Formation of the Clergy and Dialogue with Science

Prof. Michael F. Hull

July 1, 2005


The Church’s hope that the scientific advances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would aid mankind in finding solace and peace in this world was high at the Second Vatican Council and remains high as the Church enters the third millennium of Christianity. In the last forty years or so, the Church has reached out in dialogue to the scientific community in order to expound the Gospel message and to learn of real scientific advances. This ongoing dialogue led Popes Paul VI and John Paul II in 1976 and 1986, respectively, to update the statutes of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which has its origins as far back as 1603 and Pope Clement VIII. Moreover, in 1994 John Paul II established the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences to help the Church in her vigilant dialogue with the social sciences. The Church desired a dialogue with the sciences on many levels, but there was a particular aspiration that the inculcation of an understanding of the sciences would help priests in their apostolic endeavors to speak as men of a "Church in the modern world." But how does a dialogue with science influence the ongoing formation of the clergy?

Perhaps the best place to start is with three quotes from Gaudium et spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). At the beginning of Gaudium et spes, the great hope that was characteristic of the Council is evident: "The human mind is, in a certain sense, broadening its mastery over time—over the past through the insights of history, over the future by foresight and planning. Advances in biology, psychology, and the social sciences not only lead man to greater self-awareness, but provide him with the technical means of molding the lives of whole peoples as well" (no. 5). But the Council fathers were aware that human wisdom, even scientific wisdom, could be misconstrued if creatures lost sight of the Creator. Hence, Gaudium et spes continues: "Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God" (no. 36). Furthermore, the Council fathers realized that advances in human wisdom, while certainly a boon to mankind on some levels, could also be a detriment on other levels. Unbridled or unexamined so-called "progress" often leads to novel quandaries. "In fact," says Gaudium et spes, "recent research and discoveries in the sciences, in history and philosophy bring up new problems which have an important bearing on life itself and demand new scrutiny by theologians" (no. 62). And that was forty years ago!

The majority of these theologians, of course, would come from the ranks of the clergy. Optatam totius (Decree on the Training of Priests) and to a lesser extent Perfectae caritatis (Decree on the Up-to-Date Renewal of Religious Life) reflect the Council fathers’ desire for scientific advances to be made known and used in the formation of priests. This thinking was augmented by Paul VI’s own apostolic letter Summi Dei Verbum, written on the fourth centenary of the establishment of seminaries at the Council of Trent. Optatam totius maintained that "the desired renewal of the whole Church" depended upon priestly ministry (no. 1), that such formation requires a Christian education "supplemented by the latest findings of sound psychology and pedagogy" (no. 11), that seminarians should have a "literary and scientific education" (no. 13), that seminarians know of "recent progress in the sciences" (no. 15), and that bishops are responsible to meet the needs of the apostolate by sending priests for higher education in the sacred sciences and "in other appropriate subjects" (no. 18). Without a doubt, it has been a major effort of the Church since Vatican II to intensify the clergy’s understanding of science, as reflected in John Paul II’s Pastores dabo vobis (nos. 52 and 53) and the Congregation for the Clergy’s Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests (nos. 74 and 77).

This major effort has led to a vast increase in the use of science in priestly formation: an increase in the number of courses taught in the physical or "hard" sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, etc.), as well as in the social or "soft" sciences (psychology, sociology, economics, cultural studies, etc.), and the omnipresence of psychological consultation in the personal, interpersonal, and spiritual lives of seminarians and priests. There is little doubt that a broad and developed understanding of physical science is a staple of any higher education in the twenty-first century. The proliferation of technology in our daily lives mandates a comprehension of the discoveries and principles that provide it. Likewise, a broad and developed understanding of social science is one of the prerequisites to an accurate assessment of contemporary society and culture. Hence, for example, in addition to the aforementioned pontifical academies, the Church has also taken strides to address the present-day situation with the recent establishment of the Pontifical Council for Culture (by Paul VI and updated by John Paul II) and the insights of Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi. Without question, the Church has made heretofore unheard of efforts to be in close contact with the world, particularly with the scientific community. On the one hand, the hopes of the Council have been realized insofar as real dialogue has occurred and is ongoing between the Church and the sciences. All existing programs of priestly formation, whether for seminarians or those long ordained, pay close attention to modern scientific acumen. On the other hand, there is cause to ask to what extent this influx of science has assisted the ongoing formation of the clergy.

There are two overarching areas in which the Church’s dialogue with science influences the formation of the clergy. The first is that in which seminarians and priests are instructed in the scientific advances of the day. The second is that in which science impacts upon their apostolate. In the first area, proper instruction in the sciences is integral to a holistic education. Seminarians and priests become acquainted with the discoveries and principles of modern science—as do their contemporaries within and without the Church—and therefore come to be familiar with the jargon of modern science. Such acquaintance and familiarity enable priests to preach, teach, and govern effectively. Indeed, as the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests notes in terms of intellectual formation: "A special treatment must be reserved to the questions posed by scientific advances, which are especially influential to the mentality of contemporary men. Priests must be up-to-date and prepared to respond to questions that science may pose in its advancement" (no. 77). In terms of the physical sciences, though, there is some danger that excessive attention to things natural may lead to a loss of attention to things supernatural. While Gaudium et spes repeats the age-old truth that there is no opposition between faith and science and deplores any infringement upon the proper autonomy of science, it reminds us that one who peers into secrets of nature "is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are" (no. 36). A lack of appreciation for the created character of nature leads only to a distortion of scientific discoveries and principles.

