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I commend Thomas Berg (“Getting Formation Right,” December) for his suggestions for reforming the seminary system in light of the new Ratio Fundamentalis. Nevertheless, by failing to consider the time before and after seminary as a part of the solution, his proposals for reform end up falling short. Most men begin the application process to a pre-theology seminary program at least six months before the start of the academic year. These months are typically spent filling out an application, completing psychological tests, and visiting seminaries.

When a man expresses serious interest in the seminary, he could enter a “pre-formation program” in the diocese. The pre-formation program, run according to the USCCB’s standards, would include spiritual direction and basic courses on prayer, priesthood, and fundamental Catholic doctrine. Retreats and meetings would be offered throughout the year to fit the schedule of the aspirant living in the secular world, and he would be “assigned” to a parish apostolate or ministry. Even if he should decide not to go on to seminary, he would still have a foundation of prayer, knowledge, and self-awareness that would serve the good of the Church. A spiritual-life program, including an extended retreat, would follow the summer after the first year of pre-theology. This would fulfill the requirements of the proposed spiritual year without adding another year to an ever-expanding time of seminary formation.

Reform is also needed for the time directly following a man’s seminary years. An excellent first assignment with a mentoring pastor in the right parish is crucial for establishing a newly ordained priest in his vocation. The Council of Trent mandated that the seminary system replace the earlier apprenticeship model of priestly training. While this improved the formation of future priests in many ways, there were benefits the apprenticeship model provided that seminaries cannot. Viewing the first years after ordination as a time of apprenticeship can fill in the gaps and provide formation that no amount of time in seminary can offer.

Some parents mistakenly believe that by sending their children to a Catholic school, they have fulfilled the duty of bringing their children up in the faith. Similarly, some church leaders and vocation directors believe that they have fulfilled their duty to form future priests simply by sending men to seminary. Catholic schools cannot provide everything necessary for a child’s Catholic education, and seminaries cannot offer everything required for the formation of priests. Adding more years to seminary formation is not the solution to the problems Berg hopes to solve. 

Rev. Steven P. Beseau
mt. st. mary’s seminary 
cincinnati, ohio

Thomas Berg has missed a huge element of why priestly formation is so dysfunctional: The power dynamics between seminarian and formator are horribly unbalanced, and this leads to tension and distrust.

First, the bishop and the seminary staff have absolute power over the seminarian. Since the dissolution of the minor orders in the ’70s, the major seminarian does not enter the clerical state until he is a deacon. This means that the seminarian has no legal right to challenge the decisions of the bishop or formators by juridical appeal to the Congregation for Clergy for five to seven years before his diaconate ordination (and longer, if Berg has his wish and we “slow” the process to ordination). The seminarian has absolutely no legal recourse, whether ecclesial or civil. Moreover, each seminarian is required to undergo psychological testing, the results of which are, at least in many dioceses, owned by the diocese.

Second, dishonest dealing on the part of the seminary fuels distrust between seminarian and formator. When the minor orders were dissolved, the seminaries and dioceses were only too glad to wash their hands of any legal responsibility to seminarians. But they are more coy about the fact that under canon law, rights and duties are Siamese twins: Where there are no rights, there are no duties in respect to superiors/subjects. This means that each seminary formator has the responsibility to explain to his charges that, as the seminarian possesses no rights in the relationship, he is also not morally obligated—insofar as the relationship is concerned—to any part of the promises that he may one day take, including the promise of obedience to the superiors. Somehow, this point goes uncommunicated.

Berg admits many seminary formators are incompetent, but his idea that the distinction between the “internal forum” and the “external forum” ought to be more fluid is inhumane. He is asking the seminarian to consent to reveal personal, multifaceted, and complex details of conscience (that is what the internal forum entails) to a load of oafs who possess absolute power over him and have denied him any legal recourse to their decisions, no matter how rash. On the contrary, the internal forum must be respected and explained to each seminarian the moment he is accepted (because the internal-external distinction extends also to the bishop). Any attempt to blur the line between the internal and external forums gives the seminary formators more power, and makes the seminarian more vulnerable. These are not the ingredients of “an attitude of ‘mutual trust’”; they are the building blocks of abuse of power and discontent.

