Conversion and the Difficulty of Forming Priests in a Contemporary American Context

The integral formation of priests is difficult today. It has always been hard and will never be easy. Priestly formation, at its essence, is the process of breaking the pot and reshaping it, according to the template given to us by the Church.

And these “pots” that present themselves for ordination today were hardened so much earlier than was the case in previous generations. They come from an age of confused masculinity, with no father figures for many of them, with notions of sexuality warped by pornography, by privilege, by never being told no, and of having either helicoptering or absent mothers.

Formators in seminaries in such a context have their work cut out for them. And, seminary formators themselves have to realize that they are not immune to these negative influences from the wider culture. They have to deal with all that is going on in their own lives, dissipating the cognitive distortions, the unnatural desires that can so affect their lives.

The Program of Priestly Formation, Sixth Edition (2021)

An old adage in seminary formation is “the seminarian you are, the priest you will be.” In a recent document on seminary formation, The Program of Priestly Formation, Sixth Edition (2021), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated:

Priestly formation is an integral journey in which the four dimensions of human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation are woven together in such a way that, while identified as distinct dimensions, they can be seen as an “integrated journey of the disciple called to the priesthood.[1]

It further states:

The integrated journey of discipleship is aimed at conforming the heart to the heart of Christ. Being thus conformed to Christ leads the priest to pastoral charity, which animates all aspects of the life of the priest.[2]

I would like to suggest that an approach to seminary formation based in part on the theology of the twentieth-century Canadian Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan can be seen in complete accord with recent Vatican and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ documents. In my attempt to examine this notion, I will explain both the Church’s understanding of priestly formation, especially in terms of the intellectual formation of a candidate for priesthood, as well as the work of Bernard Lonergan, SJ, and his concepts of the conversions—intellectual, moral, and spiritual—in the life of the seminarian. Especially in light of the recently issued document by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, The Gift of the Priestly Vocation (2016), I contend that Lonergan’s thought can shed much-needed light on the task of the formation of candidates for the ministerial priesthood.

Official Teaching on Seminary Formation

The Program of Priestly Formation for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sixth Edition, (2021) §263 states: “The basic principle of intellectual formation for priesthood candidates is noted in Pastores Dabo Vobis [Pope Saint John Paul II’s 1992 Apostolic Exhortation on the formation of priests no. 51]: ‘For the salvation of their brothers and sisters, they should seek an ever-deeper knowledge of the divine mysteries.’” The document stresses that disciples are learners. Like Pastores Dabo Vobis, The Program of Priestly Formation describes four “pillars of formation,” each of which involves a lengthy learning process. These pillars are: human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral.

Regarding intellectual formation, The Program of Priestly Formation suggests that the first aim is to acquire a personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the fullness and completion of God’s revelation and the one true teacher. It notes that this saving knowledge is acquired not only once, but it is continuously appropriated and deepened, so that it becomes more and more part of us. The Program of Priestly Formation suggests that seminary intellectual formation assumes and prolongs the catechesis and mystagogia that are to be part of every Christian’s journey of faith. At the same time, it points out that this knowledge is not simply for personal possession but is designed to be shared in the community of faith. It demonstrates that a seminarian’s study has a missionary purpose because the seminarian studies “for the salvation of their brothers and sisters.” This notion of the ecclesial dimension of theological studies was also stressed by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect-Emeritus of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, in a talk to seminarians:

If the ultimate concern of theology is bringing people into the living dynamic of Revelation and the response of faith, then this concern must burn all the more in the hearts of priests who have been ordained for the Church and are sacramentally configured to Christ the bridegroom who laid down his life for his bride the Church.[3]

Cardinal Müller states that studying should be an act of pastoral charity for the people whom a priest will serve.[4] He explained that it requires taking on the heart of Christ, who was moved with pity for the crowds who were like sheep without a shepherd. He continued: “As disciples of the Good Shepherd, who came to serve and to lay down his life for the sheep, priests must never lose sight of the pastoral goal of theological reflection, and that goal is no less than the salvation of souls.”[5] Cardinal Müller states that if this truth is not firmly established in the minds of future Catholic clergy, they risk being tossed in the wind when problems arise, following whatever trend so pleases either them or their audience. Here, I am struck by similarities with the thought of the U.S. Roman Catholic theologian Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray: “Theology presents itself as an essentially ecclesiastical science,” and therefore “theology must exist in the Church; it must also exist for the Church, to serve her needs—fundamentally her need to teach the word of God.”[6]

The Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (2016)

On December 8, 2016, the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy released, “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation,” a new version of the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis. This new Ratio, which each episcopal conference around the world must now study, adapt, and employ builds on the magisterium of the last two pontiffs, especially Pope Saint John Paul II’s Post-Synodal Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (March 25, 1992) and Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Ministororum Institutio (January 16, 2013). However, more than any other single influence, this new Ratio reflects Pope Francis, most especially in ideas expressed consistently in his addresses to religious, priests, and seminarians and in his Post-Synodal Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (2013). The document also follows closely Pope Francis’s own lived experience of priesthood by articulating Francis’s oft-mentioned concerns about the necessity of the priest to avoid “temptations tied to money, to the authoritarian exercise of power, to rigid legalism, and to vainglory,”[7] according to the Congregation for Clergy’s Prefect, Cardinal Beniamino Stella.

What is also fascinating in the Ratio is the understanding of the formation of the priest. The document divides the formation of the seminarian into four unique stages. First, a propaedeutic stage, where the seminarian would have a year which he would spend in prayer, learning the Scriptures, the Catechism, the liturgy, and spirituality. This would take place before the seminarian would begin philosophical studies. This is much needed today, as applicants for the seminary are coming in from diverse backgrounds. One cannot assume any longer the existence in most U.S. schools the presence of a liberal arts curriculum based on the classics of Western civilization. Many seminarians today come from academic backgrounds where history, languages, philosophy, and, perhaps most tellingly, even catechetical knowledge of the Catholic faith is not present. The Ratio then describes a discipleship stage, lasting two years, in which a seminarian would study philosophy. It is during this discipleship phase that the seminarian would examine any and all issues in his human formation that need to be addressed in the journey to become a holistic individual. Next, there would be a configuration stage, lasting four years, in which a seminarian would study theology. Finally, there would be a final year, a pastoral stage, during which a seminarian would serve a parish full-time as a deacon.

It must be noted that each episcopal conference needs to design its own implementation of the Ratio. There will be differences in application and approach in each nation. For instance, the United States is blessed to have several college-level seminary programs and the stages described in the Ratio might need to consider the lived reality of these college-age seminarians.

Bernard Lonergan and Conversion

Bernard Lonergan, in his works, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957) and Method in Theology (1972) speaks about conversions: intellectual, moral, and spiritual. Regarding the work of the first three levels of consciousness, Lonergan, in Method in Theology, does not alter the basic account he offered in Insight. As in Insight, he stresses that intellectual conversion helps the individual to withdraw from bias and to become authentic. In Method in Theology, he deepens some of his thoughts.

Intellectual Conversion

Lonergan defines intellectual conversion as “a radical clarification and, consequently, the elimination of an exceedingly stubborn and misleading myth concerning reality, objectivity, and human knowing.”[8] At the essence, it involves a shift in the way that one perceives reality. Fully aware that “knowing is not looking,” Lonergan believes that one comes to objectivity not by this naïve realism, but that reality is “given in experience, organized in understanding, posited in judging and belief.” It is the shift to a world mediated by meaning, going beyond sense perception to the external and internal individual and communal experience, which is verified by the community.[9]

Lonergan describes this attitude of “knowing as looking” as a myth with many consequences. Among them would be the philosophical positions of naïve realism, empiricism, and idealism. He writes:

The naïve realist knows the world mediated by meaning but thinks he knows it by looking. The empiricist restricts objective knowledge to sense experience; for him, understanding and conceiving, judging, and believing are merely subjective activities. The idealist insists that human knowing always includes understanding as well as sense; but he retains the empiricist’s notion of reality, and so he thinks of the world mediated by meaning as not real but ideal. Only the critical realist can acknowledge the facts of human knowing and pronounce the world mediated by meaning to be the real world; and he can do so inasmuch as he shows that the process of experiencing, understanding, and judging is a process of self-transcendence.[10]

Although each of these philosophical positions differ concerning various points and all come from different horizons, they all share the one thought: namely that knowledge derives from looking. Breaking oneself away from this awareness requires a true self-authenticity, a knowledge of one’s self, and a knowledge of one’s cognitive structure. Lonergan describes it as such: “It is to acquire the mastery in one’s own house that is to be had only when knows precisely what one is doing when one is knowing. It is a conversion, a new beginning, a fresh start.”[11]

