Latin American Seminary Reform: Modernization and the Preservation of the Catholic Church

Article excerpt

As secular modernization increasingly affected the Catholic Church's moral and legal influence in Latin America in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, ecclesiastical leaders moved to strengthen the institutional Church. To do so, they found a strategy in the concept of modernization itself, and their efforts focused on the professionalization of the clergy, particularly through seminary reform. The papacy, Latin American bishops, and seminary administrators implemented curricular and disciplinary reforms, particularly from European models, to improve the number and quality of the clergy and thus defend the Church against the rise of liberal secularism, albeit with mixed results.

Keywords: clergy; Latin America; modernization; seminaries; seminary reform

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the Catholic Church in Latin America was in a state of crisis. According to church leaders, growing secularization in the region, a clergy unprepared to deal with emerging social and political problems, and a shortage of new vocations were leading to institutional decadence and urgently needed to be addressed. They needed to maintain Catholics' loyalty to the institution and protect the Church's moral and legal interests. The ecclesiastical hierarchies in Latin America and Rome believed the solu- tion lay with the clergy. They found the primary causes of the Church's problems could be attributed to the inadequate number of priests in the region and their insufficient preparation. To strengthen the Church in the region, they worked to encourage clerical vocations and embarked upon seminary reforms to improve the quality of the clergy In doing so, they utilized the concept of modernization and professionalized the clergy in the region. This was not unique to Latin America, but part of a larger trend in the Roman Catholic Church during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries that was encouraged by the papacy and followed by church leaders elsewhere in the world, particularly in the United States and Europe. Establishing more rigorous clerical education and discipline was a critical strategy in the Church's defense against the advancement of secular liberalism.

In the decades after Latin American independence the concept of modernization produced, first, an institutional crisis for the Catholic Church and, second, an institutional response to the same crisis. The crisis involved the general secularization of Latin American society encouraged by the policies of liberals who attacked the traditional privileges enjoyed by the Church since the colonial period.1 Liberals accused the Church of thwarting society's progress and of being stagnant and decadent. They were often vague in defining "progress," but generally believed that their goals could be reached by adopting European habits and education. They also believed that achieving progress and leading their nations to modernity required relegating the Church to a purely spiritual and moral role. Working to make the people's relationship with the Church optional, liberal politicians established secular educational systems; civil registers for recording births, marriages, and deaths; and civil cemeteries to bury those not in communion with the Catholic Church at their deaths. As part of their attempts to secularize education, liberal governments often prohibited religious education, including clerical seminaries, and expropriated seminary buildings. Even where seminaries were not closed, the financial status of the Catholic Church, now rarely supported by national governments as it had been during the colonial period, made their operation practically impossible in many areas. Many seminaries only reopened decades later, in the mid- to late-nineteenth century2 By the early-twentieth century, socialism and communism had become significant threats to the survival of the Catholic Church as well, not only because they agreed with the liberal critique but also because they were directly associated with atheism. …