The Idea of a Seminary?

Within a year of transitioning from a Jesuit university to a seminary, I found myself adrift in foreign seas. I immediately noticed a stark difference in what arrested the attention of faculty. Chatter among seminary colleagues centered on two recent developments: the release of the Vatican’s Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, a document revising its 1970 forbearer as the universal charter for priestly formation, and an anticipated visit and lecture by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. Previously aloof to the impending reforms of seminary formation, I now searched for driftwood while wading into the rip currents of ecclesiastical murmuring and politics. The Ratio, I learned, would determine the revision of the U.S. episcopacy’s Program of Priestly Formation, and our seminary’s curriculum would follow its heed. We awaited words of prophecy and wisdom from the pope’s ambassador.

Archbishop Pierre, however, forced me to reassess the ostensible gulf between the worlds of the university and the seminary. Reflecting on the Ratio’s emphasis on human formation, the nuncio made a curious off-script comment: if we speak of “gentlemen,” why not “gentle priests”? My curiosity piqued, I returned to my office to study the Ratio. Nowhere does the document indulge in the language of “gentle priests,” but on my shelf I quickly turned to a text that identifies “gentlemen” as the objective of education: John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University.

Newman’s famous Idea enjoys some attention in the halls of Catholic academia, albeit often in forgotten corridors far removed from the offices of dean, provost, or president. However, across the street, or down the road in Catholic seminaries, Newman’s voice is often muted or ignored, reduced to bullet points on the development of doctrine or Vatican II, and rarely on the subject of education and pedagogy. Tertullian asked what has Athens to do with Jerusalem, and we in the twenty-first century ask what has the university to do with the seminary?  

This legitimate question unveils a reluctance to conflate two institutions with distinctly different objectives, governances, and loyalties. In fact, Newman would be the first to endorse separation, declaring toward the end of his nine discourses that, “if then a University is a direct preparation for this world, let it be what it professes. It is not a Convent, it is not a Seminary.”[1] Newman, it seems, answers the title of this essay with a resounding “no." However, I refuse to yield to Newman’s bifurcation, as I am not convinced that he does so himself. In the climatic pages immediately following this line, Newman proceeds to champion St. Philip Neri, a priest, as an exemplar of a true liberal education put to service of the Church, a man who, in the words of Newman, “preferred to . . . direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art, and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God has made very good and man had spoilt.”[2] In Newman’s estimation, Neri’s priesthood embodied a sense of the whole of human knowledge and life, a sense at the heart of Newman’s university, the sense of an educated gentleman who makes calm, balanced, and judicious decisions. Is not such a description the archetype of the nuncio’s “gentle priest”?

But Newman’s insights for the seminary extend beyond the quest for this enigmatic  “gentle priest.” As the nuncio was quick to highlight in his address, the key objective of the new Ratio is to form, in its words, “missionary disciples,” disciples for a post-Christian age.[3] It seeks to form pastors who smell like the sheep, sharing smells beyond incense that include body odor, cheap cologne, and stale coffee, smells that encompass the whole person in an imperfect world. Borrowing Newman’s words, we might audaciously posit that the Ratio sees the seminary, like Newman does the university, as a “direct preparation for this world,” a world in which Christ has become unintelligible. And let’s face it: a university student will not keep the faith because she dabbles in Augustine or Aquinas. In fact, if she is in a Catholic university, these theologians have likely been marginalized with the study of theology itself, the very linchpin of Newman’s idea of a university. No, it is the interaction with a pastor who manifests, who tangibly embodies, the intelligibility of the faith, in speech, in the confessional, in line for coffee, perhaps with the same stale coffee breath as the sleep-deprived undergraduate. She will return to the fold because of a broadminded, educated “gentle priest” like Neri, or better yet, Newman.

Consequently, seminary formation needs Newman’s idea, and his idea, in turn, needs an ally in the seminary. As the Church celebrates Newman’s canonization this week, his idea complements the recent Ratio by nuancing two aspects of seminary formation: pedagogy and community. Revisiting these dimensions reframes current discord over seminary reform in the wake of sexual abuse while further advancing the seminary as a new, and perhaps unexpected manifestation, of Newman’s “idea” in a culture riddled with the rebellion and amnesia of American Catholic universities.

