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Catholic Studies and spirituality years were both devised for our current cultural moment: seminarians - and all Christians - are in need of the sort of integrative experience that gives rise to a Christian imaginative vision.

Although some select seminaries and dioceses in the United States have already been requiring their seminarians to undertake a propaedeutic year (sometimes known as a spirituality year) for some years, in 2022 the American bishops decided to make such a year a required part of preparation for the priesthood. While their reasoning, spelled out most clearly in the sixth edition of the Program for Priestly Formation (PPF), is particularly concerned with Catholic diocesan seminarians, the basic insights involved are applicable to all Christians living in the modern West. The details of these propaedeutic years vary, but they have commonly included a lack of (or at least limited) access to electronic media, a focus on prayer and reading, the development of physically and mentally healthy habits, and retreats and service experiences. Even if it is not possible for all of the Christian faithful to dedicate a year to such formation, the basic rationale given by the PPF points to a problem not exclusive to seminarians: “Through no fault of their own, the requisite qualities for formation are often missing in new seminarians. A significant imbalance is present between the lifestyle promoted by contemporary society and priestly formation.” Living in the midst of our modern secular culture has led each of us to develop modes of thinking, being, and acting that often prove to be hinderances to the life of discipleship and, in some cases, even run counter to it.

These propaedeutic years have sometimes been described as something akin to a break from intellectual formation, in which seminarians are given a respite from schooling to focus on other aspects of formation. And while an increased focus on other aspects of formation is often a hallmark of these propaedeutic years, that is a far different thing than ceasing with intellectual formation altogether, as if intellectual formation were the problem these years seek to address. St. Paul’s numerous calls to Christians to strive after “the renewal of [our] minds” (c.f., Romans 12) is not a call to be picked up and set aside in alternating stages of life. For any number of reasons, many seminarians arrive at the front doors of their respective seminaries viewing the intense academic curricula before them as something of an extensive diversion from (rather than a preparation for) the vocation they have been invited to discern. This sense – that philosophic and theological studies are merely hoops to be jumped through – serves as a source of frustration for seminarians and teaching faculty alike, as high-hearted Christians gather together in the classroom with the sinking suspicion that something just beneath the surface isn’t right.

It is worth noting that the sort of education proposed below is not meant to replace current teaching in philosophy and theology but would instead ideally come beforehand so that later studies could be better integrated and understood. This program of studies could be easily integrated into already-existing structures and clear the way for seminarians to engage with the programs of philosophy and theology that already exist.

Much of Catholic education as it exists today was devised in a cultural moment far different from our own. Living in the midst of a culture that held a Christian vision of the world, Catholics founded their curricula and institutions taking for granted that students would arrive at their front doors with something of that vision in their minds. Thus, before entering the theology classroom, these students would already possess a deep sense of how the various parts of the Christian vision fit together and would be prepared to dive deeply into and benefit from the technical study of theology. Possessed of an integrated Christian vision of reality, these students would easily assimilate their new discoveries into that already-robust framework. The experience of these students would be more akin to learning more about one’s beloved hometown than visiting a distant city as a tourist for the first time.

But we no longer live in that sort of age. In an age in which some vision of the world other than Christianity forms the basis of culture, we – as Christian educators, parents, priests, and ministers – can no longer assume that students possess a robust Christian vision of the world. Oftentimes, the students who come to our classrooms and parishes are far from ready to study philosophy and theology properly (even if they possess the intellectual talents to pull it off). This new reality calls us to recognize new educational demands and act accordingly. It calls us not to cast aside the good work so many Christians are already doing in teaching philosophy and theology, but to identify, articulate, and respond to that disconnect that seems to exist beneath the surface that obstructs so many young people from experiencing their intellectual formation as the life-giving adventure it is meant to be.

Inspired by the writings of Christopher Dawson and the careful work of the late Dr. Don Briel, a program of studies known as Catholic Studies has emerged at institutions such as the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, the University of Mary, and Mary College at ASU, in which the basic problems that have led to the founding of the mandatory propaedeutic year are addressed in a program of collegiate formation. The basic insights of this program will be described below in general terms for the benefit of students and seminarians who are not part of those institutions. But regardless of one’s institution or affiliation, the question stands: What can be done to ensure that our educational programs are responding to the manifest challenges of our age?

