08 November 2006

Battling Heretics in the Seminary, or Protest at Your Own Risk

A few commenters on my Exhortation below have challenged me to clarify my statement that we need young men called to the priesthood to battle dissenting professors in our seminaries. The primary objection to this assertion seems to be that these young men, following my advice, will end up either "flying under the radar" as closeted orthodox believers in order to survive or booted out of seminary for being troublemakers and end up "damaged goods."

My initial response to this objection was to argue that my students here at UD are fully aware that courage requires prudence. One does not do battle courageously and do it imprudently. I hold to this still. But I also concede that not everyone reading my Exhortation understands the connection between courage and prudence. There is a real chance a zealous young man might decide to do battle with a dissenting seminary prof and do so imprudently, and thus find himself bounced out on his ear. My own experience with the liberal professoriate proves that there is nothing more illiberal than a liberal with a PhD, power, and with whom one disagrees.

Another reader in a private email pointed out that since I received my theological education in schools run by my Order (Aquinas Institute in St. Louis and Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University), I had a very different experience than most seminarians. I concede this as well. Most of my profs were Dominican friars and sisters. There is a different dynamic when you are being taught by people with whom you will be spending the rest of your life! I would point out, however, that religious order seminarians rarely get to choose their seminaries. I think this is probably the case with diocesan seminarians as well. One commenter made the point that young men answering the call to priesthood need to exercise prudence in choosing a diocese or religious community so that he is not put in a position of having to battle anyone. All is can say to this is: good luck with that! Seriously, there might be two seminaries in this country where the entire faculty is acceptably orthodox (and my definition of "orthodox" is more expansive than most!).

Given all that, let me say this: if you are an orthodox (notice I didn’t say conservative!) young man in a seminary and you find yourself confronted by a professor obstinately teaching error or dissenting from well-established Church teaching, you have several options:

1). Be quiet, take notes, tell him/her what he/she wants to hear. Get through it knowing that you don’t have to believe any of their nonsense!

2). Politely question and offer respectful critique. Emphasis on respectful.

3). If the dissenting prof uses the rhetoric of freedom or diversity when defending his/her right to dissent, then ask him/her how he/she feels about students dissenting from his/her dissent. Most will say, "Bring it on!" Most of those won’t mean it. See #’s 1 and 2.

4). Offer intelligent opposition in writing assignments, but leave the public debate to more adventurous souls. Dissenters can usually take a little opposition in written form. It’s being called out in front of the class that riles them.

5). Couch your opposition to their dissent in strictly Thomistic terms: "It would seem that your understanding of the Trinity leads us to X, Y, and Z. I wonder if you could help me see how your understanding of the Trinity could avoid X, Y, and Z?" Simple statement of fact or possible conclusion.

6). Open defiance is really not an option with liberal or conservative dissenters. Both have security issues and your opposition will be couched in terms of a "formation issue." I found that most of my opposition—always polite, intelligent, humorous, and exactly correct! (HA!)—was reported as "anti-female" and "anti-laity;" in other words, I insisted on the Church’s teaching on the priesthood and sacraments.

7). I always counsel against using any form of liberal democratic protest against dissenting profs (petitions, pickets, et al). I know, I know, the irony is seductive, but it only draws attention to them and makes them think people really care what they think. Don’t add any rooms to their delusional castles.

Of course, as a last resort you could always listen, take notes, ask intelligent questions, ask the prof to lay out the consequences of his/her teaching, and actually learn something from their dissent. I mean, even if you just learn how not to dissent, it would be worth the effort!

Fr. Philip, OP


  1. Fr. Philip,

    Having just found your blog, and reading it over the past several days - I wanted to say thank you for your posts relating to vocations! They are outstanding! This one is no exception. We have had many men enter one of our Diocesan Vocation Director's chosen seminaries - LOSE their vocations. Truth be told they barely escaped with their faith. They enter a most difficult world with a progressive VD, sending them to hostile, progressive seminaries. They try to their best to stay under the radar but ending up losing themselves in the process during "formative" years. And if they do make it, the "under the radar" formation has often been just that "formative" and they stay under the radar as priests. And if one says they shouldn't have applied to this Diocese, that conflicts with their clear sense of call to be a priest in this Diocese. Your points of opposition are extremely good ones and should certainly be more widely known to help more young men run the progressive gauntlet.

