Seminaries, Theologates, and the Future of Church Ministry


Robert P. Imbelli

In 1989, Sister Katarina Schuth published a pioneering study of Roman Catholic seminaries and theologates, Reason for the Hope (Michael Glazier). In it she provided valuable information and assessments regarding the efforts of Catholic institutions for ministerial formation to respond to the directions charted by Vatican II. She concluded that study on a note that was both realistic about the challenges and hopeful about the future.

Now, a decade later, in her new study, Schuth reviews the current state of these institutions. The goal of the new study is "to explore how and how well the schools are fulfilling their mission of preparing men and women for ministry in the twenty-first century." When asked bluntly whether she remains hopeful, Sister Schuth responds with an unequivocal "yes," but adds: "The reasons for hope have altered somewhat and new problems now confront us." Her study thus deserves the close attention not only of those immediately engaged in the ministry formation enterprise, but of all concerned with the flourishing of Catholic life in the new century.

Schuth, or members of her team, visited thirty-eight of the forty-two U.S. theologates that enroll candidates for the priesthood (many of them also serve laywomen and men preparing for ministry). Over five hundred-and-fifty interviews of faculty, administrators, and students took place. In addition, presidents or rectors of the institutions responded to extensive questionnaires, as did a random sample of faculty and vocation directors. Though the study attends to lay students enrolled in theologates, its main focus is seminarians preparing for the priesthood.

The book has four parts: The first provides an analysis of the current social and ecclesial context from which church ministers come and in which they must serve. Schuth has entrusted the essays in this part to three scholars who bring particular expertise to their task. Though appreciative of all three, I would single out that of Notre Dame historian Scott Appleby, to whose probing (and often sobering) reflections, "Surviving the Shaking of the Foundations: United States Catholicism in the Twenty-First Century," I shall return.

Part 2 ("The Mission and Members of Theologate Communities") and part 3 ("Formation Programs") focus on the present realities of the seminaries, conscious that the observations capture but a moment in the life of "dynamic and vital institutions, always engaged in change and modification." Accepting that qualification, these central parts of the study offer valuable statistics and perspectives on the multiple components and dimensions of seminary life. A relatively brief part 4 addresses "The Future," organizing its reflections under two headings: "Perceptions about Church and Ministry" and "Perceptions about Priesthood." Finally a "Conclusion" summarizes both the accomplishments of and some critical concerns facing the institutions.

In her conclusion, Schuth writes a line that captures much of the tenor of her study. "The church is in a period of enormous transition with heroic attempts being made to adapt to new conditions." In many ways seminaries and theologates stand on the frontlines of those transitions, and the attempted adaptations on the part of many faculty and others have indeed bordered on the quietly heroic. The impetus, of course, came from Vatican II itself, and its Decree on Priestly Formation (Optatam totius), which followed and drew upon the great constitutions on the liturgy and on the church. The document clearly reflects Vatican II’s rich understanding of church, its new appreciation and commendation of the role of the laity, its openness to other religious traditions and to the social and cultural context in which the gospel must be embodied.

In contrast to Trent’s reformist and centralizing thrust in erecting seminaries in a situation of near formational and educational anarchy, Optatam totius sought to devolve responsibility toward the local churches, entrusting to episcopal conferences the task of devising programs of priestly formation suited to local circumstances and needs. In the United States, the first such set of guidelines was issued in 1971; the fourth revised edition of The Program for Priestly Formation appeared in 1993. It drew upon the experiences of the preceding years and was greatly influenced by Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Pastores dabo vobis, his reflections on the 1990 synod of bishops dedicated to priestly formation. Thirty years after Vatican II, new emphasis was placed upon the uniqueness of the priestly vocation in the church, and the implications for spiritual and theological formation.

From the many insights and issues that Schuth’s study lays before us, I single out four that struck me with particular force as challenges facing not only seminaries, but the entire church.

First, there is the worrisome fact of an ongoing decline in the number of seminarians. Since the 1989 study was completed, seven seminaries have closed and the number of seminarians has declined by more than eight hundred. Were that statistic not sufficiently bleak, it is further depressed by the fact that the overall number of students includes a significant number from outside the United States who will return to their own countries upon completion of their studies. It is not surprising, then, to hear Schuth report: "Rectors/presidents listed the recruitment of both seminarians and lay students as a more critical and more problematic responsibility than any other that they face." Absent a critical mass of students, the most impressive programs risk languishing. The challenge cannot be remanded solely to rectors and presidents; it must effectively engage the entire community of believers.