In terms of instruction in the scientific advances of the day, then, watchfulness is due. The Council was hopeful and the Church remains hopeful that such dialogue will be fruitful. However, the false irenicism spoken of so eloquently by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical letter Humani generis (see nos. 11, 12, and 43) before Vatican II cannot be forgotten. Pius XII was most prescient in reminding us to be guard against too quick an adoption of ideas, ideas that may arise from both the physical and social sciences, without fully examining their repercussions and their consonance with the faith. He recaps much of his encyclical letter by warning theologians who teach both clergy and laity: "With regard to new questions, which modern culture and progress have brought to the foreground, let [theologians] engage in most careful research, but with the necessary prudence and caution" (no. 43). Nor can the teaching of John Paul II after the Council be overlooked. In his encyclical letter Fides et ratio, he lauds the advances in both physical and social science; but he is nonetheless alarmed by a fashionable tendency to absolutize science: "Sundered from that truth [which transcends them], individuals are at the mercy of caprice, and their state as person ends up being judged by pragmatic criteria based essentially upon experimental data, in the mistaken belief that technology must dominate all. It has happened therefore that reason, rather than voicing the human orientation toward truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being" (no. 5; see also nos. 9, 19, 45, 61, 69, 87, 88, 96, and 106). One of the central themes of Fides et ratio is that the Church has the obligation to keep man’s eyes on the heights and true nature of being. In the first area, scientific instruction in the ongoing formation of the clergy, proper education comes about only when the physical and social sciences are enlightened by the queen of the sciences, theology, and its proper handmaid, sound philosophy (for more on this, see Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Aeterni Patris).

The second area, in which science impacts upon priests’ apostolate, is a bit more complicated. Here the lion’s share of any scientific influence is with the social sciences rather than the physical sciences. The physical sciences yield discoveries and principles of nature by the strict application of the scientific method. It is true that there is a limited use of the scientific method in psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology and the other "soft" sciences, but in actuality the social sciences ape the scientific method rather than adhere to it religiously. Unfortunately, there are fundamental tenets that often lie beneath the surface of the "objective" front of the social sciences. In the ongoing formation of priests, the insights that have been gleaned from contemporary social science may be utilized in perceiving personal strengths and weaknesses, in forming and assisting interpersonal relationships, and in spiritual direction. Nevertheless, such insights are limited and must be seen as incomplete because the social sciences do not envision the whole of the person as created by God, saved by Jesus Christ, and guided through life by the Holy Spirit. In speaking to the Roman Rota some years ago, John Paul II summed it up well: "[I]t must be recognized that the discoveries and achievements purely in the fields of psychology and psychiatry are not capable of offering a truly complete vision of the person. They are not capable of resolving on their own the fundamental questions concerning the meaning of life and the human vocation" (Address to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota [February 5, 1987], no. 2). What can be said of psychology and psychiatry can be said for all social sciences and some aspects of physical science: they cannot get to the bottom of fundamental truths on their own.

So too, our contemporary therapeutic culture cannot become the norm—or even a viable option—for the ongoing formation of the clergy because it marginalizes or dismisses the fundamental questions of man, questions that can only be unraveled with sound theology and philosophy. Our therapeutic culture recognizes neither the created nature of man and his world nor his ultimate end in the beatific vision. Instead, this culture is dominated by variegated forms of relativism, running the gamut from idealism to pragmatism, that so often find expression in misbegotten social-scientific applications. Relativism in its many forms fosters a distorted understanding of the creature and often leaves no room for the Creator, never mind the personal and loving Trinity made known to us in revelation. The ongoing formation of the clergy cannot benefit from such miscomprehensions, even if priests are mandated to deal with them because of their vast impact on society. For this reason, priests must be formed with attentiveness to the social sciences and the philosophical tenets that may or may not serve as their foundation, along with the know-how to deal with them in their own lives, in their counseling of the faithful, and in spiritual direction. Contemporary culture, particularly European and American culture, is bogged down in relativism. So much a threat is this to the good of the Church and the world that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, immediately prior to the conclave that would elect him Pope Benedict XVI, spoke of our age as one under a "dictatorship of relativism" (homily at the Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff, April 18, 2005).

To be sure, the ongoing formation of the clergy can benefit from knowledge about the created order gleaned from a dialogue with those engaged in the physical and social sciences. The hope of the Second Vatican Council, and particularly of Gaudium et spes, is still the Church’s. We are a "Church in the modern world." As such, we need to be fully aware of scientific discoveries, scientific principles, and scientific vocabulary as means to help us understand our universe, our Creator, and ourselves. Yet a hopeful Church in the modern world is not a Church blind to the perils of the world, the perniciousness of error, and the glamour of evil. In the forty years since Gaudium et spes and its attendant teaching, the ongoing formation of the clergy has been engaged in dialogue with the scientific community. There have been tremendous gains; there have been losses. But the dialogue will continue because, as St. Paul reminds us, we must "test everything, hold fast what is good, and abstain from every form of evil" (1 Thess 5:21–22).