    Thank you for your yes, and may God continue to bless you in all you do. Please keep up the good work you are doing on this blog!

  2. Rock on Pater! Which 2 seminaries where you speaking of as being orthodox?

    Am linking your blog!

  3. Anonymous2:20 PM

    Your "good luck" comment concerning discernment in selecting an appropriate diocese or seminary. My son is a diocesean seminarian. Our diocese has a reputation for encouraging vocations from junior high on up through summer retreats. We currently have over thirty seminarians, some from neighboring dioceses. My son has talked about the care they take in selecting appropriate seminaries, relatively close ones are ignored because of their poor theological formation. It does happen, but it only comes from hard work and a committment to the faith. Sort of a "you build it, and they will come" approach.

  4. I love your Blog Father.

    I have my own – and am soliciting advice. I am considering entering an order and your advice is precisely what I am looking for.
    The questions of Orthodoxy and successful navigation of seminary life are spot on target.
    I have found some rather helpful comments lately..

    Please advise (any and all comments welcome)


  5. Anonymous4:27 PM

    Hello Father!

    I am really enjoying reading your blog. I'm a senior in high school and have already applied to the University of Dallas, and right now it is my first choice. Could you please tell me a little bit about faith on campus, how orthodox the teaching is at UD, how excited the students are there about their faith? What sort of things are available to a student who is wishing to strengthen her faith at UD? Thanks so much! Keep blogging! Your words inspire me!

  6. Hammer,

    Well, if I had to name two I would say the Dominican House of Studies in DC and the archdiocesan seminary in Denver. I'm sure there are a few more, but my personal knowledge of them is limited.


    My email is neripowell(at)yahoo(dot)com. I'll check out your blog. Thanks to you all for visiting mine.

    Fr. Philip

  7. Fr. P.,

    Excellent advice as always! Would it that we had a "Consumer Reports" for seminaries...



  8. Anonymous11:31 AM

    I would like to add a word of caution to being too excited or worried. As a father of a seminarian, I have witnessed some of my son's peers discern that becoming a priest was not truely their calling. That is part of what is supposed to be happening in the seminary. My son was frank and loving in his explanations of what he understood his friends were going through. But, many parishioners have come to me expressing concern that "that seminary" was ruining the vocations of these young men. Rumors often run rampant on half truths and misunderstandings.

  9. Anon,

    You couldn't be more correct! "Discerning a vocation" means "figuring out if I am called and what to do if I am or if I'm not." Very often the lived experience of a young man in a novitiate or seminary will tell him all he needs to know about what he is being called to. However, we were told constantly in my student days, "The novitiate is not the studium and the studium is not the diaconate internship and the internship is not your first priestly assignment!" Meaning that every stage of formation has its own issues, challenges, and rewards.

    Fr. Philip

  10. Anonymous1:09 PM

    Yes, I think I understand that. Though, I think I will only know how much I understand as I react to my son's progress and reactions. I realize my wife and I are sort of discerning all this ourselves. What I was trying to convey in my earlier note was that I have experienced people not understanding what was happening and thinking (or maybe wanting to think) the worst. Then again, a quick Google search into "progressive Catholics" brought up a number of alarming sites that confirm your earlier posts and then some. Hair raising, actually, that such alien thinking exists. What is a regular old lay person to do?

  11. Father Powell, I also thank you for your posts.

    I am a woman, and thus more interested in praying for vocations (for men and women!), and working in roles that support vocations...not undermine them.

    Your insights are helpful to us all because you help us to understand the battles being faced every day...and you you've barely scratched the surface.

    As far as the couple seminaries...well, I can tell you that here in the Mpls-St. Paul area, I believe in the past our seminaries have struggled with "progressive" ideas, some of them garnering the attention of the media. But under the guidance of Archbishop Harry Flynn's attention, these sems are turning around and both the minor (st. Paul)and major (St. John Vianney) seminaries are producing wonderful, faithful priests! My parish is blessed with 3 of them just ordained in the last few years.

