Katarina Schuth

Who will be our future priests? Who will be our future lay ministers? As the Catholic population in the United States grows beyond sixty million, these urgent questions are being asked more often. The profiles of students studying to be priests and lay ministers are of interest to Catholics everywhere, from bishops and priests to women and men in the twenty thousand parishes throughout the country. All are profoundly affected by the students’ religious and personal commitment and their intellectual and pastoral abilities.

In assessing the overall picture presented by seminarians today as compared with those of ten years ago, the most striking change is the increase in racial and ethnic diversity. In 1997, 23 percent of seminarians in theology were Latino, Asian, or black (most often from Africa), nearly double the percentage of “minority” students in 1987. Further, 33 percent of future priests in college now are in these groups, which suggests that the proportion in theology is likely to grow accordingly. A large number, less easy to determine exactly, are coming for theological studies from Europe, especially Poland, Spain, and Italy, with the intention of being ordained for the church in the United States. All this presages an alteration in the face of the Catholic priesthood in the United States over the next two decades.

Map of U.S. Catholic Theological Schools

The religious backgrounds of students are widely varied. However, almost all the administrators and faculty interviewed commented about what they saw as the religious predilections of seminarians and other students in their schools. Students themselves indicated their preferences and ideals regarding religious practice. Four types emerged, which faculty tended to categorize as more or less favorable with respect to readiness for serious theological study. It is important to bear in mind that while a person may substantially belong to one particular group, he or she may exhibit behavior associated with the others.

  1. Those deeply rooted in their faith. Many faculty and administrators described the religious background they have found most favorable for successful entrance into theological studies. Ideally, students were raised in families where they practiced their faith consistently in a local parish, being involved on a regular basis beyond Sunday mass attendance. Seminarians in this preferred group study for the diocese or religious congregation that was part of their earlier faith experience. They are highly motivated and have done the discernment necessary to make an informed choice about priesthood. Lay students with a similar background would also adapt more easily to a ministerial position in a local church that was familiar to them. Both groups have a moderately good grasp of the Catholic tradition, some sense of the church as universal, an adequate religious education, and a long-standing commitment to their faith. These students are usually the most ready to embrace the routine of seminary life, with a realistic understanding of what their commitment will entail. Most theologates would be delighted to find one-third or even one-fourth of all their students with this profile, a striking change from thirty years ago, when virtually all seminarians would have belonged to this group. 
  2. Those recently converted. The background profile just detailed is the one that faculty and administrators prefer, but they find that most students exemplify another religious profile, offering greater challenges to those who work with them in formation programs. A quite large number, at least one-third, have recently undergone a conversion or reconversion experience. Many of these students, though baptized Catholics at birth, have been away from the church for a number of years. Depending on the nature of the conversion experience and the convert’s age at the time, the impact varies; the older the student or the more dramatic the conversion, the greater will be the obstacles to religious development. Because of the rather sudden shift in their life direction, these students have enjoyed only a short-term or sporadic association with a parish, and seminarians in this category especially lack familiarity with the diocese for which they plan to be ordained. Many sought out a diocese for affiliation other than the one in which they grew up or lived at the time when they identified their vocation to priesthood. They often reported that their eventual choice was made on the basis of personal preference for a particular bishop’s style or ideology rather than their own rootedness in the local community. The general insecurity that permeates American culture affects all students, but the consequences are particularly obvious with seminarians in this second category. Many faculty note that it can lead to a kind of rigidity born of a desire for security and stability. Their relative lack of religious background and knowledge of the church’s history can make them vulnerable, afraid of disturbing their new-found knowledge and losing the security they feel they have gained. The concern of most faculty is not that these students are conservative, a characteristic common among many younger people, but rather that they tend to be rigid, overly scrupulous, and fearful.
  3. Those with a minimal connection to the church. This group shares certain characteristics with the first two groups and comprises about one-fifth of all students. Its members have been formally identified as Catholic for a long time but have not practiced their faith consistently. Their lack of regular practice means they have little sense of liturgy or experience in prayer. They want to be “good,” but life for them thus far has not entailed any radical commitment to Christianity. Formation advisors find that people in this group are likely to go in one of two directions. Those who are caught up by the Spirit and enter fully into the formation process are often the most convincing models for people in parishes. They have experienced what it is like to be indifferent to their faith, and they know how to appeal to parishioners who are struggling with the meaning of faith in their own lives. Others in this group never quite find their way and are apt to leave the seminary before ordination or before completing their education for a ministerial position.
  4. Those who have a rigid understanding of their faith. The fourth group, whose membership may overlap with any of the previous three, constitute the greatest challenge for faculty. Like most current students, they came of age after Vatican II concluded and have no lived memory of the church before 1970. In fact, most have had the experience of living their entire lives to date during one single pontificate. Like their peers, they have been greatly affected by American cultural forms, especially the media, technology, and communications. After having sometimes been quite immersed in this culture, their response now is to withdraw and condemn the world as they see it. Although the secular culture touches other seminarians and lay students as well, not all of them respond by withdrawing, which suggests that other character traits also lead to withdrawal.

