In what follows, I offer a brief introduction and overview of what constitutes the vocation of a seminary theologian. To address this topic, I’ve divided it fourfold. First, I’ll treat the nature of theology and the vocation of a theologian generally. Second, I’ll turn to the vocation of the theologian as a teacher of theology. Third, I’ll address the vocation of a theologian in the context of seminary formation. Finally, I’ll address how a layman in particular contributes to an integral seminary formation. First, theology itself.

I. The Nature of Theology and the Vocation of a Theologian

In his treatment of the real relations in God that are constitutive of the Trinitarian persons and the Trinitarian mystery itself, St. Thomas Aquinas admits: “It [must] be said that the relations in God are something real: how this may be we must endeavor to discover by following the statements of holy men, although reason is unable to do so fully.”[1] I believe Aquinas offers here something of a programmatic method for the work of a theologian: (1) an assent to the content of revealed faith: “it must be said that the relations in God are something real”; (2) a search for understanding by engagement with the whole theological tradition: “how this may be we must endeavor to discover by following the statements of holy men”; and (3) a constant recognition of the gravity of supernatural mystery exceeding our comprehension: “although reason is unable to do so fully.” Moreover, in each of these three respects, Aquinas also offers to us a model of virtue that I contend is necessary for the right execution of a theologian’s vocation, that is, humility: humility in the assent of faith; humility in the deference to the authority of the tradition; and humility in the face of mystery.

Theologians participate in a distinctively intellectual activity and way of life. In other words, theologians habitually think theologically; that is, they rationally consider, explain, and profess a continually fuller meaning of the realities of the faith of the apostles as revealed by Jesus Christ. As Donum Veritatis articulates, the theologian’s task is threefold: (1) to “pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God”; (2) to “seek[] the ‘reasons of faith’ and offer[] these reasons as a response to those seeking them”; and (3) to “offer its contribution so that the faith might be communicated”: to understand, to offer an account for, and to communicate the truth of the faith.[2] The greatest theologians have succeeded, in their own way, to more precisely, perceptively, and conclusively articulate what it is that Catholics believe and why we believe it such as we do.

The proper and principal task of those three ends, as modeled for us in Aquinas’s programme of theology above, is the pursuit of an accurate and dynamically deepening understanding of the meaning of the faith revealed by God.[3] In this respect, a theologian finds a model in Mary, the Seat of Wisdom, who “considered in her mind” the words spoken to her (Lk 1:29), and “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19).[4] Yet, this task is not a merely spiritual or contemplative activity, but also speculative and scientific.

Theology is a scientia, the rational discipline of the mind that seeks to offer a rational account of God—a logos of theos. The realities of faith revealed by God and transmitted by the Church make up theology’s material objects or its obiectum, but ultimately its formal object or subiectum is God himself.[5] Theology is a habitus borne out of faith and returning one to faith, the rational inquiry into the truths that faith provides the mind for both assent and understanding.[6] Because divine truth is accessible to the intellect’s assent, it is logically accessible to the intellect’s perception and increasing penetration. In seeking to understand (in a spirit of assent) more deeply what God has revealed, one is theologizing. In a sense, by this inquiry a theologian hopes to steal a tiny bit of what the blessed in heavenly glory have by direct vision,[7] as the Psalm says, “in Your light, we see light” (Ps 36:9).[8]

Because of its absolute rootedness in the assent of faith and the truths to which faith assents, theology is inherently a deductive science—even a subordinated science. It proceeds from the principles of a higher knowledge—revealed faith—to conclusions of reason. St. John Henry Newman expresses the theological method beautifully:

…[D]eduction only is the instrument of Theology. … If we are able to enlarge our view and multiply our propositions, it must be merely by the comparison and adjustment of the original truths; if we would solve new questions, it must be by consulting old answers. … Revelation is all in all in doctrine; the Apostles its sole depository, the inferential method its sole instrument, and ecclesiastical authority its sole sanction. The Divine Voice has spoken once for all, and the only question is about its meaning.[9]

Because of its intrinsic and absolute reliance on revelation, the account that is theology always has a reference point; it is an account of something, an account of revealed truth. Theological research is undertaken not to discover more divine truths to be known, but for the People of God to understand more about what is already implicit in the realities to which they have assented in faith.

