Prospects for Seminary Theology
Rev. Avery Dulles, S. J.
Laurence J. McGinley Professor
Fordham University
Bronx, NY

This paper was given as the Centennial Academic Convocation Address, St. Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie, NY, Sept. 17, 1996. Published in the Seminary Journal v. 2, no. 3, winter 1996.  Posted here with permission of Bernard Stratman, editor of Seminary Journal.


The Varieties of Theology

Christian theology takes on many different hues depending to some extent on the environment in which it is conducted.  In the first few centuries theology was closely bound up with the catechetical school and with the cathedral chair from which the bishop preached to catechumens and to his flock.  The theology of the day had strong apologetic and liturgical dimensions.  In the Middle Ages it took on a more contemplative character.  Seeking to grow in holiness, the monks meditated in chapel or in their cells on the word of God that had been read to them from the pulpit.  In the high Middle Ages theology became more dialectical and scholastic; it was taught as a speculative science from the cathedra of

  the professor on the basis of authoritative texts.  After the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century the primary locus of theology, in many Catholic countries, moved to the seminaries and houses of formation of religious orders.  It was oriented to the defense of the true faith and the refutation of insurgent heresies.  In recent years an increasing proportion of North American theology is being done in centers and institutes that are intended, in many cases, to promote a Christian vision of society.  In the Third World, liberation theology has grown in great part out of the concerns of the poor in basic Christian communities.  In the past generation there has also been an increase of free-lance journalistic theology.

University Theology

For purposes of this lecture it may suffice to concentrate on the two principal arenas of theology in the United States today.  They are, I believe, the university and the seminary.  In the typical American university, theology has clearly lost its medieval status as 'queen of the sciences.'  Our universities have been constructed on the model of the University of Berlin in the early nineteenth century.  The university is considered a place in which research is carried on according to the principles of scientific method, beginning with hard data of positive science and facts that can be recognized by any normal person.  Thanks to the ingenuity of Friedrich Schleiermacher, theology managed to find a place in the secular university, but only as a professional school, parallel to other learned professions such as law and medicine.  The aim of theology, in liberal Protestantism, was the training of the clergy.  For this reason divinity schools hold only a marginal place in most nondenominational universities.  Within the university, the study of religion is tolerated, provided that it is conducted on objective scientific principles and detaches itself from any particular faith-commitment.

In the typical American Catholic university theology has a more secure place, but is still seeking to define itself.  In the past fifty years or so, some study of theology is normally required of undergraduates.  A few universities have graduate departments of theology which are aimed primarily at the training of future teachers of religion or theology.  Instead of being housed in a divinity school, theology is carried on predominantly in the school of arts and sciences.  It has the status of a department, parallel to classics or mathematics.  Degrees in theology are awarded according to standards already established for the

  bachelor's, master's or doctor's degree in other academic disciplines.

In the typical American university, whether or not it be Catholic, no ecclesiastical authority has direct control over the faculty of theology.  As a department it is headed by a chairperson who reports to the dean of arts and sciences, to the faculty senate, and to the academic vice president.  The university situation puts pressure on theology to present itself as a fully scientific discipline, open to critical inquiry.  The principles of academic freedom recognized in American higher education are seen as removing university theology from effective ecclesiastical supervision.  Decisions with regard to hiring, promotion, and tenure of faculty are commonly reached on the basis of scholarly publications and teaching performance, without regard for the candidate's religious affiliation, convictions, and practice.  Faculty and students are not presumed to be Catholic or even Christian.  They may belong to any religion or none.  Anything savoring of indoctrination in the classroom is disavowed.  Course descriptions sometimes describe theology as being aimed to induce the students to think critically about any and all Church traditions.

It so happens, in many cases, that teachers of theology do communicate faith and orthodox teaching, but the opposite can also happen.  A tenured professor who diverges from Church teaching, even to the extent of becoming an agnostic or an atheist, will probably not be dismissed.  A multitude of financial and legal pressures, as well as the university's commitment to academic freedom and autonomy, militate against penalizing any faculty member for lack of doctrinal orthodoxy.

