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We need to stop separating seminarians from lay ministers in formation

(CNS photo/Katie Rutter)

More than a year after the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the church is still reeling from the sexual abuse crisis. The reason we are experiencing another wave of the crisis—the reason the church was not able to fix this problem almost two decades ago—is that this is fundamentally a crisis of clerical culture.

Pope Francis succinctly described clericalism as when “clerics feel they are superior, [and when] they are far from the people.” We need to choose to strike at the very source where this culture takes root: seminary formation.


The church needs to change the model that separates diocesan seminarians from lay and religious candidates for ministry.

At their November meeting, the U.S. bishops approved a new edition of the Program for Priestly Formation, the document that governs the way in which all seminarians in the United States are formed to become priests. This revision came after a multiyear process with a significant investment of manpower. By all accounts, the new edition is well thought out and a much-needed update.

However, this document is only a starting point. As bishops, deans and rectors of seminaries implement the P.P.F., they need to change the current model that reserves the seminary as the venue for all aspects of formation (intellectual, pastoral, human and spiritual). This model separates diocesan seminarians from lay and religious candidates for ministry, even though they are all undertaking similar theological studies. The result is a rarified formation environment for candidates for the priesthood, one that isolates them from the laity—both those they will serve and those religious and professional lay ministers with whom they will work. Concurrent with the implementation of the new P.P.F., we have a real opportunity to begin thinking outside old boxes—or, speaking biblically, to make sure to put the new wine in new wineskins.

What could those new wineskins look like? Put simply: forming lay, religious and seminary candidates together.

I do not mean they should simply share a campus. I mean they should be in class, in ministry, in conversation, in prayer—dare I say, even in community—together.

Note that there is a difference between “together” and “alongside one another.” I do not mean they should simply share a campus, facilities or instructors. I mean they should be in class, in ministry, in conversation, in prayer—dare I say, even in community—together. The context for the Christian life is community. It implicitly and explicitly capacitates us for authentic relationship. It breaks feelings of, and subsequent challenges associated with, isolation.

What does community look like without a shared living situation? Seminarians and lay men and women can legitimately share all the elements of intellectual and pastoral formation, which takes place in the academic and pastoral classroom, in ministerial placements and seminars debriefing those placements. Comprehensive human and spiritual formation can be offered separately in the seminary and also in a facilitated lay-formation community.

While those who facilitate formation cannot dictate the unique way that candidates for ministry choose to realize community together, we can describe the nature of the community on offer. It comes down to the reality that those sharing formation have a stake personally and professionally in one another. That means they have license to speak into one another’s lives, and the responsibility to do so. They have a view into one another’s formation that the formation staff cannot have. They see it unfolding with the eyes of a peer. Therefore, the level of accountability they have with each other has a certain weight and power. Most importantly, it mitigates against power honed in isolation, one of the root causes of clericalism.

Of course, what I suggest is not as simple as just putting people in class together. Significant attention must be paid to details such as identifying partnerships, admissions processes, a careful integration of religious, lay, and diocesan constituencies, and, most essential of all, the facilitation of community. Currently, there are only small pockets in the formation landscape where this is done well, if at all. To my knowledge these are almost exclusively in religious theologates like the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College and our own Master of Divinity program at Notre Dame. Discussing this kind of approach could prove foundational to rebuilding the church in the United States, and it is exactly where the energy of implementation should be focused.

Formation in an integrated, communal context produces precisely the type of ecclesial ministers we need in order to move forward as a church. Community relationships form leaders who are authentic, resilient and empathetic. They comfortably share power rather than gathering it to themselves. In the shared formation context, they learn to be accountable in every aspect of church ministry—from administration to pastoral care, from preaching to stewardship and from professional integrity to affective maturity. This makes them stronger, healthier, more balanced future servants of the church because it exponentially magnifies opportunities for human formation while simultaneously breaking down any potential isolation from the People of God.

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