Seminaries around the world are facing a major restructuring of their curriculum in a Vatican-ordered countermeasure against relativism.

According to the “Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies of Philosophy,” presented on March 22 by Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, the two years of philosophy now required of all priestly candidates for the pontifical bachelor’s degree in philosophy will be expanded to three.

But in diocesan seminaries in the United States, the decree won’t be implemented for at least five years.

The cardinal told a news conference in Rome that many seminaries were not providing enough philosophical formation at a time when “reason itself is menaced by utilitarianism, skepticism, relativism and distrust of reason’s ability to know the truth regarding the fundamental problems of life.”

The decree calls for a renewed emphasis on precise thinking regarding essential philosophical topics — objective and universal truth, valid metaphysical knowledge, the unity of body and soul in man, the human person’s dignity, the relations between nature and freedom, the relations between natural law and civil law — in order to be able to “dialogue with everyone incisively and fearlessly.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which sets the curricular requirements for American seminaries, will revise the current “Plan for Priestly Formation” in accordance with the congregation’s decree, says Father Shawn McKnight, who is the executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.

“But this won’t affect anyone studying for the priesthood right now. Our current PPF has just been approved for five years.”

Nor will the change affect most seminarians. The pontifical bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite for advanced degrees called licentiates offered by Roman ecclesiastical universities and a few pontifical seminaries in the U.S. Those planning academic careers would be the usual candidates for such a degree.

The head of one American pontifical seminary applauded the decree, which his school had anticipated. Father James Wehner, the rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, says the Josephinum has already hiked the philosophy component of the curriculum from 30 to 40 credits.

“Today’s seminarians are bringing a great enthusiasm, a great fidelity to the magisterium and to the Holy Father, a great appreciation for evangelization, for sacred liturgy,” he said. “However, the deficiencies that we often see in seminarians are the deficient ability to think conceptually. And we’re seeing this especially in the Western world. We use concepts in theology to preach the Gospel, words like ‘glorification,’ ‘resurrection,’ ‘forgiveness,’ ‘transubstantiation.’ But because of the deficiency, it makes our efforts to preach the Gospels even more challenging. It sometimes falls on deaf ears.”

Reuniting Faith and Reason

Father Wehner attributed the deficiency to the tenets of secular humanism, the modern worldview that sees no common ground between faith and reason: “An adequate grounding in philosophy allows people to see that the argument for something is reasonable, even if they don’t believe in it. Philosophy teaches us how to use the gift of reason. Without it, faith becomes superstition.”

Father Wehner suggested the extra content seminarians of the future would be getting would be a thorough grounding in the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Conventional instruction now covers Thomistic philosophy as part of a historical survey of philosophy starting with ancient Greeks and finishing with contemporary thinkers, but the new model is likely to restore St. Thomas to primacy.

Jesuit Father John McDermott, a theology professor at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, agrees that students often come to seminary having “taken in the philosophy of the culture uncritically.” And in today’s popular philosophy, “there is an awful lot of relativism. But if you take relativism seriously, you ultimately destroy thought itself — because you cannot get to truth. There is nothing the mind can attach itself to or in any way grasp.” The Church makes objective claims about Jesus and the Incarnation, Father McDermott says, but many cannot accept these claims. “We have to be able to know him and his objective claim. That’s why we need a philosophy that is objective.”

Father McDermott says that seminarians know they are living in a relativistic world — and that it doesn’t make sense: “In a relativistic world, [the philosophy is]: I can do anything I want. People get hurt by this. You get it in sexual ethics; you get it in business ethics; you get it in politics.”

Contemporary society is dominated by a determinism that flows from the 19th-century triumph of the physical sciences that seemed to leave no room for free will and the 20th century’s development of quantum physics, which seemed to render the physical world ultimately unpredictable. “This meant you can’t know reality itself,” Father McDermott said. “You can only get an approximation. So the individual, as such, is unknowable and unintelligible. Therefore, no one can prescribe laws for me.”

Father McDermott would use the added year of philosophy to study the history of philosophy, especially the interface of physics and philosophy.

Adds Father McKnight: The changes are very much in keeping with the New Evangelization launched by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini. As he puts it, “We not only have to get it right, we have to be persuasive. We have to preach the Gospel in a way that will be understood.”

Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.