Therefore, human reason—though congenial to, harmonious with, and ennobled by divine faith—is always humbly subject to divine revelation; for this reason, the Magisterial guardians of that apostolic deposit have pride of place. A theologian’s science is always subject to the judgment of the People of God, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tm 3:15), the Church, of which he is a member, and whose collective possession the Catholic faith is by right of inheritance and by duty of preservation. In particular, a theologian’s fidelity to the papal and episcopal Magisterium as true and authentic teachers of the faith is essential for maintaining the integrity of theological science and its very principles.

Moreover, theology is a sapiential discipline, for God “orders all things well” by his divine wisdom (Wis 8:1), especially his revelation given pedagogically and then ultimately in Jesus Christ, “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). For theology to be sapiential means first that realities are seen from the divine perspective, which also implies a logical order of theological knowledge, a hierarchy of truths, and an organic unity to the science as a whole; moreover, it effects a practical wisdom for those who internalize its truths and seek to live according to them. In fact, St. Paul explicitly relates “com[ing] to the knowledge of the truth” to “be[ing] saved” (1 Tm 2:4), as does our Lord when he promises that “the truth shall set you free” (Jn 8:32). Theology is a knowledge of saving truths that exceed the realm of rational inquiry.[10]

Besides a work of faith that proceeds from the theological virtue of faith, theology is also a humble work of charity. In the virtue of charity, the Christian loves God “with all [one’s] mind” (Mk 12:30). To theologize is to seek to know, understand, even to intellectually possess the Truth which one loves and desires. Since God himself is the proper object of the theological science, the work of the theologian ought to be fueled by his love for God. For who would not seek to better know the One whom they love?[11] Clearly, then, the theologian should not only assent to the faith of the Church, but should also pursue “the holiness without which no one will see God” (Heb 12:14), most especially in a life of prayer and virtue organically interwoven in the intellectual life of research and study,[12] both integral aspects of the Christian theologian’s one journey to the beatific vision.

II. The Vocation of a Theologian as Teacher of Theology

Charity concerns God as proper and exclusive object of the love of one’s whole self, but it also concerns God’s children by grace and in fact all people, as all are called to the grace of divine adoption. As a faithful member of the Church, the theologian’s vocation necessarily includes a work of charity for the Church in its mission and for the Church’s faithful in their own understanding of the faith. Theologians who think theologically seek, in charity, to teach others to think theologically. Aquinas famously says, “It is better to enlighten than merely to shine.”[13] The goal of the theologian is the goal of the theologian’s students in theology: that, as Gaudium et Spes expresses it, “revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage.”[14] Precisely on account of the more perceptive understanding of the faith, theology also serves the Church apologetically and evangelically. Because of the work of great theologians, the faithful have been able to offer an explanation to those who question their way of life, their hope, and their fidelities (cf. 1 Pt 3:15). Concurrently, without diluting its demands, theologians also make the faith more accessible to the needs and times of those who await the saving truth of the Gospel. In these ways, theology’s humble service of charity to the Church is evident.

A theologian—especially at a seminary—needs to be a teacher of the Catholic faith. As a teacher of sacred doctrine, the theologian helps students to know the sources, content, and development of divine revelation. Most fundamentally, students need to know very clearly what it is that the Church teaches and why. Programmatically, a theologian will cultivate in students a familiarity with Scripture,[15] with the Fathers of the Church,[16] with the Councils and Popes—especially Vatican Council II and the recent papal magisterium—and with the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas in particular.[17] Moreover, if theology is to unify all the disciplines of the curriculum[18]—concurrent and previous—then theology itself must be learned as a comprehensive and unified science, with a logical priority on the sources and content of revealed truth itself in Scripture, Tradition, and dogmatic theology before moral, pastoral, liturgical, canonical, and historical studies.[19]