This intellectual conversion is essential for the seminarian who wishes to avoid a fundamentalism, a literalism, when it comes to his use of what Lonergan describes as the first three functional specialties (research, interpretation, and history) and his implementation of the second phase of functional specialties (foundations, doctrines, systematics, and communications.) With the awareness that comes from intellectual conversion, the theologian can avoid the pitfalls that lie before him should he or she try to prescind from the basic criteria of evidence and of critical understanding.[12] Vernon Gregson describes this habit of the mind by stating:

Lonergan’s criterion of intellectual conversion is not meant to be some “new” criterion. Rather it is meant to be a reflective grasp of the natural and active criteria of our own minds. These criteria manifest themselves spontaneously as questions: “What is the evidence for what you say?” “Why do you understand it that way and no other?” “On what do you base your assurance that your understanding is true?” . . . “What is the quality of your evidence?” “Are you sure you have all the relevant data, or are you leaving something out?” “If so, what?” “Why must the evidence be understood in the way you are proposing, and not in some other way?” “Are you sure the evidence supports your hypothesis?”[13]

Lonergan states that “intellectual conversion is to truth attained by cognitional self-transcendence.”[14] This cognitional self-transcendence is essential if one wishes to truly engage in dialectic.

Moral Conversion

As one progresses in life, one becomes more aware of the need to make decisions and choices, moving “from satisfaction to values.”[15] Using freedom to exercise one’s self-authenticity, he or she opts “for the truly good, even for value against satisfaction when value and satisfaction conflict.”[16] Moral conversion, at its essence, involves the rejection of the purely selfish, pain-avoidance and pleasure-enhancing self-service to a maturity of self.

Lonergan wisely notes that moral conversion falls short of moral perfection. He states: “Deciding is one thing, doing is another.”[17] True self-authenticity must take into account the reality of general and individual bias, as well as the situation in which the individual finds himself or herself. Lonergan urges those morally converted to continue to develop their knowledge of “human reality and potentiality,” as well as to grasp the elements of progress and decline.[18]

History, Progress, and Decline

This call to intellectual honesty is a hallmark of Lonergan’s later Method in Theology. Lonergan posits two vectors in history: progress and decline. As Raymond Lafontaine notes, Lonergan is “working out the theological implications of his cognitive theory . . . that ‘insight into insight,’ leading to the gradual emergence of ‘higher viewpoints,’ is the motor driving the cumulative process of ‘human progress.’ ‘Insight into oversight,’ in contrast, is the key to understanding the cumulative progress of decline.”[19] Lonergan writes:

Insight into insight brings to light the cumulative process of progress. For concrete situations give rise into insights which issue into policies and courses of action. Action transforms the existing situation to give rise to further insight, better policies, more effective courses of actions. It follows that if insight occurs, it keeps recurring; and at each recurrence, knowledge develops, action increases its scope, and situations improve.[20]

Decline, on the other hand, is the result of the “finalistic tension of psyche and spirit in consciousness.”[21] Lonergan writes in explanation:

Just as insight can be desired, so too it can be unwanted. Besides the love of light, there can be a love of darkness. If prepossessions and prejudices notoriously vitiate theoretical investigations, much more easily can elementary passions bias understanding in practical and personal matters.[22]

This bias works on three levels. In the individual, it is called “dramatic bias.” Dramatic bias functions on an unconscious level and can lead an individual to incorrectly interpret situations and suffer a form of cognitive distortion. The second form of bias is called “individual bias” and involves a conscious decision “to resist the transcendent pull of conscience and to favour egoistic interests.”[23] Lonergan states that this bias, which inevitably leads to decline, is not only in the individual, but also is present in social structures. With bluntness, he describes this form of bias in the following manner:

Unfortunately, as insight and oversight commonly are mated, so also are progress and decline. We reinforce our love of truth with a practicality that is equivalent to an obscurantism. We correct old evils with a passion that mars the new good. We are not pure. We compromise.[24]

