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Are U.S. Catholics entering a post-seminary world?
The year 1967 more or less marked the peak for the number of seminaries where priestly formation takes place in the United States. That year, there were 110 theologates—Catholic major seminaries (post-high school, post-college)—in operation. Not so many years later, in the mid-1970s, there were only about 70. Those that closed were primarily small schools belonging to religious orders, and some of them closed purposely in favor of a few large centers that they formed cooperatively, notably, the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and the Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C. (which itself has said it will not take new students after this fall). Certain orders—the Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Benedictines—retained most of their schools and keep them open still.
Today, 45 U.S. seminaries remain. Of these, 24 are freestanding schools, mainly diocesan. Eleven others are university-affiliated, a category that has grown in recent years. The Weston Jesuit School of Theology, for instance, changed from being independent to being part of Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry three years ago, while the Immaculate Conception Seminary reunited with Seton Hall University, in New Jersey, in 1984. A 12th theologate with a university affiliation, the diocesan American College at Louvain (in Belgium), whose students attended the Catholic University of Louvain, closed at the end of the 2010–11 academic year.
The 10 U.S. seminaries I have yet to account for have organized themselves in federated or mixed models, or serve a particular constituency—the latter including the Melkite Greek Catholic Seminary in Newton, Massachusetts, and the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Pittsburgh.
In 1967, there were about 8,000 seminarians in the United States. Two years later, there were 6,600. Ten years after that, in 1979, the figure dropped to 4,000. The total appears to have stabilized somewhat over the past 15 years, at a little below 3,500.
Several changes should be noted to clarify these numbers. First, since men have increasingly been coming to seminary at an older age, with a college degree already in hand, a program called pre-theology was started in the early 1980s in a number of major seminaries. This provided future seminarians the opportunity to study a lot of philosophy and a little theology in preparation for full-time theological studies. Currently, some 820 students are in pre-theology programs, nearly all diocesan. If we remove these “preparatory” students from the seminarian headcount, there are now only about 1,800 diocesan seminarians and about 800 religious order seminarians. Perhaps for this reason, pre-theology students are usually included in the seminarian counts provided by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a key provider of data on the Catholic Church.
The population of diocesan seminarians (including pre-theology students) reached what seemed to be a numerical low point in 1994–95, at 2,396. It began gradually to increase, but with revelations of a sexual abuse crisis among clergy there came a sudden decline, to 2,307 in 2004–05. Indeed, within a span of two years, 2003–05, an enrollment drop of over 600 occurred in diocesan and religious order seminaries combined. That was a tremendous loss, from which the Church has not yet fully recovered. Currently, only one man is ordained for every three who retire, die, or leave the priesthood. This is a reality that will necessarily affect the way priests are educated, since new priests must take on leadership roles at a much earlier stage after their ordination.
Another change in the makeup of seminaries has been the influx of lay students, beginning in the early 1970s. By the early 1980s, the laity occupied something in the range of 2,300 seats in the theologates (in addition to those occupied by seminarians and pre-theology students). Their ranks have not grown much in 25 years—the count is now 2,700, about equally divided between religious order and diocesan seminaries. Lay attendees at diocesan seminaries are, by and large, separated from seminarians, in different courses and programs. In religious order schools, however, they tend to study together.
There has also been a significant influx of international students to U.S. seminaries, almost all of whom aspire to priesthood. Twenty years ago, foreign theologate students weren’t counted as a distinct category, but it has been estimated that 5 percent of seminarians in the United States at that time came from abroad. At present, 25 percent of students in U.S. seminaries are international.
The theologate faculty too has undergone immense changes. The proportion of instructors who are priests has declined from 76 percent in 1985, to 57 percent now. Clergy are being replaced by lay men, whose share has swelled from nearly 10 percent to almost 23 percent, and by lay women, whose presence has grown from 3.7 percent to 12.7 percent. Women religious have had a decreasing role on seminary faculties (down from 10.4 to 7.6 percent) as their overall numbers have dropped.
The educational experience of contemporary seminary faculty is also worth noting. Eleven percent fewer claim a European degree in their background than was the case in 1985–87. And despite a great interest on the part of some Church leaders in having more of them earn their doctorates in theology through a pontifical degree program (designated as being under the authority of the Vatican), only about 30 percent of faculty have as their highest degree an STD, the pontifical degree. This is by no means what Church leaders expected when they stipulated that almost all faculty should have a pontifical degree, and there is little sign of change to come.
