The Blood is the Life, Part II
by Bernard Brandt
In the first part of this essay, I have indicated that the crisis in the Roman Catholic Church can best be described as a immune deficiency syndrome in the Body of Christ, in that part of the Body which has been described as the Church Militant, and among those who are alive in the world today. By this, I mean that the part that the clergy play in that Body can best be described as providing the circulatory system (the deacons), the hematological system (the priests), and the immune system (the bishops). By an immune deficiency syndrome, I mean that the functions of the deacons, priests and bishops have been greatly impeded or interrupted.
I have noted, in the course of reading many explanations for this phenomenon, and particularly among traditionalists or religious conservatives, a tendency to assume that this interruption of functions has been intentionally caused by a group of evil-doers: free-masons, or liberals, or communists, or even (gasp) academics. I would like to counter this tendency with a maxim of the Emperor Napoleon: “Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence.”
I would therefore suggest, in beginning my alternative explanation, that we compare the present age with other ages, in which the Church has been strong, in terms of the number of clergy, saints, and devout lay people. By that standard, I believe that there were at least three such periods: the time of the Church Fathers, the time of the Schoolmen, and the time of the counter-Reformation. During these periods, there was a great growth in the number of the lay faithful, the number of the saints, and the number of the holy clergy among them.
In examining the differences between those ages, one finds that there are many, particularly in the manner in which the education of the clergy was accomplished: In the Patristic period, it took place in the residences or the cathedrals of the bishops; in the mediaeval period, it happened in the cathedral schools and the early universities; and, after the Council of Trent, it happened in the seminaries, which were so-called because they were thought to be the ‘seedbeds’ of theology and religious vocations.
But there were also several factors which were all present and common to all three ages: 1) a familiarity of the clerisy (that is, the educated faithful, lay and cleric alike) with the literary, scientific, and philosophical thought of the times; 2) a willingness to engage with that thought; and most important, 3) a familiarity with the language and history of Scripture (including a knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic , and Greek), of Tradition (including its languages of Latin, Greek, etc.), and of the Church’s magisterium, which has been expressed in and through the Councils and the teaching of the Popes, and which have been expressed in Latin and Greek.
After the Council of Trent, however, and for several centuries afterwards, several historical factors occurred gradually, but with devastating effect upon the Church: 1) with and after Descartes, philosophical movements developed which diverged from the classical Platonic, Aristotelian, and Thomistic world-views which had shaped the Church; 2) the higher educational systems of Europe and the Americas began to depart from maintaining a common classical literary, historical, and philosophical base of knowledge, gradually replacing that base with the specialization in a great number of ‘scientific’ subjects; and 3) the primary educational systems of those nations shifted from a classical literary training in Latin and Greek grammar, basic logic, and classical rhetoric to training in the grammar of vernacular languages, together with a number of practical ‘subjects’. By the middle of the twentieth century, this process was largely completed in most countries.
Unfortunately for the Church at this time, its leaders failed to take these factors into account, and the allegedly Catholic educational systems of most dioceses tended to follow the example of the lower and higher secular systems of education. While there remained to the Church those educational systems dedicated to the training of seminarians, called the minor seminaries, these too tended to follow the drift toward the standards of secular, rather than religious, education. This tendency was particularly pronounced in North American dioceses.
The results, for at least the last century, were that most candidates to the priesthood were innocent of any knowledge of Latin, other classical, biblical, or traditional languages, ancient or modern philosophy, or Roman Catholic theology. In the main, this was covered up by the educators, who would ‘kick the candidates upstairs’, even unto Rome. At that time, many were the stories of tutors who would signal to the ignorant seminarians when to laugh, when their professors happened to tell a joke in Latin during their lectures.
By the time of the Second Vatican Council, there was a great gulf of knowledge between the Council Fathers, who largely had the linguistic, philosophical, and theological prerequisites necessary to learn and to teach the Roman Catholic faith, and the mass of priests throughout the world, who did not. Further, the Council Fathers, together with their respective periti, were trained in two competing yet potentially complimentary educational systems: 1) the neo-Thomistic, whose exponents included Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange and Etienne Gilson; and 2) the neo-Patristic, whose exponents included Fr. Henri du Lubac, Fr. Hans Urs von Balthazar, and the then Fr. Joseph Ratzinger.
It is in this context that the Second Vatican Council Fathers should be read in their work on the reform of the education and training of priests, Optatam Totius. It is the position of this essayist that the intent of the Council Fathers was to give their priests a humanistic, scientific, philosophical, and theological education which would enable those priest both to engage with the modern world, and to learn and to teach the Catholic faith to the lay faithful. In the process, those priests would be taught the fruits of both major theological systems of the time: the neo-Thomistic and the neo-Patristic.
It is also the position of this author that considering the educational deficits and philosophical presuppositions of the majority of the priests of the time, it was also inevitable that the mandated educational reforms of Optatam Totius, and their legislation in the later Code of Canon Law, would be ignored by most later bishops, priests, and deacons. I will examine both the standards of Optatam Totius, and the reasons for the ignorance of those standards by most modern Roman Catholic clergy, in the next part of this essay, which may be found here.