    Please add our seminaries to your list of good ones...and everyone keep the seminarians and the priests in your prayers.

  12. Anonymous8:11 AM

    I would say the Dominican House of Studies in DC

    My Ordinary is a product of the House, and is an incredibly brilliant man. Sadly, vocations have evaporated - by attrition or outright hostility - under his watch, and those who made it to the Presbyterate have not always found a warm welcome. I pray that once the Archbishop's resignation is accepted and the expected changes take place, we return to loving the priesthood and encouraging the work they do.

    Despite the malaise here, this Benedictine product has a great respect for your Order. If only Augie DeNoia could take over!

  13. Anonymous3:32 PM

    Hi Father,

    Any thoughts on the faith on campus at UD? What is your experience like at UD, and what makes UD different from other Catholic colleges? I'm still really curious. Thank you so much for your help!

    -senior in high school

  14. High School Senior,

    I am well-qualified to comment on UD's faith life. I'm the campus minister for outreach.

    The school is right at 70% Catholic. Most of these are pretty faithful, practicing Catholics...the kind of Catholics that would look almost zealous in most RC parishes nowadays. There are some very gung-ho Catholics who think even the Pope is a little too liberal. There are also a number of Protestants, some Jews, and there is a Muslim population b/c of the Graduate School of Management. Masses are well-attended, confession lines are long (is that a good sign?), service projects are well-staffed (my area), and even the atheists and virtuous pagans impressed with the education at UD.

    Give me a call at UD sometime if you have any specific questions go to the UD website and call the switchboard and ask for me.

    God bless, Fr. Philip

  15. Anonymous3:37 AM

    Thanks, Father, for devoting a post to he issues raised by my comments among others. 'Rumors often run rampant on half truths and misunderstandings.' The problems with heterodox seminary professors are blatant enough that this is not a big issue. There might be a question, in the case of a given man, about whether or not he really abandoned (or was thrown out of) his seminary because of his orthodoxy, but it does not follow that there is going to be similar doubt about the state of a particular seminary as a whole. Father, I am familiar with Blackfriars in Oxford, and I can assure you that even leaving aside the issue of being trained in your own religious order, the situation there is not to be compared with that in most seminaries (like my own). With the Dominicans, you will at least learn something about the teachings and tradition of the Church, even if the lecturer in question totally rejects them (as with e.g. Philip Kennedy O.P.). In most seminaries, you will learn only progressive heresies, and nothing at all about Catholic teaching. You will thus be ordained a priest without having the knowledge needed to carry out your priestly ministry. Your advice about how to disagree with professors is utopian. With the typical seminary of this type, the simple fact of disagreement is going to get you blacklisted and thrown out if possible. The option of just keeping silent is the only one available. However, this option can involve grave sin against the faith. Faith requires us not just to privately believe, but to publicly confess our faith. I give an example of one seminarian I know, who got in trouble for believing in the divinity of Christ; he was given special remedial courses in Christology as a result. (He sensibly moved on to a better seminary before he could be thrown out.) What is more, the professors in question are not usually content to remain in ignorance about their students's views. They will ask questions designed to get the students to commit themselves, so the students will face a choice between denying the faith and getting in trouble and probably throw out. You may ask, 'well, if things are this bad and there are so few seminaries where a man can be advised to go, how can the Church be provided with priests?' The answer is that while the situation in seminaries continues as it is, the Church is not going to get priests - she won't get the numbers, and those who are ordained will not be fit for their tasks. The Church in many places will thus wither away and die. This is what is happening now, and what will continue to happen unless drastic reforming measures are taken. Your call to confront dissenting seminary professors is, I'm afraid, part of a failure on the part of Catholics to face up to what is really going on in the Church. 'A lack of generous acceptance of His abundance' is not the basic problem with vocations and with the future of the priesthood. The basic problem is that the people in charge of forming priests are trying to destroy the Catholic priesthood, and the bishops who oversee them are either encouraging them in this or letting them get away with it. If this is fixed, there will be vocations enough, and if it is not, exhorting young men to be generous in responding to God's call is futile.

