Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

MsgrLiptak_TNQ. I have long been curious as to the courses in theology that a seminarian is required to study prior to ordination. Is there any set sequence, or does the seminary course of studies entail so-called "electives"? And why is it that some seminarians seem to go through more years of study than others?

A. Yes, there is a general "grid" of courses arranged in a sequence during the four or five years of theological study required of seminarians after completion of college studies.

During college, most seminarians take the usual courses in the humanities toward acquisition of a bachelor’s degree (e.g., the B.A.). This should include courses in history, literature, English composition, languages (college Latin, plus some foreign languages such as German, Spanish, French, Italian), educational psychology, college chemistry, physics, mathematics, sociology, etc. However, the last two years of college especially should focus on solid philosophy, not only because it really is the queen of the human sciences, but also because it constitutes the overall idiom in which theology is done. (Seminarians need to be introduced to logic, epistemology, metaphysics, etc., in order to theologize reasonably.)

Theology ordinarily constitutes a four- or five-year program following completion of college.

The sequence reflects the two principal approaches to theology, and (in my preference) can be described as dogmatic theology (e.g., the study of the Creed) and moral theology (the study of human acts – ethics, in other words).

In my own seminary days at St. Bernard’s in Rochester (then probably the West Point of America’s seminaries, as one historian has noted), we had major courses daily in these separate approaches: dogma and moral. When, as a priest, I was drawn into seminary administration beginning in 1980, I chose the St. Bernard’s model as the norm. This norm provides for all the necessary courses in proper sequence but also allows for alignment with requirements of the Regents of the State of Connecticut in the context of the Master’s Degree (in Divinity or Religious Studies). Full accreditation regulations can vary from State to State but generally fit readily into a solid seminary curriculum.

Dogmatic theology begins with courses in: (1) the nature of divine Revelation, (2) the existence and nature of God, the Creator of heaven and earth (monotheism), (3) the Blessed Trinity, (4) the Incarnation and Christology, (5) the Redemption, (6) the Church (ecclesiology), (7) the seven sacraments, (8) the four last things (eschatology), (9) divine worship and prayer, and, if not treated in one of the above areas, (10) the dignity of the human person.

Moral theology is as lengthy and intense, but it focuses on human acts. Thus, the very first course in moral theology constitutes: (1) an analysis of the human act, (2) either the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) or else the Virtues, and (3) a study of the Divine Law and the nature of conscience, (4) the virtues which man is invited to emulate, (5) the nature of sin, and then, (6) conversion and reconciliation.

A knowledge of moral theology is obviously a critical requisite of a priest’s role as confessor.

Highly specialized courses in moral theology are also needed to prepare priests for contemporary challenges to God’s moral law. Such courses include so-called "liberation theology," justice in labor contexts, sexual morality, and (in Pope John Paul II’s phrase) "the theology of the body." Various issues involving the ethics of warfare, capital punishment, and countless problems in assessing new bioethical procedures, etc. (e.g., life and death decisions, "technological reproduction"), are discussed.

In addition to all these courses, seminaries must also offer studies in Sacred Scripture (e.g., the nature of divine inspiration), Biblical languages (especially Greek and Hebrew), and Mariology.

Furthermore, seminarians must take courses in liturgy (theory as well as practice), homiletics (how to write and deliver liturgical sermons, especially at Mass), and the all-important tract (six continuous years at St. Bernard’s in my time) of Church history, beginning with the catacombs and patrology, and closing with the Church in the United States of America and the contemporary world. (Church art is often included in the history courses.)

Finally, a seminary requires at least one course in spiritual theology, including a thorough study of the two main currents in spiritual theology: the kataphatic (reflecting, for example, Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ) and the anaphatic (mirroring classics like The Cloud of Unknowing).

In addition to all these, various pastoral theology courses and practicums (e.g., how to confer the sacraments) must be offered. Finally, there are hours dedicated to field education.