The Extraordinary Synod: A Symposium

Twenty years after its initial promulgation, the Council’s “Decree on Priestly Formation” may well be scrutinized in the light of its effects by the forthcoming Roman Synod. Even the most ardent Federalist among the Fathers assembled may concede, on reflection, that it has returned too much power to the States.

It goes without saying that the effectiveness of the Church depends on the kind of education she today requires of her future priests. If the Church is to exercise an influence on the common culture, she will do so principally through an enlightened and superior clergy. A larger role for the layman in no way supplants the commissioning, endorsing, empowering role of the clergy and the ordinary magisterium. Talent, accomplishment and tenacity of purpose are mere instruments whose employment first requires appreciation before a mandate is given. An ill-informed clergy would not know what to support. When the Church was “governed by the book,” the institutional structure provided canons for action, and while those methods may not always have led to excellence, they nevertheless mitigated catastrophe. In a much less organized Church, where a premium is placed on individual initiative, more depends upon personal gifts and less on structure. The question is, what educational measures will insure the presence of those gifts?

Supernatural aids apart, the strength of the Church flows from her ability to stand outside and to judge the present by virtue of her intellectual and cultural history. The appropriation of that history calls for uncommon learning on the part of those called to her ministries. Persons who staff her agencies from the parish level to that of the national conference must be steeped in her tradition if they are not to succumb to the trendy, the secular or the trivial. Languages and a knowledge of history, philosophy and theology are the wellsprings of the informed mind.

When Sertillanges wrote The Intellectual Life in 1920, he assumed that the “country” priest was not called to a life of the mind. The Church of his native France was still in place, and the parish priest as a dispenser of the sacraments was but a cog in the wheel of her salvific mission. But can we make the same assumption today? “The lack of a coherent system of ideas,” wrote Sertillanges, “is one of the great misfortunes of our age.” To remedy that lack he recommended the study of St. Thomas Aquinas. “The partisans of the latest novelty,” he continued, “may say what they like, the weight of a doctrine and its newness are two different things.”

The advice to study St. Thomas was taken with profit by more than one generation. Through the influence of the Papacy and scholars such as Gilson, Mercier, Noel, Maritain and Pegis, Thomas became the Doctor Communis of seminaries and lay colleges alike. To some observers a Catholic renaissance was in the making. Perhaps the headiness of being a part of a grand effort and the euphoria of success in many areas led its proponents to believe they had no enemies. Perhaps the movement had little depth or was imperfectly carried. Whatever the cause, it seemed to collapse in a moment of crisis. Sertillanges had written that “One does not need extraordinary gifts to carry some work through; average superiority suffices; the rest depends on energy and the wise application of energy.” “Average superiority” and “wisdom” are obviously the keys. We needn’t remain in the dark about either. Talented and energetic young men can be identified. So, too, can the kind of education which produces wisdom, both speculative and practical. With respect to the latter the Church has not remained silent.

The Vatican Council’s “Decree on Priestly Training,” proclaimed by Pope Paul VI in October 1965, provided general guidelines for the education of future priests and relegated to national episcopal conferences the task of drafting specific requirements in the light of local circumstances. In the United States, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops published its “Interim Guidelines for Seminary Renewal” in December 1968 and its “Program of Priestly Formation” in January 1971.

Those documents are far from uniform in outlook. One can detect a difference in tone between, on the one hand, the U.S.-generated documents and, on the other, the Ratio Fundamentalis (1970) and, letter of Cardinal Garrone and Archbishop Schroffer, “On the Study of Philosophy in the Seminaries” (1972). With the publication of the “Interim Guidelines,” philosophers, who for millennia have regarded themselves as handmaidens to theology, suddenly found their role diminished. It was not just a question of how much time is spent in the study of philosophy; the NCCB document requires a minimum of 18 credit hours whereas the Sacred Congregation Pro Institutione Catholica mandates a full two years. There was in the American documents a difference in emphasis, if not in conception, regarding the role which philosophy plays in education. The American documents speak of philosophy as a humanistic discipline alongside others which have equal value and which may be substituted for it. The Roman document regards philosophy as a science indispensable to the informed mind, the basis for theology and an indispensable key to culture and spiritual heritage.

The Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education was already aware in 1972 of certain difficulties engendered by the Decree on Priestly Formation. Time has only confirmed that the fears expressed by Garrone and Schroffer were well-grounded.

There are some who maintain that a number of disciplines lead equally well to the study of theology, that the type of knowledge gained in the social sciences such as psychology, sociology, anthropology and history can be of equal value in preparing the student for the priesthood. But this supposition is not supported by careful analysis. In fact, the various natural and social sciences are loaded with philosophical presuppositions. The sciences tend not to be philosophically neutral, and often the philosophy bound up in them is patently hostile id the Catholic faith and its traditional interpretations. This is true even in the very best Catholic institutions where even eminent professors are often not immune to the dominant currents in their disciplines. It takes a considerable amount of philosophical learning to recognize the philosophical principles frequently embedded in the sciences. Those seminarians who substitute other subjects for philosophy will simply not have the intellectual training necessary to grapple with some of these profound problems.

Without doubt, the kind of intellectual formation a seminarian receives before studying theology will strongly influence the way he accepts theological and religious truths. As the Garrone-Schroffer letter observes, many contemporary methods in science have a clear bias against the kind of thinking that characterizes classical Catholic theology. A student trained and formed in certain schools of contemporary psychology, for example, will generally be inclined to take religious teachings simply as the projection of internal, psychic needs; a student trained in sociology may tend to think of Christian belief as just another cultural phenomenon; and yet psychology and the social sciences are explicitly presented by the American documents as alternative fields of concentration.

If one looks at the record, one finds that the curriculum proposals delineated in the college section of the NCCB program were adopted against the majority report of the members of the Bishops’ subcommittee and against the overwhelming advice of the professional theologians and philosophers consulted. But the problem is not simply one of bringing into harmony the American program with the Council decree. There are certain ambiguities in the Decree itself which enable it to be interpreted variously, including an interpretation that downplays the classical tradition. In the interest of securing globally an effective priesthood, the Synod could reopen the discussion initiated by the Decree. Perhaps twenty years of experience will lead to conclusions other than those reached in the late sixties.


Jude Dougherty is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy in the Catholic University of America and the editor of The Review of Metaphysics, and General Editor, Series Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press.

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