America’s Seminaries: A House Built on Sand

This fall, some 2,400 men returned from summer months spent studying, working, ministering, or simply vacationing to resume the road to the diocesan priesthood in America’s seminaries. How prepared are these men to undertake the studies that will lead them to the altar of God?

A decade-old report from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference (NCCB/USCC), Seminarians in Theology: A National Profile, already acknowledged that, increasingly, these men are coming from diverse backgrounds. Long gone are the halcyon days described in Henry Morton Robinson’s novel, The Cardinal. Prospective clergy were once gently shepherded from the guild of altar boys at a Catholic parochial school through a rigorous high school seminary and classical college seminary. Four years of sound theological, spiritual, and liturgical studies followed that, with great regularity, yielded more freshly-minted priests in the order of Melchizedek. Today, in contrast, over two-thirds of the students commencing theological studies will be doing so from outside the traditional high school and college seminary tracks.

Many of these are older candidates (44 percent are over 30 years of age) who come from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds. The emerging breed of seminarians is chronicled in The New Men, Brian Murphy’s recent profile of the entering class of theology students at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. This new group included an Air Force bomber pilot, a southern attorney, and two Ivy League conservative activists, in addition to alumni of traditional college seminaries. While this eclecticism lends a certain richness to the priestly material and is, to an extent, reflective of the experience of Catholicism in contemporary America, it is also cause for some concern.

For all its shortcomings, the traditional educational track to priestly ordination had its advantages. It ensured that a uniform body of basic knowledge was transmitted and that certain prerequisites could be presumed by instructors of theological studies. Among these prerequisites were competency in Latin, a familiarity with the figures and doctrine of the Fathers of the Church, and a solid grounding in philosophy, especially in the scholastic rigor of St. Thomas Aquinas. Ignoring any questions of the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of the doctrine taught to them, are America’s seminarians even equipped to undertake their theological studies?

The quest for holiness of life is the first prerequisite for a priest, and the pastoral zeal for souls is inseparable from this search, but the importance of theological grounding cannot be dismissed. As the Congregation for Catholic Education noted in its 1972 document, The Theological Formation of Future Priests:

Priests of tomorrow will also have to exercise their ministry among people who are more adult, more critical, and better informed, immersed in a world of ideological pluralism where Christianity is exposed to many interpretations and suspicions common to a culture becoming ever more alien to the faith. It will be impossible for priests to serve the faith and the ecclesial community effectively without sound theological formation begun in the seminary and carried on beyond.

Seminary education must maintain a high level of academic excellence precisely because a higher level of sophistication on the part of Catholics requires a greater theological sophistication on the part of their priests. Pope John Paul II took up this point in his apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds), urging seminaries “to oppose firmly the tendency to play down the seriousness of studies and the commitment to them.” It goes without saying that theological scholarship is impossible without solid foundations being laid for it.


Knowledge of the Latin language has to do with more than just the preservation of the Latin (or Western) Church’s venerable liturgical heritage, although this, too, ought to be an integral part of priestly formation. It was Pope John XXIII who, in Vetera Sapientia, noted that:

[I]t was not without the design of Divine Providence that the language which for several centuries had brought a great number of peoples together under the authority of the Roman Empire, became the very language of the Apostolic See, and passed on to posterity to form a close bond of union between the Christian nations of Europe. . . . For the Latin language is by its very nature admirably suited to promote every form of human culture among the people of any country: it arouses no jealousy, it is equally acceptable to all nations, favors no factions, is gracious and friendly to all alike.

While Latin is indeed crucial for preserving and mastering the tradition of the Catholic Church, that is only half the story. It is also most valuable in vouchsafing the development of that tradition. The language of the Church must not only be ancient, but also unchanging, as Pope John noted:

[I]f the truths of the Catholic Church were consigned to some or to many of the modern changeable languages, among which none is of greater authority than the others, the result would surely be, on the one hand, that the meaning of these various versions would not be sufficiently indicated or sufficiently clear to be understood by everyone; and on the other that there would be no common and fixed norm by which the meaning of other versions could be determined.

As the Latin Church’s official language, Latin necessarily shares in the Church’s universal character. As the late Gabriel Cardinal Garrone put it (himself no traditionalist): “It escapes the changes that are an inevitable part of the constant evolution of any modern language. It is an integral part of that marvel of religious art that is Gregorian chant. It taps our entire past history and joins our prayers with the very same prayers of our forefathers.”

The Second Vatican Council, in Optatam Totius, explicitly requires seminarians, before undertaking theological studies, to acquire “a knowledge of Latin which will enable them to understand and make use of so many scientific resources and of the documents of the Church.” This provision was carried over into the new Code of Canon Law, which decreed that “the program of priestly formation is to provide that the students are not only taught their native language accurately, but are also well versed in Latin.” This language is dutifully repeated verbatim in the Handbook for Vocation and Seminary Personnel issued by the NCCB.

