There has been a certain amount of discussion in three blogs about the proper training of priests. Once we get rid of the red herring according to which the clergy of a “proper denomination” are properly trained and small minority churches without the financial resources for full-time residential seminary training can only produce ignorant impostors, we can begin to reason everything out and make progress.
Is a priest held to the same standard of formal qualifications as doctors, lawyers, business consultants, chartered accountants, surveyors, civil engineers and the like? I have often found low standards of professionalism in poor minority churches like the Continuing Anglicans, and I have also found intellectual pride, a lack of empathy and arrogance with some of the priests I have known in the “official” Church. Arguments are often made against university education on account of the risk of the student being influenced by heresy and fallacious philosophy. Each of these viewpoints has a certain but limited validity.
My own experience has been a classical European university faculty for theological studies to licentiate standard. We were expected to know our stuff at the examinations, and an experienced professor would see at a glance if the student was trying to “fake it”. More importantly, a university does not have the same role as a seminary. In the former, emphasis is placed on the student thinking for himself, doing his own research and defending his thesis according to the rules of evidence and correct reasoning. A seminary also offers a theological education at an advanced level, but from the point of view of the Church’s teachings and what is directly useful for the future priest in his future ministry. Whether the priest has a university degree or has simply been taught or examined by the Bishop and examining chaplains, the important thing is that a priest should be able to reason and assimilate a level of general culture. Perhaps requirements would be less precise than the standards required of surgeons or civil engineers, but these qualities seem essential.
I can speak from my own experience of a full-time residential seminary. We are given our intellectual training, typically according to the Thomist and scholastic method – unlike university – but that is not all. We had the framework of a community life similar in some ways to that of a monastery. We were taught and conditions to be clerics, like soldiers in the Army. From the day we got the cassock and the tonsure, we had to learn to behave ourselves in a different way, and acquire gravitas. We worshipped in chapel at Lauds, Mass, Sext, Vespers and Compline. We ate in refectory in silence, listening to a reading. We put on something, like the cassock and collar, over and above our personalities, and had a comfortable feeling of hiding behind our new identity. We had recreation, played sports, went on walks, went on holidays to see our families – but as clerics.
Our clerical formation was designed to enhance our spiritual life as being very similar to monks (for the time we were at seminary). We prayed in chapel each day. We had our spiritual reading and had our spiritual directors – and seeing them was more or less an exercise in hypocrisy. It was a positive experience for me, and it was as formative of character as having being in the Armed Forces. One learns to deal with authority, obeying but yet negotiating by the interaction of personalities. This is a subtlety many lay people are unaware of – unless they have been in the Army!
Is there a better way? Can priests be trained “on the cheap”? The seminary is an invention of the Council of Trent. Before then, it was something like what they do in Orthodoxy. The elite were monks, trained in universities and their communities. Parish priests are local men who were brought up in the parish and learned their “stuff” from childhood, and were chosen as viri probati to be ordained for the parish. They often just celebrated the Liturgy, and a priest-monk would come in once in a while to preach and hear confessions. That system leaves something to be desired, but there is a lot of wisdom to it. It is a notion of priestly training based on an apprenticeship and years of hands-on experience.
Whether it is right to say that only mainstream churches train the clergy properly and “continuing” churches are beneath contempt depends on the beholder’s viewpoint. Perhaps one particular “beholder” should have stayed with his owners in the American Episcopal Church, as there was no justification for his going to a pretty little neo-baroque church in the city where he lives. Officialdom and institution are more important than conscience and genuine grievances with the so-called “mainstream” bodies.Following orders coming from the official authority does not justify just anything. That was the most significant principle that came out of the Nuremberg Trials in 1946.
Resuming, a priest should be cultured and able to reason with all social classes. First of all he should be a devout believer and concerned for the spiritual good of his flock. Thirdly, a degree of professionalism and competence in “priestcraft” is needed. A badly celebrated Mass is unedifying! Good manners are essential. The quality of being a good cleric is being increasingly questioned, when the cassock and collar are used to conceal evil and wrongdoing. Corruption is proper to institutions and the men who use them for their own ends. This is why Catholicism can survive outside these institutions and renew itself according to extraordinary means – a principle foreseen in canon law. Salus animarum suprema lex – the salvation of souls is the highest law.
As someone formed to be a cleric, these matters cannot be dealt with according to a black-and-white simplistic mindset. Western Christianity is in a crisis, from whichever viewpoint you look at it. In Europe, the faith is being extinguished, and I am not quoting the Pope. I can see it for myself.