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A New Inquisition is Neither Welcome Nor Needed

A Protestant's 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 leaders.

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.

The document 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?"

One 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 and practice.

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.

This Visitation is yet another example of a great institution embarking on a path toward oblivion.

To Discuss it, click here.


Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.