Under present circumstances, the seminarian already must be careful about what he says and to whom, and must calculate the effects of his words and actions on insecure people who may make rash decisions without a fair hearing. If Berg is sincere about getting formation right, then he ought to consider that expanding his own power over already vulnerable people will do nothing to improve the health and selection of candidates, especially since the only people who are likely to consent to such a system are those who are still used to being children—precisely the immaturity Berg wants to avoid.

Zachary Daly
ames, iowa

Thomas Berg’s “Getting Formation Right” evinces the thoughtfulness of a man who has dedicated much of his career to seminary formation. I hope he will permit the presumption of a few observations from one who has spent some, but far less, time attempting the same at St. Patrick’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

The recent abuse crisis in the Church seems to be in the background of this article. As the scholastics used to say, the order of operation is opposite to the order of intention. That is, one needs to be clear on the problem to be solved before one proposes solutions. The statistical evidence suggests that the abuse crisis in the Church subsided significantly in the late 1980s. The cases of abuse that make the news today are by and large from decades ago. This suggests that, since the 1983 Code of Canon Law and 1992 Pastores dabo vobis, U.S. seminaries have been doing a much better job at rooting out the worst of sexual predators. We will always have to remain vigilant, but it is a mistake to think that a reform of the seminaries is necessary because of an abuse crisis that was largely resolved thirty years ago. Perhaps Berg is correct that seminaries need to be fundamentally restructured, but if so we must be clear on the actual reasons for such significant changes and the ends we hope to achieve.

As for his proposals, I agree with Berg that formators are meant to be more than “hallway monitors.” Where I depart from him is on some of the specifics. First, his recommendation to remove the degree program seems a mistake. Berg suggests that accreditation is an obstacle to effectiveness, but that has not been our experience at St. Patrick’s. Done well, accreditation can help the institution clarify expectations and better evaluate effectiveness. When I arrived at St. Patrick’s, professors taught their own material, but there was little effort to fit each course into the wider curriculum. Our curriculum reform has allowed us to offer a more integrated program that has benefited students. The advice we have received from our accreditors, both civil and pontifical, has been invaluable to this effort.

Eliminating the degree program would have significant unintended consequences. Many of our students have previous federal student loans. Deferment of federal loans requires enrollment in an accredited educational institution. Losing that accreditation would become a hardship for students, unless some other system were created to help pay those loans. In addition, we have numerous foreign students. For example, the Diocese of Suwon, South Korea, has recently sent men to study here in the hopes of better serving the Korean population in California. The loss of accreditation would make it much more difficult, if not impossible, for these students to obtain student visas. Berg argues that the drive to offer degrees is fed by the hope of attracting lay students. St. Patrick’s has no lay students, but our need for an accredited degree program remains.

Perhaps my strongest objection to Berg’s article is his criticism of the “overemphasis on academics.” As virtue is about the mean, who can object to a criticism of an excess? I nonetheless worry that Berg’s criticism stems from an anti-intellectualism that seems to be on the rise. In my experience, there is a great problem with the American Church’s inability to answer contemporary challenges to Catholic teaching, and much of this was a result of the collapse of seminary education in the 1960s. The long tradition of Catholic theology and morals was often replaced in favor of novel theological theories, pop psychology, and situation ethics. The timidity of the American episcopate to address more publicly theological aberrations that have made their way into popular Catholic media stems in part from a lack of theological tools. If anything, our students need to be challenged to pursue an even greater academic rigor than in the past. Rather than downplaying academics, students must develop a properly theological habitus. There are far too many priests for whom the last theological work they read was in seminary. These academics do not simply prepare students for an exam; they assist them in preparing for a lifetime in theology.

