Seminaries Await Vatican Visitation

The communiqué released on April 24 at the close of the Vatican-U.S. summit on clergy sexual abuse contained some surprising news. According to the communiqué issued at the end of the meeting in Rome between the U.S. cardinals and Vatican officials, investigating teams will be sent to all of the 51 American seminaries in the near future. Known as an apostolic visitation, the Vatican-prescribed investigation will focus on two issues: the need for fidelity to the church’s teaching, especially in the area of morality, and the need for a deeper study of criteria of suitability of candidates to the priesthood.

Some bishops and seminary administrators say that they are ready to welcome the visiting teams, since this will give them a chance to show Rome and concerned members of the church that in recent years they have greatly improved the way their institutions deal with human sexuality within their academic curriculums and in their personal formation programs for individual seminarians. Such reassurance, they hope, will serve to neutralize the effects of reports that numerous acts of sexual abuse have been perpetrated in the past within seminary walls, with faculty and counselors unconscionably exploiting young seminarians.


A contrary response to the Vatican’s announcement is also widespread among seminary officials. They fear that the currently increasing number of homosexual seminarians and priests in the United States will be reported to Rome in such a way that the Vatican will refuse to continue admitting homosexuals into the ranks of the clergy. The fact that most of the priests who committed sexual abuse in recent years have selected adolescent boys as their victims has raised the level of doubt in Rome about the suitability of homosexuals for the priesthood. But in fact, the priests who molest boys are not necessarily homosexual. Those among them who are heterosexual are thought by professional therapists to be taking advantage of opportunities provided by the close availability of males who are less carefully protected than their young sisters.

In 1961 the Congregation for Religious issued an instruction that has never been abrogated, so it is still considered technically valid by some Vatican officials, according to Catholic News Service. It stated that those affected by the perverse inclination to homosexuality or pederasty should be excluded from religious vows and ordination. It said the community life and priestly ministry would constitute a grave danger or temptation for these people.

But in practice, seminaries have been able to accept a candidate, whether heterosexual or homosexual in orientation, as long as he has demonstrated that he can live a life of reliable celibacy and has strong motivation to do so permanently. But at the close of their meeting in Rome, several cardinals spoke in favor of prohibiting homosexuals from entering seminaries to study for the priesthood, among them Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, whose archdiocese already screens out gay candidates, even those who are not sexually active. We feel a person who is homosexual-orientated is not a suitable candidate for the priesthood, said the cardinal, even if he had never committed any homosexual act. The Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education is currently discussing whether new norms for psychological screening of applicants for the seminary should ban those who have a homosexual orientation.

While many homosexual seminarians are wondering anxiously these days whether the announced visitations will turn out to be a witch hunt, their educators are describing for the media and also bishops worldwide the precise steps they have taken to deal more effectively with sexuality in a frank and comprehensive way that until recently was unthinkable in their institutions. In most (but not all) seminaries, a screening process involving professional interviews, psychological tests and careful inspection of the candidate’s sexual history has been adopted. Courses on human sexuality have been established, along with discussion groups where sexual orientation, chastity, celibacy, the need for interpersonal boundaries, ways of coping with temptations and spiritual motivation are led by men and women (including laypersons) dedicated to helping their seminarians reach full psychosexual and moral maturity.

But some of the nation’s seminaries are well ahead of others in developing their programs and staffing them with competent and experienced personnel. The quality of these programs and their staff is one of the issues the Vatican-sent inspection teams should explore and help correct or improve without unnecessary delay.

Regrettably, anyone who has been in close contact with many American seminaries in recent years knows that there are a number of aspects of these institutions that call for urgent attention. Several separate and critical issues have been described at length in two books that the Vatican’s visitors and our bishops, who are primarily responsible for the programs of seminaries, would do well to read or re-read before the visitations begin.