Second, joined to the declining seminarian population is the phenomenon (by no means unique to seminaries!) of a decline in the level of personal and intellectual preparation. Though there are many talented and capable students studying for the priesthood, others show marked weaknesses that seminaries must address. There are several, often interrelated, factors operating here. A lack of basic intellectual and cultural formation often forces seminary professors to engage in remedial work. A lack of religious literacy makes the study of theology seem difficult and excessively abstract to students and can foster a defensive anti-intellectual posture. A growing absence of intact families and of affective rootedness can lead to unrealistic demands being placed on relations with faculty and peers or, conversely, eventuate in a distrustful isolation. Seminaries, in the past ten years, have developed pretheology and continuing education programs to meet some of these needs. They have also expanded programs of psychological counseling and spiritual formation in order to address in greater depth issues of permanent commitment and celibacy within a cultural context often indifferent, if not hostile, to such commitment.

Third (and linked to some degree with the previous point), one not infrequently encounters polarization among students and between students and faculty. Schuth comments: "In reflecting on the future of the church, respondents mentioned ideological differences and polarization within the church more than any other topic." One needs here to be wary of too facile generalization. To some extent the differences are experiential and generational. Many faculty knew firsthand the liberating openness inaugurated by Vatican II. On the other hand, many younger students react against the impoverished religious education of their adolescence and sense the loss of a "thick" and nourishing Catholic culture. Hence labels like "progressive" or "traditionalist" can often mask a more complicated and challenging reality.
Nonetheless, tensions do indeed exist and can, unfortunately, surface even in connection with the eucharistic celebration-the supreme irony of the sacrament of unity become occasion of division. Hence, in the course of the book, Schuth appeals several times to the Cardinal Bernardin-inspired Catholic Common Ground Initiative as a way of engaging issues in a spirit of respect and dialogue, hoping to make differences productive and not debilitating.

Fourth, some of the polarization undoubtedly concerns the roles of women in the church and the pressing need for collaboration among ordained and lay ministers. Here, as elsewhere, Vatican II set in motion a process whose unfolding it scarcely foresaw and whose development holds considerable promise and commensurate challenge. Clearly, in this as in so much else, seminaries mirror the present reality of the church and cannot be expected to resolve all the issues, absent a wider ecclesial consensus. One particular dilemma posed to seminaries and theologates, however, concerns how to promote effective formation for collaborative ministry, while honoring the unique sacramental role of the priest in Catholic tradition and theology.

One finishes Schuth’s study, then, with appreciation both for the real accomplishments of seminaries and for the acute challenges they face. It comes as no surprise to find, at the conclusion of her discussion of faculty, the honest and pointed comment: "Although much that is positive recommends the present situation for faculty, beneath the surface of the surveys and interviews a sense of unrest and uncertainty is evident." While some of the elements underlying the uncertainty are treated in part 4 of the study, they are primarily framed in ecclesial terms (a perspective both understandable and consonant with the focus of the study).

But, by offering a part 1, devoted to an analysis of the contemporary "context" for ecclesial life and ministry and especially by beginning with Appleby’s "Surviving the Shaking of the Foundations," the book itself postulates the need to insert these ecclesial issues into a more comprehensive discernment.

Let me then suggest some dimensions of that wider reflection by drawing upon two striking assertions in Appleby’s essay. Speaking of the Catholic culture wars that have consumed disproportionate time, energy, and media grapeshot since Vatican II, he remarks:

While priests, women religious, and laity were busy constructing and inhabiting new religious and political identities and revising the curricula and pedagogy of Catholic religious education, they did not command the resources to battle the irreligious trends building in American society during the last decades of the twentieth century. Nor were they prepared to pass on to the younger generation a synthesis of old and new Catholicisms, old and new Americas, that they themselves had not achieved.

The intramural squabbling and partisan agendas of the past thirty-five years have often inhibited the discerning engagement with the culture that is imperative for a community of disciples called to be salt and light. Appeals to Lumen gentium or Gaudium et spes sometimes became only slogans for browbeating, rather than insights for appropriation. As one perceptive observer has characterized a too prevalent attitude: "We want ammunition, not ideas." As a result, no comprehensive pastoral and theological "synthesis" (to use Appleby’s word) has emerged that cogently weds creativity and fidelity, diversity and unity, America and Catholicism. In its absence, fragmentation too often reigns.