The First Insight: Pedagogy

Beginning with a seminary’s pedagogy, the new Ratio gives bishops, eager to staff parishes, a tinge of heartburn. Gone are the streamlined days of two years of philosophy and four years of theology. Before philosophical studies, the Ratio adds the “propaedeutic stage,” a term that has even faculty searching for their dictionaries. This “introductory” stage addresses a post-Christian reality. Many aspirants to the priesthood lack basic literacy with the scriptures and Church doctrines, and so seminarians are now to undergo a separate, one-year primer on the Bible, the Catechism, the Church’s saints, and, curiously, the “elements of human culture, through an acquaintance with the works of national authors.”[4] The description reads like the novitiate of a religious congregation, a foyer to formation. Granted, these foci already exist in pre-theology programs, but now they are to be explicitly separated from philosophical studies,

As for philosophical studies, or what is commonly termed now as “pre-theology,” the Ratio redefines as a second “discipleship stage.“[5] In addition to logic, metaphysics, and ethics, this philosophical stage includes what the Ratio terms “human sciences” with the objective that priests possess “the capacity to know the human soul in all its richness and frailty, in order to facilitate the formulation of calm and balanced judgments regarding people and situations.”[6] By “human culture” the propaedeutic stage intimates basic world history and literature; by “human sciences” the philosophical stage explicitly designates “sociology, pedagogy, and psychology,” among other disciplines. Quoting Vatican II’s Optatam Totius, the Ratio heralds this revised philosophical stage as yielding a “refinement in manners, modesty in speech coupled with charity.”[7]

The Ratio further insists that these two initial stages do not stand aloof to the third and fourth stages, namely, theological studies (what it calls “configuration to Christ”) and the pastoral stage (known as “vocational synthesis”). Theology should focus on, well, theology, including patristics, Church history, canon law, missiology, and Catholic Social Thought. Together philosophy and theology should mold a “forma mentis that enables one to address questions and challenges.”[8] From this third stage the candidate transitions to the pastoral stage, which includes not only the diaconate and priestly ordination, but also what the Ratio articulates as the “ongoing” formation of priests after ordination, devoting considerable ink to the subject.

These four stages further presume the continual integration of four “dimensions” of formation (rather than “pillars,” as they have commonly been called): human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. With its paradigm of “missionary disciples” in view, the Ratio designates human formation as the essential foundation of all four dimensions, with a focus on the seminarian’s “personality.”[9] Spiritual formation is to focus on union with Christ, while intellectual formation should inculcate “fruitful dialogue with the contemporary world.”[10] Finally, pastoral formation should yield a man of sound “discernment,” free from “the temptation to abstraction . . . self-promotion . . . self-assurance, and . . . aloofness.”[11] All four dimensions of formation are to ensure the “integral formation . . . of the whole person,” an idea that many commentators (including the nuncio) have pinpointed as the thrust of the revised Ratio.[12]

With these lofty goals, the Ratio presents seminary faculty with something of a nightmare for curriculum review or even accreditation. The integration of a fourfold plan of formation is nothing new. But is the seminary now to teach literature, even fiction, and, God forbid, sociology? With what faculty? To what end? However, if one adopts the lens of Newman’s Idea, the Ratio’s expansion of stages of formation, its appeal to human culture and human sciences, and its insistence on men of keen manners, discernment, judgment, and dialogue, all come to reflect the character of what Newman calls “liberal education,” the defining pedagogy of a university. One can distill this parallel to two pedagogical cornerstones of Newman’s university: the pursuit of knowledge beyond utility, and the analysis of the whole.

With respect to the first cornerstone, Newman is clear that knowledge is its own end, distinct from the pursuit of a virtuous life or the utility of a profession.[13] Perhaps nothing seems more outlandish to seminarian and sponsor alike. If the seminarian senses no pastoral applicability to a given topic (say, in my case as a Church history professor, the Avignon Papacy), the class is dismissed as a pointless hurdle towards the real goal of priesthood. Sponsors, that is, bishops or vocation directors, often concur, as they do not see themselves signing tuition checks so that a diocese has intellectuals in its rectories. But Newman disregards any raised ecclesiastical eyebrows; he is adamant on this point, with little patience for theology’s reduction to pastoral needs. A focus on the “pulpit” or “catechism” is to Newman “a business making use of Theology,” a theology shackled to utility.