Why is academic freedom seen by some as incompatible with ecclesiastical supervision?

Problematic Features

The university situation offers advantages and disadvantages. The opportunities for dialogue with other disciplines and for scholarly research are clear assets.  Responding to the challenge of alien systems of thought, nineteenth-century university theologians such as Johann Sebastian von Drey, Johann Adam Mohler, John Henry Newman, and Maurice Blondel made creative contributions that have advanced Catholic thinking on various fronts, but other university theologians such as Georg Hermes, Anton Gunther, Ignaz Dollinger, and Alfred Loisy yielded too much ground to the demands of scientific rationality and fell into doctrinal errors.

This mixed record has continued in the twentieth century.  During the first World War Karl Barth protested that German university theology had falsified the Gospel by identifying itself too closely with the prevailing national culture.  On the eve of the second World War theologians of the stature of Heinrich Schlier and Dietrich Bonhoeffer resigned their professorships and protested that theology must remain in the hands of the Church, to which the

  Word of God had been entrusted.1  Schlier was soon to become a Roman Catholic.  Bonhoeffer, after resigning from the University of Berlin in 1935, founded a religious community for seminarians and newly ordained priests.  Explaining his motives, he wrote to a friend: "The whole ministerial education today belongs to the Church--monastic-like schools in which pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and the liturgy are taken seriously.  In the university all three are not taken seriously, and it is impossible to do so under present circumstances."2

Like these Lutheran theologians, Catholics commonly recognize that Catholic theology must always be a reflection on the faith of Church, practiced within the community of faith, with a view to serving and enhancing the spiritual life of that community.  If it detaches itself from the Church and makes itself accountable to some other public, such as the state or the academy, it denatures itself as theology.  The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, in its instruction "On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,"3 has clarified these points.

From an ecclesiastical point of view, how does university theology "denature" itself as theology?

The Seminary: Doctrinal Purity

This finding brings me to the main topic of the present address: seminary theology.  The seminary, I shall contend, offers strengths precisely at those points where university theology is most precarious.  Conducted within the Church in monastic-like communities, it stands firmly on the three pillars noted by Bonhoeffer: pure doctrine, evangelical spirituality, and liturgical piety. 

With regard to doctrine, the Catholic Church is committed to the view that faith is not simply a

  private disposition of soul.  The faith has public manifestations: it has been expressed in the form of doctrines revealed by God and certified by Holy Scripture, tradition, and the magisterium.  A major task of theology is to identify these truths, to defend them, and to explore their implications.  Because the seminary operates under the direct authority of the bishop or bishops, and because it seeks to prepare priests who will nourish the people with the food of God's Word, the seminary is alert to prevent the truths of faith from being ignored or denied, as sometimes happens in universities.

The Curriculum

In speaking of pure doctrine, Bonhoeffer's first requirement, one must consider the curriculum.  The candidate for the priesthood, according to John Paul II, must be led "to a complete and unified vision of the truths which God has revealed in Jesus Christ...Hence the need to know 'all' the Christian truths, without arbitrarily selecting among them, and to know them in an orderly fashion."4  Seminary students are not admitted to the theology program without an impressive preparation in philosophy, spirituality, and preseminary theology.  Then they normally spend some four years on intensive course work in which they do extensive exegesis of the Old and New Testaments, survey the entire history of the Church, and familiarize themselves with the whole body of Christian doctrine (historical, dogmatic, systematic, and moral), not to mention their formation in pastoral skills, such as liturgy, homiletics, and canon law.5  The full coverage of doctrine in the usual seminary course compares favorably with the rather selective exposure to doctrine in many university graduate programs, even on the doctoral level.  To enter into the M. A. program here at Dunwoodie one must have already completed the six semesters of the M. Div. program, whereas a   university M. A. in theology requires only an undergraduate training in theology.  By the time that one obtains the M. A. here at Dunwoodie one must have completed more than one hundred credits in graduate theology, whereas at a typical Catholic university such as Fordham some thirty credit hours are sufficient.  In terms of hours of instruction the typical seminarian has much more to show than the university graduate student.