Later in his essay Appleby hazards a prognosis that gives further pause.

The besetting preoccupation of American Catholics as the new century dawns will not be the clash of postconciliar visions of authority, lay involvement, or women’s rights in the church. Rather, the church will be engaged by a far more profound and disturbing crisis of belief and meaning. In light of the extent and depth of this crisis, the attention given to the Catholic culture wars will come to be seen as an unaffordable luxury.

In this light the recent and, I would add, courageous Commonweal Forum, "The Crisis of Liberal Catholicism" (see Commonweal, November 19, 1999), might, with great profit, be complemented by others. Appropriate bodies could convene forums on "The Crisis of Conservative Catholicism," "The Crisis of Liturgical Renewal," and "The Crisis of Catholic Religious Education"; even "The Crisis of the Bishops’ Conference." My point is not to claim that there are no signs of hope, but to urge that, given the depth of the cultural challenge to Catholic habits of mind and heart, only profound spiritual detachment and discernment can even begin to identify the real issues. "Test everything," the earliest New Testament writing admonishes. "Retain what is good; refrain from every kind of evil."

If such critical discernment of spirits acknowledges and promotes the transformative breadth of the Catholic vision, a Christological imagination discloses its depth. Beyond an appeal for respectful dialogue, the Common Ground Initiative calls, more radically, to Christic conversion and commitment. Its inaugural statement, "Called to Be Catholic," unambiguously confesses: "Jesus Christ, present in Scripture and sacrament, is central to all that we do; he must always be the measure and not what is measured."

But this Catholic Christological and transformative imagination must be continually rekindled and renewed. The late Cardinal Basil Hume of England, in a lecture prepared for the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, sounded this refrain as he looked toward the new millennium. He stated his conviction that unity in the church would be dependent upon "a rediscovery of the centrality of Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life." What does it mean, in America of the twenty-first century, to confess Christ as the measure, to "prefer nothing to Christ" (as The Rule of Saint Benedict enjoins), to experience in Christ the recapitulation of all God’s hope for humanity?

The finest service that seminaries could provide is to nurture communities of discernment where such questions are raised and wrestled with; to be places where a Christic vision and imagination permeate the celebration of liturgy, guide the style of theology, and inspire the boldness of pastoral initiatives. Then the full scope of the Decree on Priestly Formation might begin to be realized: Optatam totius ecclesiae renovationem, "the renewal, so greatly desired, of the whole church."

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Dolores Leckey

The agenda item that received no press coverage at the November 1999 General Meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops may, in the long run, be the most important for the future of the Catholic church in the United States. The item in question was a report of a subcommittee on lay ecclesial ministry which was permitted one-and-a-half hours of agenda time (a largesse almost unheard of during the annual business meeting) to report its conclusions regarding the state of lay ministry in this country.

A panel composed of two bishops and two laywomen presented to the assembly, in crisp eight-minute summaries, the best and most current thinking regarding the theology of lay ministry, the formation of lay ministers, including their sense of vocation, the multicultural issues embedded in current and future developments, and the relationship between the ordained and the lay ecclesial minister. (The term lay ecclesial minister is a generic term and refers to those prepared for ministry in the church and who serve in a public, stable, recognized, and authorized manner.) The panel was followed by small-group discussions focused on these topics and a plenary session where questions and concerns were aired.

And what were those questions and concerns? To be sure there were a few bishops (newly ordained for the most part) who questioned the appropriateness of the term ministry in connection with lay service or employment. They worry about confusion despite widespread usage throughout the world for decades now. They also wonder if the term suggests competition with priesthood, although Bishop Gerald Kicanas, a panel member, precisely situated lay ecclesial ministry in the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, and gave explicit attention to the differences between ordained and lay ministry.

A few others expressed concern that the laity’s primary vocation, namely strong families and the transformation of society, would be lost in the ferment of lay ministry. In fact, the subcommittee’s report highlights the essential role of the vast majority of laity. "All of the laity are called to work toward the transformation of the secular world. Some do this by working in the secular realm; others do this by working in the church and focusing on the building of ecclesial communion which has as its ultimate purpose the transformation of the world." It is this latter group which is the subject of the report. And, indeed, a majority of the bishops are concerned about how these new ministers are being prepared. These bishops have come to terms with the reality of this historical moment, a reality shaped by the developing theology of ministry, a deeper understanding of priesthood, and by pragmatic necessity. "We should be asking ourselves how we can attend to the formation of these ministers more effectively," said one bishop who seemed to speak for many. (Formation is generally meant to include various aspects of ministerial education.)