I do hope that these small points do not detract from Berg’s overall message, which I think is important. Namely, U.S. seminaries should be continually striving not just to give degrees, but to properly form men—spiritually, pastorally, morally, and, yes, even academically—to be good priests and true spiritual fathers who minister with the heart of Christ.

Fr. Pius Pietrzyk, O.P.
st. patrick’s seminary
menlo park, california

Thomas Berg correctly asserts that the United States has too many Catholic seminaries, that transparency in formation is essential to preparing candidates for the realities of priestly life, and that readiness for ministry rather than completion of an academic program ought to be the main criterion in deciding when or whether a man should be ordained. But from there I must part company with his assessment.

Three of his suggestions are especially problematic. Berg wonders if our seminaries should stop granting degrees, asks if our undergraduate seminaries should be shuttered, and seeks to soften the sharp distinction between the internal and external forums in priestly formation. All three of these proposals would be bad for the Church and for the men who want to be priests, and better ways can be found to address Berg’s legitimate concerns.

Seminaries at every level should of course be schools of the Lord’s service dedicated to shaping students for authentic Christian discipleship, but they should also be properly accredited and degree-granting schools; otherwise a man might spend many years in formation and have no credentials to take with him to another life if he leaves the seminary. The prospect of having to start life over because of a lack of academic achievement can keep men in the seminary even after they suspect they should depart. This was a complaint lodged many times against the Legion of Christ in its early years.

Seminary formation in the Catholic tradition does not mean graduate school, as it does for most Protestants. A school at any level can become a seminary with the adaptations needed for the maturity of the candidates, and high school seminaries were once a common part of the Church’s life. Undergraduate seminaries, when properly understood and organized, can be places where young men develop sufficient self-knowledge, self-mastery, and interior freedom to know that they want to be priests. Then they go on to graduate school to learn whether or not they are prepared to sacrifice what must be sacrificed to be a priest. It is in this final stage that the Church decides whether or not the candidate has all the gifts of nature and grace needed for ordination.

Finally, the difference between what a man tells his spiritual director (internal forum) and what he tells his formation adviser (external forum) is a real distinction that protects the interior freedom of the seminarian and allows him to grapple with his sins and weaknesses without fear that he will be expelled from the seminary for being honest about his moral failures. Erasing or softening this distinction tends to injure human dignity. Diocesan seminarians are not Jesuits in training who must manifest their consciences to their superiors. The laudable goal of teaching our seminarians to be honest with the Church about their lives cannot be accomplished by invading their legitimate privacy.

Fr. Jay Scott Newman
greenville, south carolina

Thomas V. Berg Replies:

My intention in writing “Getting Formation Right” was to provoke the kind of thoughtful and respectful dialogue reflected in these letters. Steven Beseau raises an issue of paramount importance that I did not address, namely, the imminent need for an intentional and programmatic approach to ongoing priestly formation, especially in the first five years post-ordination. Such ongoing formation ought to include, but not be limited to, a robust priest-mentoring program for the newly ordained. While some dioceses have such programs in place, my sense is that many, if not most, do not. This is indeed a pressing need.

All four of these authors raise valid concerns about the nature of self-disclosure in formation and the admittedly challenging issue of balancing a man’s right to privacy with his positive moral obligation to honest and appropriate self-disclosure with the formation team (and not only with his spiritual director). Entering formation means opening oneself to a process of self-emptying, and to a particular experience of our Lord’s cross which will always entail considerable risks. Formation, as Deacon James Keating has correctly noted, has the nature of a passio; formation is to be suffered by the seminarian on a road of ever-deeper identification with Christ.

Arriving at that point at which a seminarian can freely, spontaneously, and confidently reveal the necessary knowledge of himself, including his own woundedness, to those who are charged by the Church to make a recommendation regarding his suitability for Orders—this is the prized goal today of seminary formation. 