Equally important is the integration of doctrine in terms of the great mystery of God's self-communication in Christ and the Holy Spirit.  No fragmentation of the curriculum is tolerated.  According to the Program of Priestly Formation drawn up by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1992, "the sacred sciences must themselves be taught as parts of a larger undertaking in which the whole--the Gospel--precedes and encompasses the parts."6  Faculty and students in the seminary are committed to the belief that God has definitively revealed himself in Christ, the divine Teacher who animates and guides the Church by the Holy Spirit.  The same cannot always be said of theology departments in Catholic universities.

What is the basis for the integration of doctrine in the seminary curriculum?

The Spiritual Dimension

Seminary theology benefits, furthermore, from Bonhoeffer's second requirement.  The spirituality of the gospel and of the Sermon on the Mount is taken with utmost seriousness.  The Church intends to ordain to the priesthood only those who have been called by the Lord; in the program of formation it seeks to develop in the seminarians what John Paul II calls "a conscious and free response of adherence and involvement of their whole person with Jesus Christ, who calls them to intimacy of life with him and to share in his mission of salvation."7  Every seminarian is expected to be pursuing an assiduous life of prayer under the guidance of competent spiritual directors.  As Vatican II declared in its Decree on Priestly Formation, students of theology "should be trained for the ministry of the word so that they may gain an ever-increasing understanding of the revealed word of God, making it their own by meditation and giving it expression in their speech and in their lives...Those who are to be configured to Christ the priest through sacred ordination should form the habit of drawing close to him as friends in every detail of their lives" (OT 4 and 8).  This spiritual formation is not a distraction from theology, but a singular help for it.  If the law of prayer establishes the law of belief, as the ancient adage has it, theology can only rise to its   full stature when practiced in a community of prayer.  Pope John Paul II asserts as much in his exhortation on priestly formation: "To be pastorally effective, intellectual formation is to be integrated with a spirituality marked by a personal experience of God.  In this way a purely abstract approach to knowledge is overcome in favor of that intelligence of heart which knows how 'to look beyond,' and then is in a position to communicate the mystery of God to the people."8

An authentic life of prayer protects theology from the danger of being a mere memory lesson.  As a contemporary Protestant theologian puts it, "Theological appraisal inevitably must formulate the tradition in such a way that its enduring references are uncovered and grasped as real and true.  This goes beyond historical knowledge of ecclesial existence to the discernment of truth, its disclosive character, its enduring illuminative power."9  Theology, rightly practiced, is a great intellectual adventure, in which the mind is plunged ever more deeply into the mysterious truth of revelation.  It enables the student to put on the mind of Christ the eternal Teacher, who is the light of the world, and to see reality, as it were, through his eyes.  By the gift of the Holy Spirit human beings can in faith rise to contemplate and savor the mystery of God's design.10 

How does an assiduous life of prayer protect seminary theology from the danger of being a mere memory lesson?

The Liturgical Dimension

The final characteristic of seminary theology, as described by Bonhoeffer, is its connection with worship.  The subject matter of theology requires students who are capable of apprehending God in those places where he is pleased to make himself present.11  According to Catholic faith God is really present in the Church's worship, in the Sacraments, and, supremely, in the Eucharist.  By full, conscious, and active participation in sacramental celebrations the seminarian, like others, may attain those dispositions of gratitude, self-offering, and charity that will open his eyes to the presence of Christ in other persons and in the events of the day.  Inasmuch as the sacraments are living actions of Christ in his Church, sacramental participation is an indispensable aid for building up an authentically Catholic sense of the faith.   The university department cannot normally provide a suitable setting for liturgy, but the Catholic seminary is by its nature a worshiping community.  The community is molded daily through meditation on the Word of God and through the celebration of the Eucharist, whereby the students are inserted in a living way into the Paschal mystery that they are studying in the classroom.12  The seminary community is expected to be ecclesial, not simply because it is preparing celebrants of future parish liturgies but because the grace of the sacraments sustains the whole course of theological formation.  As John Paul II explains in his exhortation on priestly formation: "in its deepest identity the seminary is called to be, in its own way, a continuation in the Church of the apostolic community gathered about Jesus, listening to his word, proceeding toward the Easter experience, awaiting the gift of the Spirit for the mission."13

What two elements does a life of worship add to seminary theology?