  16. Anon,

    Please believe me when I say that I am very much aware of your complaint and I symapathize! There is an attempt on the part of some in the theological professoriate to push the Church to make a radical choice for a hierarchy dominated by professionally trained lay dissenters. They will do this, in part, by creating an artifical vocations "crisis." This is a move to make the RCC into the Methodist Church or at the very least the Episcopal Church. We're agreed on that. Where we differ is the response to this. If young men called to the priesthood don't come forward and say yes to God's call, then I am at a loss to figure out where the Good Men will come from. Who is it exactly that you expect to do this necessary reformation? The more orthodox men stay away b/c of heterodox profs and priests and bishops the less chance there is for reform. We say in the Dominican Order that each friar is responsible for his own formation, meaning, of course, that each friar is formable only to the degree that he allows himself to be formed. In some of the classes I took in my studium I had to take matters into my own hands and educate myself. I did the required reading and wrote the required papers and said the required things. And then on my own I followed the reading suggestions of orthodox friars and professors. Now, I went into seminary with a PhD and an awareness of some of the problems with my seminary, so I had two advantages. As to your objection to my premise that "a lack of generous acceptance of His abundance" is a root cause of our shortage. Basically, if no one is sitting in the desks at the seminaries there is no one for the heretics to corrupt. Nor is there anyone there for the orthodox profs to properly form. In other words, I agree that heterodox profs are a huge problem, but so long as faithful young men stay away because of them, how do we reform? Surely, we don't expect the heterodox profs to reform themselves?! I guess we're talking chickens and eggs here. You say that young men will say yes when we get orthodox formattors. I say we will get orthodox formattors when orthodox young men say yes. With my assertion I am clear about where our orthodox formattors will come from: the orthodox young men growing up to take over. After all, the Dissident Generation is aging fast. In your scenario, where the orthodox formattors come from?

    Thanks for taking the time to post!

    God bless, Fr. Philip, OP

    P.S. Just so everyone knows. Philip Kennedy does not teach at Blackfriars.

  17. Anonymous1:10 AM

    You are right, Philip Kennedy has moved on from Blackfriars thank goodness - I had him in mind oddly enough as an example of a heterodox instructor from whom it is actually possible to learn things. What I think young men considering a vocation have to do is look for dioceses or religious orders where it is possible to get an orthodox formation, or at least hear the orthodox side of things. These places now exist, and they are the only ones that anyone should consider attending. 'The more orthodox men stay away b/c of heterodox profs and priests and bishops the less chance there is for reform.' If heretics have control of the formation in a diocese or an order, they are going to succeed in their objectives, by, as you say, working through an 'artificially created vocations crisis' to bring about 'a radical choice for a hierarchy dominated by professionally trained lay dissenters'. Their control gives them the power to do this by the means I have mentioned. The dioceses or orders in question are not going to be reformed. They are just going to cease to exist as Catholic entities. This has happened in some places, and is going to happen in more, unless this control is broken. The breaking of this control is not the responsibility of young men considering vocations, and is not in their power. That is why I was worried about your address; it might inspire young men who do not grasp these realities to throw their lives, and possibly their souls, away. I should underline that I do not think the Dominicans (with whom I have studied) come under this heading. In fact I would encourage (and have encouraged) men with a good previous education, like yourself, to consider that order (checking out the province in question first). Blackfriars in Oxford illustrates this point; friars like Simon Gaine or Fergus Kerr, or the late Herbert McCabe, while not perfect in all respects, have absolutely no parallels in the typical heterodox seminary. What absolutely no man should do is go in to an order like the Jesuits (at least in America, although I believe they are as bad elsewhere), or a bad diocesan seminary. Courage has no place here.

  18. Anonymous11:36 AM

    I am a convert. I am out of the loop of what seems like a well known fact. What is the concern with the Jeuits?