Dialectic and Cosmopolis

Lonergan states that it is necessary, if one wishes to be an authentic person, to promote progress and to reverse decline, it is essential to employ a method of dialectic.[25] Dialectic method holds that “position,” which comes about from authentic reasoning and deciding, needs to developed and, “counterposition,” which arises from the effects of bias, needs to be reversed.[26] By definition, position is “any philosophical pronouncement on any epistemological, metaphysical, ethical, or theological issue” that is “coherent with the basic positions on the real, on knowing, and on objectivity.”[27] Culture needs to cultivate “cosmopolis,” namely a “dialectic attitude of the will”[28] Lonergan writes:

What is both necessary and disastrous is the exaltation of the practical, the supremacy of the state, the cult of the class. What is necessary is a cosmopolis that is neither class nor state that stands above all their claims, that cuts them down to size, that is founded on the native detachment and disinterestedness of every intelligence, that commands man’s first allegiance, that implements itself primarily through that allegiance, that is too universal to be bribed, too impalpable to be forced, too effective to be ignored.[29]

The only way to live in a world that opposes the very notion of cosmopolis is to develop himself or herself as a truly authentic human being. Lonergan writes:

The solution has to be a still higher integration of human living, For the problem is radical and permanent; it is independent of the underlying physical, chemical, organic, and psychic manifolds; it is not met by revolutionary change, nor by human discovery, nor by the enforced implementation of discovery; it is as large as human living and human history. Further, the solution has to take people just as they are.[30]

It is precisely this call to authenticity that is necessary for the seminarian to embrace in his own personal journey that lies at the root of a true method in theology. Lonergan writes:

The crucial issue is an experimental issue, and the experiment will be performed not publicly, but privately. It will consist in one’s own rational self-consciousness clearly and distinctly taking possession of itself as ration self-consciousness. Up to that decisive achievement, all leads. From it, all follows. No one else, no matter what his knowledge or his eloquence, no matter what his logical rigout or his persuasiveness, can do it for you.[31]

Personal commitment is essential for the seminarian to the process of priestly formation, if it is to be authentic. Lonergan, in Method in Theology, writes:

Despite the doubts and denials of positivists and behaviorists, no one, unless some of his organs are deficient, is going to say that never in his life did he have the experience of seeing or of hearing, of touching or smelling or tasting, of imagining, or perceiving, of feeling or moving; or that if he appeared to have such experience, still it was more appearance, since all his life long he has gone about like a somnambulist without any awareness of his own activities. Again, how rare is the man that will preface his lectures by repeating his conviction that never did he have even a fleeting experience of intellectual curiosity, of inquiry, of striving and coming to understand, of expressing what he has grasped by understanding. Rare too is the man that begins his contributions to periodical literature by reminding his potential readers that never in his life did he experience anything that might be called critical reflection, that he never paused about the truth or falsity of any statement, that if ever he seems to exercise his rationality by passing judgment strictly in accord with the available evidence, then that must be counted mere appearance for he is totally unaware of any such event or even any such tendency. Few finally are those that place at the beginning of their books the warning that they have no notion of what might be meant by responsibility, that never in their lives did they have the experience of acting responsibly, and that least of all in composing the books they are offering the public.[32]

Be attentive! Be intelligent! Be reasonable! Be responsible! Be in love! These are the precepts that underline Method in Theology and the creation of the functional specialties.

Triumph Over Selfishness

In many ways, one might view moral conversion as a triumph over selfishness in oneself and in society. It is a call to move from a limited horizon to a deeper one. Lonergan comments: “Moral conversion is to values apprehended, affirmed, and realized by real self-transcendence.”[33] T.S. Eliot, in his play, Murder in the Cathedral, writes: “The last act is the greatest treason. To do the right thing for the wrong reason.” The seminarian who is truly morally converted is able to be responsible, to know what, and perhaps more importantly, why he does what he does. True moral conversion requires one to be open to criticism for self-growth, all in the service of coming to know the truth of the statements one makes and the grounds one uses for analysis. Moral conversion must be lives and “moral conversion of its very essence is orientated toward action.”[34]

Religious Conversion

Lonergan describes religious conversion simply as “being grasped by ultimate concern.”[35] Religious conversion, then, means moving from a focus on one’s personal concerns to matters of ultimate meaning and value. It is a horizon shift from the things and values of this passing world to the things and values that perdure. “Religious conversion is to a total being-in-love as the efficacious ground of all self-transcendence, whether in the pursuit of truth, or in the realization of human values, or in the orientation man adopts to the universe, its grounds, and its goal.”[36]