Yet one could be forgiven for concluding that these provisions might as well be described with the same term frequently used to disparage Latin: “dead language.” The fourth edition of the Program of Priestly Formation adopted by the U.S. bishops at their annual meeting in 1992 mentions Latin only three times: once in regard to the handful of remaining high school seminaries (“the study of Latin and Greek represents a valuable component in a serious high school education”); once in regard to college seminaries (“the study of Latin and the biblical languages is foundational and should be given the emphasis that Church teaching accords it”); and once in regard to pre-theology programs for candidates who have completed undergraduate studies outside of traditional college seminaries (“study of biblical languages and Latin should be given the emphasis that Church teaching accords it”). The study of Latin, much less competency in it, is not mentioned at all in regard to students of theology—a rather glaring omission given the data on the ever-increasing numbers of theology students who have not attended high school or college seminaries.

So how do American seminaries go about ensuring that future priests are “well-versed” in Latin, not only for the sake of their theological studies, but also for their future ministry? The curricula of some of the largest U.S. seminaries for the diocesan clergy show that—excepting the Pontifical North American College in Rome—the Church’s well-grounded canonical and historical reasons for promoting Latin studies are more apt to be honored in the breach. The approach of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary, the nation’s largest, is typical. Its pre-theology program consists of a three-quarter academic year in which 33 quarter-hours of philosophy studies and 21 quarter-hours of religious studies are required. The academic catalogue is quick to add that “there are also opportunities for cultural enrichment study, for language studies (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish), and for limited electives depending on the student’s interests and available time.” And even if an industrious student were to find the time to study Latin, the seminary only offers two courses in its entire six-year program (Latin I and II). Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans is even more niggardly in its offerings: For the entire course of pre-theology and theology studies, only two elective credit hours of Latin are offered. Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon does not require Latin, though it does offer 12 semester hours. Interestingly enough, it does require 15 hours of Spanish and Hispanic culture and ministry studies.

The second-largest seminary in the country, Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, is perhaps the most faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the Church’s prescription of Latin studies. Depending on whether the student has had a background in the language or not, Latin is required in each of the four semesters of the pre-theology program. Various advanced-level Latin courses are also offered during the years of theological studies explicitly to reinforce this knowledge, such as “Readings in the Latin Fathers I and II.” It is described as “an introduction to the life and thought of the Latin Fathers through a systematic reading of selections in Latin, with attention to grammar, syntax and rhetoric. The course is intended to build upon prior knowledge of the basics of Latin grammar.”

The Fathers

The lack of Latin literacy tends to hamper the study of the Fathers, as William Cardinal Baum, former archbishop of Washington, observed when he served as prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education. He noted, “Many students of theology today who come from technical-type schools do not know the classical languages which are necessary for seriously approaching the works of the Fathers.” This does not absolve one of that obligation to do so, as the Congregation indicated when it dedicated an entire document to the subject, the 1989 Instruction on the Study of the Fathers of the Church in the Formation of Priests. The promotion of patristic studies may surprise those who argue that there are so many serious present-day problems in the Church and society that urgently require attention. However, the Congregation noted that “theological reflection has always been clearly aware that there is something in the Fathers which is unique, irreplaceable and perennially valid, as relevant as ever.” In fact, the Instruction takes note of the many parallels between the present day and the patristic era: one world is fading while another is being born, the Church is in the process of inculturation, etc.

Despite this argument, the study of the Fathers has been caught up in the rejection of the past that characterizes many modern theological tendencies. They are often reduced to pure “biblicism” or subjected to fashionable philosophies and politically correct ideologies. As a remedy, the Congregation mandated that seminaries assign a person specifically trained in patristics to teach the Fathers and that, in developing curricula, sufficient attention be dedicated to that study. In fact, the Instruction noted that, “as a minimum, teaching at least three semesters with two hours per week does not seem to be too much” to give to patrology (the life and writings of the Fathers) and patristics (their theological doctrine).

While almost all American seminaries make a token obeisance to this requirement with one two- or three-semester hour course—usually required, but not always—attempting to survey all the Fathers, St. Meinrad School of Theology, sponsored by the Benedictine monks of St. Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana, stands in almost splendid isolation for its serious fidelity to this mandate. The pre-theology program includes, among its philosophical prerequisites, a three-credit course on St. Augustine’s assimilation and Christian transmutation of Plato as well as a three-credit course on early Church history that emphasizes the texts of the first ecumenical councils. In theological studies, a two-credit course is required on the patristic reception of the Scriptures, with concentrations on St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation and The Confessions of St. Augustine. Both patristics and patrology figure prominently in elective offerings, which include an unusual two credit course dedicated to reading the early martyrologies.