Administrators and faculty describe this fourth type of student quite vividly. External signs include an unhappy appearance, downcast eyes, tight body, and no sense of humor. Generally, they express dissatisfaction with the seminary and criticize it for lacking sufficient devotion or orthodoxy.

The attitude of these students toward learning is that any new insight is a threat, so they avoid critical thought. This type of seminarian expects faculty to conform to his own thinking rather than being open to the scholarly insights of faculty. Such men want only clear, distinct ideas that are aligned with their view of orthodoxy. Such students appear to grasp at easily memorized formulas because they cannot deal with sophisticated and nuanced thinking; thus they become suspicious of speculative thought simply because they cannot enter into it.

At their worst, these students exhibit signs of paranoia, suspicion, and constant vigilance in monitoring each other’s motivation. Trust is absent. As one faculty member remarked, “A few, fortunately very few, students are Tridentine in their orientation and have no use for Vatican II; they are pinched and bitter and their goal is to work against the changes Vatican II has brought; these are pre-conciliar students in a post-conciliar church. They manifest a kind of ecclesial arrogance, ready to criticize faculty and judge their orthodoxy and competency.”

The number of students—seminarian or lay—represented by this extreme type is, I believe, quite small. However, the impact they have far outweighs their limited numerical presence. One rector commented: “A destructive element has created a defensive mode on the part of faculty. We have incidents of faculty being reported to authorities and to the general public—incidents of letters sent out widely about a particular professor being heretical—totally unfounded criticisms that nonetheless create an environment of guardedness. These students say, ‘The church is duped by liberals; we must provide the Catholic answer and save the church and seminaries from these people.’”

The Priestly Role
The intellectual requirements for serving in the church today are immense. A more educated Catholic population demands well-educated lay ministers and priests; ethnic groups emigrating from many parts of the world necessitate greater understanding of cultures and languages; and socioeconomic groups of enormous range require awareness of how the Gospel can be heard among them. Much intelligence and knowledge will be needed to reach the great diversity within the Catholic Church.

Given the fact that one of the key roles of the priest is to articulate and preach the faith convincingly, a man who is himself capable of learning and understanding the faith will be capable of fulfilling one of his chief priestly functions. Thus, a holistic and honest discernment of vocation to the priesthood must include not only a consideration of his personal qualities and motivation, but also whether he will succeed in apprehending the res of the Catholic tradition and then communicating it.

As with other qualities, intellectual achievement and ability vary considerably among students. A few candidates present themselves with doctoral degree in hand, whereas a few others enter after not much more than a high school education completed many years earlier. Most have earned a college degree, followed by intense study of philosophy for a year or so; and some, though a decreasing proportion, come from college seminaries where they usually majored in philosophy.

Apart from differences in prior educational experience, the intellectual ability of students also varies. Compared with ten years ago, most faculty report that they are teaching about the same small number of excellent students and that the broad middle range of students also remains steady. The difference appears at the lower end of the spectrum; many faculty believe that the least gifted students are weaker now than ever before. After a semester or two, most theologate faculties dismiss students whom they deem incapable of graduate study, but such students always seem to find their way into one or another school that prides itself on accepting those who could not make the grade elsewhere.

