Sizing Up Our Seminaries

Deal W. Hudson
February 1, 1999

They are beautiful and imposing when you actually see them. Sitting like castles, resplendent atop prime real estate, these Catholic seminaries make you wonder, “How many men fill up those buildings? What is being taught there? How can the diocese afford the heating bill?” You may have noticed them while driving by From the Cross County Parkway in southern Westchester County you see St. Joseph’s in Yonkers, New York; St. Charles Borromeo can be found at the end of the East Line running out of Philadelphia; St. Mary’s in Baltimore is perched high atop a hill overlooking Roland Park.

Next, to the leadership of the Holy Father and the bishops, Catholic seminaries are probably the most important factor in the future of the Church. Yet the average Catholic layperson knows little about them. Ask yourself if you know to which seminary your bishop sends most of his vocations. The seminaries are largely invisible, as are the staff, faculty, and students inside them.

This article is the third in a series of CRISIS articles about the state of U.S. Catholic seminaries. In the first two articles, Fr. John-Peter Pham discussed some basic demographic and curricular issues, such as the foundational role of philosophy, patristics, and the Latin language in the intellectual development of the seminarians (Ousts, November 1998). Pham also pointed out that while the overall numbers of seminaries and seminarians are declining, the seminary population is getting older: Fewer than 13 percent are below the age of 25 (December 1998).

Certain distinctions about seminaries must be made in order to understand these statistics about, and the reality of, Catholic seminaries. First of all, seminaries can belong to a local diocese or to religious orders. For example, The Official Catholic Directory Anno Domini 1998 lists a total of 197 diocesan and religious seminaries in the United States. The numbers have been gradually declining. In 1988 there were 250 seminaries; in 1995, 218. Of the present 197 seminaries, 75 are diocesan, while 122 are administered by religious orders.

Also, when Catholics talk about “seminaries” they include those institutions with high school and college programs, as well as theologates, but not necessarily both. Only 35 of those 75 diocesan seminaries offer a theology program. A few new seminaries are cropping up, including St. Gregory the Great in Lincoln, Nebraska, a college seminary founded by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, and Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary, founded in Scranton, Pennsylvania, by the Society of St. Peter. Archbishop Charles Chaput is also considering founding a new seminary in Denver.

The curriculum and spiritual formation offered in Catholic seminaries are far from uniform. So some shopping around is in order. A bishop can and will send his candidates anywhere he wishes, including the North American College in Rome. Bishop Eugene Gerber of Wichita, Kansas says it is the responsibility of every seminary to be “true to the Church, express the mind of the Church and the live spirit of the Church.” Bishop Gerber—who this year has sent eight seminarians to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland; six to the Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio and six to Conception Seminary College in Conception, Missouri, as well as four college students to Immaculate Heart Seminary College in Winona, Minnesota—insists, “Seminaries have got to think with the Holy Father and put on the mind of Christ.”

When Bishop Gerber chooses a seminary, he looks for “a program that is educationally excellent and orthodox and draws upon history; a formation that is rooted in the authentic spirituality of the Church and teaches the seminarian what to do with liturgy. He should have the theory, history, and practice of liturgy. This is what usually gets overlooked. It can’t be, because that is where the priest meets the people.”

As we will see among the 14 theologates we have surveyed, some of Bishop Gerber’s concerns are being addressed by seminary curriculum, some are not. The fundamental soundness of seminary curriculum and spiritual formation is becoming a prime consideration as the number of seminarians declines and competition among seminaries increases. They depend upon the tuition paid by the bishops to meet their expenses. Of the fifteen seminaries, tuition, room, and a board can cost between $10,000 and $16,000 a year. Compared with the price of other graduate school programs, the seminaries are subsidizing a great deal of the cost. As the total number of seminarians has declined, the cost to the seminaries has risen dramatically.

Rev. Msgr. John A. Close, a vice rector for institutional advancement at St. Charles Borromeo, says that 35 to 40 percent of the overall costs are subsidized by the seminary. Since the number of students at St. Charles has declined over the past few years, the level of subsidy is a serious concern.

It is clear from reading some seminary catalogs that these institutions are reaching out to different audiences: The pages in the catalogs contain few pictures of clergy in collars, but many of women in the classroom and at the altar. Though seminary enrollment appears to have stabilized, it seems many seminaries are meeting their budgets by admitting more and more students who are not training to become priests. If these graphics tell a story, it would appear that these non-ordination programs have already changed the campus culture of the seminary.