In receiving the canonical Mandatum, by virtue of this canonical mission, a theologian is especially responsible—morally and juridically—to teach in the name of the Church (even as an extension of the Magisterium’s office of teaching) and, ultimately, in the name of Jesus Christ.[20] The theologian—as a faithful member of the Church and as an instrument of the Church’s teaching mission—in a sense represents the local ordinary by the mandate, who himself is the true apostolic teacher; in an ecclesiastical school such as a seminary, all the more should a theologian teach the sacred doctrine of the Church and not hisown doctrines.[21]

In Aquinas, theologians find the supreme model not only for how to approach the study of sacra doctrina, but also how to teach it to others:[22] patiently and attentively with profound reverence for the realities revealed, with deference to the authority of the Church’s tradition, and in a spirit of faith, while simultaneously not dismissive of any question or source pursuant of truth. Ultimately, it is the “one” true “Teacher” (Mt 23:8), Christ, whom we imitate and from whom we learn to faithfully “bear witness to the truth” (Jn 18:37).

Finally, the personal understanding of the truth of the faith is more than merely acquiring abstract or factual knowledge. Not only does the work of the theologian facilitate a deeper knowledge of “the only true God, and Jesus Christ” sent by the Father (Jn 17:3), but even to assist one’s students to be conformed to Christ intellectually, to “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16), to think with the Church and as the Church in its tradition has considered Christ’s revelation. In this way, by the appropriation of divine truths, students can “be transformed by the renewal of [their] mind[s]” (Rm 12:2). By “speaking the truth in love,” the theologian desires for his own students to “learn Christ” because of “the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus” and because “the truth is in Jesus” (Eph 4:15, 20-21; Phil 3:8).

III. The Vocation of a Theologian in the Context of Seminary Formation

Within the context of graduate-level seminaries with students preparing for diverse ministerial, apostolic, and academic vocations, a theologian is acutely attentive to the demands of teaching well the doctrine of the Church and of helping to form students’ minds according to those truths and ultimately according to Christ. If seminary students are to come to a deeper and more intimate knowledge of the person of Jesus Christ, then their theological formation is absolutely indispensable for an accurate knowledge of Christ, true God and true man. Practically speaking, seminary theology professors are concerned with the continual progress of all students in their studies,[23] by offering a rigorous, graduate-level education in course requirements: primary readings; well-prepared lectures; research papers; written and oral examinations; et cetera. Particularly critical is the need to equip graduate seminary students to ask questions and pursue answers through developing their own theological research skills.[24]

At the same time, the day-to-day work of the intellectual formation particular to seminary professors is necessary for the integral formation of the whole student.[25] The theology professor, through and beyond his direct dedication to the intellectual dimension, is continually aware of and helping to contribute to that integration of formation,[26] which in one sense happens as the knowledge of the truth naturally affects the existential vision of one’s life.[27] Proper intellectual training opens the students to new vistas of human and spiritual development. The realities of the faith considered as real truths serve as both the fuel and the fruit of students’ prayerful contemplation, such that “study and prayer come together in a reciprocal fruitfulness.”[28] In fact, professors should be explicitly encouraging students to progress in the spiritual life concurrently to and through their academic development.[29] Proper intellectual formation also equips them with tools for pastoral engagement: for preaching the Word of God faithfully, with penetration and articulation; for the work of catechesis, teaching both with an accurate understanding of the dogmas and a clear vision of the whole of the Catholic religion; for effective evangelization; and for a surer apologetic. For seminarians particularly, if the goal of seminary formation as a whole is to form “priestly heart[s],”[30] then the goal of the intellectual dimension of that formation is to form priestly minds. The future priest needs intellectual preparation to transmit the faith appropriately, to pursue the values pertinent to being a pastor of souls,[31] to have a right understanding of his vocation and his sacramental ministry, to combat cultural trends of skepticism, relativism, subjectivism, and indifferentism, and so on.[32]

