Seminarians’ IQs

I submit that one explanation lies in the ability of the dissidents to use language carefully. The know how to propound the case for their favorite causes — women priests or changing the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, for example — without openly becoming advocates; to act as if they are merely reporting on alternative views in circulation in academic circles or looking for a way to discuss challenges to traditional teachings in a scholarly, sound manner — to “dialogue.” The dissidents know how to write in a code language of sorts.

Although not a theologian in the strict sense of the word, New York Times columnist Peter Steinfels knows how to play this game, to make the liberal case by writing between the lines. Consider his September 24th column. (Steinfels identifies himself as a “life-long Catholic.” His column on religious issues appears regularly in the Times. He also writes for Commonweal, the Nation, Dissent and the New Republic, and is a visiting professor of history at Georgetown and Notre Dame.)

Steinfels’s topic in the column in question was the Vatican’s current investigation of US seminaries. He tells us he is worried about the scope of the investigation: “The thrust” of the Vatican investigators, he says, is to “assure that the future priests are fully prepared to live celibate lives, as well as morally disciplined and prayerful ones, and that they are thoroughly committed to church teachings, especially as laid out in recent official documents from the pope and Vatican offices.”

Steinfels does not challenge the Vatican’s objectives. Not directly. Instead, he expresses a concern that there is no attempt from Rome to also determine if modern seminarians in the US possess “capacities for initiative, creativity or imagination and consultative leadership.” This is where the code language begins.

“There is,” he points out, “no explicit question about concern for social justice” in the list of questions being asked by Rome, even though there “are numerous questions about recitation of the rosary, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, devotion to Mary and saints and many other exercises of piety.” He complains there is just a single question to determine if they are being taught “a proper understanding of women in ecclesiastical life.”

I don’t think I am being unfair: Steinfels’s concern about whether American seminarians are being instructed in the demands of “social justice” does not center on whether they are being sufficiently introduced to the principle of subsidiarity as articulated in the social encyclicals, or instructed in the reasons for the Church’s opposition to socialism. What he is worried about is whether modern seminarians are being led to see a link between the Church’s social teachings and the social welfare programs championed by the Democratic Party. And what he means by a “proper understanding of women in ecclesiastical life” is whether seminarians are being encouraged to keep their minds open about the need to challenge Pope John Paul II’s teachings against women being ordained to the priesthood.

Steinfels goes on to cite a study of the intellectual qualifications of current seminarians entitled Educating Leaders for Ministry, by Victor Klimoski, Kevin O’Neil and Katarina Schuth (Liturgical Press, 2005). This study concluded that one-third to 40 percent of modern seminarians suffer from “poor educational backgrounds, learning disabilities, lack of facility with English or unfamiliarity with American culture.” It also concluded many modern seminarians resist “the learning enterprise” because it “threatens their preconceived ideals about theology.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t think Steinfels would care in the least if he discovered that many modern seminarians had “preconceived ideals” about the merits of the Catholic Worker Movement or Liberation Theology. What troubles him is the phenomenon we have heard much about in recent years: the large numbers of modern seminarians who are drawn to traditional theological and liturgical views and who resist “the learning enterprise” conducted by liberal professors dedicated to shaking them from their orthodoxy. The insinuation is that a commitment to traditional belief is closed-minded; that an intellectually sound young man should find himself drawn to the work of liberal theologians and that a seminarian’s resistance to “progressive” thinking is a sign of intellectual immaturity and a lack of potential for growth.

Steinfels also frets over whether “today’s seminarians follow current events, read serious fiction, show an appreciation of the arts, or display an interest in contemporary science.” Let’s see: Do you think Steinfels is worried about whether they are keeping up with the work of conservative writers such as Paul Johnson and Charles Murray, spending long hours studying Michael Rose’s work on the importance of preserving traditional church architecture as an aid to worship, and digesting Fr. Stanley Jaki’s reasons for casting doubt on Darwin’s theories?

The questions answer themselves. You know that isn’t the case. What Steinfels is concerned about is whether the seminarians are keeping themselves abreast of things like the insights into homosexuality and McCarthyism found in plays such as Angels in America, whether they are pondering the scientific world’s rejection of Intelligent Design theory, delving into the moral relativism propounded in the deconstructionist theories of Michel Foucalt and Jacques Derrida, and questioning America’s role in the world by giving careful consideration to the activities of groups such as Pax Christi.

What would Steinfels sound like if he were more candid? I think we can get a clue from comments made by Thomas Cahill in the May 16th issue of The New Yorker, in an article discussing the reaction of different factions of American Catholics to the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Cahill has made a career of bashing the “institutional Church” and traditional Catholics. He doesn’t pull his punches, not against the Church, at any rate. It is how he earns his living. He expressed his concern to The New Yorker that Cardinal Ratzinger as pope would continue in the footsteps of John Paul II in regard to the selection of bishops.

What was so bad about John Paul II’s choices? They were “terrible” because “in order to have been named a bishop, a priest must have been seen to be absolutely opposed to masturbation, premarital sex, birth control (including condoms used to prevent the spread of AIDS), abortion, divorce, homosexual priests, married priests, female priests, and any hint of Marxism. It is nearly impossible to find men who subscribe wholeheartedly to this entire catalogue of certitudes; as a result the ranks of the episcopate are filled with mindless sycophants and intellectual incompetents.”

The purpose of Peter Steinfels’s article was to warn us of the attempt by Benedict XVI to fill our seminaries with the same sort of men — without saying it openly.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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