Having surveyed many assets of seminary theology, we may now turn to consider its possible and actual limitations.  Seminary theology must be recognized as only one species: it cannot aspire to encompass the whole field of theology.  By its very nature, it concentrates on those aspects that are particularly pertinent to the formation of future priests, who must be equipped to serve as ministers of word and sacrament and as pastoral leaders.  The seminary cannot give equal attention to issues that do not enter into the normal scope of parish duties.  The special questions that arise in the various sciences and professions, including the worlds of business and finance, must be dealt with by other agencies.

Because of its specific finality, seminary formation must strive to impart the heritage of faith as already accessible through Scripture, tradition, and the teaching of the ecclesiastical magisterium.  The typical seminary does not engage deeply in the exploration of new and difficult questions, to which no assured answers have as yet been given.  While this orientation is entirely proper in view of the special purposes of the seminary, it could have regrettable consequences.  Students might easily get the impression that all important questions have already been solved, or that theology should restrict itself to matters that have been settled by ecclesiastical authority.

Anti-intellectualism has often been characterized as an American disease, and regrettably our Catholic clergy have no immunity against it.  In their zeal to impart sound doctrine the faculty could implant a lack of appreciation for serious thinkers who are grappling with unresolved questions.  The rapid developments in science and technology that are occurring in our day pose moral and doctrinal problems that demand careful study, patient dialogue and, in many cases, tentative answers.  When such questions arise, it is not enough for theologians to appeal to Rome for an authoritative answer.  Some responsible input should be offered by the theologians of the region from which the questions come.  The priest, even if he is not competent to contribute to the discussion of these issues, should show respect and understanding for those who are so engaged.

  Concerned to inculcate permanent and unalterable truths in the minds of their students, some professors overlook the kind of doctrinal development that john Henry Newman so brilliantly explained in his classic work on the subject.  They give the impression that what is taught today was always the formulated doctrine of the Church.  Others, seeking to be contemporary, fall victim to transitory fads and fashions.  In either case, the effects are unfortunate.  Priests who were formed in "non-historical orthodoxy" have no way of dealing with change, when it comes about.  And those whose formation was too trendy are no better off.  The priests of my generation were rather narrowly formed in a vintage of neoscholasticism that has practically died out since Vatican II.  Some of them were paralyzed by the changes of the 1960s.  I worry that priests who are too exclusively trained in current historical-critical approaches to Scripture or in the social analysis of liberation theology may find themselves in a similar situation when these trends go out of fashion.  By immersing themselves in the long history of dogma, they can come to understand how the Church adapts its tradition to meet new threats and new opportunities as they arise.

I have heard the complaint, at least in some seminaries, that with the long hours spent in the classroom and with the constant encroachment of practical courses and field work, the students are given too little time for reading and reflection.  It is not enough for them to learn by rote the answers given in textbooks or professor's notes.  In their formational years they must acquire the habit of keeping up with current literature, including the more recent pronouncements of the Holy See.  Professionals in every field are required to keep abreast of new developments in their field under pain of losing their qualifications to practice.  The ministry should be no exception.  The ideal would be to inoculate the students with what James Bryant Connant once called "the virus of a self-perpetuating education."14  A good education, I believe, can never be a terminal one.

Why is anti-intellectualism characterized as an American disease? What are some negative consequences of anti-intellectualism in the pastoral ministry?