Newman is unreasonable, we might say. A seminary is about bell towers pointing to heaven, not academic towers choked with the ivy of idle speculation. But Newman insists on his premise for what is in fact a very pastoral reason. Knowledge is about the pursuit of truth, rather than convenient or expedient applications. In seminaries, what might be obvious for intellectual formation is also essential for human formation, for this pursuit of truth is, in Newman’s words, “satisfying a direct need of our nature,” our human nature.[14] As Newman sees it, there are two approaches or methods to education: one he terms “philosophical,” the other he terms “mechanical.” The former finds its home in the university, a place of true “education.” In the latter, mechanical model, the student is but a cog, a product of mere “instruction.”[15] True education, what Newman defines as “liberal education,” is not about utilitarian knowledge, but rather “philosophical knowledge.” In charming Victorian prose, Newman explains that this knowledge seeks:

To open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, eloquent expression.[16]

For this reason, liberal education is the education of a gentleman, be he Christian or not, be he Basil the Great or Julian the Apostate (a comparison Newman actually employs).[17]

Fine Victorian poppycock, the pragmatic rector might retort! A seminary cannot afford an apostate among its alumni. But the genius of Newman’s pedagogy is in fact present in the Ratio’s order of studies. A study of human culture and human science is to flow into and serve philosophical studies, where the seminarian learns to pursue truth without compromise. Like Newman’s university, seminary formation prioritizes philosophy as the lens for all learning, including one’s ensuing theological studies. In a way, the Catholic seminary remains the last bastion of the old scholastic model that formed Newman, Congar, Guardini, Lonergan, Rahner, de Lubac, von Balthasar, Wojtyła, Ratzinger, and Bergoglio. Philosophical studies, as the Ratio takes pains to emphasize, is no “obligatory step” to streamline for more pressing pastoral concerns in theological studies. Rather, an embrace of philosophy ensures a culture of truth, or, in the words of Newman, an “intellectual culture,” the heart of a true university.

This idea of intellectual culture brings us to the second pedagogical cornerstone of analytical thinking. Newman’s insistence on knowledge for knowledge’s sake immediately challenges the ends of intellectual formation, and by extension, all four dimensions of formation. Seminaries suffer from the temptation that they are forming pastors, not scholars. Seminarians do not need to know Dante, or Shakespeare, and certainly not Graham Greene; evolutionary biology is dangerous, less we corrupt pious minds; neuroscience is for scientists and shrinks and best ignored. We are talking about a seminary after all, not a university, not an institution devoted to all subjects of knowledge, to the whole of human knowledge, Newman’s very definition of a university qua university. Seminaries are invested in preaching the gospel; let the specialized laity assume the questions of the world.

But such a poisonous disposition misses the point. Newman, in fact, addresses the objection that no student could possibly study every academic subject offered in a university, be it Oxford or the local community college. For Newman, liberal education is not about the acquisition of knowledge but rather its analysis, that is, gaining a sense of the whole, a “connected view or grasp of things” or in his own coined word, a certain “viewiness.”[18] One can read an entire library, but that is not the knowledge of which Newman speaks. Liberal education is about more than a smorgasbord of knowledge before one’s intellectual appetite; is also about its digestion, a digestion possible only with philosophy applied to the acquisition of facts and data.[19] The educated gentleman does not merely “know, but thinks while [he] knows;” he is “above” his knowledge, rather than buckling “under it.”[20] Education is, in Newman’s words, a “clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things.”[21] The point of a liberal education, be it in a university or a seminary, is a truly philosophical education, the inculcation of analytical skills that can confidently assess the complex mosaic of reality in all its varied hues. It avoids graduating what Newman derides as a “man of one idea,” or, what Newman scorns with a vengeance throughout his text, a “bigot.”[22]

Here Newman’s useless model of knowledge emerges as remarkably useful, especially for seminaries training men as pastors to be respected and admired. A seminary may understandably wish to avoid ordaining apostates, but it should also not wish to ordain bigots. Indeed, Newman’s extensive description of a university alumnus, the educated gentleman, reads like traits one would expect from the Ratio’s “missionary disciple”: A liberal education:

Shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them. He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently, and gain a lesson seasonably . . . he is ever ready, yet never in the way . . . He has the repose of a mind which lives in itself, while it lives in the world.[23]

To this description one could enjoin the Ratio’s desire to form men who can “read the signs of the times.”[24] Newman describes a pastor who can do more than smell like his sheep; he can also think like them, and thereby understand them. He is a man skilled in “discernment,” the human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral epitome of philosophical, analytical knowledge.