Sister Katarina Schuth’s recent book can help answer these expressed concerns. Schuth’s research and interests have been and remain seminaries, in particular theologates, and those who prepare for ministry therein. Over the years the arc of her inquiry has grown to include not only the men who are preparing for ordination, but the lay people (mostly women) who are preparing for other ministries. Many of these lay candidates are already deeply involved in church ministry: in parishes, on diocesan staffs, as chaplains on campuses, in hospitals, and in jails. Their pursuit of an advanced degree is a sign of their seriousness about their vocation.

Schuth and her research team have probed and dug and been in conversation with lay students and seminarians, faculty, administrators, and trustees about a host of issues from motivation to spiritual maturity, from seminary culture to intellectual competency for ministry. The digging has uncovered a treasure of information and analyses that deserves attention and which could assist church leadership in intelligent pastoral planning. I want to flag four aspects of this research, which affect the preparation of lay ecclesial ministers.

The first is spiritual formation. While formation has come to include the whole educational enterprise in ministerial training, spiritual formation is a particular subset that refers to the somewhat hard-to-measure life in the Spirit. It appears that lay students are beginning to fare better in this regard, at least to those of us who like to mark progress more than decline. Seminaries, mindful of the directives set forth in the apostolic exhortation Pastores dabo vobis, issued in 1992, and the 1993 revision of the U.S. Program for Priestly Formation, both of which emphasize the priority of priestly formation and its specialized nature, and a few theologates also mindful of the need to provide solid spiritual formation for lay students, have allocated resources for this purpose. Spiritual direction is available, and days of recollection are regularly scheduled, as are longer retreats. Happily, the lay students are enthusiastic about these efforts on their behalf, and they appreciate faculty interest in the education/formation of the whole person. The situation was quite different twenty-plus years ago when the lay presence in seminaries was new and somewhat challenging.

In the late 1970s I was invited to meet with lay Catholics who were enrolled at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, a coalition of various theologates. The students were distressed that the schools, while admitting them to class and accepting their tuition, were little concerned about their spiritual needs. One exception was the Franciscan School of Theology, where I was invited to a meeting to listen to the students’ ideas about their needs and what might be done. Arriving a bit early, I knocked on the door of the Franciscan residence, and was greeted by a smiling friar, wrapped in an apron, waving a chopping implement with which he signaled me to follow him to the kitchen. The friar-chef was Kenan Osborne, O.F.M., then president of the Franciscan School of Theology, and more recently the author of Ministry (Paulist Press, 1993), a comprehensive history of the laity and lay ministry. He was preparing a meal for the lay students due to arrive at the appointed hour. There would be Eucharist, he said, the sharing of a meal, and, equally important, the sharing of life and faith among these hopeful church ministers-to-be. This was a regular Thursday evening occurrence, a hospitable Franciscan invitation, which placed spiritual formation within the context of human formation and relationships. That particular point-spiritual formation within human formation-is a major theme of Schuth’s book, and marks the Franciscan school as a pioneer. Today, a few seminaries are following suit and, clearly, the lay students would welcome even more attention and help in matters of spiritual growth and development.

The second aspect is intellectual formation. For the most part lay people come to seminary without the underpinning of philosophy that for many generations has been the foundation of theological study in the Roman Catholic tradition. Some seminarians complain about this, arguing that the professors are slowed down. (Obviously the seminarians are anxious, being on a tight time line to qualify for ordination.) Schuth’s research notes, however, that the lay students and the seminarians come from similar backgrounds, are influenced by similar cultural factors, and are products of similar religious education. The difference is that seminarians are often required to take pretheology, which brings them up-to-speed in matters of philosophy. What the lay students bring to the classroom, say the professors, is life experience replete with concrete illustrations that help illuminate certain theological concepts. Furthermore, their pastoral sense often is honed by that experience. The professors are less concerned about the philosophy gap. Like theologian Rosemary Haughton, they may think of theology more as a particularly exacting form of poetry than a philosophical construct. Still, it may be desirable for lay students, also, to dip into some pretheology work.