Growth Toward the Future

For the greater vitality of seminary theology and for the service of the local church, it may be hoped that some of the larger seminaries will develop graduate faculties and run regular sabbatical programs and institutes for the continuing education of the clergy.  Pope John Paul II devotes an entire chapter of his exhortation on priestly formation to this theme.  "The idea that priestly formation ends on the day one leaves the seminary," he declares, "is false and dangerous."15  I am aware that St. Joseph's seminary already does a great deal for continuing education.  While avoiding the weaknesses of academicism, such a seminary could perhaps develop a larger component that would be engaged in research, reflection, and publication on current problems, such as inculturation and evangelization, thus offering stimulation and guidance for archdiocesan offices and programs.16  In this way this seminary could become more visible as a theological power-house and could more amply deserve the title already bestowed upon it in the motto of this centennial year: "the heart of the Church of New York."

The mission of a prominent seminary such as this should not be restricted to the archdiocese.  If my analysis of the theological situation is accurate, seminaries are today being called to take on a greater share of responsibility for the future of the theological enterprise on the national and international scene.  It may be necessary to release more priests for graduate study and to expand the seminary faculty so that its members have more time for research and publication.  To assume the leadership to which they are called, seminary professors may have to publish more books, write more frequently for opinion-making journals, give more major addresses at theological conventions, and be more heavily involved in theological commissions and ecumenical and inter-religious dialogues. 

  Otherwise creative theologians may be tempted to move from the seminaries to the universities.  The relatively low visibility of seminary professors who stand firmly within the Catholic tradition allows more adventurous university professors to steal the limelight, thus contributing to the false impression that the theology is most vital when it liberates itself from its ecclesial matrix.

It is often said that in the past fifty years the center of theological activity has moved from the seminary to the university.17  In view of the current problems of university theology, this shift may not be entirely for the better.  To avoid chaos in their discipline university faculties must find ways of integrating their theology more successfully into the life and mission of the Church.  Unless they can do so, the hegemony may revert once more from the universities to seminaries and monasteries, where greater attention is paid to "pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and the liturgy."

In the present situation one may hope for a more vital interaction between the two types of institution.  The seminary, as it typically exists today, relies on university theologians to address new and complex questions and to engage in creative research.  The university, conversely, needs the seminary to maintain a deeper ecclesial sense and a firmer pastoral commitment.  Faculties of both types can assist one another.  The fact that I, as a university professor, have been invited to be a scholar in residence at this seminary in this centenary year, and to give the present convocation address, may be a signal that the gulf between the two types of institution is narrowing, to the enrichment of both.


What do you see as areas of growth for the future in theology?

1. Schier's 1935 article, "Die Verantwortung der Kirche fur den theologischen Unterricht," is discussed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his The Nature and Mission of Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995), 45.

2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer as quoted by Everhard Bethge, "The Challenge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life and Theology," Chicago Theological Seminary Register 51 (February, 1961): 23.

3. Donum veritatis; English translation in Origins 20 (July 5, 1990): 117-26.

4. John Pual II, Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis 54; English translation, I will give you Shepherds (Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, 1992), 104.

5. The comprehensive character of theological education is emphasized by National Conference of Catholic Bishops in its Program of Priestly Formation, fourth edition, November 1992 (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1993), 340-42, p. 66.

6. Ibid, 351, p. 67.

7. Pastores dabo vobis, 42; p. 82.

8. Ibid., 51, p. 101, quoting from the Synod's Instrumentum laboris, 39.

9. Edward Farley, Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education  (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 186-87.

10. Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, 15.

11. This point is well made by David H. Kelsey in his To Understand God Truly: What's Theological about a Theological School (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 173-76 and passim.

12. Ibid, 48, p. 94.

13. Pastores dabo vobis 60, p. 114.

14. I recall this term from his address at Harvard's tercentenary celebration in the spring of 1936.

15. Pastores dabo vobis 76, p. 146.

16. On the way in which university theology since the Middle Ages has been weakened by academicism, one may consult Paul M. Quay, The Mystery Hidden for Ages in God (New York: Peter Lang, 1995), esp. pp. 396-403.

17. On this point see Robert J. Wister, "The Teaching of Theology 1950-90: The American Catholic Experience," America 162 (February 3, 1990): 88-109.