The Second Insight: Community

As laudable as these qualities are, Newman is no idealist when it comes to implementing his model of liberal education. For Newman, a university is fundamentally a community, which brings us to the second part of my argument. In one of the most celebrated quotations of Newman’s Idea, he describes the university as “an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill.”[25] A university’s creative energy lies ultimately in nurturing persons rather than packaging new ideas. One of the most overlooked dimensions of Newman’s idea is his insistence on a residential community of learning, much like he experienced at Oriel College in Oxford. Posing the hypothetical question, whether he prefers a university that teaches all subjects or a university that teaches none but instills spirited dialogue, deep camaraderie, and passionate inquisitiveness among its students, Newman endorses the latter without hesitation.[26] Student interaction, with both peers and professors, is indispensable in Newman’s model for learning. One cannot read Newman’s Idea and settle for an online university, regardless of its course offerings or the reputation of its faculty. The Catholic university, for Newman, is fundamentally a residential community, with dorms in addition to classrooms.

Here again Newman’s insistence on community dovetails with the goals of the Ratio. The latter also insists on priestly formation as “grounded in community and missionary in spirit,” with an “eminently communitarian character from the outset,” a “transformative journey that involves the whole community.”[27] The document further claims that “formation comes about every day through interpersonal relationships, moments of exchange and discussion which result in the development of that fertile soil.”[28] Such ideas are not foreign to Catholic seminaries, but they are becoming increasingly foreign to Catholic universities, even universities that value Newman. In fact, seminaries, as communities that are almost entirely residential, live Newman’s idea in spades. Community is more than discussion posts in online classroom platforms. Community comes from spirited conversations, mutual pondering, fearless questioning, even bellicose bickering, be it on the way to chapel, in passing in hallways, in line for mediocre cafeteria cuisine, between lavatory stalls, or over a late-night craft pint. Community, in Newman’s sense, is not some ethereal idea or spirit; it is embodied, with all its joys and inconveniences.

Nevertheless, fellowship is not the only way that seminaries embrace Newman’s idea of communal learning and rise above many modern universities. If one reads all nine discourses of Newman’s Idea, his insistence both on the role of theology and knowledge for its own sake confronts a key caveat, one that seminaries treasure by necessity, and postmodern Catholic universities tend to demur. In the pursuit of truth and analysis, the Catholic university, if it is to be truly universal and embrace the whole of reality, must be fundamentally ecclesial.[29] Many a theologian will applaud Newman’s insistence that universities must include theology if they are to embrace all fields of knowledge and thus be true “universities.” Some of the same theologians, however, murmur at Newman’s further insistence, conveniently ignored by casual readers, that the Church is that community which guarantees the quality of a university’s theology and safeguards the place of revelation. In Newman’s words, the Church “moulds [the university’s] organization, watches over its teaching, knits together its pupils, and superintends its actions.” A university that disregards the ecclesial nature of theology, according to Newman, will at first not disown the Church outright, but rather gradually “throw its highest and most momentous disclosures into the background, deny its principles, explain away its doctrines, re-arrange its precepts, and make light of its practices.”[30] In other words, the chapel at the center of campus is not torn down, but rather is gradually whitewashed, forgotten, or simply repurposed. As a colleague once told me at a major Jesuit institution on the West Coast, the iconic chapel at the center of its campus was an unintelligible, if not outright embarrassing remnant of less enlightened days. With sober solemnity, he insisted that the Jesuit university of the 21st century is about social justice, not God.

In the face of this lamentable reality in American Catholic higher education, we return to the question of this essay: Is Newman’s idea of a university actually a seminary? Although Newman himself would have denied this in his own day, today we can offer a qualified yes. This “yes” presupposes a seminary’s commitment to the four dimensions of formation as, in the words of the Ratio, an “integral” whole. If we apply Newman’s idea not just to the classroom, but to all four dimensions of formation, Newman’s idea finds an ecclesial home in a postmodern world. Formation is about the pursuit of not just intellectual knowledge, but also human knowledge, spiritual knowledge, and pastoral knowledge, but this knowledge must be pursued for the truths essential to each of these dimensions, rather than for convenient, relevant, or simply lazy ends. One should read Theresa of Avila because she’s worth reading, not because she will make you a spiritual master. She may very well do that, but that is not the intended end. At the same time, the seminarian should read Sigrid Undset and Shusaku Endo, not because they add diversity to the curriculum and appease the gods of accreditation, but because they broaden one’s grasp of the human condition and culture. And, to be annoyingly provocative, the seminarian might even venture into the dark, dusty aisles of a library’s collection of old pastoral manuals for the confessional, not because we should resurrect them, and not for evidence to condemn earlier generations, but rather to see what truths, what insights, lie between their covers. And with all of this reading, the seminarian does not emerge as an expert in Spanish mysticism, or 20th century existentialism, or pre-conciliar casuistry. Rather, the seminarian learns to have an analytical grasp of the whole, the complexity of the Church’s tradition and its truths, and, most important, an appetite and humility for further learning, or, in the words of the Ratio, “ongoing formation.” The community of dead thinkers ensures that the seminarian is a man of more than one idea upon ordination; the community of living peers and professors ensures that he does not graduate as a bigot.


