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 Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.

  • OutsideTheGate

    I’m in England, and sadly, my experience of the majority of the ‘New Seminarians’ when observing them at events or in parishes, is that they are only interested in Theology and Philosophy and seem to fantasise about themselves being the next Newman, Cure d’Ars, or Ignatius of Loyola, et al. in their measured, controlled, and seemingly ersatz, behaviours and their clear enjoyment in dressing up, like a toddler.

    They are immature, emotional pygmies and social retards (some, very effeminate and prissy, but hate homosexuality through what seems to be a pretty obvious Reaction Formation), and who simply don’t fit into normal life anyway. They can only talk to you if you can discuss something like Balthasar or Moderate Realism with them, otherwise they haven’t got anything to say. And anyone who disagrees with them is obviously a Modernist.

    Being a traditionalist myself, I think the ‘psychological assessment’ of seminarians in the 1970s has simply swung in the opposite direction, and we still have dysfunctional or damaged men coming forward for ordination, and being accepted, but just a different type. In fact, if anything, encouraged, as they’re so sycophantic towards Bishops, and you see them all huddled round a bishop in their best soutanes if there’s one present like love-sick puppy dogs.

    In other words, the possibility of ordination (power?), being set apart and dressing differently, and what that brings, feeds their illness.

    In short, when they get into a parish there is one ‘c’ which describes them, and its not Catholic, but Clericalist, so we’re just storing up different problems for later. One of their biggest characteristics is that they almost invariably split parishes and end up with a fan-base of like-minded groupies rather than a congregation.

    • I’m in England as well, and have noticed something similar. Fortunately, the seminarian I’m good friends with doesn’t fit this mould – he takes his studies seriously, but his focus is on being a shepherd of souls.

      Broadly, though, I agree with what you say. I’m glad it’s not just me who finds it difficult to talk to them. Now, I love liturgy and patristics as much as the next guy. Unless the next guy is one of these Pious Young Men (Pyms, as a friend calls them). There’s more to life than these things.

      I think a broader cultural exposure at seminary, or preferably before, as Prof. Smith suggests (cf. Flannery O’Connor, or Evelyn Waugh, perhaps) would give them something to talk about, at least.

      • OutsideTheGate

        Thanks for replying, Chatto, and agree.

        I, too, know a couple of fine, if not outstanding, recently ordained priests, but some of the others I’ve seen at ordinations, giggling round the bishop, leave a lot to be desired.

    • Well, if anything will turn those young priests into saints, it will be ministering to the likes of you.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Once, Bl John Henry Newman was talking to a seminarian, a young man who had converted shortly after coming down from Oxford.

    Newman asked him how his Greek was coming on.

    “Well,” replied the young man, “I did get a First in Honour Mods” (Classics)

    “Very commendable,” observed Newman dryly, “But don’t you feel that a clergyman should aspire to something rather more than a gentleman’s knowledge of Greek?”

  • Chris in Maryland

    A superb essay Mr. Randall. I am just getting near the end of the Paradiso, and had not yet reached Canto 29 – the problem Dante put his finger on certainly paints the picture for vast portions of the Church here and now.
    In a way – it is consoling to note how many things Dante described simply spring eternal for the Church, good and bad alike.

    The Church, it seems, is not immune to the like the old saying about “10 guys pushing a cart up the street.” Two are pushing, two are trying to knock it over, and the rest are along for the ride.
    God bless all who are pushing, and may God’s grace save the others.

  • Francis Miller

    Amen. Teaching requires the ‘big picture’. Failing to have the big picture, great things are made small and confused with the trivial.

  • Steven P Glynn

    Perhaps the seminarians are finding it more purposeful to study climate change.

  • I had a drive by shooting on the internet like this a few weeks ago, it nearly cost me my faith. A Jesuit who insisted that the unrepentant deserved “unilateral forgiveness” and prayer. I told him I could only pray for the conversion of such a person- that forgiveness requires repentance. But it’s been bugging me ever since.

    • How do you define forgive? We can extend forgiveness to the unrepentant, in the sense that we can choose to “forgive those who trespass against us.” Our acts of forgiveness do not force trespassers to repent nor be reconciled.

      • I can only recognize forgiveness as an act of love. As a necessary step in a long journey of repentance and reconciliation. What you are talking about is pardon, and to me, that requires a competent office which I do not hold. Love required wanting what is best for the individual, and without recognition of sin, without repentance for that sin, unilateral forgiveness becomes, to my mind, an act of hatred. ” I want to avoid hell for myself, but I do not mind seeing You in Hell, so I will forgive this crime against me but not even ask you to recognize that it was a sin”.

        • MSDOTT

          Someone told me a long time ago, that it takes one to forgive, two to reconcile. Forgiveness does not mean condoning what the person has done, neither does it mean that you are saying all is well.
          Forgiveness, in my mind, actually frees me up if I were the person who was sinned against. I can pray for the person who has sinned against me ( or against the people I love), and let God and let God decide what is needed for the situation and for that person. Easier said than done, but as I grow older, I see the wisdom of this, and actually pray to Our Lord to teach me how to forgive, and give me the will and strength to do so.

