Seminarians: Training to be Doctors of the Soul?

Senior Editor’s note: Robert Royal continues his indispensable series on the pope’s visit to the U.S. Please click here to read Bob’s latest, “Parsing the Pope,” which puts into context the remarks of the Holy Father to Congress yesterday. “Different people,: Bob writes, “will react to the pope’s overall vision in different ways. Still, I think it is no small thing that he spoke in conclusion, at considerable length, precisely about the family.” Read it all. And tune in to EWTN for coverage of all the papal events today in New York with Raymond Arroyo (@RaymondArroyo), Dr. Royal (@RobertSRoyal), and Fr. Gerald Murray (@GeraldMurray8)  – Brad Miner (@ABradfordMiner)

One of the most disappointing moments for a Catholic theology professor is encountering seminarians who are not only uninterested in philosophy, theology, or literature, but who also view taking these classes as a burdensome waste of time.

Now, we get other students all the time who are not especially interested in theology or philosophy, and who view these “core” requirements as something to be “gotten out of the way” so they can focus on their major in finance or accounting. You learn to live with such things. One problem is that we give young people all their education when they are least likely to appreciate it: when, as one poet put it, the “leaping flame of intellect” is “bound down with large incontinence of spirit.”

Plato wisely advised that students shouldn’t be taught philosophy until after forty. In the meantime, they would serve in the military, learn from their elders and superiors, dedicate themselves to the common good, and gain a breadth of experience of the world. Later, if they showed the aptitude, they would study mathematics in all of its glorious manifestations: music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. And finally, for the ones with ordered minds and disciplined appetites, there would be grammar, rhetoric, and logic, all of which would culminate in the search for the deepest and most profound wisdom about the good life for man, the nature and meaning of existence, and the nature and destiny of the human person.

Frankly, these are questions most contemporary eighteen-year-olds simply aren’t prepared to face. And who can blame them? How do you talk about the meaning of life with people who have experienced so little of life? How do you talk about the nature of evil with young people who have been shielded from nearly every real evil in the world – other than those related to romantic sorrow and divorce?

Young people want to get on with life. They want to learn something about the world before they start reflecting on the meaning and nature of existence. They want to be involved: get a meaningful job in society, make their mark, get married, have neighbors, set up a home. They want to do some of the things that make life meaningful before they start reflecting on what makes life meaningful. My job is trying to reinforce all their good instincts and give them credible reasons to reject the bad things that contemporary culture seeks to convince them to do.

All this is, as I’ve said, simply par for the course. I am not especially disappointed or displeased if my students don’t come into my class burning to know more about theology.

Unless they’re seminarians.

When seminarians aren’t interested in philosophy or theology, and find it burdensome, I can’t help wondering what they think they’re preparing themselves for.


Like most other schools, we have plenty of students who arrive at the university as “pre-med.” After they take their first real biology and chemistry classes, where there’s real math and lab work, we have 50 percent fewer pre-med students. Students know that if you can’t hack chemistry and biology, you’re not cut out for medical school.

Granted, a student may be great at chemistry and biology and still not be cut out for medical school; mastering basic chemistry and biology are a necessary but not sufficient condition. But no one who wants to be a doctor asks: “Why are they making me do all these boring classes in chemistry and biology?” Everyone knows that you don’t get to be a doctor unless you can master the basics. So when our students fail these basic classes, they are forced to admit to themselves: “Maybe I’m not cut out to be doctor.”

So just what exactly do seminarians think they’re training for if they complain: “I want to be a priest, so why are they making me do all these boring classes in theology and philosophy?” And if they do poorly in these classes, why don’t they, in a similar act of painful self-reflection, say to themselves: “You know, maybe I’m not cut out to be a priest”?

Priests need not be “scholars” in philosophy or theology, any more than physicians must be first-rate researchers in chemistry or biology. But what priests do – namely, a lot of teaching and preaching – requires some basic knowledge and skill. If you want to “help” people, you can’t give what you don’t have.

If a man finds Dante dull, Augustine’s Confessions boring, Aquinas too complicated, Newman too “wordy,” and can’t understand why people make such a fuss over Flannery O’Connor then, heaven help us, I don’t want to hear him preach. A smattering of historical-critical biblical scholarship just makes matters worse – usually a lot worse. “Homey” stories aren’t sufficient either. As Beatrice tells Dante in Paradiso 29:

Christ did not say to his first community:
“Go, and preach idle tales to the world”;
but gave to them a true foundation. . . .
Now if [priests] go forth to preach with jests and gibes,
and there is a good laugh. . .no more is required.

The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World warned that “believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they. . .conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.”

I can’t tell you how often a poor student has come to me confused and alienated from the Church because of something entirely unrecognizable as Catholic doctrine that a priest told him or her.

If priests aren’t properly instructed in seminary – or worse, are themselves confused and alienated because of something a crazy theology or philosophy teacher told them – we’re all headed for the mad house.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.