In the end, the question of this essay leads to another question for the future of the Catholic seminary. As it navigates the demands of a post-Christian reality, does the seminary want to become a postmodern university, or a Newmanian university? It may unwittingly morph into the former if it obsesses with questions of pastoral praxis and applicability, minting rather than forming new priests. Like the postmodern university, it becomes a place of specialized utility, paying only lip service to the idea of education. The problems of the past, especially as they have come to light recently, confirm that this fear is not just a nightmare; it’s a real possibility. If the seminary embraces the latter, the Newmanian vision of education, the seminary possesses the prime opportunity to realize the essence of Newman’s dream, not only in its uncompromising commitment to philosophy informing theology and its unabashed loyalty to ecclesial community, but also in its potential to form men who possess a broadminded appreciation of the whole of truth, men who not only know, but think about what they know.

Perhaps the integration of Newman’s insights and the Ratio’s program finds its best, and most telling testament in Pope Francis’s apostolic constitution on ecclesiastical faculties, Veritatis Gaudium. This document speaks of the need for a “paradigm shift” in seminary formation and proposes “inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary” studies that encompass the breadth of human knowledge. The Holy Father explicitly calls for a program of philosophy and theology “done with an open mind and on one’s knees.”[31] An “open mind” echoes Newman’s objective for a liberal education, one unshackled from obsession with utility. The bending of “knees” resonates with Newman’s idea of a distinctly Catholic university, one invested not only in the idea of theology, but theology rooted in the bedrock of ecclesial community and its awe in revelation. It should further come as no surprise that this very document explicitly quotes Newman and his Idea, highlighting a section in which Newman warns against any disciplinary isolation that might eclipse a “survey of all knowledge” and, in turn, undermine “largeness of mind and freedom and self-possession.”[32] Our Jesuit pope, like his American nuncio, seems to seek not only future pastors, but also educated gentlemen for a missionary world, “gentle priests” who are “ever ready, but never in the way.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: The McGrath Institute for Church Life recently published a groundbreaking report on sexual abuse in Catholic seminaries. 

[1] John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, ed. Martin J. Svaglic (Notre Dame: Notre Dame, 1982), 171.

[2] Ibid., 179.

[3] Congregation for the Clergy, Ratio, The Gift of the Priestly Vocation: Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (Vatican City: L’Osservatore Romano, 2016), n. 3.

[4] Ibid., n. 157.

[5] Ibid., nn. 3, 159.

[6] Ibid., n. 163.

[7] Ibid., n. 63.

[8] Ibid., n. 118.

[9] Ibid., nn. 92, 94.

[10] Ibid., n. 116.

[11] Ibid., n. 120.

[12] Ibid., n. 92.

[13] Newman, Idea, 77.

[14] Ibid., 78.

[15] Ibid., 85.

[16] Ibid., 92.

[17] Ibid. ,161.

[18] Ibid., xliii; xliv.

[19] Ibid., 101.

[20] Ibid., 101, 106. 

[21] Ibid., 107, 105.

[22] Ibid., 57. For references of “bigot,” see 37, 44, 57.

[23] Ibid., 135.

[24] Ratio, nn. 117, 153.

[25] Newman, Idea, 109.

[26] Newman, Idea, 110-111.

[27] Ratio, nn. 3, 65.

[28] Ratio, n. 50.

[29] Newman, Idea, 163.

[30] Newman, Idea, 164, 165.

[31] Francis, Apostolic Constitution Veritatem Gaudium, accessed  Feb. 23, 2018, Forward, 3, 4c.

[32] Ibid., 4c. The citation of the constitution is incorrect; its quotation comes from Discourse VII, section 6 (not 7). The constitution quotes only “survey of all knowledge.” I have added an additional quotation for context.

Henry J. Whitlock, John Henry Newman Reading a Book, c. 1890; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Paul G. Monson

Paul G. Monson is Assistant Professor of Church History at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His research focuses on the intersection of theology, history, and culture in American Catholicism. 

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