Response to Instrumentum Laboris: The Vatican Document To Be Used in the "Visitation"
of Roman Catholic Seminaries in the US
The inspiration, training and nurture
of leaders within religious organizations, and particularly Christian churches,
is a topic I've been involved with for decades. As a student, teacher, as the
supervisor of seminarians in training and a board member at two Protestant seminaries,
I've had an opportunity to observe the process of formation at close hand. I am
convinced that the need for highly skilled religious leaders who possess integrity,
intelligence, imagination and a capacity for loving the church and its people
is acute. One also wants to attract persons who are knowledgeable about the wider
culture, who have the capacity for entering into conversation with those outside
the church, and especially with those who hold different beliefs or none. In an
increasingly diverse and pluralistic culture, the capacity for developing empathetic
relationships with those of different religious or cultural backgrounds is essential.
Not only is this crucial if one expects one's own faith to be correctly understood
and appreciated in the wider world, it is also crucial in order to build coalitions
that address problems of concern to all, for example, the struggle for justice,
peace, and the health of the environment.
I am also aware that the recruitment
and training of such leaders is a tremendous challenge. Fewer and fewer people
of outstanding talent and ability are choosing the ministry or priesthood as a
profession. So one must be particularly imaginative in the recruitment of such
Given these realities, the recent announcement by the Vatican
that it would be launching a "visitation" of all the Catholic seminaries
in the US, stirred my interest. Given that the Catholic Church faces a huge recruitment
problem, and a serious shortage of priests, I wondered what questions it would
be asking the leaders, teachers, and students of its seminaries? A short Google
search away, I found what I was looking for. INSTRUMENTUM
LABORIS is the list of questions that will be addressed not only to every
seminarian in the United States, but to recent graduates as well.
took my breath away. If the Devil were designing a document with the direct intent
and purpose of furthering the decline of the priesthood, he couldn't have done
a better job. This is the Inquisition come back to haunt us. And I am not referring
to those questions in the document -- and there are several -- designed to focus
upon what church leaders apparently fear most, namely, a tendency for the priesthood
to become a refuge for homosexuals. God knows how problematic and wrong headed
it would be to "cleanse" the church of homosexuality. If a person has
the capacity for honoring vows of celibacy, while offering the skilled and faithful
leadership that today's church urgently needs, such a person should make an excellent
priest, whether gay or straight.
More troublesome still is the document's
emphasis upon conformity, orthodoxy, and unqualified agreement with the traditional
doctrines and teachings of the church. Consider this question: "Are the text
books in conformity with church teaching?" This implies a theological curriculum
devoid of real content and one that is guaranteed to produce graduates that are
not qualified for dialogue with the contemporary culture. For how is one to come
to grips with the problems of culture if one does not study it, appreciating both
its strengths and its weaknesses? If, during their training as priests, candidates
for ordination are restricted in their reading to books that conform to the orthodox
teaching of the church, graduates of such schools cannot possibly become the skilled
conversation partners that those outside the church would respect and listen to.
Nothing in the document refers, even remotely, to the value of learning
about traditions other that that of the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, one question
asks: "Are the seminarians capable of dialoguing on the intellectual level
with contemporary society?" But the following question makes answering that
in the affirmative next to impossible. "Do their studies help them respond
to contemporary subjectivism and, in particular, moral relativism?"
cannot dialogue with a serious conversation partner if one's premise and purpose
is to defend one's own position, attributing falsehood to one's partner from the
outset. "Subjectivism?" "Relativism?" This amounts to name
calling. And there is more. Another question asks: "Is the seminary free
from the influences of New Age and eclectic spiritualities." Think about
that for a minute. Most of the practices and teachings of the Catholic Church
are eclectic. From the holidays, prayers and liturgies that shape its daily life
and practice, to the thought of Thomas Aquinas or Augustine, Catholic tradition
itself represents a marriage of biblical and extra-biblical material, frequently
borrowing from sources of wisdom outside the church that enrich its own thought
Another question asks: "Is there a clear process for
removing from the seminary faculty members who dissent from the authoritative
teaching of the church?" Totally ignored is the challenge of recruiting
to the faculty leaders of thought who are capable of addressing the problems of
contemporary society with wit, intelligence and imagination. If you want to guarantee
that your seminary curricula are boring, irrelevant, and void of the content likely
to equip a new generation of leaders, this is surely it. Purge the church of leaders
who are capable of the critical and independent thought necessary in facing problems
of a rapidly changing world. Build walls around seminaries. Prevent seminarians
from reading newspapers, watching television, exploring the Internet. Have the
students memorize all the appoved texts. Such priests will know nothing of New
Age or eclectic spiritualities. They will also be incapable of communicating with
the members of their own flocks who are exposed every day to such things.
Visitation is yet another example of a great institution embarking on a path toward
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.