Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An Important Talk (II)

One of the complaints we often hear from seminarians is that the seminary timetable can be so packed they have little time for personal reflection or study. Like any complaint, of course, it has to be treated cautiously - it is important to learn how to manage one's time and not waste it. However, a packed timetable can certainly lead to a certain unhealthy dissipation and in his talk the Secretary for the Congregation for Education refers to the danger of packing too much into a student's initial formation.
His second point is that the formation programmes in the pontifical seminaries should be reviewed and he calls for 'a comprehensive, organic theological formation that is focused on the essential'. He goes on to explain what he means:
"This implies, on the part of those responsible for instruction and formation, the discontinuation of an initial formation marked by a critical spirit - as was the case for my generation, for which the discovery of the Bible and doctrine was contaminated by a systematic spirit of criticism - and of the temptation of premature specialisation: precisely because these young men lack the necessary cultural background".
There are a few observations I'd like to make here. First of all I think the basic point is well made. When I was an undergraduate reading theology in Oxford I had a number of Catholic and non-Catholic friends who had chosen the same subject because they wanted to know what to believe. Rather than their starting point being a fides quaerens intellectum it would be more accurate to describe it as an intellectus quarens fidem. Sadly what generally happened was that the disection of the Bible according to the historical-critical method meant that most neverfound the faith they sought and were left with an unhealthy cynicism towards Christianity. As Goswin Habets, one of our professors at the Gregorianum later put it: "One only dissects a dead body, never a living one". Another Greg prof, Fr Becker, also put it well when he asked us to put down our pens one day and reminded us that the Scriptures "are also the revealed Word of God". I always felt that themes such as revelation and the inspiration of Scripture should precede an introduction to the historical-critical method. I am particularly pleased that these days the writings of Benedict XVI, Scott Hahn and others have enabled a new generation to thrill to the revealed of God in a way that wasn't possible even twenty or thirty years ago.
There is something slightly puzzling, however, about the Bishop's comments. He is addressing the Rectors of the Pontifical Seminaries and calling for a change in the approach to studies. But all their students would study at one of the Pontifical faculties. One must conclude that either he is talking with a wider audience in mind or he is referring to the content of an introductory year that he wishes them to establish.
He goes on to 'share a few questions' that occur to him:
"It is absolutely reasonable to want to give future priests a complete, top-level formation. Like an attentive mother, the Church wants the best for future priests. For this reason the number of courses has been multiplied, but to the point of weighing down programmes in a way that is, in my view exaggerated. You have probably perceived the risk of discouragement in many of your seminarians. I ask: is an encyclopedic perspective appropriate for these young men who have received no basic Christian formation? Has this perspective not, perhaps, provoked a fragmentation of formation, an accumulation of courses and an excessively historicising outlook? Is it truly necessary, to give young men who have never learned the catechism an in-depth formation in the human sciences, or in the techniques of communication?
I would adivse choosing depth over breadth, synthesis over dispersion in details, architecture over decoration. Similar reasons lead me to believe that learning metaphysics, as demanding as this is, represents the absolutely indispensable preliminary phase for the study of theology. Those who come to us have often received a solid scientific and technical formation - which is a good thing - but their lack of general culture does not permit them to undertake theology confidently".
Again, there is a lot packed in here. The old Roman system was that seminarians went to the faculty in the morning for lectures in Latin. In the afternoon they would go over their notes with repetitores to ensure that they fully understood what had been taught and that they began to assimilate the subject. That's no longer the case. For some individuals the afternoon period is a time for personal study. In my time for many it was a time to visit the City. While in some Roman seminaries it has been filled with extra in-house courses. The bishop seems to be calling for an emphasis on depth and assimilation of the basic studies rather than a superficial knowledge of lots of subjects. Some seminaries I know have reserved the academic term for the basic studies and introduced other more pastoral subjects during intensive study weeks before and after the relatively short academic terms.
Again, however, it should be noted that that the Bishop is not trying to criticise the seminaries. He seems rather to be stressing the importance of an introductory year to make up for the 'lack of general culture' which would prevent students from benefiting as much as they can from their theological studies. It is this 'lack of general culture' that he comment on in the next part of his talk.

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