This religious conversion is described as “other-worldly falling in love,” “total and permanent self-surrender without conditions, qualifications, reservations.”[37] It is viewed by Lonergan not as a single act, but instead as a “dynamic state” and is demonstrated as “an under-tow of existential consciousness, as a fated acceptance of a vocation to holiness, as perhaps an increasing simplicity and passivity in prayer.”[38]

Religious conversion differs from faith. Lonergan delineates the distinction in three ways: in the first stage, there is an individual’s experience of supernatural, unconditional love; in the second stage, there is the decision of whether or not to return this love; and third and finally, there is the affirmative decision to respond to this otherworldly love and this to become a “being-in-love.” Lonergan speaks of this in rather personalistic terms:

Faith is the knowledge born of religious love . . . . Of it Pascal spoke when he remarked that the heart has reasons which reason does not know . . . this apprehension . . . may be objectified as a clouded revelation of absolute intelligence and intelligibility, absolute truth and reality, absolute goodness and holiness. With that objectification there recurs the question of God in a new form. From now it is primarily a question of decision. Will I love him in return, or will I refuse?[39]

This sense of “being-in-love” is a powerful experience of the transcendent. Tad Dunne explains this notion in the following manner:

If we decide to believe, then we can see that our lover is unlike any earthly lover. I might love you with all my heart, but you did not give me my love. This lover comes to us by giving us our power to love, and nobody on earth ever did that. With transcendent love, we can imagine ourselves caught in a great circle of love, beginning with the One who loves us, pouring this thirst and desire into our souls, and pouring from our souls towards absolutely all goodness, truth, beauty, and order-which is what this One is. Our love is Alpha and Omega, both the source and object of our loving.[40]

Dunne makes a distinction between implicit and explicit religious conversion, in light of the definition of religious conversion as “the subordination of all conscious activity to transcendent love.” He states that one who does not analyze the source and origin of this transcendent love would be in a state of implicit religious conversion. The one who has an explicit religious conversion is able to recognize in personalistic terms, “a Thou, a Someone, a named and loved term of an orientation.” He states: “And for those knowingly in love, it makes an enormous difference in how they ponder life’s mysteries; it gives them a Thou to talk with.”[41]

Lonergan describes how, for the converted, the triad of “see, judge, act” reveals “eros of the human spirit, its capacity and its desire for self-transcendence.”[42] Religious conversion permits the existential subject to become a “subject-in-love, a subject held, grasped, possessed, owned through a total and so an other-worldly love.”[43] From this perspective, everything changes for the subject. He or she now has a new basis to “see, judge, act,” and a new impetus to promote progress and reverse decline. Religious conversion transcends the established ends of intellectual conversion (truth) and moral conversion (value). Lonergan explains religious loving as “without conditions, qualifications, reservations . . . with all one’s heart and all one’s soul and all one’s strength.”[44]

Lonergan also explains the opposite of religious conversion: sinfulness. Making a distinction between sinfulness and moral evil, he describes it as “the privation of total loving . . . a radical dimension of lovelessness.”[45] This can, according to Lonergan, be disguised as a failure to go deeper, one allowing himself or herself to live superficially and to escape into creature comforts. This superficial level of living cannot be sustained. It will ultimately lead to “the absence of fulfillment reveals itself in unrest, the absence of joy in the pursuit of fun, the absence of peace in disgust—a depressive disgust with oneself or a manic, hostile, even violent disgust with mankind.”[46]

The Conversions and Sublation

Lonergan notes that, because all three conversions involve a self-transcendence, one can posit a theory of sublation.[47] Value, according to Lonergan, “is a transcendental notion. It is what is intended in questions for deliberation.”[48] Lonergan describes a scale of values to which one responds in feelings. He writes:

Not only do feelings respond to values. They do so on accord with some scale of preference. So we may distinguish vital, social, cultural, personal, and religious values in an ascending order. Vital values, such as health and strength, grace and vigor, normally are preferred to avoiding the work, privations, pains involved in acquiring, maintaining and restoring them. Social values, such as the good order which conditions the vital values of individual members of the community . . . Cultural values do not exist without the underpinning of vital and social values, but none the less they rank higher. Not on bread alone doth man live. Over and above mere living and operating, men have to find a meaning and value in their living and operating. It is the function of culture to discover, express, validate, criticize, correct, develop, improve such meaning and value. Personal value is the person in his self-transcendence, as loving and being loved, as originator of values in himself and in his milieu, as an inspiration and invitation to others to do likewise. Religious values, finally, are the heart of the meaning and value of man’s living and man’s world.[49]