Success requires that all parties respect the candidate’s right to privacy. But it also requires, in counterpoise, that the candidate understand the positive moral obligation of self-disclosure incumbent upon him. It requires of the bishops that only priests of the soundest integrity and skill in formation be appointed as seminary formators. And it requires of the formation team (poignantly aware at all times of the power imbalance between themselves and their seminarians) to hold themselves to rigorous standards of charity, and to strive to perfect themselves in the art of mentoring in ways that respect a man’s privacy while building around him an environment that prompts and supports free and mature self-disclosure.

As to the academic focus of formation programs, we need to distinguish between “academics” and what Pius Pietrzyk calls the development of a “properly theological habitus.” I am all in favor of the latter; but our often frenetic and onerous pursuit of the completion of courses in an MDiv program might frustrate obtaining that goal, not assist it. My remarks were aimed at that degree specifically. Elimination of the MDiv would not stop a seminary from offering an MA in theology to those seminarians who had a particular interest in pursuing it.

Yet, as any seminary formator should know well, a degree in hand does not guarantee that a man has thoroughly engaged in intellectual formation, or that during his formation he ever moved beyond studying theology to doing theology. That being said, and as a scholar myself, I do not deny that the “academic approach” to seminary formation can work. But we must be sure that the other dimensions of formation become well-integrated into the overall program of formation and are not being displaced by the tensions inherent in the pursuit of a degree.


Once, after watching a neurologist (classically trained in the British tradition) listen to, examine, and diagnose a patient with rheumatoid arthritis and sensory neuropathy, my mentor wryly smiled and asserted, “If, after five minutes of listening to the patient, you’re not 90 percent sure of the diagnosis, either the patient’s a liar, or you’re in deep trouble!”

This aphorism was brought to mind after reflecting on Theodore Dalrymple’s “Letter to an Aspiring Doctor” (December), which highlights challenges for those entering the profession. I offer two additional general recommendations to the aspiring doctor. Four decades ago, we were told that good physicians should be “students of books and students of men.” In addition to following Dalrymple’s advice for attaining wisdom by studying books, any successful physician must broadly mingle with persons, learning firsthand the mannerisms, dialects, religious and cultural beliefs, and occupations of one’s future patients; effectively communicating and fostering a fruitful professional relationship with a college professor is usually quite different from doing the same with an elderly goat farmer.

Finally, I would amend Dalrymple’s conclusion by stating that the ideal physician must possess a blend of knowledge, technical skill, wisdom, and authority. The latter is given only a slight nod in Dalrymple’s comment about “hiding behind the authority of others.” Now, more than at any time, a sense of personal authority is requisite for wisely distilling the “pea soup” of medical information to something digestible by a patient and his family; it is integral to surviving professionally in a field now dominated by healthcare corporatism and medical scientism. To seek, find, and model those in medicine who exemplify authority and equanimity should be a constant goal of all physicians.

Allan Anderson, MD
salado, texas

I want to thank Theodore Dalrymple for his sage “Letter to an Aspiring Doctor.” Dalrymple advises a prudent course that steers clear of fanaticisms and fads, and allows for both humility and courage in the face of illness, risk, human misery, and mortality. I especially appreciated his note that “as a doctor you must guard against becoming a Savonarola of health,” since “life is about more than not being dead, and a fixation on not dying often takes the joy out of life.” Medicine provides great benefits indeed, but health is not always the highest good.

I will add a few considerations of my own regarding the cast of mind and strength of character required of a young doctor. Undergraduate institutions often fail to prepare the premedical student for the—how shall I say it?—everyday realities encountered in medical school. After a recent session with medical students on caring for patients who are dying, some students complained that they were “triggered” by the discussion of terminally ill patients that lacked a “positive ending”; the session also lacked the necessary “emotional support” for students who had to role-play “fatalistic and depressing scenarios.” Another student complained that in discussing dying patients, “we are forced to face our own mortality and our impending deaths.” (Well, yes.) But this student suggested the session should not have been scheduled before a test and before Thanksgiving; this would have been “nicer if you are considering our mental wellness and stability.”