Another complicating factor related to academic achievement is the growing number of seminarians from other countries. The presence of these students affects classes in contrasting ways: on the one hand they are enriched by experiences of different cultures; on the other, they may be impeded by these seminarians’ inability to understand the nuances of American culture and the more technical aspects of theological language in English. In the first case, some international students, especially those with a European seminary background, arrive with a classical education that serves as an excellent starting point for theological studies. In the second, either students who have a poor grasp of English are left behind or the whole class must slow down to accommodate them.

Student Abilities
Most highly qualified students. A few have benefited from a first-rate classical education, during which they studied philosophy along with some scripture and theology over at least three or four years. Realizing the importance of this background, they are determined to keep growing intellectually. They understand the relationship between learning and the capacity to minister with integrity. Some faculty expressed frustration at not being able to work enough with talented students because their numbers are small and attention must be directed to the students who need extra help just to get by.

Relatively qualified students. Those in the large second group, typical of most students, have reasonably good college degrees and adequate intellectual abilities. They want to learn what the church teaches, and they are also looking for insights into the tradition. The challenge of integrating all aspects of their formation inspires many of them to spend hours in study, prayer, and pastoral placements. Yet many of these students come with degrees in business, science, or technology, so they have had less exposure to the humanities. Even the brighter ones tend not to be readers, and they lack the broad cultural foundation afforded by study of the classics. Faculty are faced with the task of inspiring these students to acquire a thirst for knowledge, to be more inquisitive and creative.

Insufficiently qualified students with weak educational backgrounds. Of this group, one academic dean said, “We are reaping the whirlwind of poor educational systems; we see the consequences in poor reading comprehension, poor writing skills, the inability to do research work and to think logically and critically.” A faculty member spoke passionately about the consequences or the problem in these words: “Many have a limited, linear view of religion: ‘In the beginning there was God, then the Jews, then Jesus and Christians, then us.’ We need either to teach a course in ancient civilization and the history of ideas or to establish it as a prerequisite. The students’ lack of appreciation of poetry, narrative, and the power of language is lamentable, as is what appears to be a lack of imagination and creativity, all born of a narrow technological education that prepared them for a job but not for advanced theological studies.”

Those with learning disabilities. Those with learning disabilities pose an entirely different challenge. Seminarians with educational problems stemming from dyslexia or attention-deficit disorder, for example, often have difficulty writing, suffer from short attention spans, and lack the ability to read advanced material with full concentration. Given the proper diagnosis and treatment, however, these students can achieve well.

Those who lack English language preparation. This category includes many seminarians from other countries who lack sufficient knowledge of English and of American cultural practices to be able to study effectively at the graduate level. Often these candidates are intellectually capable, but for the sake of moving them quickly through their programs, they are not given the opportunity to study English over an extended period. Time invested at the beginning with trained language instructors usually pays off in the long run, since few faculty are skilled in assisting these students.

Those far removed from formal study. The last category of students includes some older candidates, men in their forties, fifties, or beyond, who have been away from academic study for many years or who may never have been interested in studying at all. When they decide to enter seminary, many bishops want them to get through the program as quickly as possible because of their age, whether or not they have adjusted to the seminary setting. Some have just completed a crammed year of studying philosophy, while others are admitted to theology without having completed a pre-theology program at all. These men are now expressing an urgency to get on with their priestly lives. If one diocese requires two years of pre-theology, some will go to another diocese where requirements are relaxed. A growing number of these students are struggling academically. The fallout from their struggles affects the entire academic program and other dimensions of formation as well.