Each level of conversion sublates the other. For instance, moral conversion sublates intellectual conversion and religious conversion sublates moral conversion; however, one should not think of a linear sequence—intellectual conversion, then moral conversion, and then finally religious. Lonergan points out the true nature of conversion by stating:

On the contrary, from a causal viewpoint, one would say that first there is God’s gift of love. Next, the eye of this love reveals values in their splendor, while the strength of this love brings about their realization, and that is moral conversion. Finally, among the values discerned by the eye of love is the value of believing the truths taught by the religious tradition, and in such tradition and belief are the seeds of intellectual conversion. For the word, spoken and heard, proceeds from and penetrates to all four levels of intentional consciousness. Its content is not just a content of experience but a content of experience and understanding and judging and deciding. The analogy of sight yields the cognitional myth. But fidelity to the word engages the whole man (emphasis mine).[50]

The opposite of conversion is breakdown. Due to lack of true self-transcendence, due to a superficiality and lack of self-authenticity, the progress made by individuals and cultures can quickly decline. Lonergan states: “Cognitional self-transcendence is neither an easy notion to grasp nor a readily accessible datum of consciousness to be verified.”[51] However, even though it is difficult, it is necessary if one wishes to grow. Intellectual, moral, and religious conversions are the cornerstones of the fourth functional specialty, dialectic.

Lonergan describes the two levels of dialectic: the upper level, consisting of operators and a lower level, involving the things that are operated on. He describes on the upper level (operator) as having two main precepts. The first of these precepts is to develop a position, which Lonergan defines as “statements compatible with intellectual, moral, and religious conversion.”[52] The second of these precepts is to reverse counter-positions, described by Lonergan as “statements incompatible with intellectual, or moral, or religious conversion.”[53]

To grasp the concept of dialectic, one needs to understand that the first three functional specialties are deficient in two ways: first, history is concerned with telling what exactly happened. Operating on the third level of intentional consciousness, it does not concern itself with values, which would be an operation of the fourth level of consciousness Second, interpretation is based not on an evaluative hermeneutics, which also operates on the fourth level of consciousness.

Dialectic’s tasks, then, are to add an evaluative aspect to the first three functional specialties. The theologian engaging in dialectic is to be the one aware of “gross differences” that may exist in history or texts. He or she is to become more aware that the individual authors may not have arrived at a level of conversion and are operating at different levels of differentiation of consciousness. Dialectic is difficult work for the theologian. It involves a radical call to self-authenticity that can only come from an ongoing effort. It involves a realism about oneself, about others, and about the world. Lonergan writes:

Human authenticity is not some quality, some serene freedom from all oversight, all misunderstanding, all mistakes, all sins. Rather it consists in a withdrawal from unauthenticity, and the withdrawal is never a permanent achievement. It is ever precarious, ever to be achieved afresh, ever in a greater part a matter of uncovering still more oversights, acknowledging still further failures to understand, correcting still more mistakes, repenting more and more deeply hidden sins. Human development, in brief, is largely through the resolution of conflicts and, within the realm of intentional consciousness, the basic conflicts are defined by the opposition of positions and counter-positions.[54]

Lonergan reminds us that among the four realms of meaning (common sense, theory, interiority, and transcendence), the one he has described the least as a differentiated realm is transcendence. He described the gift of God’s love as “spontaneously reveals itself in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control.”[55] The seminarian, in order to do his task, must deal with the dialectic that has plagued modern humanity—common sense and transcendence. Lonergan writes:

Quite distinct from these objectifications of the gift of God’s love in the realms of common sense and of theory and from the realm of interiority, is the emergence of the gift as itself as differentiated realm. It is this emergence that is cultivated by a life of prayer and self-denial and, when it occurs, it has the twofold effect, first, of withdrawing the subject from the realm of common-sense theory, and other interiority into a “cloud of unknowing” and then of intensifying, purifying, clarifying, the objectifications referring to the transcendent whether in the realm of common sense, or of theory, or of other interiority.