We did not hear this sort of thing five years ago, and faculty and deans are dismayed by these novel developments. Medical practice requires an affective maturity, and this is impeded by undergraduate institutions beholden to what Jonathan Haidt calls “the coddling of the American mind.” Grit, resilience, and courage are prerequisites. One dean suggested posting a trigger warning at orientation that there would be no more trigger warnings—that students are bound to encounter blood, guts, human misery, and death in medical school. 

Of course, physicians deal with tremendous suffering every day. So I say to an aspiring doctor: You will soon be thrown into the charged, complicated, often anguished center of your patients’ lives. Your patients will be your best teachers, providing lessons about suffering, resilience, and hope. All this will change you for the better. But sometimes it will hurt, and always it will be hard. Consider this your last trigger warning.

Aaron Kheriaty
university of california, irvine
irvine, california


Ludger Schwienhorst-Schönberger (“Marcion on the Elbe,” December) shows that although German Protestant churches and Protestant and Catholic scholars rejected Notger Slenczka’s suggestion that the Old Testament should no longer have canonical validity, basic assumptions of Slenczka’s arguments are rooted in the Protestant theological developments of the last two centuries. It is necessary to critically assess the influence of Friedrich Schleiermacher and his renaissance in contemporary Protestant theology in Germany.

In his critical assessment of the Church’s interpretation of biblical texts, Martin Luther abandoned the practice of interpreting Scripture in multiple senses, convinced that the christological meanings of Old Testament texts are evident in the historical or literal sense of these texts. But in today’s Protestant biblical scholarship, scholars are researching, discussing, and publishing new approaches to reading the Scriptures in multiple senses—approaches influenced by current developments within the study of literature. I am certain that productive connections between biblical texts and theological issues can be further explored.

This includes the question of interpreting Old Testament texts christologically. I have argued against Slenczka that while certainly Christian-Jewish dialogue deepened Christians’ understanding that the Tanach (Old Testament) addresses the Jewish people first, this does not require abandoning Christian and christological interpretations of Tanach texts. On the contrary, this understanding roots Christian faith and the Christ-experience deeply within Old Testament writings—as all the New Testament texts do. As Jews and Christians we have come to acknowledge our different approaches toward Tanach texts, and are able to learn from each other.

I find myself fully in agreement with the five principles regarding the role of the Old Testament in Christian theology that Schwienhorst-Schönberger puts at the end of his article. In my opinion, a reduction takes place in the perspectives of Schleiermacher, von Harnack, and Slenczka: They deal rather formally with Old Testament texts and try to assess the corpus as a whole, as an expression of someone else’s religion that does not speak to Christians but rather serves as a background for the Christian faith. In that way they lose the wonderful opportunity to learn from the Tanach texts profound and enriching lessons about God, mankind, history, creation, sin, repentance, ethics, justice, and peace.

Rev. Friedhelm Pieper
frankfurt am main, germany


Shalom Carmy recently treated First Things readers to a superb illustration of the biblical mitzvah of tochecha, or rebuke (“Teach Torah and Fight for Justice,” December). Carmy writes with gentleness and humility and acknowledges his shared responsibility as a fellow Jew, but he sharply critiques liberal Jews’ misuse of the concept of tikkun olam, the impulse to improve or repair God’s broken world. For such an effort, this liberal rabbi wishes to offer sincere thanks. As I read Rabbi Carmy’s words, I felt that he was speaking directly to me and my colleagues in the non-Orthodox rabbinate, as a benevolent and long-suffering father might address his wayward children.

