Three seminarians serve as acolytes for the Mass for admission to candidacy at St. Paul Seminary Oct. 18, 2018. (CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, Catholic Spirit )

Conversations about the future of Catholic ministry tend to focus on the new frontiers—think married priests and the female diaconate. By contrast, very little is happening when it comes to reconsidering priestly formation.

At their fall meeting, the U.S. bishops adopted the sixth edition of the Program of Priestly Formation for U.S. dioceses and religious orders, which doesn’t provide a new model, but represents only a step in the transition to a new model, and thus doesn’t advance things very far. Meanwhile, there’s a good argument from certain quarters of the church that seminarians should receive training on how to work with the lay ministers they’ll be working with once they’re ordained. It’s not just a question of breaking the barriers between the formation of the clergy and the laity. It’s also a matter of calibrating the relationship between seminary formation and what I’ll call the “contemporary world of knowledge.” After the council of Trent, when the seminary model for priestly formation was established, those two things were essentially one and the same. Religion informed the general culture, and it was assumed that seminary candidates came from Christian Catholic families; the seminary was the next step in the development not only of religious knowledge, but also of literacy and the intellect. Today that model is almost inverted. Seminary life is more about personal, psychological, and spiritual formation apart from the contemporary world of knowledge than it is about the preparation of candidates for the significant intellectual challenges of preaching and witnessing the Gospel in a time when the Church faces such strong headwinds.

The problem, in short, is how to provide seminarians with this intellectual formation, and where. In the United States, this inevitably raises the issue of the role of Catholic colleges and universities. In some countries, lay theologians, seminarians, and young priests in formation study together in state universities where there is a faculty of Catholic theology; seminary formation takes place in a seminary building separated from, but close to, the university, and is about community, life of prayer, and training for pastoral ministry. I experienced this twenty years ago, when I was studying in Germany and lived for one year, as a lay student, in the seminary of Tübingen together with Catholic seminarians. This is clearly not the model in the U.S.; public universities don’t have Catholic theology departments, and Catholic colleges have become largely independent from the Church.

Early in 2019, around the time a group of Boston College faculty published their proposal for the reform of seminary formation, Thomas Reese wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that “American seminaries are usually in cities and connected to universities, but the mentality of keeping seminarians separate remains. Their classes are often separate from other students.” Now, Catholic colleges and universities can choose to remain uninvolved with the formation of priests, or they can try to be part of the solution—playing some role, with a degree of academic freedom and autonomy from the hierarchical Church. (Here it’s worth recalling that exactly forty years ago, in December 1979, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith withdrew Hans Küng’s permission to teach; he is one of the theologians who has not been rehabilitated during the pontificate of Francis.) The debate on the reform of seminaries should therefore include questions about the future of academia, since the challenges that they face are also challenges for the institutional church.

Where does theology fit in courses of study increasingly built around professional preparation?

First: if seminary formation is too cut off from the real lives of Catholics, then I think (and I realize that I am generalizing here) the same can sometimes be said for academic theology. Yes, there are numerous examples of theologians who clearly have an ecclesial intentionality and do wonderful work for the people of God. It is not an issue of personal intentions, however, but of the systemic position of academic theology in an endangered Catholic intellectual ecosystem, one in which the magisterium and theologians in the academy also have to compete with the “teaching” found on Catholic blogs and websites and various other outlets.  

The institutional Church needs to change its approach to formation and ministry, but academic theology needs to change something as well. The theological academy needs to be in contact with the people who will constitute the coming generations of Catholic clergy and lay ministers. To be clear: theology should not be done only to advise and support the bishops and the magisterium. But total separation is not good, unless Catholic universities want to have no role and no voice in the formation of those who will provide an education in the faith to the Catholic students who keep our Catholic universities going. The question for theology departments on Catholic campuses is today is whether they see themselves with an ecclesial vocation and want to claim some responsibility in the formation of the future clergy (I am referring here to the 2011 document of the International Theological Commission, Theology Today, much more than to John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae).

Second: what’s happening with theology and religion at Catholic colleges and universities is related to what higher education in general is becoming. Universities are themselves now seminaries of a sort for the formation of candidates in the high priesthood of capitalism, and for the minor orders of the service economy. How does this reconcile with the need for Catholic universities to be the locus for constructive theologizing and the transmission of the theological tradition? This is not a liberal or conservative issue, but an issue of viability of academic theology. Theology survives mostly as a piece in the core curriculum of required courses, and even then it’s not so easy to “sell” it as something a student needs. Where does theology (indeed, the other humanities as well) fit in courses of study increasingly built around professional preparation? What is the curricular rationale? How to think about this in a time when world faiths aren’t so much the debate on campus as is the conflict between religious and spiritual worldviews and the “technocratic paradigm” Francis describes in Laudato si’?

Third: Catholic higher education is largely in denial about the fact that we could be in an undeclared process of disestablishment of Catholic theology from Catholic higher education. Catholic academics have every right to critique the inadequacy of seminary formation in the Catholic Church today. We should also be aware that we academics are working in institutions that are, and at a steady pace, getting rid or trying to get rid of theology requirements—not counting the significant number of small Catholic colleges that have closed, are closing, and will close before mid-century. This is already impacting today’s seminarians, who upon their arrival have had much less exposure than their predecessors to theology in an academic setting. At the June 2019 meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, a special session on “Catholic Theology and the Contemporary University” revealed the gap between theology faculty and their administrators. On the one side, today’s Catholic university decision-makers are chosen for their expertise in areas other than theological (this is clearly an understatement). On the other, academics tend to repeat that they are not teachers of the Catechism but professors of theology. This refrain worked at a time when there was a relatively thick understanding of the Catholic tradition among students. This understanding, to put it mildly, can no longer be presumed.

We should be concerned about seminary formation that is isolated from the contemporary culture. We should be equally concerned about the isolation of academic theology that constrains its ecclesial vocation to contribute to the formation of the Church’s ministers. These issues are inextricably related, and thus critical to the future of Catholic clergy, the future of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and the future of the Church itself.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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