Third is formation for collaborative ministry. One of the strengths of the seminary as a site for preparing lay ecclesial ministers is that it offers an early experience of collaboration. While the future holds different ministries and different roles for the seminarians and the lay students, these years of formation together, to some extent at least, promise a more trusting future for these workers in the vineyard. In a common environment the lay minister and the future priest can come to understand one another’s thinking, aspirations, and awareness of God. They can come to appreciate one another as faithful Christians, serving Christ side by side. Their common efforts growing out of their unique vocation can strengthen the bonds of trust and truthfulness so necessary if there is to be a sustained and vibrant mission to the world. In the words of the subcommittee report, "Effective collaboration requires recognition of the basic equality of persons as well as necessary distinctions or differentiation in their roles and responsibilities." Increasingly church leadership is convinced of the necessity of collaboration.

Fourth is the issue of finance. Theologates are now enrolling lay students in record numbers. And, with few exceptions, these students are paying their own way. Schuth is clear that there is a dearth of scholarship money. And this is a problem. The question of how lay students can finance their theological education has been central for years. In the early days they went heavily into debt, but today, according to her research, they are reluctant to do so. By now they know that low ministerial salaries will have them paying forever, and they are dealing with the problem in several ways. Typically, lay students attend part-time, which has benefits and losses. The course of study takes much longer, but there is also more time to integrate what one learns into one’s life and work patterns. Others may choose to pursue studies in a Catholic college or university where funding is sometimes available. (At least one university fully funds the lay students.) While the academic preparation may be excellent, Schuth is concerned about the quality of pastoral training, which is an essential component in seminary curriculum. Still other lay students choose a Protestant divinity school which may have more resources, but which lacks a Catholic environment, not to mention theology. And, of course, a number of dioceses have established their own lay ministry programs which are usually affordable, with a delivery system designed for adults with other responsibilities. All of these academic settings are educating the church’s future lay ministers.

But Schuth suggests, and with some justification, that the seminary is the preferred setting for the preparation of all ecclesial ministers. Her logical conclusion, therefore, is that adequate scholarship funds "are absolutely vital for the ongoing viability of the schools and the competence of their graduates." A number of bishops, seeing the problems that an ill-prepared ministry will engender, are already in her corner. They are aware that increasingly the faith of our fathers and mothers will be transmitted by laity who will evangelize, prepare children and adults for the sacraments, teach the ways of prayer and contemplation, articulate the principles of Catholic social teaching, and bring the Eucharist to patients in hospitals and nursing homes. In fact, they are already doing so. Moreover, examination of the data suggests ministers may soon represent the church at critical moments of life and death, at the graveside, for example, as our bodies are prayed into the earth. (That, too, may already be happening in some places.) I, for one, would like the minister to be well prepared for these final rites. It doesn’t matter if I know what’s going on at graveside. My grandchildren will know, and that does matter.

And before that becomes the norm, it’s a story worth tracking.

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Daniel Aleshire

When a cultural geographer studies a community of schools, the result can provide a good map. When an exceptionally sensitive and skilled cultural geographer, such as Katarina Schuth, charts a territory, the result provides a map that not only identifies locations and boundaries, but also marks the ups and downs of the terrain. Seminaries, Theologates, and the Future of Church Ministry examines the context-students, faculty, and educational practices-of the institutions that educate candidates for ministerial priesthood and nonordained ministries in Roman Catholic parishes and other settings. Schuth’s study, while charting the issues and practices of theological education for Roman Catholics, also describes several issues that are influencing theological education beyond the Roman Catholic community. As a Protestant theological educator, I want to highlight three areas.

Roman Catholic theologates, as this study describes them, have several contributions to make to the broader community of theological schools.
First of all, these schools have developed a theological curriculum that provides a solution to some problems that Protestants have been struggling with for the past fifty years. This study describes Catholic theological education in the normative categories used in the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Programof Priestly Formation: intellectual formation, spiritual formation, personal formation, and pastoral formation. Contrast these with the fourfold theological curriculum that has characterized post-Enlightenment Protestant theological education: Scripture, theology, history, and practical or pastoral studies.

The Protestant curriculum focuses on subjects, which are taught as disciplines, resulting in the educational assumption that if Scripture, theology, and history are learned sufficiently well, faithful practice and authentic spirituality will follow. Protestant theological education offers convincing evidence that this assumption is more durable than correct. The Catholic categories focus on the consequences of learning in the theological student, and they assume that authenticity in ministry requires the formation of candidates who know an array of subjects and skills.

