Why Not the Best?

Note: Indeed, why not the best, not only in the areas Professor Smith speaks of today, but throughout the Church? It takes a certain ambition – a realistic ambition – however, to make high aspirations a reality. A priest told me the other day that one of his parishioners asked him why the Church is so unambitious today: if this were the Renaissance, he said, the Church would own MGM. And much more. Until that great day, we must all do what we can. Here at The Catholic Thing we bring you every day the truths of the Faith and the news of the world that we all need if we are ever to see better times. I have to remind you all of the great urgency that we meet our funding goals. Because we don’t sit, like the big Catholic universities, on large endowments. Nor do we profit from government programs. We rely on you. I’m always confident that TCT readers know what that means and will act accordingly. So click the button. Let’s do some great things together. – Robert Royal

Sending someone for catechesis in the Catholic faith?  “Uh-oh, where can we send them where their faith won’t be ruined?”  Preparing for marriage in the Catholic Church?  “Uh-oh.  Well, you just have to gut it out.  Don’t listen to most of the silly stuff they tell you.”  And so, too, when bishops send seminarians for training. “Uh-oh, where can we send them that they won’t be corrupted and their faith undermined?

Why are we constantly in this sad state of searching for the least bad option?  Why are our Catholic educational institutions not the best in the country – and in the world?

I have a friend who works with seminarians.  Year after year, she deals with seminarians who can’t write and won’t do the reading. She complains to the Rector of Studies.  “Yes,” he says, shaking his head, “we need to do better.” But they never do.  They don’t care enough to make a difference. We see this in education all the time. This sort of “caring” is a sentiment, not a living intention to do something concrete.  More time spent outside of class. More tutoring.  More effort expended on difficult subjects.

What we usually get instead are repeated “reorganizations” in which nothing substantial changes. We are left doing mostly the same thing using different categories and people shifted around with different titles.  Then the people in charge will say, “We have a bold new initiative,” when nothing is bold or new about it. This “bold, new initiative” is, in fact, identifiably similar in its shallowness to the last five failed “bold, new” initiatives that didn’t solve the problems.

And to be honest, no one really cared enough after the announcement of any of those “bold, new initiatives” to make sure they were solving the problem either.  It was announced. This made them feel good. The new program was said to result from hours of “hard work” – meaning endless meetings of various “interest groups” that had to be placated. The result was they hammered out a lowest common denominator everyone could agree on.  Not the best, but not the worst.  Rather, the least bad option available.

My friend who tutors seminarians tells of reading their assignments in “Advanced Homiletics.”  A third of them have clearly plagiarized their assignments. She reports it.  Nothing happens.  Ever wonder why preaching is so pitiful?  Because we have seminarians who don’t read and can’t write, and rarely are they forced to do either. How are seminarians who never read and can’t write supposed to construct a sensible, let alone lively, sermon?  What else would you expect from such poorly trained young men but pious platitudes or ideological jargon?

Future priests are found cheating in a class on advanced homiletics, and their superiors simply look the other way?  Why?  Their answer: “We need priests!”  No, actually, we need good priests.  And we will never get them, never develop them, unless we stop accepting mediocrity and the least bad option and insist on excellence.


My friend had a seminarian come to her once at the end of the school year and say, “I need to read more.”  What should he read, he wanted to know.  She recommended Augustine’s Confessions.  When he came back after the summer, he had read that and the whole of Kristin Lavransdatter (all 1000 pages).  It changed his life, he said.

I am writing an introductory textbook on moral theology.  Everyone says, “What level are you writing for?”  “Advanced high school kids and college students,” I tell them.  “I have pitched it at the level I usually use in my ‘Catholic Thing’ articles, but each chapter is roughly twenty pages.”  “No, no, no,” many people reply.  “You can’t get kids to read this much or material this advanced.  They won’t do it.  Five to ten pages of simple prose is all you can expect.”

Really?  These are kids who have read all seven Harry Potter books and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, much of which they have memorized, and they can’t be asked to read twenty pages of “Catholic Thing”- level prose because it’s “too hard” and “too complicated” for them?  That’s insulting.  And I don’t believe it.  Why must we always be dragged down by this magnet of mediocrity?  Why are we not continually challenging them to strive for more – strive for excellence?

Olympic athletes train endlessly, as St. Paul pointed out.  I have kids in my classes who train so hard in sports they can’t walk up the stairs. But we are so frightened like little rabbits that we will upset them, so embarrassed at the faith, that we dare not ask them to read twenty or thirty pages that could change their lives?

We expect Olympic quality excellence in sports, but we give them baby pabulum in theology.  It’s contemptible.  And trust me, it earns their contempt.  I am an adult convert, and I remember being fed this tepid pabulum when I was their age.  I spat it out.  I didn’t become interested in Christianity until I read Augustine’s Confessions and Aquinas’s Treatise on Law in college.  “Wow,” I thought, “these guys are really something.  Religion isn’t all this sickly sweet stuff. There’s some real meat here.  Now, I’m interested.”

I was not entirely convinced, but at least they had my attention.  None of the stuff “for teens” ever earned my respect or got much of my attention. “Come back when you’ve got something serious to say,” I thought – as serious as people who have founded companies or been in war or landed an airliner without engines on the Hudson River.

Young adults like to have fun, but when they go to a lecture, they want something substantive and serious, or else you just shouldn’t waste their time. As for seminarians, if you cannot convince them to take their vocation seriously enough to read important books and not cheat, then you should not allow them to waste everyone else’s time.


*Image: St. Philip Neri Blessing English Seminarians by Silverio Capparoni, c. 1890s [Venerable English College, Rome]

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.