Period of Secularism

Contrary to the general impression, the large seminary enrollments in the United States experienced in the ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s were an aberration (see “Priest Shortage Panic,” October 1996). In the 1820s, despite large immigration of foreign-born Catholics, the enrollment at St. Mary’s was less than a dozen in any given year. In 1829 the seminary’s administration stated with regard to their enrollment:

[F]ormerly, there was a larger number of seminarians because a large number of Irish were admitted; experience proved that those subjects, in general, proved unsatisfactory, that many thoughts of the Seminary only as a stopping-off place, and they left as soon as they found something to do in town; others misbehaved; so it was decided that they would admit subjects of that nation only with discretion and fitting precaution.

The faculty at the seminary wanted men of “more refinement,” but here again encountered difficulties: “As for the small number of subjects actually in the seminary, the main reason is that the mentality of the country, especially in the upper classes of society, is hardly favorable to the ecclesiastical state.” This sounds like a very contemporary lament. Seminaries are having a hard time finding students who are prepared for the intellectual and spiritual challenge of a Catholic seminary education.

The Washington Post recently reported on the marketing effort of the Milwaukee archdiocese, where at present only 13 students are enrolled at St. Francis Seminary. The diocese is using donated billboard space to present messages like, “Work With the World’s Greatest Boss,” and “Wanted: Doctor of Souls.” As CRISIS has already reported, seminaries like Mount St. Mary’s have been enjoying great success by putting their resources not into marketing, but into a demanding formation program and an orthodox educational curriculum.

Changes in marketing, not substance, however, are widely considered the appropriate response to a secular culture. Just as the would-be seminarian has changed with the culture, so has the seminary. The response of seminaries to the decrees and directives of the Second Vatican Council and of the Holy See in the post-conciliar period has been mixed.

Some seminaries virtually abandoned their distinctive identity as seminaria, or “seed-beds,” for diocesan clergy by admitting nonseminarians, including women, into the regular academic program. In some cases, this was done to maintain the economic viability of the institution; in others, it was done for more “philosophical” reasons, such as to respond to what was seen as the emerging role of the laity in the “new,” postconciliar church.

Indeed, the unrest that followed the Second Vatican Council prompted a tremendous process of secularization in the seminaries. Prior to the council, seminaries were usually structured along monastic lines, with the seminarians subject to a very disciplined daily horarium: the wearing of the house cassock, the absence of outsiders, and fairly ascetical practices. Despite the benefits of this system, there was clearly a need for reform, since the men were attending seminary to become parish priests, not monks. A discipline and spirituality needed to be developed that were more suited for preparing men for the rough-and-tumble of parish life.

Furthermore, after the council, there was the perceived need for significant improvement in the academic program. Catholics in the United States had become highly educated and generally literate through the very impressive educational establishment of the Church in America. It became essential that priests be better educated to articulate the truths of the Faith to a more highly educated laity. The former Latin manuals were simply no longer adequate to the task.

However, as seminaries attempted to find ways to adapt to the new social conditions, many of them jettisoned their distinctive “sacral” character and became thoroughly secularized. Some seminaries preferred to see themselves as comparable to graduate or professional institutions such as law or medical schools. The response was conditioned by the surrounding changes in culture. The sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, describes the postconciliar Church as letting loose its “repressed impulses” toward secularization after Vatican II: “In the Catholic intellectual milieu, the very milieu in which the theological enterprise must be socially rooted, there have of late emerged noises of a fearful modernity sufficient to put the most ‘radical’ Protestant to shame.”

Effect on Religious Practice

The bishops of the Second Vatican Council noted the process of secularization; however, they did not anticipate the extent to which secularism would influence the life of the Church. Even less did they anticipate its impact on seminary life, since seminaries were often directed by those in the intellectual milieu of the Church who were particularly vulnerable to the allures of secularization.

Thus clerical garb disappeared, even from liturgical worship. One seminary rector was heard to brag in the ’80s that a cassock could be found nowhere on his campus. Fr. George Rutler thinks this has led to a decline in vocations: The clerical garb of the priest and religious is a kind of billboard advertising the fact of the consecrated life; “Without it, people lose the consciousness of the clergy.”

Contact with some recent seminary graduates has provided evidence that there are men from some of the leading seminaries in the United States who do not know how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours or say the rosary. A priest is not required to say daily Mass, but he is required to recite the daily office. Other recent seminary graduates have never even heard of the Angelus, much less prayed it. This situation exists in spite of the clear dictates of the council in Optatum Totius: “The exercises of piety which are commended by the venerable practice of the Church should be strongly encouraged.”

Many seminaries no longer require attendance at daily Mass. At the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas, daily Mass was described in the catalog as a “currently expressed expectation.” The catalog continued, “Each Tuesday during the semester, there is a celebration of the Eucharist or other communal worship service. . . . This prayer time develops to parallel the awareness of the importance of the prayer life of the community and the growing linguistic and musical abilities of the participants.”