The Conversions and the Ratio

Could not the stages as described in the Ratio (propaedeutic, discipleship, configuration, and pastoral) be seen as in accord with the conversions as articulated by Lonergan? Thus, the propaedeutic stage could be seen as having a focus on religious conversion; the discipleship stage, those years in which philosophy is studied, would include an invitation to intellectual conversion, but is perhaps just as importantly devoted to encouraging the growth in that moral conversion that flows from religious conversion. 

The document is notable for the attention it gives, at all stages, to the importance for the seminarian of integrating his sexual identity with the call to celibacy. This challenge can be related to the way psychic conversion needs to be combined with intellectual conversion. Sexuality is intimately related to the life of the psyche. Without attentiveness to bodily needs and to affectivity, intellectual formation risks being abstract and lacking in empathy for others. Finally, during the years of the study of theology—what the Ratio calls the configuration stage—one hopes that all four of the conversions are beginning to become integrated into the man who will soon be a priest.

Clearly, the Church after Vatican II still struggles to recognize that the implementation of the Council calls us to the conversions outlined by Lonergan: religious, moral, and intellectual. I have noted that the absence of these conversions tends to lead to a polarization of theology and pastoral praxis between a scattered left and a solid right. The proper implementation of the Ratio by each episcopal conference can prove a powerful tool in the formation of good, happy, healthy, holy Catholic priests.

[1] The Program for Priestly Formation for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sixth Edition, (2022), §11.

[2] The Program of Priestly Formation, §12

[3] Gerhard L. Muller, “The Wisdom of the Priest.”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Murray’s “Toward a Theology for the Layman: The Problem of Its Finality.” TS 5 (March): 43.

[8] Lonergan, Method in Theology, 238.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 238–239.

[11] Ibid., 239–240.

[12] Gregson, 95.

[13] Gregson, 95–96.

[14] Lonergan, Method in Theology, 241.

[15] Ibid., 240.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. Gregson, commenting on religious conversion, notes: “Economic materialism, scientific determinism, early Freudian id psychology, and many forms of behaviorism use a basic criterion in their theories that human beings are at base sophisticated stimulus/response mechanisms. Such views attempt to reduce human beings to creatures responsive merely to pleasure or pain. These views can be appealing both because of their simplicity and because they can indeed explain much of our behavior, and surely much more than we are usually willing to admit. But they cannot explain all (Emphasis mine).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Raymond Lafontaine, The Development of A Moral Doctrine: Religious Liberty and Doctrinal Development in the Works of John Henry Newman and John Courtney Murray (Excerpta ex Dissertatione ad Doctoratum in Facultate Theologiae Pontificae Universitatis Gregoriane, Romae, [2001]), 42.

[20] Lonergan, Insight, 8.

[21] Whelan, 90.

[22] Lonergan, Insight, 214.

[23] Whelan, 90. Lonergan describes egoism in the following fashion: “Egoism is neither mere spontaneity nor pure intelligence but an interference of spontaneity with the development of intelligence. With remarkable acumen one solves one’s own problems. With startling modesty one does not venture to raise the relevant further questions. Can one’s solution be generalized? Is it compatible with the social order that exists? Is it compatible with any social order that proximately or even remotely is possible?” (Insight, 245).

[24] Lonergan, Insight, 91. Lonergan goes on to describe two different sorts of bias which are present in the social realm: the first, “group bias,” is expressed in the gathering of “functional groups,” and these groups can lead to a class society, structured not only on social function, but also on social success. The second, “general bias,” is a refusal of common sense people to admit differing viewpoints. This is much more serious, according to Lonergan, and “What is worse, the deteriorating situation seems to provide the uncritical, biased mind with factual evidence in which the bias is claimed to be verified. So in ever-increasing measure, intelligence comes to be regarded as irrelevant to practical living” (Insight, 8).

[25] By genetic method, Lonergan means “the development, or genesis, of new schemes of recurrences either within living things or in the emergence of new living things, one from the other” (Whelan, 79). See Insight, 289ff concerning the human being and genetic method.

[26] Lonergan states that a basic position is present “if the real is the concrete universe of being and not a subdivision of the ‘already out there now’” and “if objectivity is conceived as a consequence of intelligent inquiry and critical reflection, and not as a property of vital anticipation, extroversion, and satisfaction.” On the other hand, a basic counterposition arises “if it contradicts one of more of the basic positions” (Insight, 413ff).

[27] Lonergan, Insight, 413.