Either construction of the theological curriculum can lead to failure, and Schuth’s interviews show, in the judgment of rectors and faculty who care deeply about the theological formation of candidates for priesthood, that theological education constructed around these formational themes is not succeeding in the way that many would hope and that the church may need. These formational emphases do not prevent intellectual formation from gaining a privileged place in a seminary, but the categories in normative Roman Catholic use provide a more helpful formulation of the educational task of learning for religious vocation.

Second, Roman Catholic theologates have a deep connection with the church. Many Catholics worry about the connection, which at times seems too intimate. Theological schools can provide a context for critical reflection on the church’s teaching and practices, and too close a connection can keep the schools from engaging this task, and thereby deprive the church of this critical, potentially renewing analysis. Too tight a connection, in a church with a teaching magisterium and Ex corde ecclesiae, can dissipate this possibility for renewal. But the patterns of renewal a theological school can bring to a community of faith require a fundamental sense of connection. The connection causes listening, even when the church or the seminary doesn’t like what it is hearing. On more than one accrediting visit of The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) to a diocesan seminary, I have heard a bishop say, in response to questions about small enrollments and the cost of education, that the diocese needs a seminary for more than the education of lay and priesthood candidates; it needs a center of theological reflection on its work; the parishes need the resource of theologians who can enrich and inform their work. Many theological schools, outside the Roman Catholic community, are experiencing increasing degrees of separation from their founding ecclesial constituencies.

The separation causes seminaries to speak increasingly generically, because they no longer have a particular community that will listen, and the church that founded the seminary shops the marketplace of religious ideas and innovations for the ones that hold greatest short-term promise. While there are problems with a tight connection to the church, the increasing problem many seminaries are experiencing is a lack of meaningful, if not mandatory, ties that bind the work of the theological school to the needs of the faith community.

A third contribution that Roman Catholic theological education can make to the broader community relates to the education of students for the increasingly multiracial and multicultural composition of the church.

Almost one-fourth of seminarians in theologates, according to this study, are American racial and ethnic minorities. The United States is becoming increasingly multicultural and multi-ethnic, and any religious community that hopes to be "American" must be inclusive of this growing racial and cultural minority population; to be inclusive, it must have ministers and priests who have come from these communities and know them intimately and well. No Protestant church body can claim the percentage of racial, cultural minority seminarians that the Roman Catholic community claims, even though they wish they could. This study identifies the problems of educating multicultural seminarians for a multicultural church. Roman Catholics, however, have more experience in addressing these problems than any other religious community in America. In an interesting way, the immigrant church at the turn of the twentieth century has become the most "American" church at the turn of the twenty-first. The problems of educating persons to serve in the culturally complex contexts emerging in America are immense, and all of theological education can benefit from the Roman Catholic experience of attending to cultural uniqueness while cultivating common religious identity.

Many of the concerns addressed by this study parallel the concerns in the broader community of theological schools. Some of these have to do with student and faculty issues, and others relate to the broader communities of faith.

The study describes sensitively the problems associated with students whose capacity to serve as religious leaders seems limited by their cultural embeddedness, their intellectual capacity, their tendencies toward a religious conservatism that inhibits a breadth of religious understanding, and, in a Catholic context, assumes that pre-Vatican II practices are somehow more orthodox than practices and reforms mandated by Vatican II.

The particular expressions of this phenomenon differ by denomination among the community of theological schools, but the same religious tendencies and problems of capacity are evident. Like this study, the evidence for these problems is derived from interviews with persons who care about theological education, and who have a history of experience in it. The current conventional wisdom is that some students are as talented and capable as have ever attended theological school, but these students do not constitute as high a percentage of the student body as they once did. The least talented students are, many fear, less able than the least talented students of earlier generations. Whatever their level of talent or ability, students across the spectrum of ATS-related schools seem to come to theological schools lacking deep roots in their religious traditions: If they have been life-long Catholics, for example, they seem to know less about Catholicism than previous generations of Catholics, and if they are new to a religious tradition in which they hope to serve, they know little about its theology and ecclesial structures, let alone its folkways and patterns of piety. These are serious problems for most religious communities, and what this study hypothesizes about Roman Catholic students is generally perceived to be true of many students, across denominations, entering theological study.