In the past at the Josephinum, the seminarians could choose laymen or laywomen as their spiritual directors. When the Holy See forbade this practice, the rector of the seminary told the men to list a priest faculty member as their spiritual director and then go to the one they actually wanted, even if it were a layman or woman. The Holy See insisted on priests for spiritual direction because of the sacrament of penance; it wanted men who were to be priests to be formed by those who had been living a priestly life.

With an increase in lay teachers, the mingling of lay students in academic classes, the elimination of distinctive clerical garb, and the abandonment of communal spiritual exercise, the distinctive identity of the priest grew ever more confused.

Rome Comes to Visit

In September 1981, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops announced that the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education had called for a visitation of all the seminaries in the United States. This effort was coordinated by Bishop John Marshall of Burlington, Vermont, who was assisted by 40 bishops, 19 religious superiors, and 57 priests who had experience as seminary educators.

After the visitation was completed a letter was issued on October 5, 1986, by William Cardinal Baum, which concluded that the state of the 38 diocesan and religious seminaries that were visited was “generally satisfactory.” But the cardinal went on express concern about the identity of the priest has become obscured in the Church and particularly in the course of seminary education:

Our most serious recommendations have been about the need to develop a clear concept of the ordained priesthood, to promote the specialized nature of the priestly formation in accordance with Vatican Council II’s affirmation of seminaries, to deepen the academic formation so that it becomes more properly and adequately theological (with more convinced and convincing attention to the Magisterium in some courses), and to ensure that the seminarians develop a good grasp of the specific contribution that the priest has to make to each pastoral situation.

The letter went on to urge that there be a preponderance of priests on the faculty and a clear majority of seminarians in the student body of the theologate. Some seminaries, however, such as the Oblate School, have a very high percentage of laity and even offer the master of divinity degree to the laity, despite the fact that the M.Div. is usually understood as the professional degree for ordained ministry. The Oblate School is far from alone is urging laypersons to enter the M.Div. program. It is common for seminary catalogs to have a three-year M.Div. track for those not seeking ordination and a separate four-year ordination program.

Fr. James Gould, director of vocations in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, worries about the impact of finances on seminary programs: “In the old days we worried that seminaries were sacrificing dogmatics to pastoral concerns. Now we worry that both dogmatics and pastoral theology are being sacrificed to economic factors.”

The letter from Baum went on to address the problem of lay “spiritual directors.” It insisted, as the Holy See had done previously, that the spiritual direction in seminaries is done only by priests, not only because they alone can administer the sacrament of penance but also because this would constitute a way of providing a clear identity for the seminarian as a future priest. The rector of the seminary who permitted lay spiritual directors was eventually replaced.

The results of the visitations to the seminaries have been kept confidential by the Holy See. But at the time of Cardinal Baum’s letter, there were still expressions of the secularizing influence. For example, Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy of Seattle, former chairman of the Bishop’s Committee on Priestly Formation, called attention to the communal dimension of nurturing priestly identity:

The question, “What is a priest?” is of tremendous significance today because when we are able to articulate a theology of priesthood that is appropriated by the Christian community, then we will have a clearer idea of the direction of seminary education and formation today in its task of preparing ordained leaders for the church of tomorrow.

This is rather surprising: An archbishop wonders about the “theology of the priesthood” to be “appropriated by the community,” rather than finding a way to articulate the nature of the priesthood given to the Church by Christ—the theology of which has already been articulated in such conciliar documents as Presbyterorum Ordinis, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Christus Dominus, Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes, and Optatum Totius. It is the task of the community to appropriate the true theology of the priesthood that has been taught by the Church.

One of the crises in seminary education is attributable to the belief that there is a plurality of theologies applicable to every doctrine. The decision to eliminate philosophy as a prerequisite to theology has created considerable confusion. Few ordinaries have had the courage to do what Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua did upon becoming archbishop of Philadelphia— he eliminated all undergraduate majors in the St. Charles Borromeo college seminary except philosophy. Bevilacqua also expressed a clear preference for the perennial wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Indeed, those seminaries that have the clearest understanding of the nature of the priesthood—expressed in terms of house discipline, academic standards, spiritual exercises, and clerical attire—seem to be the ones that are flourishing. Recent enrollments at Mount St. Mary’s and the Josephinum bear this out. These institutions also benefit from the strong vocations sent to them by various bishops, but there is also an indication that the increased discipline, including the institution of Saturday classes, night prayer, and a spirituality year, had a positive impact on the number of seminarians and the overall satisfaction of bishops and seminarians with the program.

Academic Life

The visitation of seminaries found considerable unevenness among the theologies. There was little outright dissent—but there was not much in the way of clear, convincing presentation of magisterial teaching either. As Cardinal Baum wrote, “Dissent, in fact, is not a major characteristic of U.S. free-standing theologies for the formation of diocesan priests. However, a more common phenomenon does not dissent from the Magisterium but confusion about it.” Of course, confusion about magisterial teaching can be as problematic as dissent, especially in the area of morality. The cardinal specifically mentioned the need to bring the teaching of Catholic morality into closer conformity with magisterial teaching.

