Council document renewed formation of future priests

May 12, 2014

Montreal's Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger is often cited as one of the more influential reform-minded bishops at the Second Vatican Council.

Léger was a man who was transformed by the council. He led his diocese in a triumphalist style prior to Vatican II, but came to see things much differently during those four years in Rome.

In 1968, he resigned as archbishop and went to Senegal to serve in a leper colony for 11 years so moved was he by the council's emphasis on service and the poor.

One of his interventions at the council was in relation to the formation of priests where he argued against exclusive reliance on the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas in the theological education of seminarians.

"It is the nature of philosophy to begin with an investigation into reality and not into authority," Léger said. "Anyway, the council has no business imposing a particular philosophy."

This brought a few surprised and indignant rebukes from other bishops who thought basing seminary instruction on anything other than the teaching of the Angelic Doctor was "unimaginable."

Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger of Montreal, shown here in 1984, was outspoken at Vatican II.


Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger of Montreal, shown here in 1984, was outspoken at Vatican II.

Léger was unbowed. "Beware of the man of one book! Beware too of the Church of one doctor!" he rejoined. Then, praising Aquinas, Léger said one of the saint's virtues was that he "knew how to turn the learning of his time to the service of the Church."

It is debatable how much pre-Vatican II seminary formation was actually based on Aquinas' thinking anyway. Seminarians were taught out of manuals that provided a quick and simple (some would say simplistic) introduction to neoscholastic theology with distant origins in Aquinas.

This was one debate where Léger lost the battle, but won the war. The council's Decree on the Training of Priests (Optatam Totius) paid due homage to St. Thomas' necessary role in seminary training. However, it didn't take long after the council for the manuals to disappear from seminary classrooms and eventually even from the libraries.

The formal education and formation of future priests was a hit-and-miss affair until the mid-16th century Council of Trent mandated the establishment of diocesan seminaries. Even then, it took the Archdiocese of Paris – no backwoods outpost – almost 250 years to implement that decree.


Pre-Vatican II seminary training was notable for its rigorous monastic spirituality and overall efforts to protect potential priests from the evil and dangerous world outside the seminary walls. Theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar would also excoriate it for failing to provide any links among theology, spirituality and pastoral ministry.

Optatam Totius gave seminary rectors and professors the goal of "training Christ's future priests in the spirit of that renewal promoted by the council itself" (OT 22). This was crucial for, as the decree said in its introduction, "the desired renewal of the whole Church depends to a great extent on a priestly ministry animated by the spirit of Christ."

Read today, Optatam Totius does not sound radical. But it was. With one line, it attempted to demolish clericalism. Those who become priests, it said, are "not destined for a life of power and honours," but for service (OT 9).


It also sought to heal the rupture among spirituality, doctrine and pastoral training by stating that they must be united (OT 8). Instead of focusing on the multitudinous dangers faced by celibate clerics, it presented celibacy positively as an undivided love that bears "witness to the resurrection in the world to come" (OT 10).

Seminarians should be allowed to meet with their families and even with other lay people, the decree said. Moreover, their education should enable them to dialogue with people of their time.

As well, instead of theology manuals, seminarians should be trained "most diligently" in Sacred Scripture "which ought to be the very soul of theology" (OT 16). The decree gives a proposed order of studies with Scripture coming first, the Fathers of the Church second and everything else later. Moral theology it singles out as in particular need of improvement.

The authors of moral theology manuals prior to the council had deliberately written treatises explaining how to avoid evil and omitted any hint of how to seek holiness. Optatam Totius said that wasn't good enough.

Even the methods of seminary instruction needed to be revised, the decree said, with less emphasis on lectures and more on discussions, seminars and small-group study.


Future priests would also be taught "how to inspire and encourage apostolic activity among the laity" (OT 20).

Optatam Totius is not often cited as one of the more important documents of Vatican II. However, you have to wonder where we would be today without it. If the methods of priestly education and formation had not changed, would the Church have devolved into a rapidly shrinking cult?

We do know that God would protect his Church from disappearing. It would seem that one of the ways he did that was by inspiring the council fathers to develop a document on priestly formation in the manner of Optatam Totius.