Faculty respondents noted that many seminarians, unlike most lay students, are reluctant to critique anything. According to one faculty member: “Students can’t make judgments or decisions; they find critical questions disquieting because they don’t know logic or how to think through complexities, even about what is right and wrong with American culture. They haven’t thought reflectively about their world in the light of the Gospel. This isn’t about being traditional or progressive; they simply don’t know how to make judgments on their own authority. They depend on the ‘official church’ to tell them about everything that is right or wrong.” Faculty may unwittingly contribute to the problem if they engage critical thought in only one style. Others attributed the tendency of students to operate more on a feeling level in the absence of cognitive richness, to the fact that their previous studies were career oriented and did not provide the benefits of a liberal arts education. A concomitant tendency on the part of students is to champion “pastoral” over “academic,” as if being pastoral and being intelligent were mutually exclusive.

Lay Students
Where do lay students fit into this picture? First, since a greater proportion of lay students are from the United States and have lived here most of their lives, fewer must contend with learning a new language as they begin theological studies. They are also well acquainted with the culture, and many have worked in parishes before entering theology. Because lay students normally pay their own tuition, they approach their studies very diligently, though the claims of jobs and families may curtail involvement with their course work. Both financial circumstances and other responsibilities lead most to enroll part time; thus their average student career is longer. The advantage of spreading the degree over several additional years is that more time is available for assimilation and less pressure is felt to finish quickly. The disadvantages are that work sometimes proves to be a distraction, supersedes time for study, and causes discontinuity in progressing toward a degree.

The lack of a strong background in philosophy is a major deficit that lay students themselves admit. Nevertheless, despite occasional complaints to the contrary by seminarians, almost no faculty feel that this lack has a negative impact on class progress. Another point of contrast is the previous religious formation that lay students have had. Some have grown up in a strong Catholic culture, but many are fairly new to religious influence. A few have proven to be sources of conflict and disruption for faculty who confront some of their preconceptions about theology. Theologates that enroll a large number of lay students are addressing these lacunae by developing all aspects of lay formation.

Grace Builds on Nature
The basic theological axiom of the church is that grace builds on nature. When we have students who possess the components of a healthy personality and the intellectual capacity to complete an academic program successfully, then the building blocks are in place for effective formation. Despite inevitable doubts and questions, it is evident that as students progress through their programs, more and more of them do reach acceptable levels of human development. Many possess positive qualities from the beginning, while others have obstacles and deficiencies to overcome.

Since the beginning of this study in 1995, I have searched for a scriptural passage that would capture the spirit found in theologates today. I am drawn to Ephesians. The theme of this letter is God’s purpose in establishing and extending the church of Jesus Christ. As is true for our time in history, members of the church in its earliest days came from diverse backgrounds and nationalities, but all were called to redemption and forgiveness in Christ. As I review the results of this research, I find that the overriding motivation of faculty and administrators is, in fact, to fulfill God’s purpose by preparing laborers—priests and lay women and men—for the enduring mission of building up the body of Christ. One phrase (Ephesians 5:16) from the letter’s exhortation relates especially to this study. The author exhorts the disciples to “make the most of these times” by acting wisely, understanding the will of God, and giving thanks in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the great tradition of training disciples as Paul did, theologates aim to help students become wise and worthy ministers through various programs of human and spiritual, academic and pastoral formation. I believe that, above all, these times invite us to strive for greater charity and trust, and for a profound union of hearts and minds based on the gospel.

A Word About the Author

Sister Katarina Schuth’s reputation as the leading expert on Catholic theological education in the United States was cemented a decade ago with the publication of her first book Reason for the Hope: The Futures of Roman Catholic Theologates. She recalled in a recent interview how she became a student of seminaries:

“It was 1984 and I was in my second year at Weston School of Theology, working on an M.T.S. and a licentiate in sacred theology. I’d gone there after eleven years in teaching and administration in Minnesota. Fred Hofheinz of the Lilly Endowment was looking for someone to write a companion piece to John Fletcher’s book on Protestant theological education. John Padberg, S.J., who was then Weston’s president, recommended me and then generously told me I could work part time for Weston and do the book research.”

Schuth left Weston in 1991 to become professor of the social scientific study of religion at St. Paul Seminary of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in her native Minnesota. But her study of Catholic theological education continued and led to Seminaries, Theologates, and the Future of Church Ministry: An Analysis of Trends and Transitions, which is to be published by Liturgical Press in July.

