13 April, 2008

Seminary: professors

I've talked a little about the seminary I attended ten years ago, and about some of the humor in seminary life. Here I'll take a look back at the faculty I knew.

The faculty could be divided into the following categories:

  • theology;
  • worship;
  • pastoral care;
  • support (basically this means that I don't really know what they did, but I saw them around a lot).
I won't sit here as a judge of anyone's orthodoxy, but I will relate at least one incident that shocked me.

Overall, the faculty as I knew them were highly educated, thoughtful, and open to discussion. They were willing to entertain contrary opinions, and challenged the students to overcome bad habits of thinking. They set a high academic ideal, and assigned an immense amount of reading. In my wholly unreliable opinion, the "orthodoxy" of the priests generally declined as one moved down that list, with a few exceptions.

Let me give an example of "willing to entertain contrary opinions". My class in Moral Theology was taught by a professor known not only for rigorous fidelity to the teaching of the church, but for his unapologetic defense of unpopular teachings like contraception and euthanasia. (One of the biggest surprises of my seminary career was learning how many American Catholics seem to accept at least the soft euthanasia of withdrawing feeding tubes, which incidentally is contrary to the teaching of the Church.) During one discussion of whether an unmarried couple could use prophylactics during the conjugal act, the professor was enjoying himself while defending the teaching against, well, condoms.

I broke in to take a contrary point of view, based on something I had been wondering for a few months. I began with Cardinal Schoenborn's then-recent statement that it is a lesser evil for homosexuals engaging in sexual intercourse to use a condom and stop the spread of disease than not to—although, he pointed out, the homosexual intercourse itself remains a sin. The point was that if you've surrendered yourself to one evil, there's no point in making it worse by placing your health in danger.

Well, I asked, since intercourse between an unmarried couple is not the conjugal act, inasmuch as they aren't married, could one not extend the Cardinal's opinion to this case? Could an unmarried couple, for reasons of health, legitimately use prophylactics to avoid the spread of disease?

Quite a few students told me afterwards that they were shocked by this argument, not so much at the argument itself but at the person who made it. (I was also known for a spirited defense of traditional views of Catholic doctrine.) What I want to point out, however, is that the professor looked at me and smiled. He was delighted to have a new, original argument to deal with. He also batted it down rather quickly, explaining the "the conjugal act" refers to any intercourse between a man and a woman; what makes it "conjugal" is what is done, and not the legal structures around it (like marriage). Homosexual relations, on the other hand, are by their very nature not the "conjugal act", since they do not take place between a man and a woman. He had to explain this to me a couple of times before I saw what he was getting at, and I hope it conveys what I'm trying to explain. Questions, and different opinions, were invited and entertained, but in the end a reasonable case for the Catholic teaching was presented, usually addressing objections that had been presented. There is only one case where I remember that Catholic teaching was treated with anything less than reverence; I will explain that below.

Grade inflation had an effect. Whether due to the shortage of priests or to the lowered standards prevalent in many universities, no one that I knew was in danger of failing. Some students who, as far as I could tell, did nothing aside from visit the golf courses, and learned only a little more from osmosis, were making C's. I saw one deacon joke with younger students that, once he had received ordination, he would write a book on how to make it through seminary without reading anything. (How he could expect the book to sell is a mystery to me.)

However, most students made a good-faith effort to learn something, and some managed to complete nearly all the assignments. One of my seminary friends drove himself nearly sick with worry over his inability to read and comprehend everything assigned—sadly, he left seminary the semester after I did.

Few of the faculty at Mundelein Seminary ten years ago struck me as being outside of the mainstream. Most were even what one might call solid Catholics. One of the professors told us how he had sat on a committee that reviewed scripture for the Catholic bishops, and explained that the committee rejected the ICEL Psalm translation because its concern with inclusive language (a hot topic at the time, probably still is) "lost too much". Another offered the Holy Mass every morning at 6am, dressing in pre-Vatican II vestiments (complete with maniple!) which some of us attended. Befitting his past as a Marine chaplain, he tended to bark the Mass in fewer than 20 minutes.

The professors were not for the most part dry and boring. Several had already made names for themselves in the world of Catholic publishing as effective popularizers of theology. I'll mention Father Bob Barron, whom you can read more about (and by) at WordOnFire.org. Fr. Barron taught a Modern Philosophy class that everyone loved and a bunch of Theology classes that I never sat in, what on account of my leaving seminary and all, but his homilies at the Daily Masses were also very good. I learned from Father Barron the following summary of Hegelianism: history is God's attempt to come to know and undersatnd himself, and in Hegel God finally succeeded. I thought this was a gross exaggeration but Fr. Barron stuck with it and at least one other person I talked to since then who claimed to know a bit about Hegel agreed. (If Brandon reads this, maybe he can give his opinion.)

One might have described a couple of professors as mystical. One was a dual-rite priest who had permission to celebrate according to both the Roman Rite and the Byzantine Rite. Actually I don't think it was Byzantine per se, but related to the Byzantine Rite, but Melkite perhaps. He was soft-spoken and would mention quotes from Philokalia in his homilies. He taught a course on the Old Testament that changed the way I looked at the Jewish scriptures and greatly deepened my faith.

Most professors adhered, at least in words, to the full spectrum of Catholic teaching, including Social Justice. One of the liturgy professors openly disagreed with the teaching that only men are able to be priests—he was also rather critical of ICEL's translation of the Mass, and taught that the Mass was a sacrifice, which is solid Catholicism—and probably a number of them disagreed privately.

