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.