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Faculty find seminarians diverse but unprepared.

Writing in The Atlantic two years back, Paul Wilkes called contemporary seminarians the "most intensively studied group that have ever prepared for a religious vocation." Given the mounting priest shortage, parish closings and questions about the fitness of some who are making it to ordination, the proliferation of studies is a clear indicator of concern.

A dozen major seminary studies have been published in as many years, all aimed at assessing seminary life to revitalize it.

Some critics contend these studies fall short because they fail to tackle fundamentals like the wisdom of maintaining a solely male, celibate clergy. If this caveat can be put aside, it surely remains in the interest of our sacramental church to assure that seminary examinations continue and that tomorrow's priests come from the ranks of the best and brightest our Catholic communities can offer.

In this light, the latest seminarian study, "Readiness for Theological Studies: A Study of Faculty Perceptions on the Readiness of Seminarians" (published last month, funded by the Lilly Endowment and conducted by the Seminary Department of the National Catholic Educational Association), reveals considerable reason for concern (NCR, Jan. 22).

The study generally finds today's seminarians older than those of a decade ago, sensitive and willing to serve, coming from wider ethnic backgrounds, bringing greater diversity to the seminaries, but also less knowledgeable about Catholic culture and exhibiting serious academic and psychological limitations. Many appear simply unfit for ordination.

According to the study, which queried faculty impressions, nine in 10 said changes have been negative in the past 10 years. Faculty find today's seminarians increasingly lacking in Catholic culture, more conservative, less academic and less interested in social-justice issues.

Forty-five percent of faculty respondents said today's seminarians are "lower or much lower" in academic ability than their lay counterparts.

Examining the findings, Franciscan Sister Katarina Schuth, author of the 1989 theologate study, "Reason for the Hope," offers insightful commentary as part of the study. She states:

The survey shows (intellectual concerns) to be clearly the most distressing area, that which is most troublesome for faculty, and it is mentioned more than any other factor (65 times) as needing attention.

The problem has two distinct dimensions: On the one hand it is caused by a lack of religious education, basic knowledge of the faith and lack of adequate academic background; on the other hand it is exacerbated by lack of intellectual curiosity, no great love of learning, and anti-intellectual attitudes....

Only 31 percent of the faculty, the lowest for any item, say that a considerable number or almost all students have "philosophical background necessary for studying theology." This perception is supported as well by the third-lowest item, students "have cognitive tools necessary for studying theology." Just 43 percent of faculty believe this to be true of a considerable number or almost all students.

Further, nearly half (40 to 46 percent) of faculty see students as slightly or far below average on analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating and abstract thinking -- critical skills in the field of theology.... The faculty survey indicates that intellectual capacity is the weakest characteristic of current seminarians.

The study goes on to state that, "when asked what weaknesses the faculty saw seminarians bringing to formation, the faculty singled out intellectual, psychological and personality factors in need of attention."

Comments Schuth:

"While the issue of celibacy is not directly examined, one of the areas most needing attention (mentioned 45 times) concerned psychological issues. Several troubling characteristics were mentioned: sexual immaturity, emotional issues, problems from family background and unresolved psychological issues.

These concerns, along with the mention of shortcomings like selfishness and self-absorption, could make it difficult to grow spiritually, and especially in relation to celibacy. Nonetheless, on the whole, faculty seem to have fairly positive regard for seminarians relative to spiritual development.

(Seminarians) seem strongest in the pastoral dimension, and they have a solid desire for prayer life, but they experience some personal and psychological problems that inhibit their capacity for service. The greatest weakness is found in their intellectual competence, because of weak backgrounds and lack of interest in the academic study of theology."

The survey also finds among today's seminarians a new distinctive minority, representing some 24 different cultures, and bringing to seminaries both new gifts and new challenges.

Comments Schuth:

People from a wide range of cultural backgrounds must be served, and by the 21st century church membership will be almost evenly divided between the "old majority," such as Irish, German, Polish and Italian, and the "new majority," such as Latinos, Asians and African-Americans.

It seems quite clear that those who are ordained in the near future will not be found in the same proportions, that is, only a fraction of priests are from the new majority. Therefore, it is incumbent on all those who are preparing for ministry to become educated about other ethnic, racial and cultural groups, regardless of their own backgrounds.

People who are in some ways separated from the church or who are found in poor areas of our cities and countryside will be increasing in numbers. This reality will require a willingness to evangelize beyond the center into the periphery, from places of power and influence to places of poverty and vulnerability.

No longer are we a church that can wait for the people to come to our doors. We must be willing to go where they are, to meet them where they live. It will require humble service in humble places.

How does Schuth see faculty summing up today's seminarians? She writes, "Faculty regard about half of their students as well-suited to seminary life and future ministry; about one-third as having some problems but with good potential for satisfactory development; and the remaining group, about one-fifth, as having serious deficiencies that will require extensive time and effort to remedy."

That our seminaries are getting increasingly diverse is yet another indicator of the dramatic demographic change overtaking our church as the "new majority" takes over from the "old majority," she said. As difficult as this transition may seem, it has to be viewed as healthy and part of a preparation for ushering in tomorrow's church.

However, with seminary faculty regarding only about half of their students, in Schuth's words, "as well-suited to seminary life," we know our seminaries face gargantuan problems and, despite all the studies and all the attention they have received in recent years, are a long way from solutions. So more studies are bound to follow. For now, it seems, we are forced to live with more questions than answers.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Feb 5, 1993
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