I only recall one example where, without any doubt, a professor spoke heresy openly and unapologetically. During my second (and final) year, the professor of Systematic Theology was a new arrival, formerly of the famous Louvain University. He started class with an assault on apologetics, criticized the church's reaction to the Modernists and generally defended them, admitting only that they had gone too far when I pointed out that one of them (Loisy I believe) denied the divinity of Christ. But they were pushed in that direction by the Church's reaction to them, he shrugged dismissively, moving on to another explanation of the brilliance of the Modernists.

Another time, he taught that it was ridiculous to baptize babies. This proved highly controversial (to my surprise) but no one had brought up the question of Original Sin, so I approached him after class to ask about it.

Yes, well, that teaching is a mistake, he said, or something to that effect. So of course it isn't necessary to baptize babies.

The general sense I had of his class, from day one, was of feeling that we had been dropped into this middle of a war zone. This professor had axes to grind, and he wasn't ashamed to grind them on us. If one of us advocated an opinion that didn't agree with his narrow opinions, he dismissed it quickly, with a hint of disdain. You could cite all the church documents and all the logical reasoning you wanted, but he didn't care. He wanted your mind to be open only as long as it was open to his opinions and to his snide remarks about the current regime in the Vatican.

He was, not to put too fine point on it, the least popular professor. I suspect that he received very low evaluations, because he started class the next quarter complaining about what we had written, and scolding us for not coming and talking to him directly about our concerns. He also explained that he had misunderstood the situation, and didn't quite realize what it meant that we were not being trained to be theologians but pastors, so that we should not be too challenged intellectually.

This obviously did not make him any more popular. I personally found his complaint deeply disingenuous, since most students, like me, had in fact talked to him directly about our concerns. One of them, a former doctor who probably wrote a scathing evaluation, had scolded him in class for not teaching us the things we had to know, teach, and defend once we received ordination and faced the real world. The one thing I remember saying on his evaluation was that he had seemed to deny Original Sin, so I went to ask him about it directly, and he made his denial explicit. There was hardly any subterfuge about it; simply put, he, like his theological worldview, resided in a fantasy world that, when it encountered reality, would deny it rather than admit it was wrong. I heard from a friend who received ordination that shortly after I left, he also left, and the story circulating among the seminary students was that he had returned to his home country, left the priesthood, married, and fathered a child. You can't entirely trust those stories; I would stop at the part where this professor left the seminary.

The remarkable thing about my experience at Mundelein was that those professors taught "orthodox" Catholic doctrine were the most popular, as well as the most open to discussion and debate. Even if the students didn't like what the professors had to say, they appreciated the discussion and were thankful that they learned something to relate to the Catholics in their care once they entered the real world as pastors.

Conversely, the less orthodox a professor was, the more reactionary he seemed, the more dismissive or even disdainful of other points of view, and the less open to hearing arguments against his favored positions and dealing with them respectfully and fairly. I mentioned the one extreme above, but he was merely the extreme; I noticed this in other professors, too. That phenomenon made an impression on me that I've never forgotten. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's always true, of course, and it may be that, in the environment of a seminary where they (usually) felt some compulsion to approach orthodoxy, they struggled against a natural desire to place their own beliefs in a better light than the Church's. That's actually quite hard to do.

Of course, that's my point of view. But it would have been a difficult time for them. Chicago had a new Cardinal, less easy-going than the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and Cardinal George gave an address early on to the faculty where he made plain his own disdain for seminary professors who imagined themselves at "a school of theology" rather than a "seminary". He explained the difference between the two, and took some shots at other problems he perceived in the Church, like ICEL's translations. My spiritual adviser didn't care much for the address, explaining afterwards, "He was just reciting a list of things he doesn't like."

You may have noticed a trend, incidentally. I have criticized ICEL's translation of the Mass in places on this weblog; in this one entry today, I've cited three authorities (scriptural, liturgical, and pastoral) who also took ICEL to task for abysmal practices in translation. I once remarked to my wife on what certain passages of the Mass actually say in the original Latin, as compared to how ICEL translates it.

Speaking of the original Latin meaning, my wife said, "I want to say that, instead." That speaks for itself. Not surprisingly, the phrase we were discussing appears as a common refrain of the people in every liturgy that I know of. It is translated correctly from the Latin in every language I know execept English.

Yet the correct translation of et cum spiritu tuo remains controversial in many sectors of the Church.


Clemens said...

Very interesting. I could relate most of your observations about your teachers to teachers in a more secular setting. I assume that ICEL is the translation authority that came up with the English version of the Latin mass? My wife still says that she appreciated the Latin mass because it was exactly the same no matter which country she went to (she was a refugee here when she was about nine).

jack perry said...

Yes, ICEL is an acronym for "International Commission on English in the Liturgy". This should not be confused with ICET, "International Consultation on English Texts", an ecumenical group which produced the still current translations of the Benedictus and Magnificat.

I like the idea of an international option for the Mass, too, and Latin is still an option. No one needs permission to say the current Missal in Latin; all this talk of the "Latin Mass" refers to the Missal before Vatican II. Of course, (a) you'd have to find a priest who can find a Latin-language sacramentary, which is harder than finding a priest who can read Latin aloud, which is harder than finding a priest who is willing to read the Mass in Latin; and (b) find a parish that would be open to it. Such parishes exist in big cities, but with the growth of the usage of the former Missal, the Latin usage of the current Missal has started to disappear.