Schuth’s research technique depends on extensive interviewing in which she probes for how schools operate and how teaching is carried out. “I try to offer an overview so others can adopt the best practices,” she says.

Her consulting and teaching has now become international, and she has worked in England, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. At one workshop for seminary leaders in Belgium at which she was to speak, there were 900 applications for seventy places. 

—William R. MacKaye

Realizing the Dream Deferred
John was fifty when his mother died and he was finally able to think seriously about seminary. The idea of priesthood had always been in his mind. At last he was free to explore his lifelong dream, even if the idea of going back to school for four or more years was not a prospect he relished, but he talked to his vocation director, who recommended a seminary for older candidates. John had no problem with the entrance requirements of the seminary he chose since he had been a practicing Catholic all his life and came with good recommendations. He did find out, however, that some seminaries accepted people without doing much testing, and he heard about some older candidates at these schools who had been recently divorced or widowed struggling with different experiences of loss and change. John wondered how, for example, seminarians who were coming out of recent annulments and had quite negative attitudes toward women would fare in their ministries. He really appreciated the women who were in his classes, but he realized that not every male student did.

Because John did well in seminary—he had never been far from an academic environment—after two years his bishop asked him to condense his studies and finish in another year or so. He didn’t really need the extra time after all, his vocation director told him. This development threw John into a temporary tailspin but, being a team player, he doubled up on his course work; despite his exhaustion from concentrated course work, he was going to make it. The seminary had concerns about accelerating his program, but they knew they had to accommodate his bishop if they expected to get other seminarians from his diocese. 

Following a Familiar Path
Dan entered the seminary at age twenty-four after completing a B.A. at a small Catholic liberal arts college and working for two years in an advertising agency. Because his family moved several times while he was in elementary and high school, Dan’s religious education had been spotty; having passed through a number of parishes, he didn’t know much about how any one of them functioned. But armed with the basics of his faith from college, he thought he could avoid the confusion of new ideas. When given a choice between two seminaries, he visited both and felt drawn to the one that reminded him of his college. He was reassured when his tour guide told him that you never had to worry about the faculty; they stuck to the catechism and approved books.

Dan had been at the seminary for almost two years now. He found his classmates’ beliefs compatible with his own. The course work seemed quite easy compared with his undergraduate program. A person just had to learn the basics from the lectures and assigned reading, and repeat them on written exams. Sometimes Dan worried about how he would do in a parish. Although he found the field education experience helpful, it was also puzzling at times. Not everyone accepted everything the priest said and people tended to ask so many questions. In the large parish where he was placed, several lay people were working full time, and he wondered how he could blend his priestly service with their ministry.

Ministering in Two Languages
Carlos emigrated from Mexico to the United States about ten years ago at the age of sixteen, when his family moved so that his father could work. Three years later, after he finished high school, Carlos decided to enter the college seminary. He had long thought about becoming a priest, and he determinedly proceeded right through his studies. Learning to speak English well enough to preach was difficult, but since many other seminarians likewise were not native speakers of English, both the college seminary and the theologate insisted that everyone learn a second language. It was comforting to see his Anglo classmates struggling with Spanish, and the Vietnamese students found learning English as challenging as he did.

Now that Carlos was a deacon, he could look back on the education he had received with great appreciation. The seminary made a concerted effort to prepare everyone for what it called a multicultural church. More than being bilingual, this meant really understanding something about the variety of people he would be called upon to serve as a priest. He still found some of his Anglo classmates quite resistant to the idea of ministering in a largely Hispanic parish where they would have to speak fluent Spanish, but everyone in his diocese had to be prepared for a future that was sure to include ever more diversity. Since Carlos had always embraced opportunities to learn more from the faculty, who helped each individual discover what they needed to know, he felt prepared for a wide range of possibilities.

This article was adapted from Seminaries, Theologates, and the Future of Church Ministry: An Analysis of Trends and Transitions, by Katarina Schuth, to be published by the Liturgical Press (Collegeville, MN; phone, 320/363-2218) in July 1999.

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