A few weeks ago, I entered a post entitled “The Boys from Aroma Hill,” describing a reunion of alumni of St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary, the Franciscan minor seminary in the Catskill Mountains of New York. I had intended this to be a mini-series, so to speak—one slice of life that might help understand the Catholicism of today. Thanks to a gentle reminder, I pick up where I left off some weeks ago.
I received an on-line reminder from one of the “Boys of Aroma Hill,” my dear friend and nine-year classmate Buddy Ward, asking when the follow-up to “The Boys of Aroma Hill” would be posted. I had to go back and read my original thoughts [posted September 25 on the Sunday stream]. From the distance of 56 years from the day I entered as a high school freshman, I remain more conflicted about my six-year sojourn on the hill than anything else in my pre-adult life. One might say that since minor seminaries are a thing of the past, the experiences of those years bring nothing useful to Catholic life today. On the other hand, minor [high school/college] seminaries were probably the most intense form of “youth ministry” undertaken by the Church a half-century ago, though Catholicism did not think of seminary life as categorically similar.
In fact, the Church of 1962 looked at seminaries as unique. As I wrote last month, the idea of a seminary was separation, removal from the world of temptation, training for a sacrament that made a man ontologically different from all other human beings. We read a lot today about “clericalism,” the almost inevitable hubris of the priestly life that Pope Francis has sought to eliminate from the first days of his papacy; this same institutional hubris among many bishops is now cited as a core element of the cover-up of priestly abuse of minors. It is worth noting here that when I entered the Franciscan seminary in 1962, candidates for the Franciscan brotherhood and solemn vows were formed and educated separately from priest candidates like myself. It would be nearly a decade before the programs were joined after the Council.
A young seminarian in training lived something of a schizophrenic existence: having been separated from society in quest of a higher calling, the lifestyle of the seminary itself could be quite a letdown. Of course, this experience varies from man to man. At our reunion in September, one alumnus who attended the seminary for only one year shared that his brief tenure had given him a Christian awakening that carried him throughout life. I can’t honestly say the same for my years there. I was one of those seminary candidates who, as the saying goes, “drank the Kool-Aid.” I thought the institution would be an intensification of the piety, liturgy, academic excellence, and generally satisfying interactions with my peers I was leaving behind in East Buffalo.
I search for the right phrasing here, but my experience on the hill for most of my time there struck me as “testing,” i.e., was I tough enough to earn the privilege of becoming a priest? And to be utterly honest, there was, in my early years there, a psychological edge to the discipline that was at times cruel and calculating. I had a very unnerving experience in which I was almost expelled in my freshman year. Our seminary correspondence was censored incoming and outgoing, and I had written home to my parents that another student from my hometown was injured in an accident with a snowblower. The Prefect of Discipline, or daily life manager of the seminary, returned the letter to me because evidently neither the student nor the school had told his parents [the student was a collegian].
I wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, so I rewrote the letter explaining to my parents that my previous effort had not been approved by the censor and that I was sorry they were worried about not hearing from me but there wasn’t much I could do. A day or so later I was summoned into the Prefect’s office. He literally threw the letter in its envelope at me. He screamed, “Here, jump in this letter and send yourself home with it. Get out!” Telling this story years later, one of my wise guy friar friends suggested that I should have responded, “Do you mean that literally or figuratively?” For some period, I wasn’t sure, but I must have groveled enough to be spared the guillotine. It left a bad taste in my mouth, however, and something of my already eroding youthful idealism about seminary formation died that first year. I never truly trusted authority throughout my 27 years with the friars.
Sadly, I find myself reflecting upon that experience again in later life, small potatoes today to be sure, but a window into how vulnerable a minor can be in the Church. I made an honest mistake that provoked an inappropriate response from a cleric in a position of authority. To whom could I turn if the Prefect did expel me on the spot? His superior, the seminary rector, did not know me and there were no mechanisms for “due process” back then. My parents—300 miles away—had virtually no understanding of what the seminary was like, and like most parents of the time, would have given the Church the benefit of the doubt that I had proved to be an insubordinate candidate, unfit for the priesthood.
Earlier this week I took my “Dallas Charter” five-year instruction on the care and protection of minors in the Church for recertification, as I presently provide health services to vulnerable individuals in Catholic settings. The instructions emphasized a nurturing manner with minors, counseling Church ministers to affirm the goodness of youth and to listen carefully to their pain. I could not help but think back to seminary days when I experienced the philosophical reverse.
I never left the hill until I had completed my six years, four high school years and two junior college. By 1968 St. Joseph’s Seminary was undergoing the change that was sweeping the entire Church, the reforms of Vatican II, many of which were directed toward seminary training. The Council decreed in Optatam Totius (1965): “In minor seminaries erected to develop the seeds of vocations, the students should be prepared by special religious formation, particularly through appropriate spiritual direction, to follow Christ the Redeemer with generosity of spirit and purity of heart. Under the fatherly direction of the superiors, and with the proper cooperation of the parents, their daily routine should be in accord with the age, the character and the stage of development of adolescence and fully adapted to the norms of a healthy psychology. Nor should the fitting opportunity be lacking for social and cultural contacts and for contact with one's own family. Moreover, whatever is decreed in the following paragraphs about major seminaries is also to be adapted to the minor seminary to the extent that it is in accord with its purpose and structure. Also, studies undertaken by the students should be so arranged that they can easily continue them elsewhere should they choose a different state of life.”