In The Changing Face of the Priesthood, the former seminary rector and vicar for clergy in Cleveland, the Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, stresses clearly the fact that many seminaries are seriously troubled within themselves about the sexual orientation of students and faculty members. He describes at length the spiritual and emotional distress he has observed in the lives of both homosexual and heterosexual students. The former, Father Cozzens has found, often live with the fear that their sexual orientation will stand in the way of their ordination. They must also deal with what he vaguely identifies as the implications of being part of a minority. I presume that he has encountered, as I have, a tendency on the part of many homosexual seminarians to feel that they are not fully integrated into the seminary community and are devalued by straight students and some faculty members who surround them. They feel in need of steady moral support from one another in order to avoid experiencing the humiliating effects of knowing that the church to which they are giving their lives appears to regard them as inferior persons because, as the church declares, their sexual nature, in its interior and behavioral inclinations, is fundamentally disordered.

On the other hand, in the presence of a significant homosexual subculture where they live and study, Cozzens reports that heterosexual men feel a destabilizing form of discomfort that grows in proportion to the ratio of gay to straight seminarians. He could also have pointed out that in the seminaries where a live and let live policy still prevails, the members of the two groups frequently pass through their program of study without ever learning to communicate with, understand, respect and admire one another. Not being challenged and shown by their educators how to establish unity within the seminary, they are likely to feel helpless, if not disinclined, to establish fraternal unity among the straight and gay priests in their diocese, once they have been ordained.

The other book I believe the visitors and bishops should read before beginning their seminary explorations is Goodbye! Good Men. The author, the investigative reporter Michael S. Rose, sees in a significant (unspecified) number of seminaries a serious and vocation-damaging clash between students he calls orthodox and others he views as being formed in their beliefs, attitudes and practices by liberal educators striving to transform the nature and functioning of the church’s priesthood.

The orthodox students, as Rose describes them, demonstrate unquestioning adherence to the church’s magisterium, as well as total acceptance of the church’s authentic teaching. They also embrace the legitimate traditions, devotions and piety of Catholicism, including public recitation of the rosary, eucharistic adoration and novenas. Opposed to them, Rose presents the nontraditional, liberal seminarians as generally approving a gay subculture, radical feminism, undisciplined liturgy and a sexual morality that departs widely from current papal teaching.

On the basis of anecdotal reports heard from a long list of orthodox seminarians, some of whom persevered through ordination and others who withdrew from their seminary feeling discriminated against and at times even sexually exploited by liberal classmates and staff members, Rose draws the amazing conclusion that the nation’s shortage of vocations is attributable to the way orthodox students have been persecuted by their fellow seminarians and teachers because of their rigidity and attitude of righteousness. He backs up his argument by pointing to a handful of very orthodox seminaries, where the number of candidates recruited and ordinations celebrated is significantly greater than in most liberal institutions.

In my own years of working with a widely distributed array of seminarians and their educators, I have certainly come in contact with students who comprised a minority resistant to what they regarded as their institution’s too liberal teachings and practices. But I must honestly say that the picture Rose so alarmingly presents, along with his explanation that liberal faculty and students intentionally drive out the orthodox seminarians, is far removed from what I have witnessed and from the seminary scene Cozzens describes in a way with which I personally agree.

Nevertheless, it will be important for the Vatican’s visitors to look closely at the orthodox-versus-liberal interactions in the institutions they inspect and see whether there is any convincing evidence that vocations are being spoiled as a result. Undoubtedly the Vatican’s visitors will find at least a mild degree of tension affecting educators as well as students in the institutions where these two academic and lifestyle currents are mixed. This will lead them, I suspect, to foresee the friction that is likely to exist when post-ordination assignments bring men from both seminary camps to share the same residence and parish work and to participate in meetings of their diocesan presbyterate, where unity and mutual support are desirable aims.

Closely related to these sources of stress affecting the education and future of today’s seminarians, there exists a significant issue that has received virtually no public attention during recent years. The Vatican insists that people who work in seminaries should be required to engage in specific and adequate preparation for their roles as administrators, faculty members, spiritual counselors or formation directors. This point was made strongly in John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992), which spelled out the principle that the task of formation of candidates for the priesthood requires...special preparation for those to whom this work is entrusted, one that is professional, pedagogical, spiritual, human and theological.

In view of this directive and the fact that all of the hundreds of priests who have been responsible for sexual abuse of minors during the last half century have passed through institutions that provided close, prolonged contact with seminary educators, I find it amazing that in the exhortation just quoted and in its sequel, Program of Priestly Formation, there is no mention at all of the fact that special formation in the area of human sexuality is absolutely essential in the preparation of seminary personnel.