          • The Jesuit way would have us condone what the person has done, put a “charitable interpretation” on it to mask the sin.

            But Jesus Christ himself in Luke 17:1-10 presents us with a very different model of forgiveness and reconciliation- even when repentance is hard and proves false, one must forgive again for additional repentance. Christ’s model is reconciliation, not condoning.

          • Forgiveness is not condoning. It’s simply choosing to relinquish the debt and to seek the good of the one who has sinned against us. That good is often to pray that he will repent.

            I speak from experience. Several years ago, I found myself praying for the salvation of those who killed my family. It was intolerable to me that they would go to hell yet I knew they might. My ability to pray and hope for their repentance is a gift from God. Of myself, I could never do it. But with His gift, I no longer cling to the anger and hatred I had for them, hope for their salvation, and, at the same time, remember that they committed grave evil.

          • MSDOTT


          • RainingAgain

            Is it proper to forgive someone who does not wish to be forgiven or perhaps insists there is nothing to forgive?

  • Tarzan

    These seminarians who don’t like theology are probably better suited to be social workers, which is probably what they think being a priest is all about. This may explain why many priests seem to side with progressives who pursue “social justice” in the world but seem unconcerned with morality for the next world.

  • Manfred

    A ray of hope? At the recent Mass in the Basilica in D.C, which Pope Francis attended, the Papal Nuncio’s office gave to each seminarian who attended a copy of GOD OR NOTHING by Robert Cdl Sarah, the African cardinal who, with almost all of his African Cardinal colleagues, opposes the Kasperite faction in the Synod on the Family.

  • Rick

    Great article! I think archbishop Fulton J. Sheen would agree with you.

  • Cheryl Jefferies

    This is just one reason I am more than a little worried about this pope making some things in the Church “easier” to obtain. “Streamlining” can be good…as long as folks are on the same wave-length about the essentials. But, if most are not truly grounded in the essentials? Well, it will lead to chaos out of what was once order. God made order out of chaos. We seem to be headed in the opposite direction.

  • I don’t need to be in England. Your comments are beyond the pale and the exact opposite of how the saints would speak about priests (especially a young priest). If you’re really a traditional Catholic, then read about and follow the example of St. Francis, Teresa of Avila, etc. Lastly, if you really think your comment was fine, then print it out and show it to the best priest you know. He won’t be pleased and will push you into a confessional.

    • OutsideTheGate

      He won’t be pleased and will push you into a confessional.

      Yeah. They’re called Jansenists.

  • Dave

    Men need challenge, we need ideals, we need discipline, and we need accountability. Those sectors of the Church that are exploding with vocations — the traditional religious orders, publicly orthodox dioceses, FSSP, Opus Dei, come to mind — water nothing done: you’re all in or you are out the door. Young men who are bored by philosophy and theology probably need to be shown the door, after a period of discernment. Young men who cannot demonstrate mastery of the Church’s pastoral sciences shouldn’t be ordained. Young men who cannot pray should not be ordained: for in the end, it is the Holy Spirit who instructs, teaches, counsels, guides, comforts, and gives gifts. A man who does not know how to approach the Holy Spirit, a man who does not have a relationship with each Person of the Blessed Trinity, who cannot pray through the Church’s liturgy and who does not have his own prayer life — how can this man be a doctor of souls? St. Teresa once said she would take a learned but somewhat impious priest over one who was pious but ignorant. Fair enough: she’s a Doctor of the Church. The Church’s goal should be to prepare for priesthood men who know the science and men who know the prayer, so that we are not forced into Teresa’s dichotomy. They should also know the best of literature, science, history, and the arts, as well, in order to know the culture as well as, if not better than, many of the souls to whom they will be ministering. Let the priesthood once again be comprised of “the best of the best,” and the ship will right itself again.

    • olhg1

      Time was that, early on in a guy’s life, any aspirations to priesthood were observed by the parish priests/Chaplains. Over the course of years, they would witness to the suitability and goodness of the prospective seminarians and send letters of endorsement or caution to vocation directors. Does that still go on? If the guys were ordained, it would frequently happen that were sent to isolated assignments and left to percolate, without much overview from “elders” seeking to guide them. Man, I hope that is not the case today. I believe that there are John Vianneys, who are still able to handle isolation, but, IMO, bishops shouldn’t throw caution to the wind. The routine, brotherly collegial meeting of priests and bishop used to be a spiritual watering place for a lot of guys. Does this still happen?

  • olhg1

    I loved all the seminary subjects except Canon Law. I had great profs, but some of the course content bored me to death. Later on, with the give and take of Roman Catholic practice in parishes, dioceses and “Rome,” I was very glad that I knew-despite my boredom-what was going on. All those German and Italian moral theological giants of the late 19th and on into the 20th centuries astounded me with their reasoning, faith, encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything, including science, sports, psychology, etc. fabulous. Greek and Hebrew really helped when I dug into Biblical studies. Latin, language of the accursed Romans, was easing on out of the picture, but still around and not only in the liturgy: Cicero and Virgil. All that was a tremendous help in studying literature and history later on.