Much good is being done by liberal organizations to sensitize the rising generation of young American Jews—the most privileged, comfortable, and secure in all of Jewish history—to the needs and struggles of the less fortunate in our society and around the world. But the progressive temperament is relentlessly imperialistic. Tikkun olam may be better translated today as “correcting the world,” as it now involves reordering society, indeed all of human life, in accord with radical principles and new truth claims. It is no longer sufficient, for example, to advocate for fair treatment of Palestinian Arabs and a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict. Now we see Jewish leaders persuading the world to punish the State of Israel, for which their ancestors prayed for over twenty centuries, through boycott, divestment, and sanctions. Under the current mindset, Palestinian nationalism is legitimate but Israeli nationhood is regressive and tribal, because Jews hold power. One might question how the world is improved by efforts to delegitimize the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, the only country in the region that respects the human rights of women, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals.

The tikkun olam imperative becomes most revealing in interpersonal and especially sexual relations, freedom of sexual expression having become the most sacred of all possible social justice causes. Never mind that this view opposes absolutely everything in Jewish religion, ethics, and traditional culture. It is no longer sufficient to treat individuals, regardless of sexuality or gender, with the kindness, love, and respect due to every child of God. One must take positive action to “queer” the universe and so destroy “heteronormativity,” the age-old societal oppression that tells us heterosexuality is normal.

This puts me in mind of a respected leader of a sexually progressive Jewish denomination who, in his advancing middle age, publicly announced a previously unfelt sexual attraction to other males. The denomination responded with an outpouring of affirmation for the rabbi’s newly found “transgressive sexuality,” and gay colleagues nurtured him into an actively homosexual lifestyle. This kind and decent man certainly deserved empathy, friendship, and understanding as he struggled with sexual feelings. Yet at the same time, one may wonder how the world has been improved since the rabbi left his wife of many years and his several growing children, one of whom later committed suicide. I do not know to what extent they were consulted regarding the justice, social or otherwise, of the rabbi’s actions.

One final word on tochecha: The Sages teach that one must never give rebuke if it is certain to be rejected by the recipient. I suspect that my progressive colleagues would react negatively to Carmy’s views, despite their perfectly compassionate articulation. So he should know that there is at least one with whom his efforts have succeeded—an open-minded liberal rabbi who, perhaps compounding the effect, has no Litvak heritage to speak of whatsoever.

Rabbi David Osachy
jacksonville, florida


Michael Doran’s otherwise excellent review of Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism (“U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!,” December) failed to note nationalism’s political implications. That’s not to fault Doran—Hazony missed this point as well.

Nationalism promotes solidarity, the sense of attachment to and sympathy with others that is one of the most basic human goods. It therefore pulls citizens leftward on economics, since it asks them to support social welfare programs for fellow citizens. The nationalist will distinguish between aliens and citizens, but if he would deny health benefits to aliens, he must offer them to natives. Otherwise the pose of nationalism is a pious fraud.

Trump understood this. He appealed to the sweet spot in American politics, to those who were culturally conservative and proud of their country, and also middle-of-the-road on economics. His American nationalism is benign because it is rooted in the sense that America has a special mission to promote liberty, as promised by the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. These have assumed the status of what historian Pauline Maier called “American Scripture.” American nationalism is necessarily liberal nationalism.

Trump’s critics were quick to detect the whiff of fascism in his nationalism. It doesn’t take a history degree to recognize how misguided this is. But if historical perspective is needed, Jean-François Revel provided it when he observed that, while the dark night of fascism is always said to be descending in America, somehow it lands only in Europe. That’s because constitutional liberties are the core of American nationhood and constitutive of our identity as Americans. For Americans, as Americans, illiberalism is self-defeating, and if some Americans (including Trump) have in the past been illiberal, in time they’ve been seen to be un-American.

Hazony’s failure to distinguish liberal from illiberal forms of nationalism is a weakness. In illiberal countries, past and present, nationalism has been a positive evil. Illiberal forms of nationalism reflect a sad departure from the universal liberal principles whose origins can be found in the teachings of the Catholic Church. If you’re a jusqu’au bout nationalist, here are some things you don’t like: humanity, the West, Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular. 

F. H. Buckley
scalia law school,
george mason university
arlington, virginia