My strong reaction flows from what I learned as a psychiatrist involved in assessing and treating priests accused of sexual misbehavior. Most of these offenders already had questions and uncertainties about their personal sexuality and inclinations while they were still in the seminary. Asked whom they consulted for help in dealing with this source of anxiety, and sometimes shame, they almost always reported no one. Why not? They said they had experienced a daunting fear that if they brought up (outside the confessional) any serious questions about their sexuality, they would be quickly dismissed from the seminary. But more than that, they said they were reluctant to raise issues related to sex because they had no confidence that anyone among the seminary personnel was knowledgeable and competent enough to provide helpful guidance for them.

Following up on these disclosures, a group of Jesuits and professional lay colleagues founded the Christian Institute for the Study of Human Sexuality, an academic program to prepare men and women to work with seminarians in the area of sexuality. Surprisingly, we have found that most of the 700 people who have passed through our intensive monthlong program (emphasizing the relationship between sexuality and developmental psychology, morality, spirituality, biology and communication) have come from foreign countries. Most American seminaries appear satisfied with the new sexuality courses, discussion groups, counseling opportunities and screening procedures they have already put in place. Seminary educators describe ideal celibate forms of behavior and then expect their students to employ conventional spiritual and psychological means to integrate them into their lives.

But in the realm of sexuality, no two individuals are exactly alike. No two men operate interiorly in precisely the same way in regard to their thoughts, fantasies, feelings, yearnings, strivings, memories and experiences. If seminarians are to be helped to understand, accept and achieve control over their celibate lives, they need to have available to them not just clinical psychologists or psychiatrists to whom those with special difficulties can be referred, but also well informed staff members who can talk with all of them individually and effectively about sexual matters in a nonthreatening and nonjudgmental way that is comfortable rather than anxiety-provoking for the student and his advisor alike.

So when visiting teams look closely at what is being provided by seminaries to help prevent sexual abuse on the part of priests in the future, it will be important for them to determine just why the Vatican-mandated preparation of seminary personnel has failed to be taken seriously in relation to the specific need they have in the area of sexuality. Without competent help to attain deep and accurate knowledge of themselves as unique sexual beings, too many seminarians are likely to go on approaching celibacy and chastity in a highly intellectualized and personally detached way, and abusive behavior can thus be expected to continue.

Unfortunately, there are no psychological tests that can, at the present time, flawlessly identify future offenders. Only an awareness of what is transpiring within their minds and bodies can signal seminarians that it is time to talk with someone about their sexuality and its bearing on their vocation. Providing such readily available and skillful help is one of the most valuable and essential services their spiritual and formation directors can offer them.

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16 years 6 months ago
James Gill's article concerning Vatican Visitations to the American seminaries brings to mind that this is not the only such time such visits have been mandated by Rome. If someone feels so inclined, it would be good to know the history of Vatican visits to America seminaries. I appreciate the various issues Rev. Gill points out as potential "red" flags. But alas, if Rome operates anything like the American bishops, then it's scapegoats for gay seminarians and closeted fears for any man who has questions concerning his sexuality. There is no such thing as open dialogue when it comes to discussions of sexuality in American seminaries! If only the seminary were a part of the process of sexual integrity and not the place where doors opened and closed with impunity, shame and burdensome resolve to keep one's sexual orientation a secret.

16 years 6 months ago
James Gill's article concerning Vatican Visitations to the American seminaries brings to mind that this is not the only such time such visits have been mandated by Rome. If someone feels so inclined, it would be good to know the history of Vatican visits to America seminaries. I appreciate the various issues Rev. Gill points out as potential "red" flags. But alas, if Rome operates anything like the American bishops, then it's scapegoats for gay seminarians and closeted fears for any man who has questions concerning his sexuality. There is no such thing as open dialogue when it comes to discussions of sexuality in American seminaries! If only the seminary were a part of the process of sexual integrity and not the place where doors opened and closed with impunity, shame and burdensome resolve to keep one's sexual orientation a secret.


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