Thankfully, all of this is not a task that is to be accomplished by any one single theology professor alone.[33] The vocation of the seminary theologian happens within the context of a seminary’s whole “formative community.”[34] Before being a building, a course of studies, or even an institution, most fundamentally, a seminary is a community of disciples in learning, in friendship and charity, and in prayer and worship.[35] Formation, especially in its intellectual dimension, is a communal endeavor, because it is primarily and fundamentally the work of the Triune God, whose instruments and agents we are collectively for the students called to a Catholic seminary by His Providence. Further, the intellectual formation is ultimately a formation by the community of the whole Catholic Church—the Holy Father, our local Ordinary, and the local Church, yes, but especially the universal Church that continues to teach generation after generation from throughout the ages preceding. The local collegiality of a seminary faculty, therefore, is necessary for the efficacy of formation and as an example to students, especially seminarians, of how to conduct themselves in their own future apostolates. Besides its orientation to the task of formation, theology itself is intrinsically a communal work, to be likened to a common conversation of friends and fellow disciples seeking together to understand the truth of Jesus Christ and the Triune God.

IV. The Vocation of a Lay Theologian in the Context of Seminary Formation

Within the context of the seminary, then, what precisely is the role of the lay theologian, besides offering a witness of personal integrity and authentic Christian vocation? On the one hand, the lay theologian enjoys significant equality and fraternity with priest formators, in shared human dignity and the experience of the human condition, in the shared vocation to the eternal life of the Trinity, in being united in the Church of God, as a disciple of Christ, as a recipient of the Holy Spirit and his grace “according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph 4:7), and in the common priesthood of the baptized. Yet, on the other hand, it is the priest formators who make up “a true formative community”[36] and “a genuine educating community.”[37] Moreover, “the intellectual formation of the candidates [for priesthood] is the responsibility of the Rector and the community of formators,”[38] even that “the greater part of the teaching body [should] be composed of priests.”[39] Now, of course, this does not mean that lay professors are hired only to teach lay students.

Instead, notwithstanding what was said before, the Ratio Fundamentalis will simultaneously call lay faculty “true educators,”[40] and insist that all “the professors should be regarded as part of a single teaching community.”[41] Most properly speaking, the lay seminary theologian serves, in his or her expertise, as an auxiliary support to priest-formators in their “delicate mission of priestly formation.”[42] Ultimately, a seminary has only “one aim [that] justifies [its] existence” as a seminary, namely “preparation of future priests.”[43] Only priests can most properly model and inculcate the integral formation that is necessary for future priests. Yet, lay faculty are also necessary and effective models and instruments of priestly formation. The rise of lay men and women in the field of theology practically necessitates that a seminary relies on the expertise that a lay theologian can provide as an educator and researcher. It is this theological expertise above all that warrants the lay theologian’s presence on a seminary faculty. There are yet other benefits.

Particularly to seminarians, the presence of lay faculty affords a balanced understanding of the Church composed of a diversity of vocations as well as a heightened awareness of the uniqueness of the priestly vocation.[44] Moreover, the presence of the laity in positions of authority at a major seminary (even simply the authority of a lay professor over seminarian students) can help to combat any temptation to clericalism, and to instill an openness in future priests to allowing and even encouraging and equipping qualified laity to take on leadership roles in their parish, in the diocese, and in other ministries. The vast majority of the faithful with whom these men will be working (and not lording it over) in pastoral ministry will be the laity, men and women who are striving to dedicate their lives and families to Christ.