If the study of Latin and the Fathers has fallen by the wayside, then philosophy, particularly that of St. Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastic synthesis, has fallen on even harder times. The near-worldwide neo-scholastic monopoly on Catholic colleges and seminaries collapsed almost overnight after 1965. While a few paused to note that it was St. Thomas who inspired the great theologians of the Council like Henri de Lubac, M.-D. Chenu, Yves Congar, John Courtney Murray, and Karl Rahner, his influence was nevertheless reduced as contemporary theologies and ostensibly biblically based theologies replaced neo-scholasticism. As the University of Notre Dame philosophy professor Fr. Thomas F. O’Meara, O.P., sadly notes: “The theocentric order of his thought as well as the Aristotelian conceptuality pushed his writings into the background of a Catholic life intent upon experimentation and inculturation.”

Yet such was never the intent, either of the conciliar documents or of the Council Fathers themselves. In fact, Optatam Totius articulated the raison d’etre of philosophical studies for candidates to the priesthood in the following manner:

Philosophical subjects should be taught in such a way as to lead the students gradually to a solid and consistent knowledge of man, the world, and God. The students should rely on that philosophical patrimony which is forever valid, but which should also take account of modern philosophical studies, as well as recent progress in the sciences. Thus, by correctly understanding the modern mind, students will be prepared to enter into dialogue with their contemporaries.

The Congregation for Catholic Education was quick to point out to anyone searching for loopholes that when it mentioned the “philosophical patrimony that is forever valid” the Vatican Council meant that of St. Thomas, as “his philosophy clearly explains and harmonizes the first principles of natural truth with revelation, not in any static form, but with the dynamism that is peculiar to St. Thomas and which renders possible a continual and renewed synthesis of the valid conditions of traditional thought and the advances made by modern thought.” Pope John Paul II recently reiterated that point in his encyclical on the rapport between faith and reason, Fides et Ratio. The pope appealed to those who teach philosophy in seminaries to “have the courage to recover through the medium of a perennially-valid philosophical tradition, the dimensions of authentic wisdom and truth” and to concentrate on “presenting in a systematic fashion the great patrimony of the Christian (philosophical) tradition.”

Seton Hall University’s Msgr. Robert J. Wister, former executive director of the Seminary Department of the National Catholic Education Association, notes that: “Thirty years ago the majority of candidates who applied to theologates had attended a college seminary or had participated in a two-year philosophical program attached to a theologate. They thereby experienced structured spiritual formation together with an academic program that emphasized the humanities, especially philosophical studies. As the years passed, more and more candidates applied with weak backgrounds in philosophy.” The readiness of these candidates for theological studies is further complicated by changes in the American educational system, which has moved further and further from classical liberal arts educational ideals. These shifts make it more difficult for students to deal with philosophical abstracts and consequently undermine the traditional relationship between philosophy and the study of Catholic theology.

Given all that, one would have concluded that the pre-theological studies of candidates who come to seminaries from a variety of nontraditional backgrounds would include a substantial amount of philosophy, and Thomism at that. But the NCCB Program of Priestly Formation mandates only 24 hours of philosophy (which is more than the 18 hours required for most of the ’70s and ’80s but still less than what is needed for a minor at most American universities). It further limits itself to requesting that “the perennial philosophy of St. Thomas should be given the recognition which Church teaching accords it.” (One should note the sentiment: Thomism should be given the recognition Church teaching accords it, not what it objectively deserves in its own right.)

While canon 250 specifies that philosophy should be accorded two full years in the process of priestly formation, most American pre-theology programs are, at best, one-year affairs whose (usually) unstated aim is to usher as many men into theological studies and onward as quickly and efficiently as possible. The results are programs like the pre-theology program of Notre Dame Seminary, New Orleans, which is at best a disjointed smorgasbord of 48 credit hours of philosophical and catechetical requirements. The program includes “Making Moral Decisions” (three credit hours) and “Public Reading and Speech in a Liturgical Setting” (one credit hour), whereas the “Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas” (three credit hours) is placed on the same level as “Lonergan’s Insights” (three credit hours). It should come as no surprise that philosophy this confused leads inevitably to theological confusion and, eventually, pastoral obfuscation.

The pontificate of Pope John Paul II has seen a leveling off of the steeply declining diocesan seminary enrollments of the late ’60s and ’70s. In some places—the dioceses of Lincoln, Arlington, Peoria, and Rockford are often-cited examples—priestly vocations have even made a comeback over the course of the last decade, but if such is the seminary education available for candidates to the priesthood, will increasing quantities necessarily mean increasing quality? Or is a house being built on sand?


  • Rev. John Peter Pham

    Rev. John Peter Pham, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, is a fellow of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He holds advanced degrees in economics, theology, and canon law.

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