Questions Answered – March 2023

The Challenges of Priestly Formation

Question: How can the challenges of priestly realities be controlled within formation?

Answer: Over the years there have been numerous documents approved by the USCCB for priestly formation in the seminaries following renewed Vatican norms. The most recent was this year. Generally there have been four areas in which seminaries are asked to concentrate their attention: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. Each has its own challenges.

Human formation is the most basic as it addresses the ordinary human maturity one would require of any man in such an intimate vocation as the priesthood or marriage. The most central parts of this are surely responsibility and intimacy. The challenge for responsibility is learning and practicing what it means to live for others. This cannot be presumed today as it was in the past, when people came from large, stable families which relied on specific schedules and disciplines instilled by family meals in common, control of extra-familial relationships, and chores. Also, social media encourages lack of communication skills. Young people are used to communicating using machines, even when they live next door. Human formation in seminaries should include accountability in all these areas as well as gentle, wholesome recreation which encourages personal contact and shared experience and interest not simply based on social media. This would also include healthy diet, exercise, and even such mundane skills such as table manners and dress.

A more problematic area should address wholesome friendships, learning self-restraining love, and avoidance of all sexual sins, pornography and addressing loneliness. In our sex-laden culture, healthy friendships which avoid co-dependency are the best way to prepare for a celibate life. This means also addressing internally one’s selfish tendencies in their legitimate need for affection.

Spiritual formation is essential and this demands commitment to the Mass, the Office, Eucharistic adoration, and spiritual reading. Most seminaries now require spiritual directors but these must avoid any attempt at domination. Seminaries should be encouraged to love the divine office by frequent attendance. It is true they are not monks and will probably not engage much in formal common prayer throughout their lives as priests, but one needs to get close to the office as an obligation. After all the promised obligation to pray for the Church will be embraced by the transitional deacon for his whole life. It is not for nothing that the breviary has been called for centuries the priest’s wife. Encouraging assiduous participation and responsible prayer for the community are essential. Many young often omit the breviary when they get busy. This is the kiss of death for a vocation.

Devotion to the Mass should go without saying, and yet in the lax atmosphere of today, many priests never say Mass on their days off or vacations. The excuse is given that private masses do not include the community, and yet all the saints and angels are present at every Mass. Finally, devotion to private prayer is foundational. It is in this experience that one encounters God’s personal providence for them and experiences divine love in the silence of one’s own heart.

In today’s world of relativism, the assiduous study of sacred truth must also be encouraged. Very few priests are also scholars, yet a general knowledge of realistic objective philosophy is important to meet and understand the relativism of the age. After Vatican II, the study of Sacred Scripture strongly entered the intellectual life. However, one must be clear that the Church did not do away with Scholastic or Aristotelian study. Nor, as some theologians contend, did it reduce systematic theology to historical theology. Both are necessary. The celebrated ressourcement after Vatican II did not reduce the study of theology to a mere recitation of sources with no conclusions. One must remember that this was a reaction to the manualists on the Enlightenment. Readings in the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, and not manual statements about it, are a return the sources, albeit in this case a systematic one.

Finally, all these dimensions converge in the pastoral. For some reason, many post-Vatican II theologians identify the pastoral with anti-intellectual relativism. This is simply not true. Far from denying absolute truth, the pastoral dimension is based on the recognition that how one presents a truth must take into account the emotional life of the hearer. Accessibility to the person proclaiming the truth can open the listener to be able to consider it more rationally. Aristotle knew this. While the truth was discovered in Metaphysics, the passions were examined in his Rhetoric because this made the listener more disposed.

In my work in seminaries, I have found that all four of these preparations served only one final purpose: to support the priest in his ministry of serving rather than being served.

How Sure Must Our Consciences Be?

Question: Could you explain what moral certainty is and when we must have it?

Answer: Moral certainty is necessary in society in general. It is not metaphysical certainty and the reason is that morals as a very complex area. Even civil law recognizes it. The Wikipedia definition is: “a very high degree of probability sufficient for action but short of absolute or mathematical certainty.” This would apply for jurors in a trial, for example.

In morals the real issue surfaced in judgements of conscience when people like Descartes called true knowledge gained through the senses into question. He moved the criteria for truth, which include moral truth, to the subject, not the object. Since the conscience is the place where one makes objective judgements about the particular truth of an action, moralists have been trying to define just what degree of certainty the conscience must have in order to act responsibly.

The certain conscience must judge all the possibilities as lawful or unlawful, taking into account that there is no fear based on prudence of error.  This is the arena of moral certainty. There is a strict moral certainty when all prudent doubt is excluded. It is imperfect when some slight reasons cause fear concerning the truth of a decision which relies on serious motives.

Judgements of conscience are both speculative and practical. Speculative judgement would constitute the objective nature of a truth without any deep connection to practical everyday cases. It would be practical when concerned with a here-and-now decision about a possible action. It would be direct moral certainty if founded in intrinsic principles which entail clear knowledge of the goodness or evil of the act. It is indirect moral certainty if based on adjunct principles which do not produce certain judgement.

Only a correct and certain conscience can be the foundation of a good judgement about the truth of moral action. This may be direct or indirect. But moralists normally state that indirect certainty is sufficient for action. The reason for the first part of the principle is that the man who acts without being morally certain that his act is lawful commits sin by exposing himself unnecessarily to the proximate danger of formally offending God. The reason that indirect certainty is normally sufficient is that at times one cannot have perfect certainty about the perfecting character of the soul of a given action because circumstances add complications to what should be normally certain judgements.

This fact is exemplified in the muddy probabilist controversy of the seventeenth century as to whether the more probable opinion of the law is a proper basis for moral judgements. No one is bound to the impossible, and to guide confessors Pope Alexander VI condemned several propositions. This is one: “It is unlawful to follow even the most probable amongst probable opinions.” Even the most probable opinion is not absolutely certain but is certain only in the wide sense of the term. Therefore one is permitted to follow a most probable opinion because absolute certainty is not always required, only moral certainty. Probability is needed. Probability is said to be intrinsic when it is founded on reasons taken from the nature of the matter to prove its truth; it is extrinsic when based on the authority of learned men. An opinion is considered to be extrinsically probable when there are five or six noteworthy authorities in its favor, or at least one outstanding doctor like St. Thomas or St. Alphonsus.

There are many other distinctions in probabilism, but the bottom line is that one cannot follow the opinion of someone who recommended only a slightly probable action. A confessor may recommend a more probable course of action, but the penitent need not follow it. In all things prudence is needed. Moralists taught that if one follows a certainly probable opinion in favor of freedom while not following a more probable opinion in favor of law, one must have a sufficient reason for doing so. In practice in doubt the course of action most advantageous to the spiritual life of the penitent must prevail.

Though these arguments over certainty characterize the spirit of a former age, the essence of the matter is that because of the presence of circumstances in the deed, the attempt by many moralists to reduce morals to casuistic legalism has some merit but in and of itself cannot produce absolute certainty. One can never act with a doubtful conscience, but the reduction of the number of circumstances to those at least sufficient for moral acts is normally possible. This is moral certainty if there is any lack of the clear truth of the act in the deed.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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  1. I love how you simplified such a complicated subject into points that are clear and straightforward.
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