The fourth edition of the Program for Priestly Formation states that a “clear doctrinal understanding of the priesthood is necessary in order to chart the course of a consistent education and to foster a secure priestly identity” (par. 10). In my experience of seminary, I would say that there was a lot of room for growth in this area. Consistency wasn’t exactly a hallmark of the instruction I received in the seminary.
a theology of aggregates
The methodology at my seminary, as best as I could tell, was to provide an aggregate of perspectives with the goal of getting a “well-rounded” vision of priestly life and ministry. As an example, I can think of at least a half-dozen seminars that implemented what I call the “flip chart” method of theology. Our dean of academic life at the time was fond of the flip chart presentation… starting with a blank page and a marker, and then throwing out a question like, “What are some important attributes of a priest in ministry today?” Then participants would offer their suggestions, and together we’d analyze the list and cluster them into categories to discuss. I don’t object to this exercise as such, but it is rather time consuming, and I usually felt that the time would be better spent consulting Scripture, the tradition (especially the Vatican II and post-conciliar documents) and men actually engaged day-to-day in priestly ministry. Four years of theology is really a brief time to get acquainted with the tradition, and so I always wished we could get down to business and discover some things we didn’t already know. Also, the flip chart business felt like an ivory tower activity, conducted by a full-time academic and a bunch of aspiring candidates… not to say that this population has nothing to offer in such a discussion, but that such a conversation lacks some important voices.
a smorgasboard of perspectives
Another way in which the “theology of aggregate views” expressed itself was in the selection of the faculty. I just try to imagine what would happen if you assembled the whole faculty to discuss, for instance, something like this statement: “In the sacrament of orders, priests are especially configured to Christ to act in his person as head and pastor of the Church and in the name of the whole people of God” (PPF, 30). Yikes. Diversity in non-essential matters might be a sign of a healthy seminary, but diversity of views about essentials is a problem. The approach taken by the seminary was to let each professor offer their own perspectives, and it was up to the candidate to figure out how to assemble the pieces into a coherent whole (if, indeed, such a task was possible). If you could say there was a sense of coherence in the faculty, it was the coherence of a mutual agreement to stay out of each other’s way… which, from the outside, it appeared that they did, for the most part. It would be hard to describe the community of the seminary in the words used to describe the early Christians in Acts: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind” (Acts 4:32).