The witness of Christian laity practicing their own integral formation is education itself.[45] The Program for Priestly Formation articulates this beautifully: “By modeling a love for the Church as she is, a wholehearted fidelity to her teaching, a loyalty to the pope and bishops, an appreciation for the priesthood, and a collaborative spirit in ministry, … lay men and women make an important contribution to priestly formation on all levels.”[46] Lay professors share in the task of integral formation by their own “accompaniment” of the various students of the seminary, by knowing oneself and allowing oneself to be known, by a sincerity of life and speech, by regular conversations, by joining the community in liturgy and in meals. Finally, the presence of lay professors is acutely necessary and fitting for seminaries invested in excellent lay formation. As lay men and women, seminary professors offer unique witness and mentorship to lay students, helping them to become aware of their challenges and their unseen potential.[47]

The work of seminary formation itself can be a school of discipleship, of virtue, and of holiness, even for the formators and professors. Just the very ethos of a healthy seminary environment can provide the school of growth in all four dimensions of formation for the lay theologian himself, especially as he seeks to model those dimensions to his students. We are all both agents and patients of the work of formation that is discipleship in Jesus Christ.


To conclude, I proposed that Aquinas offered for us both the programmatic method of doing theology—starting in faith in the revealed truth, turning to the tradition, and acknowledging the mystery—as well as the model of the virtue of humility necessary and characteristic of the work of a theologian. It is my contention that the vocation of a Catholic theologian is one of humble service to the good of the Church: humility in seeking to better understand the realities revealed; humility in seeking to transmit the sacred doctrine and the knowledge of God in Christ; humility in participating in the task of integral formation; and humility especially as a layman who is privileged to serve seminarians, diaconate candidates, and lay leaders of the local Church and beyond. The vocation of a seminary theologian is precisely that, a calling from the one true Formator, the Holy Spirit, to participate in the salvation of souls as a teacher and formator of those who are called by Him to be sent on apostolic mission into the world.


[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, On the Power of God (Quaestiones disputatae de potentia Dei), trans. English Dominican Fathers, Vol. III (London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1934), q. 8, a. 1, resp.

[2] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Donum Veritatis, “On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian” (May 24, 1990), 6 and 7.

[3] Cf. Donum Veritatis, 10: “…reason by its nature is ordered to the truth in such a way that, illumined by faith, it can penetrate to the meaning of Revelation. … Theology’s proper task is to understand the meaning of revelation…”

[4] Scripture quotes are taken from the Revised Standard Version: Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).

[5] See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q. 1, a. 6. Cf. q. 1, a. 3.

[6] See Pope St. John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, “On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day” (March 25, 1992), 53.

[7] See Summa theologiae I, q. 1, a. 2.

[8] Cf. Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, “On the Church in the Modern World” (December 7, 1965), trans. Ronan Lennon and Senan Crowe, in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, New Revised Edition, ed. Austin Flannery (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Company, 2004), 15: “Man, as sharing in the light of the divine mind, rightly affirms that by his intellect he surpasses the world of mere things.” Emphasis added.

[9] St. John Henry Newman, Idea of a University, Discourse IX, 4.

[10] See Summa theologiae I, q. 1, a. 1.

[11] See St. Bonaventure, Commentaria in Librum Primum Sententiarum, Prooem. q. 2, ad 6., cited at Donum Veritatis, 7.

[12] See Donum Veritatis, 9: “The commitment to theology requires a spiritual effort to grow in virtue and holiness.”

[13]Summa theologiae II-II, q. 188, a. 6, resp. Trans. Laurence Shapcote.

[14]Gaudium et Spes, 44. Cf. Congregation for the Clergy, Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation” (December 8, 2016), 116. Hereafter: Ratio Fund.

[15] See Ratio Fund., 103.

[16] See Ratio Fund., 113.

[17] See Codex Iuris Canonici, canon 252, § 3. Hereafter: CIC. Cf. Vatican Council II, Optatam Totius, 16.

[18] Cf. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 67.

[19] See CIC 254§1 and 252§3.

