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As times change, shouldn’t seminaries?
In a classroom filled with students, faculty, and priests at the School of Theology and Ministry (STM) one rainy evening in November, Katarina Schuth, OSF, began her talk with a parable from the Gospel of Luke: Jesus reminded the crowd “gathered by the thousands” that when they see clouds rising they know it is going to rain. “You hypocrites!” Jesus exclaimed. “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
A sociologist of religion and holder of an endowed professorship from St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota), Schuth has spent much of her career collecting and interpreting data—historical, demographic, curricular—on U.S. seminaries. She published her first of five books on the topic in 1989, after crisscrossing the country to interview faculty and students at more than 40 seminaries. Her newest book, Seminary Formation: Recent History, Current Circumstances, New Directions, published weeks before her visit, analyzes data she collected from 1985 to 2015, a period that saw the number of U.S. priests decline by 20 percent. In her talk, sponsored by the Church in the 21st Century Center, she presented her findings.
In the early 1960s, there were approximately 60,000 priests in the United States, and 134 seminaries. In 2016, Schuth said, standing before projections of charts from her book and other sources, the count of priests was 38,000, and seminaries numbered 39, with enrollment down from some 8,000 to 3,500. During roughly the same span, the number of Catholics in the United States increased from 47 million to 70 million, swelled by the rising Hispanic population. “These tectonic shifts”—toward a larger, more diverse Catholic populace and a priesthood stretched thin—”require program changes and [seminary] faculty and administrators who will be able to prepare future ordained and lay ministers for a different Church,” said Schuth.
For 400-plus years, until the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the model of priestly training, Schuth related, was “amazingly” constant, an adherence to “the rigid regimen and residential life” decreed by the Council of Trent. The 1563 synod at Trento in northern Italy called for establishing a training college in every diocese to receive students as young as 12, “before habits of vice have taken possession of the whole man.” Seminaries, said Schuth, were shaped by the conviction that candidates for the priesthood required isolation and protection “from the dangers of the world.” The Trent canon required seminarians to “always at once wear the tonsure and the clerical dress; they shall learn grammar, singing, ecclesiastical computation, and the other liberal arts; they shall be instructed in sacred Scripture; ecclesiastical works; the homilies of the saints; the manner of administering the sacraments . . . and the forms of the rites and ceremonies.”
It wasn’t until the fall of 1965, toward the end of Vatican II, noted Schuth, that the Church updated the decree of Trent on seminary training. Responding to the “changed conditions of our times,” Optatam Totius (translated literally as “the desired [renewal] of the whole,” but called in English the “Decree on Priestly Training”) mandated that a council of bishops in each country be appointed to draw up a “program of priestly training,” to be revised “from time to time” with approval from the Vatican. (It also called for introducing “the newer findings of sound psychology and pedagogy” alongside the “norms of Christian education.”)
Since 1971, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has published five editions of its guidelines for American seminaries, each titled “Program of Priestly Formation.” Reviewing the texts, Schuth found that the number of instances in which Vatican II documents, including Optatam Totius, and the Council more generally, were cited decreased with each edition, from 104 citations in 1971 to 53 in the most recent, 2005, edition. (The next is due in 2020.) As Schuth pointed out, the bishops who wrote the 2005 program would have been, on average, 16 years old in 1965. In 2005, she said, the program’s “guiding document became the code of canon law,” issued in 1983 and cited no less than 91 times. The result, according to Schuth, has been a growing inattention to “modern culture” and to the makeup of the Church “as it exists today.” A look at the education of seminary rectors may be telling: “Early on,” Schuth said, “many had pastoral theology backgrounds. Now, canon law is much more common.”
Schuth identified specific points of stress in the Church in the United States that challenge seminaries today. As the number of priests has declined, she noted, the number of deacons and lay ministers has risen. In 2016, there were an estimated 40,000 lay ecclesial ministers across the country, up from fewer than 3,000 in 1965. “I have often thought that if it weren’t for the generosity of lay people in this day and age,” she said, “we would be a very sorry Church.” But she added that this boon has also brought with it “patterns of separation and competition.”
In the period between 2010 and 2015, according to Schuth, some 54 percent of seminarians were younger than 30, while 37 percent of Catholics studying to become lay ecclesial ministers were older than 50. She notes a “polarization . . . not only between lay ministers and priests, especially younger priests, but between younger priests and older priests, as well. They just don’t come with the same idea of what ministry should be.”
Seminarians need to understand secular culture, Schuth observed, especially the concerns of millennials. More than a third (35 percent) of millennials raised as Catholic identify as “nones,” according to a Pew Research Center study in 2014. Earlier studies conducted by Catholic University researcher William D’Antonio and colleagues indicate that 47 percent of millennial Catholics have a low level of Catholic identity (based on measures such as parish participation and on responses to statements such as “I could be just as happy in some other church”). Only 7 percent of self-described millennial Catholics can claim a high Catholic identity.
Most new seminarians stand within that 7 percent, said Schuth. As such, their sense of the Church is different from that of their peers. “Church teachings need a translation into language that is intelligible and relevant” to young Catholics, said Schuth. She called Pope Francis an advocate for this type of ministry, citing his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), in which he calls on Catholics to “be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style, and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.”
Schuth counts the rising number of lay faculty who teach in seminaries as a positive development: “They have more immediate knowledge of family life, experience as parishioners, and direct understanding of the problems associated with living in a secular environment.”
And she pointed to new approaches being tried in the placement of seminarians in parishes. For instance, a seminarian at St. Paul, where Schuth teaches, is assigned to the same parish for four years and receives critiques from a committee of 12—”a teaching parish committee, it’s called.” The committee’s makeup is “representative of the parish—about four couples of different ages, with young children and not, a few younger people not married, a few other singles, occasionally a religious sister.”
The title of Schuth’s first book on seminaries was Reason for the Hope: The Futures of Roman Catholic Theologates, and Schuth said she is often asked if she still has hope for their future in this country. “As a person of faith,” she says, “the answer is always yes.”