The Church in America is not what it used to be, and this will necessarily affect how individuals are to be educated for ministry. There are, for instance, 20 million more U.S. Catholics than there were 40 years ago, mostly due to immigration. Nearly 40 percent of the Catholic population now is Hispanic. About 4.5 percent is African-American, and another 4.5 percent is Asian, including Pacific Islanders. The concentration of Catholics in the United States has shifted ever more intensively toward urban and suburban areas. This development means that many rural churches once staffed by a single priest are now being combined, with more priests facing the challenges of multiple-parish ministry. (Those most affected have been diocesan priests, but 15 percent of clergy assigned to multiple parishes are in religious orders.) About half of all U.S. parishes are in a situation where their pastor has at least one other parish. Indeed, most priests are committed to a second job of some kind, even those assigned to large urban or suburban parishes, which also are increasingly merging.
At the same time, we have seen the concentration of Catholics shift regionally, from the North and Northeast to the South and Southwest. In response, Catholic infrastructure—Church personnel, services, facilities—has followed only slowly.
Let’s consider Church personnel for a moment. With 19,000 fewer priests in this country in 2010 than in 1967 (and 118,000 fewer sisters), two sets of Catholics have helped to fill the gaps in the ministry of the Church: permanent deacons and lay ecclesial ministers. The permanent diaconate, which was restored after a lapse of some 13 centuries in the 1970s, now numbers more than 17,000 in the United States. Concurrently, there are at least 30,000 lay ministers on the payrolls of the nation’s parishes, working full-time or nearly full-time. An additional 162,000 or so lay men and lay women are employed in the Catholic schools. For seminarians, learning to work with these professionals must be an essential piece of their training—a proposition that has generated some resistance in both diocesan and religious order theologates.
In profound ways, U.S. Catholics today are different from who they were in the past, and they are different from one another. According to surveys, they hold opposing opinions on moral and social issues (birth control, for example, and the death penalty) as well as on Church authority in general, which they accept in varying degrees. Liturgical and devotional preferences, often rooted in ethnicity, divide parishes. Less than 45 percent of today’s Catholic population lived through Vatican II, with its changes in liturgy, its declaration that “the people of God” are the Church, and its advancement of ecumenical and interreligious relations; and many younger Catholics are uncertain, to say the least, of its importance. In this respect, seminarians are scarcely different, and theologates now have the great challenge of emphasizing the Council’s significance in the Church’s history as something not to be disregarded a mere 40 or 50 years after its close.
Looking through the catalogues of the American theologates, which I’ve been doing for about 30 years, one finds the changes—which from year to year seem few—begin to aggregate and eventually point to a sea change. In a number of schools, where once there was a focus on Vatican II, one sees the subject slipping into the background. In its place, a more apologetic approach emerges, with privilege of place given to the works of Thomas Aquinas. As a result, seminarians tend to speak about the faith as something that needs to be defended as to its truth and value; they strive to learn the arguments that will convince others of this position. Along the same lines, priestly identity—in ministry and spirituality—is increasingly highlighted, at the expense of a broader ecclesiological context that includes all of the faithful. Meanwhile, moral theology courses focus ever more on sexual morality and biomedical ethics, while tending less to broader Catholic social teaching with respect to the poor, justice, war, and peace. Some would find these changes not quite in tune with the Church’s needs.
Certain remedies and modifications seem in order. To begin with, seminaries must accurately convey to their students the context of priestly ministry in our time, which is, in a word, diversity. Seminarians must accept and understand the real meaning of ministering in modern society—with its varieties both cultural and theological. They must be exposed to the whole of the Catholic tradition, not just the limited version they happen to have grown up with.
The theologates must become more practiced in the art of social analysis, and in advancing decisions based on real conditions and the common good rather than on personal preference. Sensitive approaches to the use of authority with respect to the laity, for instance, will make priestly ministry more effective. And, as they instill in their students a spiritual deepening and the ability to inspire and encourage others, seminaries should be a source of accurate analyses of pastoral needs. The seminary is a place for inculcating virtues and values, to be sure. It is also a place to convey the hope—the expectation, even—for improvement in Church ministry.
Katarina Schuth, OSF, H’04, holds the Endowed Chair for the Social Scientific Study of Religion at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her essay is drawn and adapted from a lecture she delivered on March 21 sponsored by Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center, School of Theology and Ministry, and theology department.