A Theologian’s Theologian

Paul Crowley, S.J. lived by a philosophy that emphasized compassion for the individual over rigid church doctrine.

Paul Crowley
Paul Crowley, S.J., was a prolific writer. In addition to authoring several books, he maintained a personal blog, paulcrowley.net, where he reflected on the world around him. / Photo courtesy SCU.

The late Paul Crowley S.J., the Santa Clara Jesuit Community Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, often walked into the lives of his many friends as a teacher and a healer, a priest who embraced the mystery of God, the meaning of faith amid suffering, and his great belief in “a vital, Gospel-imbued Catholicism that is contemporary.”

Fr. Crowley died Aug. 7 from cancer. He was 68.

“On behalf of a very grateful and blessed university, we are thankful for all that Paul has given us over his decades of teaching, learning, research, and service,” Santa Clara University President Kevin O’Brien, S.J., said at Crowley’s Aug. 24 funeral Mass.

“He was much loved as a teacher and he was also a great mentor to a lot of younger professors and theologians, friends, and staff all over the university.”

Like his hero Karl Rahner, S.J., Crowley’s life philosophy emphasized compassion for the individual over rigid church doctrine.

His friendships with people of all ages, genders, colors, and creeds around the world reflected as much, says Crowley’s friend of 50 years, Denise Carmody, an SCU professor emerita of religious studies.

“His loyalty to his friends never faltered,” she said during the memorial Mass. “It was not that Paul didn’t see their foibles and failings. He saw them clearly—and they didn’t matter to him. He loved them.”

At Santa Clara, Crowley spent three decades specializing in ecclesiology—the study of the church—and the theology of God.

He was one of the rare, true  “systematic theologians,” those very proficient in all of the overarching systems of Catholic theology: God, Jesus, and liturgy, said religious studies senior lecturer Sally Vance-Trembath in the aftermath of his death.

Crowley also was a well-known scholar of Rahner, a German theologian who pioneered the study of “the mystery of God.” Just as every physicist knows Einstein, Vance-Trembath said, every Catholic theologian knows Rahner, one of the most important theologians of Vatican II.

Indeed, among the gifts O’Brien said he received from Crowley was insight steeped in Crowley’s love of Rahner, including that “the best way to understand God is to understand our humanity—that the path to holiness is not in some far off place or simply in churches, but is within the human person, in all of our beauty and all of our brokenness,” said O’Brien.

Crowley, he noted, “would say that there is a certain beauty in brokenness because when we are broken open, we can receive in a way that we had not been able to receive before. Paul showed us that.”

A theologian’s theologian

Kevin Burke, S.J., former dean, acting president, and faculty member at the Jesuit School of Theology, and now a vice president at Regis University in Denver, recently cited Crowley as “one of the best Jesuit theologians in the United States of our age group, period—he might be the best,” said Burke.  He said his friend was not just repeating things from the catechism or the tradition of what great theologians said in the past.

“Paul was a great theologian in the present,” Burke said. “An important theologian who talked about the mystery of suffering…He knew how to respect the mystery of each person’s struggle.”

As Crowley’s close friend, SCU Associate Professor of English Andy Garavel, S.J. had quoted poet Denise Levertov during his homily at the Mass, and again when he said, “Paul, who now enjoys the infinite care of the good shepherd, was himself “a pastor of grief and dreams,” and of joys too, for numberless people—students, colleagues, and brother Jesuits, family and friends.”

So eloquently could Crowley write on these and other topics that in 2015, he was named editor-in-chief of Theological Studies, the flagship journal of Catholic theology, a position he held until illness required him to step aside in 2019.

Burke, a former chair of the board of directors of Theological Studies, lauded Crowley as a visionary who helped to open the prestigious quarterly to diverse voices, particularly championing the rise of women theologians.

Julia Prinz, an adjunct lecturer at the Jesuit School of Theology and former director of the Women of Wisdom and Action Initiative at the school, said Crowley “broke a sound barrier” in publishing two papers from the WWA writing seminar in Vietnam on the quarterly’s new homepage.

“Paul really had an eye for people on the margin, especially for voices that are unheard,” said Prinz, a sister of the Verbum Dei.

Yet for all his theological accomplishments, Crowley was equally well known to students and colleagues for his joyous spirit and infectious optimism, whether reveling at the sight of a blooming cactus plant or chuckling with delight at a well-told joke.

‘Pastoral and fun’

“He could see the irony in things,” recalled San Jose native John Sullivan, who first met Crowley years ago through SCU Associate Professor of Anthropology Luis Calero, S.J. “He was very pastoral and fun—an outside-the-box kind of person in his way of thinking about things.”

When Sullivan and his partner became parents of adopted twin boys, Crowley became their “Uncle Paul.” Shortly before he died, the family visited their friend from a distance. The priest gifted the twins his own childhood marble collection that is now kept in a jar on a table in the boys’ family room to remember him by.

It was a bittersweet goodbye and for Crowley, another chapter in his life of great achievement and generosity in helping others, but also great suffering. He was the last member of his immediate family, preceded in death by his father, sister, brother, and, in April  2017, his 99-year-old mother. A few months after her funeral, Crowley was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer.

“He was a person who really confronted the shadows of life,” says Sullivan. “That can either make you bitter and cynical or transform you to see that the transient things are not so important in life. I think he approached his own death that way: clear-eyed, in real peace and faith about his own journey.”

Paul Gerard Crowley was born in Sacramento on September 12, 1951, the son of Charles Crowley and Doris Baisley Crowley.

After graduating from Notre del Rio High School, he continued his education at Stanford University, where he graduated with a BA in humanities in 1973.

He earned a master’s degree in philosophy of religion at Columbia University/Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1984, he earned a PhD in theology at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Through all his travels and studies, Crowley remained a loyal son of Sacramento.

In 1986, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Santa Barbara, where he began his formal journey to the priesthood. He was ordained a priest on June 6, 1992, in St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco.

Following ordination, he returned to SCU,  where he served for the rest of his career, except for two years as a visiting professor at the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., from 2001-2003.

Crowley also authored several well-received books and scholarly articles on the intersection of systematic theology and modern thought.

At the end of the Mass, O’Brien drew upon Rahner’s words on the mystery of death.

“The great mistake of many people is to imagine that those whom death has taken leave us. They do not leave us. They remain. Where are they? In the darkness? Oh no. It is we who are in darkness. We do not see them, but they see us. Their eyes, radiant with glory, are fixed upon our eyes. Oh, infinite consolation. Though invisible to us, our dead are not absent. Paul is not absent. They, Paul, are living near us, transfigured into light, into power, and in love.”

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