Wanted: Intellectually Competent Bishops and Priests

In the opinion of this writer, one of the most evident marks of decline in the Church in the past 50 years has been the virtual non-existence of an authentic intellectual life in seminaries and among the episcopate. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to chart the decline of the intellectual capacity of the clergy (and Catholic students in general) in the post-conciliar era, nor should it surprise us that, as a result of this decline, there is a corresponding decline in confident, decisive, and virtuous decision-making. The reasons for this may be many and I know my brief on the topic here will not cover all possible causes (Bishop Edward Scharfenberger analyzed it well.)  Likewise, I am not suggesting that every ordinand need to have the intellectual gifts of Aquinas and Liguori. What I am suggesting is that the life of the mind (or the acknowledgement of God’s great gift of the intellect and the proper conditions and tools in developing it) seems to have been sidelined as a priority to the formation of priests in this country since at least the 1960s. As such, priests, and therefore, the hierarchy are woefully inept at analyzing, discussing, and–most importantly–acting when something like the sexual abuse crisis demands their attention. At best, many members of the hierarchy are amiable dunces unable to decide and react to crises that demand leadership; at worst, they are well-schooled (experts, even) in modern, secular, political thinking–fitted only for this world, and not the world to come.

When did this intellectual crisis begin? Certainly, it has dogged us since the Fall, but Blessed Pius IX and St. Pius X diagnosed the modernist tendency that grew to maturity in the 19th and 20th centuries. Instead of forthrightly and confidently reaffirming their predecessors and the Doctors of the Church, Churchmen in the mid-20th century, by and large, pursued a policy of Ostpolitik with the modern world. In so doing, the basic intellectual girders upon which the edifice of Catholic thought was built began to suffer neglect. In a word, nothing was reinforced. Consider:

  • A failure to state forthrightly the fact that faith and reason are both compatible and both ways of knowing
  • A failure to state forthrightly the fact that Divine Revelation (both Scripture and Tradition) is infallible and true as it has been given to us by God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived
  • A failure to cultivate a sacramental view of the world in which God’s creative and saving action is seen behind every thing that exists
  • A failure to recognize that faith and reason do not contradict, and where there is an apparent contradiction, reason will be questioned and examined in the light of that which Revelation tells us (in other words, the issue is not with God and His Word, rather the problem is likely some faulty use of our intellect)
  • A failure to question modern assumptions or the terms upon which the world wishes to dialogue
  • A failure to question modern intellectual standards and test them against the breadth and experience of the Catholic intellectual tradition
  • A failure to question the appropriateness and applicability of modern political terminology to profound moral questions
  • A desire for academic, social, and political acceptability (especially in the US, a Kennedy-like drive for acceptance that sidelines fundamentals for “admission to the club”)
  • A desire for “having the cake and eating it too” vs. “finding one’s life by losing it” especially in the economic and sexual spheres
  • A desire to tolerate (and even accept and promote) incompatibles (e.g., homosexual conduct and Christian morality)

The windows were opened, but there was a miscalculation as to the effects of the plenitude of smokestacks outside the house. The fumes were recognized as noxious relatively early when Blessed Paul VI acknowledged that the “smoke of Satan” had entered the Church. St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI did their best to reinforce the girders and we have their magisteria to support us in the current battles. However, with few exceptions in the hierarchy, it seems like most everyone else was, and has been, “high.”

The sickness has now reappeared with frightening effects. Sane-thinking Catholics should demand of the hierarchy an intellectual formation for the priests of the Church that is rooted in sound and perennial philosophy and not timed to the passing fads of the age. As the well-ordered working of both body and soul are to a healthy human person, so too are faith and reason to a proper and healthy intellect. With this, the conscience is then able to act in particular circumstances and have the confidence to act. As the McCarrick case has shown us (and, dare I say, the further uncovering of a predominantly “Lavender Hierarchy”), the bishops of the Catholic Church–from Rome on down–lack confidence to act as Christ would have them act; and this, because it is apparent that they sorely lack the intellectual chops required for a formed conscience.




This article, Wanted: Intellectually Competent Bishops and Priests is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

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John M. DeJak

John M. DeJak is an attorney and Latin teacher and works in academic administration. He writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  • Bill Crumrine says:

    I can’t help but feel much of this started with that Vatican II, especially the phrase, “…in the Spirit of Vatican II,” which to me means anything and everything can and does go. Fortunately, for me, a classmate of mine feels the same way towards Vatican II. Both of us have declared ourselves not to be fans of that so-called Ecumenical Counsel. When the liturgy was changed it seemed that anybody could voice their opinion and it was acceptable. Thank God, after having just moved from San Antonio, Texas to Littleton, Colorado, I was able to join an FSSP parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

    • Darren says:

      Bill, please get the book that the Bellarmine Forum is offering “Slaying the Spirit of Vatican II with the Light of Truth”

      Vatican II was usurped. Flat out. A true reading of the documents shows the beauty of them. Just like the Bible, the documents have to be read holistically and in its entirety.

      Even the devil used the Bible against Christ. Does that mean Christ should of felt that He was not a fan of the Bible?

  • Ramil E Fajardo says:

    I agree with everything. In the seminary as well as in various assignments over the years, there is a strong anti-intellectualism among the brothers. Certainly, not all of course.

    But in my experience there was a tendency to sneer and put down those who aspired (and still aspire) to have a vibrant and lively intellectual life and mind.

    It’s always been this nasty habit of either/or accusation: you study and spend too much time in the books and sacristy, which means you aren’t mission oriented and therefore don’t care about people.

    Gross oversimplification? Of course, it’s yes/and. The seeming ridicule of academic excellence has been so ingrained in the mind of some brothers that only those who exclusively ‘do justice’ are the ones who know Christ and are authentic priests.

    I will challenge you though – good naturedly, of course – that the greater disaster is lack of faith.

    Unless a man knows the encounter with Christ, unless he is thoroughly imbued with a deep faith, he can never understand how to ‘be’ Christ in the world, that our vocation is to place Jesus Christ at the summit of all human activity.

    After all, what’s the point of being a cleric if anyone can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless and comfort the sick and afflicted? One doesn’t have to Catholic to do any of that, not even Christian. Our wonderful ecumenical outreach with other groups demonstrates this.

    What makes us different is that we do everything THROUGH HIM, WITH HIM, IN HIM. JESUS CHRIST is our reason, our motivation, our live and the lens through which we see and do everything.

    So we can learn Him in our books and studies, we can touch Him in our service to neighbor. But we can only KNOW Him by faith and constant conversation with Him in prayer.

    Yes / And.

    • Avatar photo John M. DeJak says:

      Agree, Father. I would posit that it must be a reasoned faith. “Grace builds on nature,” as the old dictum goes. The primary purpose of my piece was to demonstrate that the nature part is so screwed up with many of these guys. Things that should be self-evident truths or things that are basic first principles or prolegomena to faith are denied or even contradicted. Hence, we shouldn’t be surprised when they can’t exercise their wills in an appropriate way.

  • Bernard Brandt says:

    I must point out that the Vatican II document, ‘Optatam totius’, was a mandate for such intellectual and spiritual development. I believe that most of the problems we have in the Church have been a direct result of the failure of bishops to implement the educational requirements which that document mandated.

  • Stacy Smith says:

    Did this lead men like you, who went to seminary, to discontinue your discernment to the priesthood? Or were you and your peers spared from the lavender mafia encounters? I guess I wonder if this has greatly impacted our priest shortage because of its apparent prevalence in many seminaries.

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