Optatam Totius made its way up Aroma Hill a bit too late to help me in my earliest years of formation when some “fatherly direction by superiors” would have gone a long way. Again, I cannot presume to say that everyone’s experiences and recollections are like mine. Truth be told, we the students did not talk a great deal about religion or personal feelings. As the entrance class of 1962 came to know itself better, we developed a camaraderie built around our navigation of rules and a mind-numbing curriculum that included three languages and the barest of religious study. We grew up—not surprisingly for teenagers—in fits and bursts. Becoming “ontologically different” from all other humans was not in our line of vision at, say, 16. But some of us who endured would eventually become the closest of friends in adult life—there are four of us, including Buddy, who email almost every day. That reasonably mature teenaged seminarians bonded on the hill into life-long friends is easily my best takeaway from the minor seminary and a story that I look forward to continuing here at the Café.
I will be away for the next eight days, but I have left interesting links and book reviews for most days I am away. Enjoy!
Bad Religion: How We became a Nation of Heretics
By Ross Douthat
Reviewed by Thomas J. Burns (2012)
“Bad Religion” is a tale of two epochs: the state of American Christianity in the years following World War II, and this millennium’s subsequent pastoral attempts to religiously right the boat, no pun intended. If the name Ross Douthat is not familiar to the reader, the thirty-something journalist is the youngest permanent op-ed contributor of the New York Times. He arrived at Catholicism by way of mainstream Protestantism and later Pentecostalism. It is little surprise, then, the American religious scene is depicted in this work primarily in the Protestant/Evangelical/Catholic triad. All three cohorts are taken to the wood shed.
As is often the case with adult converts to Catholicism, Douthat carries that particular hypervigilance regarding disintegration of something he has worked long and hard to attain, in this case a tradition of faith that brings order out of secular chaos. He is not a theocrat, but he does believe that some sixty years ago the major Christian Churches provided the backbone for a kind of good order and reform. The term “bad religion” used here is less a criticism of personal practice as it is a denunciation of polluted theology and religious philosophy that the author believes has wounded the churches since then.
Douthat is a better journalist than he is historian. His designation of post-1945 American religion as a kind of high water mark rings of Adam and Eve in pre-serpent paradise; the Times’ own review [April 18, 2012] calls the author to task over this arbitrary designation. This is a serious methodological flaw, because for Douthat all of the frenetic religious activism of 1950-2000, most notably Vatican II [1962-65], can be interpreted as a frivolous, dangerous dissipation of moral authority.
Douthat is not the first observer to make this mistake, but as a journalist he is still on the hook for it. The moral horrors of Nazism and the death camps had originated in ostensibly Christian countries. That the Tridentine brand of Catholicism was toothless to prevent such sin was evident to thoughtful Catholics around the world. It was particularly evident to Angelo Roncalli, Papal Nuncio to Turkey and later to occupied France, greatly respected for his work on behalf of Jews. Roncalli was never the jolly, perhaps reckless, John XXIII that many would like to make him, perhaps even the author.
Instead, John XXIII was the honest reformer who blessed the efforts of Catholics [and all Christians, to whom the Council Documents are addressed] to make things right. We forget that barely days after the Council began, the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened global annihilation. The author’s absence of any sense of gravitas as the motivation of reform is lost, and it is hard for me to understand how any treatment of Christianity, a universal church, can be as parochial or American-centered as this work.
That Catholicism and its sister churches fumbled the reform through the balance of the twentieth century is beyond contestation. But the reasons are much more complex than Douthat would have us believe; he wastes considerable ink on Bishop James Pike, of all people, as an errant pied piper of the late 1960’s. Douthat is on safer ground in discussing Harvey Cox and “The Secular City,” for religious liberals of the time labored mightily to harmonize the Christian Church with “modern man,” a notoriously empty concept.
In Douthat’s paradigm, a half century of experimentation with mixed results at best left Roman Catholics and Evangelicals still standing as the best hopes for a fresh start in the new millennium. But the sex abuse scandals of 2002 effectively sidelined American Catholicism, and the author turns a critical eye toward Evangelicals. Here Douthat is at his very best in his analysis of the Religious Right. Once something of the apocalyptic conscience of America, the Evangelical movement came to occupy the ground held by Billy Graham in Eisenhower’s time as America’s house religion. Theologically and strategically this was accomplished in two ways:  a merger of American exceptionalism with the Biblical symbol of the “City on the Hill;” and  an uncritical embrace of capitalism in a pragmatic theological message that “God wants you to be rich.”
In his chapter, “The City on the Hill,” the author dismantles possibly the most pernicious form of “bad religion,” that the success of God and the success of America are biblically and cosmically intertwined. I was concerned when he began this chapter with Glenn Beck, the Religious Right’s contemporary answer to the long deceased Bishop Pike, both essentially media creations. But Beck simply serves up for the reader the heretical equation of America=the New Israel. Douthat observes that American presidents themselves—Washington, Lincoln, even Coolidge—labored to discourage such thinking. Their wisdom, however, was superseded by Woodrow Wilson [257ff], whose theologically driven political ideology of national righteousness begot a century of what amounts to international US crusading and buttressed military adventures as recently as the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
In his chapter “Pray and Grow Rich” Douthat scorns the theology of “economic blessings preachers” such as Joel Osteen. He illustrates the irony that the message of such cloth worn preaching appeals less to the rich themselves and more to those who wish to be affluent. He marvels that at the height of the Recession, March 2009, Osteen sold out Yankee Stadium. For the author such theology combines manipulation and gullibility.
Having thus unburdened himself, Douthat is somewhat confused about what to do next. [Perhaps he now has more sympathy for the well intentioned reformers of the Vatican II era.] I think it is fair to say that the author would apply Gresham’s Law to contemporary religious thought: disposing of bad coinage, the good currency of traditional faith and values might have renewed opportunity to provide an ecumenical renewal of the personal heart and the communities of Christian faith.
Postscript: Douthat's next book, The Benedict Option, became a major and controversial best seller.
As for Bad Religion, did my review measure up to The New York Times own review of Mr. Douthat's work? You be the judge.
On My Mind