Last fall, I attended a challenging Boston College conference on the future role and influence of Hispanics in the church in the United States, and at the center of the conversation were the startling growth numbers and demographic changes facing church leadership. What, the conference organizers wanted to know, did we think had to happen for the church to respond?

In my small-group breakout session, one answer was unanimous: seminaries must respond by educating our future priests about all this—teaching them Spanish, preparing them to minister in a church that will be so different from the one they may imagine. It was a logical answer, but I remember thinking wistfully: this is just one of a hundred other urgent things we wish future priests could learn about and know how to respond to.

In Seminary Formation, Sr. Katarina Schuth gives us a reminder of the growing expectations we place on those future priests—but also of the institutional and political environment in which such innovation is supposed to happen. Seminarians study course after course on philosophy, theology, and Scripture, as well as homiletics and canon law. Based on what they face after ordination, you could easily want them also taking management, marketing, counseling psychology, and spiritual direction. And yet seminaries are also built as much for the preservation of priestly identity as for the needs of the times.

The apartness, some might say isolation, of seminary formation isn’t an accident. Since the Council of Trent required that each diocese have a college dedicated to the formation of priests, seminaries have often been a separate world, forming a powerful (and male) loyalty to the church, and similar in this respect as a police academy or military basic training. Serving as rector of a seminary has long been a valuable stop on the career path toward the hierarchy; they are places where both theological orthodoxy and enthusiasm for the traditional role of the priest can find visible expression.

After a post–Vatican II period of modest experimentation in which many seminaries welcomed lay students alongside candidates for the priesthood, the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict saw some retrenchment. Schuth closely analyzes more than forty years of papal and USCCB documents governing seminary curricula and policies, and she notes an especially sharp turn after John Paul II’s Pastores dabo vobis (1992). A Vatican seminary visitation report in 2008, for example, required that the “clear distinction between the common priesthood and the ministerial, hierarchical priesthood needs to be emphasized more.” The mixing of lay students and seminarians was discouraged. Formation departments were to be headed by priests; faculty in Scripture and theology should all be priests.

Seminaries have struggled to meet these requirements in an era of declining numbers and pressured church finances. For example, the U.S. bishops’ 2005 document on priestly formation required that professors in the “sacred sciences” and philosophy should have an advanced degree from an institution recognized by the Holy See; Schuth’s primary research, however, points out that the proportion of faculty actually holding such degrees has declined significantly. Almost half of seminary faculty now have responsibilities other than teaching or research; in other words, they are part-time. And as the number of available priests qualified for seminary teaching shrinks further, it will become even more difficult to adhere to the traditional model.

Schuth’s suggestions, in a brief final chapter, for the future of the thirty-nine theologates in the United States are sensible and knowledgeable, although she couches them in the restrained words of the professional researcher. In particular, she calls for education in “the knowledge, skills, and attitudes essential for authentic collaboration” with future pastoral co-workers, many of whom will be laywomen with strong theological formation of their own.

She also points out how little post-ordination research there is to show whether the seminaries we have produce the priests and pastors we need. Certainly seminary life can attract candidates who want some of that traditional apartness, both from laypeople and from contemporary culture generally. Some will nevertheless turn out to be good at their future job. Others will find a constant disconnect between their piety and orthodoxy and the day-to-day reality of running one or more struggling parishes, filled with people they must persuade as leaders but also work alongside as equals.

WHAT NONE OF the official documents on priestly formation ever seem to mention is the numbers, and they, of course, are the elephant in the seminary. Despite recent reported increases in seminarians, which Schuth points out are largely illusory in terms of future ordinations, the 74 million–strong U.S. church ordains only about 500 priests a year, roughly equal to the annual number of new podiatrists. Several times that number would be needed each year just to cover looming baby-boom priestly retirements. Schuth also points out that an alarmingly low percentage of seminary candidates are Hispanic, compared with more than half of current lay theology and ministry students.

Reading through some of the voluminous requirements for priestly studies bishops have produced over the years, we can admire the seriousness of the effort but should also notice how few results the system produces. Surely it’s not for a lowly reviewer to suggest that the years of philosophy, theology, and Scripture courses required of future priests are misspent—I mean, do we want our future preachers to have less formation in these areas? Yet the heavily academic, priest-centric world of some seminary life does create the impression of, say, a medical school where future doctors don’t touch a cadaver, much less a living patient, early or often enough. Over the same forty-five-year period when the priesthood has plummeted in numbers, the American church has managed to build a force of more than eighteen thousand permanent deacons, most of whom ministered in parishes and earned a living in secular workplaces the whole time they were in formation. (Full disclosure: I’m one of them.) Surely there’s something about the diaconate experience—even aside from the absence of the celibacy requirement—that can be applied to the crisis facing the priesthood.

The traditional definition of how priests should be trained, and who can become one, is either gloriously countercultural or, given current realities, remarkably unimaginative. Either way, it is powerfully shaping the future of our church. Recently I’ve been part of my diocese’s deliberations for reducing the number of parishes. A key, if generally unacknowledged, force driving the process is the shortage of men to lead these parishes. In the next ten to twenty years, it will bring a crisis in church life that no one can easily picture. Like a struggling car producer, perhaps seminaries need to retool entirely, so they can produce a higher volume of more agile new models. Seminary Formation is a valuable guide to a venerable system that is overdue for fresh and courageous approaches.

Thomas Baker is the publisher of Commonweal.

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Published in the February 10, 2017 issue: View Contents
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