Catholic Vision

The sort of education Christian students require in our modern age must address and remediate the fact that some vision of human life and the cosmos other than Christianity serves as the foundation of our culture. It’s not uncommon to hear it claimed that our societal woes have arisen from the fact that God has been “removed” from our classrooms, art, entertainment, and public discourse. And while that all seems to be the case, the problem runs deeper: an entirely different vision of reality has replaced the Christian vision, and thus our moral values, first principles, and basic priorities have shifted accordingly. Such visions of reality – whether the secular vision or Christian vision – are received largely through a process of osmosis, relatively unknowingly but nevertheless powerfully, imparted deeply not only in classrooms but also through the tone and tenor of news reports, the lifestyles and relationships of celebrities and fictional characters alike, the praise and discouragement we received, and so on. When that powerful sort of formation not only leads to habits of thinking, being, and acting that serve as hindrances to the Gospel but often as outright contradictions, it becomes the task of serious Christian education to critique the modern secular vision of the world and impart a holistic Christian vision of the cosmos. Thus the educational program that is here called for is not an update to how we teach philosophy or theology, but instead some sort of immersion into the Christian vision analogous to the Christian cultural formation received in prior generations.

Much of the power of cultural formation is that it is multifaceted and integrated throughout the whole of life. As noted already, this sort of formation extends far beyond a set of principles memorized in a classroom, and thus our minds and imaginations are in a constant state of formation through a broad array of lived experiences. For Christians looking for personal and cultural renewal, this prevalence of the modern cultural vision is perhaps both a curse and a blessing. It is a curse in the sense that this modern secular vision of the world serves as the core architecture of how we and our neighbors view the world, with our Christian faith often unconsciously relegated to the role of a tangent or addendum (rather than a foundation). But this prevalence may also be a blessing, as the modern vision has been experienced by many to be confused and unfulfilling, ripe for critique and ready for replacement if only a suitable alternative could be found. In short, the modern vision is everywhere – but so is our felt experience of its insufficiency.

But even a society hungry for a better offer – for true freedom, meaning, and hope – needs to be introduced to Christianity anew if it is to embrace it. And this is where a broad program of intellectual and imaginative formation will play a vital role.

So what role is education to play? While education has been classically understood to refer to the process of passing down a culture and vision of human life to the next generation, our modern notions of education tend to reduce it to training, sometimes turning even our approach to the humanities into something relatively technical. And while there is an important place in a program of education for the technical study of philosophy and theology, it is also the case that philosophical and theological truths are also imparted in the study of history, culture, liturgy, art, and literature, in a manner often more immediately tangible and compelling to the human mind and imagination. Here is where our argument settles most directly: the disconnect felt between many seminarians, teaching faculty, and their course of studies is not the result of an insufficiency in the teaching faculty or its approach. Instead, the disconnect arises from the fact that a lifetime of literature, education, daily conversation, entertainment, and news media has presented a vision of human life and the life of the mind that forms an obstruction to entering into the classical Christian philosophic and theological quest. Thus a program of equally-integrated intellectual and imaginative formation will be necessary for an effective antidote. That felt disconnect lurking just beneath the surface, leading to frustration for students and teaching faculty alike, is the lack of an integrated Christian vision of the cosmos, likely possessed in fragments but not able to receive the full benefits of the Great Tradition.

It must be noted that the sort of education being proposed is not the addition of emotion to study; rather, the difference here is the engagement of the faculty of the imagination within a serious program of intellectual formation, for the imagination plays a vital role in how we humans understand and approach the world around us and often goes untouched by technical, specialized study alone. To impart a vision, imaginative formation must be embedded deeply within a program of intellectual formation.

