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On the Study of Theology

 Rome, August 8, 1551

summary | text of letter  | footnotes

          While attending the Diet of Augsburg (1550), Claude Jay succeeded in interesting several of the German princes, but especially Ferdinand I, King of the Romans, to promote Catholic reform in their territories. Moved by Jay's words and knowing the success that the Jesuits had in Ingolstadt, Ferdinand decided to invite the Jesuits to Vienna. With this in mind the king wrote to Pope Julius III, asking that Jay and several other Jesuit theologians be sent to the University of Vienna to help reinstate a faculty of Catholic theology. Since the Reformation the university had ceased teaching courses in Catholic theology, and Ferdinand, brother of Emperor Charles V, was one of the few German princes who did not favor the Protestant movement. Ignatius wrote to Ferdinand in April 1551 [Ep. 3:401-402], expressing his happiness that the Society could be of some service in restoring theological courses at the university and promised to send several Jesuits to Vienna. Jay arrived in the Austrian capital on April 25, and began teaching; in July he wrote1 to Ignatius asking the founder's opinion how they should go about establishing a theological faculty. In his response Ignatius describes three ways by which such a faculty could be instituted, but after explaining the first and second ways he lists the difficulties that these would have in Germany, and thus suggests a third, a middle course way. Important is Ignatius' conviction that the study of theology demands thorough preparation in languages and philosophy. The original instruction was written in Italian [Ep. 3:602-605].


          May the grace and peace of Christ our Lord ever grow in our souls.

          From your reverence's letter of July 21 our Father Master Ignatius has learned of the holy desire that his majesty the king has of reforming theological studies in the University of Vienna, in fact, of restoring them, since, as we understand, they have been practically given up since there were no students enrolled in the courses. Considering the conditions of the times in Germany, this foresight on the part of the king certainly seems to be highly desirable and especially necessary. Our Father, and indeed all of us, would consider it a privilege to help his majesty in this matter if the Society is able. But I will frankly inform your reverence of what is thought here about the means to attain this end—that is, the restoration of theological studies in Vienna—and you can make what representation you think proper to his majesty.

          If we give the matter serious thought, three ways present themselves. The first way is the one which your reverence says his majesty wishes to use; namely, that every province send several students for theology, that some of them be Jesuits, and that there be frequent lectures and lessons, and so forth. This program would be feasible, it seems, if a large number of students could be found in Vienna or could come in from the provinces, who are prepared to begin theology and to follow through to the end. Such an arrangement would be necessary for the success of this plan. But there is reason to fear that these conditions are lacking, and that on two counts.

          The first is, as we have learned, that there is today little inclination and interest among the Germans for such study, especially for scholastic theology. Without this interest and inclination every class exercise will prove boring, and in the end there will be little progress. The other reason is that such students, even though they be well disposed, will not have the proper foundation in logic and philosophy, or even perhaps in languages. Such a foundation is indispensable. If some students are found, they will be very few in number, and for a program in theology a large number of fit and well-grounded students is needed. Otherwise, as experience in other universities teaches, the whole thing will catch a chill and die. It is not enough to establish a good program if there is no one to follow it, and in the end, we will not attain the end we have in view. If it is said that our own scholastics could form the nucleus, there would not be enough of them and others might get the idea that they ought to leave theology to religious. Thus they will never attain the goal of supplying parishes with educated pastors, since Ours cannot undertake such parishes. The first way would seem, then, to be beset with these difficulties.

          The second way is to begin more methodically to prepare students, keeping in mind the ultimate purpose of restoring the study of theology. This would be to have the provinces send on young men who are destined for this study. They should first be well grounded in Latin, and those who have the ability and are thought capable, in Greek and Hebrew as well. After a good foundation in the humanities a large number, say a hundred or so, should begin the course in liberal arts and be carefully trained in it. In subsequent years others who have been well grounded in the humanities will enter the course in good numbers. But they should always keep theology in mind, and the teachers of the humanities and philosophy should constantly encourage them and fill them with a love for theology. When they have finished their philosophy, of the hundred who began, perhaps fifty or more will be ready for theology. If they have come in sufficient numbers, are well disposed to theology, and have laid a good foundation in the lower branches, their progress will be noticeable.

          This would seem to be a very good way, but certain difficulties may be encountered. The first is that the result of so much labor will be long in coming, even though a matter of four or six years should not be considered long when we think of the permanence of the result. The second is that there are already many students in the university advanced in languages, and some even in philosophy, who would not be disposed to give themselves to the lower branches. The third is that it would not seem very becoming in a university like that of Vienna to omit the higher branches even for a time while the students were being grounded in the lower.

          A third way could be taken which would avoid these difficulties, and it is this. Let the lectures in philosophy and theology continue as they now are, but insist, as was indicated in the second way, and make it a point to do so, on laying a good foundation for the future study of theology. The students in the lower classes of languages should be instructed and prepared so that the students, who come from the provinces to study theology as well as the others who are now attending the university studying languages, see to it that they get a good foundation in the liberal arts under teachers who will try to enkindle in them a desire for sacred theology and a love for it. Once there is a goodly number of young men who have advanced in the study of languages, they could begin a course in philosophy, seriously and diligently after the manner of Paris. Thus in the following years, when they have finished the course of arts or philosophy, there will be a good number of well-trained students eager for theology. This will be the time to begin a course in theology, and later, as the years pass on, it could be given as it is at Paris. Public lectures will then draw a large attendance and an audience able to profit from them.

          In this last way the college which his majesty the king is preparing for the Society can be of no small help, because in the first place, it will offer lecturers in humanities and languages who, besides their lectures, will have a special care to see that the good students are exercised and advance in their studies and in good morals, and are inspired with a longing for the study of theology. Once the college has a competent number of well-prepared students, it can also supply lecturers in philosophy who will proceed as we have indicated, and make their students ready for theology. And after these are prepared, it will be able in the same way to supply teachers of theology who will carry on their courses after the manner of Paris, where our Society first made its studies and with whose teaching methods it is acquainted.

          This way seems to be free from objections. The first difficulty mentioned above, the delay, can be better endured, especially since it is necessary and does not entail any interruption in the ordinary lectures of the university. The second difficulty, which deals with students already advanced, ceases for the same reasons, because, if they do not wish to lay a better foundation they can go on as they are doing. The third, the danger to the reputation of the university ceases for the reason that everything will continue as usual. If some lecturers leave and there are no others to replace them, one could be provided from the college for a course in Sacred Scripture, and another for cases of conscience, and so on, until there are students sufficiently well prepared, as we have indicated, to begin a course in scholastic theology with a good foundation. This might seem to be laying a heavy burden on the Society, to provide lecturers in humanities and later on in philosophy and theology, but we are under such heavy obligations to his majesty the king, and the public good resulting will be so great, that we should in no way hold back.

          Your reverence, therefore, should take up this whole matter with the bishop of Laibach,2 and if he approves, with his majesty the king. Our Father, by explaining his thoughts and offering to do what he can, is partially repaying a general debt of charity, and a special debt which he owes to the service of his majesty, to the glory of God our Lord. May He in His infinite wisdom guide us all and govern us so as to contribute to the salvation of souls and His praise and glory. Amen.

          From Rome.


1 See Ep. Broëtii... 369-372.
2 Urban Weber (Textor) was Bishop of Laibach (today’s Ljubljana, Slovenia) and the king’s confessor.