is engaging with, and plans for the school’s future.

Q. In the announcement of your appointment as dean of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, you stated: “My first order of business will be to listen and to learn.” What have you learned about the STM over this past year?

Happily, I learned what I most wanted to learn: that the STM is a wonderful community. Faculty and staff are deeply committed to our mission to form leaders for the Church and the world. I found students to be wonderful, really: generous, and serious in their purpose, even as they ask important questions about who they are called to be. And while all my conversations confirmed that the STM is an institution in great shape, I also began to see ways that we can grow, adapt, and improve.

Q. How do you see the STM helping its students, the new leaders and ministers in the Catholic Church, address critical contemporary issues such as climate change, racial justice, and economic justice?

You ask about economic justice. I’m delighted that we have just hired a professor in moral theology who specializes in economic ethics: Christina McRorie, who has most recently taught at Creighton. And certainly climate change and racial justice are key moral issues to which our students are especially sensitive. I think the unique way the STM can help its students address these issues as leaders and ministers is to help them ground their questions and commitments in a deep theological tradition. Many institutions give their students scientific or sociological tools to address contemporary issues. The STM helps its students relate the issues to theology, a spiritual life, a search for God. The world needs people to make those connections, and our students will be able to do just that!

Q. How has the work of STM’s Committee on Race and Ethnicity (CORE) benefited the STM community?

The STM’s CORE has helped bring the issue of racial justice front and center in the community life of the STM. We have a strategic plan, “Formation for Racial Justice,” and we have been assiduously advancing toward specific goals and objectives. Each semester we have a school-wide community meeting where we pay special attention to where we need to be growing as we deepen our awareness of the complexities of race and ethnicity in our lives, our communities, and our institutions.

Q. Pope Francis has called on Catholics around the world to engage in synodality, a journey focused on “enlarging the tent” and building a listening church. How has the STM participated in this process?

In a variety of ways. For instance, our colleague Rafael Luciani has been appointed as expert to the Theological Commission of the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops. He has recently published a book entitled Synodality: A New Way of Proceeding in the Church. Anthony Russo recently returned from a gathering specifically for young people who were present as the current meeting of the synod has convened. He has talked about what a moving experience it is. But more generally, the STM takes this as a moment to ask the profound question that Pope Francis wants us to ask. Namely: where is the Holy Spirit leading the church? This is a profoundly different kind of question than asking what agenda do I or anyone else have for the church, because it recognizes it is finally God’s church, not any individual’s or party’s project. As the prayer of Oscar Romero says: “We are workers, not master builders.”  

Q. The STM, together with BC’s Theology Department, is ranked 10th among universities worldwide in Theology, Divinity & Religious Studies in the 2023 QS World University Rankings. What do you believe are the leading factors that contribute to STM’s success and distinctiveness?

First I would point to the excellence of the faculty, who aspire to be not only excellent scholars but deeply caring formatores of the next generation of leaders. As a community we are very collaborative and formative. In addition, the fact that we are Jesuit and Catholic really leads to our success and distinctiveness. To many people that indicates academic rigor and creativity that is, in a very deep, committed sense, in the service of the Church and world. We take very seriously the question Pope Francis is asking the whole Church: “Where is the Holy Spirit leading us?” Not all institutions that are excellent in theology, divinity, and religious studies have that kind of dedication. We definitely do.

Q. What are your goals for the STM going forward?

In the coming year we will update the Strategic Plan that [former STM dean] Tom Stegman finalized in 2018. I don’t see radical departures from the basic directions, which were intended to guide the STM for 10 years. Continuing our efforts to be a premier Catholic institution for formative theological education is paramount. Developing our capacities in spirituality and attending to crucial social issues will also be central moving forward. My sense, though, is that we will need to focus on a few areas and create a more strategic approach to achieve clearer goals. For instance, we need to determine how the STM can best serve a Church that—in the United States, at least—is increasingly Hispanic or Latino. And while we have a number of global partners, it will be important for us to figure out how exactly we, as the STM, can be most useful to the global Church. There are also possible innovative programs for us to consider, and I have heard from a lot of lay students that they want to deepen their experience of formation, perhaps in the context of residential learning communities. So my hope in the next year is to set up a number of processes to determine what our actual goals are and what it will look like to accomplish them.