Synthesis and Integration

The importance of critique and analysis (the breaking apart of a whole to study its parts) is taken for granted within the halls of educational institutions of all levels, whether religious or secular. Surely these acts of the mind are important and must be carefully formed and developed within students – but within our modern context, the act of synthesis (the consideration of a whole in itself and in its relations to others) perhaps deserves special attention. Due to the lack of a unified Christian vision of the cosmos already mentioned, students will need intentional guidance in cultivating a Christian synthetic vision of the world. To envision the end result of a serious Christian program of study lacking such an intentional focus on the act of synthesis is the relatively common (and negative) impression of the classically-education student who, upon completing a program of study of the greatest insights and minds of Western culture, has learned to do little more than sit in shallow judgment of the greatest thinkers of the past millennia. Thus dismissing the ongoing dialogue that is Western thought, this individual has missed the forest for the trees.

And this is where the imparting of a coherent vision of the cosmos again becomes important, for – as said above – such a vision is not merely a set of principles, but instead forms an entire narrative. It is through such a narrative that we order our lives and our knowledge, make decisions of greater and lesser magnitudes, and engage with the world around us. If one has not yet acquired an integrated Christian vision of reality, in which the various fields of the humanities – which explore what it means to be human – and the various sciences all come to life within the truths revealed to us by God, one can hardly expect to live an integrated Christian life. For our vision of the world imparts our values and expectations, and our values and expectations give rise to our actions. So long as the theological sphere, philosophical sphere, imaginative sphere, and moral sphere are all cut off from one another, we can hardly expect to live lives of Christian integration.

So the task for Christian education becomes somewhat obvious: in our modern age, it will not be enough for Christian education to impart principles and technical knowledge, but also to impart a holistic vision of the cosmos as well as the habit by which young people become able to integrate new knowledge into the integrated whole. At its best, interdisciplinary study does precisely this: for it is not merely the application of principles to Christian things, but the lived experience of the lively interplay of philosophic and theological truths coming together, that forms the basis of such study. This sort of vision, then, is as much caught as it is taught.

Integration of Faith and Life

The basic premise behind the propaedeutic year is that seminarians have acquired modes of thinking, being, and acting that must be remediated. And while focusing on other aspects of formation and human experience will be necessary, these programs will not reach their full intended formational impact should seminarians never acquire a positive vision of the world to replace the old. Whether this vision is acquired primarily within the confines of the spirituality year is of lesser importance, and will perhaps ideally spill out in either direction.

So what will this educational program look like? Consider briefly what students encounter when the humanities are taught in an integrated manner, in which the history course is unafraid to delve into the intellectual and artistic currents of the day, or in which a course on virtue ethics is willing to explore how its core principles are on display in works of literature. Through an examination of Christian art and literature, for instance, the imaginations of students are formed in a direct manner, creating favorable conditions for the reception of philosophic and theological thought. (And this is to say nothing of the countless other reasons one would engage in the study of art and literature.) Within these media, students are introduced to a variety of expressions of deep truths of human experience and revelation, and a bridge between the life of the mind and the rest of human life is formed. Through an examination of history through a Christian lens – and in particular, the history of the ancient and medieval worlds of the West – students encounter how the Christian vision has been incarnated in human cultures and are exposed to a rich variety of Christian expression. Through an examination of the various ages of Western education, students are invited into an intentional consideration of their own motives for and habits concerning their educational endeavors, and seminarians in particular will discover that the program of formation prescribed by the Church corresponds with some of the greatest insights of our ancient Greek forebears and Christian civilization.

Such studies have the potency of shaping the lives of students because, when engaged properly, they offer a broad vision of Christian life and Christian communities, combining concrete expressions of Christian living with the principles upon which the life of discipleship is based.

The essays that follow in this series (and those found throughout Foundations) are meant to provide something of a glimpse into the sort of educational formation called for here. But the curious seminarian (or any other curious Christian) may also find assistance through the following, non-exhaustive list of texts, which exhibit the sort of thinking described through this essay.

  • From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age
  • The Religion of the Day
  • The Christian Cosmic Narrative (also available in audio format as The Christian Mythic Narrative on Prime Matters)
  • The Heart of Culture: A Brief History of Western Education
  • Renewal of Catholic Higher Education: Essays on Catholic Studies in Honor of Don J. Briel
  • What We Hold in Trust: Rediscovering the Purpose of Catholic Higher Education, by Michael J. Naughton (with Don J. Briel and Kenneth Goodpaster)

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