[20] See Donum Veritatis, 22: “Collaboration between the theologian and the Magisterium occurs in a special way when the theologian receives the canonical mission or the mandate to teach. In a certain sense, such collaboration becomes a participation in the work of the Magisterium, linked, as it then is, by a juridic bond. The theologian’s code of conduct, which obviously has its origin in the service of the Word of God, is here reinforced by the commitment the theologian assumes in accepting his office, making the profession of faith, and taking the oath of fidelity. From this moment on, the theologian is officially charged with the task of presenting and illustrating the doctrine of the faith in its integrity and with full accuracy.”

[21] See Pastores Dabo Vobis, 67: “The theologian must never forget that as a teacher he is not presenting his personal doctrines but opening to and communicating to others the understanding of the faith, in the last analysis in the name of the Lord and his Church. In such a way, the theologian … carries out his task at the mandate of the Church and cooperates with the Bishop in his task of teaching.”

[22] Cf. Summa theologiae, I, Prologue.

[23] See Ratio Fund., 141.

[24] See CIC 254§2.

[25] See Ratio Fund., 127: “The professors … provide the intellectual support that makes integral formation possible.”

[26] See Program of Priestly Formation in the United States of America, Sixth Edition (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2022), 471: “All professors must be dedicated to the total formation of the seminarians.” Hereafter: PPF.

[27] Cf. Donum Veritatis, 1: “In the Christian faith, knowledge and life, truth and existence are intrinsically connected.”

[28]Ratio Fund., 103.

[29] See Ratio Fund., 142: “The professors, in sharing and taking upon themselves the Plan of Formation of the seminary, insofar as pertains to them, ought to spur on the seminarians, and help them to make progress both in the area of knowledge and scientific research and in that of the spiritual life.” Cf. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 51: “The commitment to study … is not in fact an external and secondary dimension of their human, Christian, spiritual and vocational growth. In reality, through study, especially the study of theology, the future priest assents to the word of God, grows in his spiritual life and prepares himself to fulfill his pastoral ministry.”

[30]Ratio Fund., 55.

[31] See Ratio Fund., 89: “The intellectual dimension … provides the rational tools needed in order to understand the values that belong to being a pastor, to make them incarnate in daily life, and to transmit the content of the faith appropriately.”

[32] Cf. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 51.

[33] Cf. CIC 253§2.

[34]Ratio Fund., 139.

[35] See PPF, 406: “Seminaries are to be a continuation in the Church of the apostolic community gathered around Jesus. This basic organizing principle means the seminary is first and foremost a learning community of the disciples of Jesus… At the same time, the seminary is a community of charity and friendship… Finally, the seminary is a worshipping and praying community that finds its source and summit in the celebration of the Eucharist.”

[36]Ratio Fund., Introduction, § 3.

[37]Ratio Fund., 132.

[38]Ratio Fund., 141.

[39]Ratio Fund., 143.

[40]Ratio Fund., 142.

[41]Ratio Fund., 142. Cf. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 67: “The teacher of theology, like any other teacher, should remain in communion and sincerely cooperate with all the other people who are involved in the formation of future priests…”

[42]Ratio Fund., 132.

[43]Pastores Dabo Vobis, 61.

[44] See Pastores Dabo Vobis, 66: “We can expect beneficial fruits from their cooperation, provided it is suitably coordinated and integrated in the primary educational responsibilities of those entrusted with the formation of future priests, fruits for a balanced growth of the sense of the Church and a more precise perception of what it is to be a priest on the part of the candidates to the priesthood.” Emphasis added.

[45] See PPF, 471: “Professors teach first by the quality of their lives. Professors—that is, clerics, men and women in consecrated life, and laity—must therefore witness to the Gospel in their own lives.”

[46]PPF, 470.

[47] The author wishes to express his gratitude in this context for his own vocation as a theologian, the possibility of which was initially brought to his consideration as a lay student studying at a graduate-level seminary, especially by many of its lay faculty, for whom he continues to feel great respect, gratitude, and affection.

Brandon L. Wanless is an assistant professor of dogmatic theology at The Saint Paul Seminary and the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He received his Ph.D. in systematic theology from Ave Maria University and is a founding member of The Sacra Doctrina Project.