There is a considerable variety among seminaries in the academic requirements. This can be seen by looking at a representative 14 of the 35 theologies. These are all prominent seminaries with significant enrollments situated across the country. The total number of credits required for graduation from these seminaries ranged from 100 to 131 semester credit hours, a difference of six-semester courses!

It is interesting to note the different number of credit hours required by the respective seminaries for the various disciplines. Although there appears to be agreement on the general template of seminary education, there is far from a consensus on how to allocate those hours within departments:

•             Doctrine: 12-25 credit hours

•             Morals: 8-18 credit hours

•             Sacraments: 8-25 credit hours

•             Scripture: 7-18 credit hours

•             History: 8-18 credit hours

•             Pastoral/Field Education (includes liturgy, canon law, homiletics, music): 24-48 credit hours

•             Electives: 8-33 credit hours

Scripture might seem to be overemphasized in some cases if one looks at the number of credit hours and wonders how the “higher” biblical criticism usually taught in those courses is significant in the life of the average parishioner. However, if morality, sacramental theology, and doctrine are combined into systematic theology, the overall ratio of semester credit hours of Scripture to systematic theology becomes more plausible.

Fr. Rutler agrees with Bishop Gerber that far too little history, three or at most four courses, is taught in the seminaries. “Christianity is the historical religion. Teaching the faith without a historical sensibility is to make it seem Gnostic. History is the handmaid of theology; they have to go together.” (A Gnostic understands the faith abstractly as a series of propositions, not as the revealed Word of God embodied in history and in persons.)

The greatest deficiency in the academic programs, generally speaking, is in the area of moral theology. Since this discipline touches so profoundly on the daily life and struggle of Catholics, one would have expected more emphasis placed on this subject. A mere eight required credit hours in morality for a professional degree in ministry, as is the case in several of the seminaries reviewed, hardly seems adequate to the preparation of a parish priest. It also does not address the concern expressed by the Holy See that particular care is given to the discipline of moral theology. For example, one will look in vain for an explicit emphasis on the sexual morality of Humane Vitae except at a few seminaries—St. Charles Borromeo; Kenrick-Glennon; St. Mary’s; Mount St. Mary’s, Sacred Heart; and the Josephinum.

There is also a considerable variation in the courses required by each department. For example, St. John’s in Boston and St. Francis has no required course on medical ethics. Seminary catalogs, however, do not tell the whole story. Fr. Romanus Cessario, professor of systematic theology at St. John’s, reports that his students receive instruction in medical ethics during a special course in pastoral-moral issues, required in the fourth year of theology. At St. John’s, the students purchase Ashley and O’Rourke’s Health Care Ethics, which serves as the standard text.

One has to be struck by the disparity in the curricula of various seminaries and the different numbers of hours given to the subjects in the curriculum. As mentioned earlier, the area of study that would be of greatest value for the pastoral ministry would most likely be moral theology. Everyday Catholics are having to make tough decisions about family issues, sexual matters, health care, and professional confidentiality. The Catholic moral tradition provides invaluable assistance in making such decisions. But moral theology is a scientific discipline that requires hard work and scholarship to master. In a day of such confusion in moral questions, this is one subject that needs particular emphasis, as was stressed after the Vatican’s visitation of U.S. seminaries. More work clearly is required here.

The Holy See has also asked the seminaries to place greater emphasis on the study of the “Church fathers,” the great theologians from the first five centuries of the Church’s life. This appeal seems to have received very little attention in our seminaries. And the study of patristics (as it is called) is not unrelated to the need for more work in the area of moral theology. The response of early theologians and spiritual masters to the perennial dilemmas of man’s fallen nature engendered some of the most profound moral and spiritual texts ever written. Rome seems to be convinced that a greater familiarity with the Church fathers would actually contribute to the desired renewal of moral theology. In large part because of the controversies with Protestantism, Catholic moral theology became heavily legalistic after the 16th century. In the patristic and medieval periods, the approach of theologians to morality was much more grounded in the teaching of virtue rather than in seeking conformity to law. Also, in this period spirituality and moral theology were seen as virtually inseparable. Patristics studies would help retrieve this tradition for the ongoing renewal of moral theology.

There is a great deal of work still remaining in fostering a clear understanding of the priesthood, and the education for the priesthood, in our seminaries. This understanding could be assisted by distinctive garb, set spiritual exercises, and a commitment to the centrality of the Mass in the life of the seminary community. Seminaries will be effective means of transforming the world and of preparing effective agents of change for subverting the old order when they embrace the distinctiveness of the priestly calling.

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