Ever so gently, Schuth introduces another problem that emerges in the context of her extensive interviews: There is a struggle with authority and certainty among students, and probably in the church itself. Religion, especially confessional Christianity, has always concerned itself with authority and certainty. Believers do not believe simply because they thought it up on their own: The Christian tradition stands on a variety of traditions that are considered, or have been declared to be, authoritative.

Most Christians are quite certain about some things: God is loving, not hateful; God chooses good over evil, redemption over destruction, life over death. What Katarina Schuth’s interviews seem to point to, however, is a group of people who value certainty and authority more than the religious convictions that are served by appropriate systems of religious certainty and authority. In an age of pluralism and postmodern popular relativism, some people cease using certainty and authority in their proper "supporting roles" to important religious truths and use them instead in their own "starring roles," as if certainty and authority had intrinsic religious value. This affection for the certain or the authoritative is not solely a Catholic issue; it has caused more than a few religious battles among Protestants over the past twenty years, with resulting tensions in congregations and parishes.

In addition to these student issues, this study identifies an issue about faculty: They are overstressed by their workloads, frustrated with the variety of demands that are placed on them, and struggling with lower compensation than many of their peers in colleges and universities receive.
These are not uniquely Catholic problems; theologate faculty just have their particular version of them. The work of faculty in all theological schools is increasing, in part, because the subject matter for which they have a scholarly responsibility has increased. The work of the teacher increases when the students know less about the subject than they used to know, and when they are more resistant to the conclusions a professor has to profess. These are problems that almost any faculty in a theological school related to The Association of Theological Schools could describe. Of the several issues that have been identified with faculty, what may be most uniquely Roman Catholic is the shift that Schuth documents from a faculty comprising a vast majority of priests and vowed religious to a faculty that is increasingly lay. Laity take compensation, tenure, contracts, and other aspects of the industry of higher education more seriously than diocesan or religious faculty members took them in the past. In this respect, Catholic theologates begin to look more like other theological schools.

This study also notes the complexity of theological formation because the church itself seems to be changing. Although the changes now must seem less revolutionary to Roman Catholics than the changes that resulted from Vatican II’s reforms, the church is experiencing substantive change. Scott Appleby’s thoughtful introductory essay to this volume summarizes some of the changes in Catholic culture that translate into laity who have less education and formation in faith than previous generations of laity have had. These characteristics constitute the Catholic version of a phenomenon that most other religious communities in the United States are facing. The patterns of religious hegemony that formed Presbyterians and Methodists, Lutherans and Baptists, Catholics and Congregationalists have all dissipated since World War II. The interviews for this study noted problems with changing patterns of worship and church attendance. Catholics have no exclusive claim to this phenomenon and the problems it introduces: There are Protestants at war with one another about the hymns they should sing and the patterns of worship they should embrace.
Finally, there are some conventions in non-Roman Catholic theological education that this study suggests are becoming more evident in Roman Catholic theologates, and I think these latter institutions will continue to benefit by paying attention to two of these conventions.

During the past fifteen years, both diocesan- and order-related schools have learned how the ecclesial and canonical concerns of episcopal or superior authority can be accomplished through tiered board structures that provide more inclusive participation in institutional governance as well as more support of each school. These more Protestant board structures have generally proved to be beneficial to theologates, as Schuth documents in this study, and merit continued attention.

For as long as Roman Catholic schools have been a part of ATS, one of their distinguishing characteristics has been shorter terms of service of senior administrators, particularly rectors and deans. A general perception in ATS schools is that longer terms of administrative service typically benefit the schools. The increase in the length of service for rectors and deans that this study documents is promising. The work of the theological school is increasingly complex, and it takes time for senior leaders to learn their jobs, move institutions in directions that are needed or desired, and consolidate the changes into institutional practice.

This study, particularly with the history defined by Reason for the Hope, Katarina Schuth’s first mapping of theologates, provides a definition of Roman Catholic theological education that simply does not exist for any other major community of schools in the United States. It is as sensitive as it is valuable. It addresses issues that define the fault lines in the church in the United States, and it does so with the honesty and humility that invite dialogue rather than diatribe. It provides the kind of map that helps schools understand both their unique situation and their common problems. I could only wish the rest of theological education had as helpful a descriptive resource.

Published in the 2000-02-11 issue: 

Daniel Aleshire is executive director of The Association of Theological Schools.

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