[28] Ibid., 721.

[29] Ibid., Insight, 263.

[30] Ibid., 655–656.

[31] Ibid., 13.

[32] Lonergan, Method in Theology, 16–17.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Gregson, 97.

[35] Lonergan, Method in Theology, 240.

[36] Ibid., 241.

[37] Ibid., 240.

[38] Ibid., 240–241. Here Lonergan makes the distinction in the Christian tradition between operative grace, which is religious conversion (described as “the replacement of the heart of stone by a heart of flesh, a replacement beyond the horizon of the heart of stone”) and cooperative grace, which is the effects of religious conversion (described as “the effectiveness of conversion, the gradual movement toward a full and complete transformation of the whole of one’s living and feeling, one’s thoughts, words, deeds, and omissions”).

[39] Lonergan, Method in Theology, 116.

[40] Tad G. Dunne, Lonergan and Spirituality: Towards a Spiritual Integration (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1985), 111.

[41] Dunne, 113. Dunne uses this discussion to explain Lonergan’s fifth “transcendental precept,” “Be in Love!” He states that “love” in this precept implies the human experience of love, but in reality, is a call to recognize transcendent love. Dunne writes: “It is this fifth precept, Be in love, that gives us the power to obey the other four” (115).

[42] Lonergan, Method in Theology, 242.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid. Lonergan admits this is a limitation that corresponds to “the unrestricted character of human nature,” but is indeed otherworldly in the sense that its fulfillment is “joy, peace, bliss.”

[45] Ibid., 243.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., 241. Here, Lonergan indicates that his notion of sublation is more akin to that of Karl Rahner in Hearers of the Word (1994, trans. Joseph Donceel), rather that of G. W. Hegel. Lonergan states that sublation means “what sublates goes beyond what is sublated, introduces something new and distinct, put everything on a new basis, yet so far from interfering with the sublated or destroying it, on the contrary needs it, includes it, preserves all its proper features and properties, and carries them forward to a fuller realization within a richer context” (241).

[48] Ibid., 36. Lonergan distinguishes between intentional feelings, which focus on an object as simple as “hunger, thirst, sexual discomfort,” and as complex as feelings which motive someone to do the good and non-intentional feelings that include “fatigue, irritability, bad humor (and) anxiety,” all with no immediate cause.

[49] Ibid., 31–32. Here it should be noted that Lonergan also formulated the scale of value in another manner: “Vital values of health and strength; with the social values enshrined in family and custom, society and education, the state and the law, the economy and technology, the church or sect; with the cultural values of religion and art, language and literature, science, philosophy, history, theology; with the achieved personal value of one dedicated to realizing values in himself and promoting their realization in others” (Lonergan, “The Response of the Jesuit as Priest and Apostle in the Modern World,” in Collection, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan 4 [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988], 168–169.

[50] Lonergan, Method in Theology, 243.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid., 249.

[53] Ibid. Lonergan notes that, prior to being “operated on,” the material in questions as to assembled, completed, reduced, classified, selected. He defines each of these terms: “Assembly includes the researches performed, the interpretations proposed, the histories written, and the events, statements, movements to which they refer. Completion adds evaluative interpretation and evaluative history . . . . Comparison examines the completed assembly to seek out affinities and oppositions. Reduction finds the same affinity and the same opposition manifested in a number of different manners; from the many manifestations it moves to the underlying root. Classification determines which of these sources of affinity or opposition result from dialectically opposed horizons and which have other grounds. Selection . . . picks out the affinities and oppositions grounded on dialectically opposed horizons and dismisses other affinities and oppositions” (249–250).

[54] Ibid., 252.

[55] Ibid., 266. Here Lonergan makes the point that in “undifferentiated consciousness,” God’s love is expressed in reference to sacred places, sacred objects, sacred liturgy, and sacred offices. In differentiated consciousness, “when these three realms of common sense, theory, and interiority are differentiated, the self-appropriation of the subject leads not only to the objectification of experiencing, understanding, judging and deciding, but also of religious experience” (266).

Featured Image: Pauluskirche in Innsbruck, taken by Luftschiffhafen; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0


John P. Cush

Rev. John P. Cush, STD, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is professor of dogmatic and fundamental theology and director of seminarian admissions and recruitment at Saint Joseph's Seminary and College (Dunwoodie), New York.

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