Will the Seminaries Measure Up?

The much-touted apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries and houses of formation is now well underway. Last September, when someone leaked to the press the document designed to guide the visitation (called an instrumentum laboris, hereafter IL), several articles appeared about it. The media initially made much of the visit, mostly connecting it to the anticipated document from the Congregation for Catholic Education about homosexuals in priestly formation programs. Unfortunately, little has been done to place the visitation in its proper context. I propose to do just that, examine the IL and review the status of the visitation.

Contemporary Context

The media have given two perceptions of the visitation that are not entirely accurate. They connect it directly with the sexual abuse scandal and also exclusively with the question of the presence of homosexuals in the Roman Catholic clergy. True enough, the visitation was requested by the American cardinals and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops leadership in April 2002, in the midst of the unfolding scandal of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and the mishandling of the issue by some bishops.


The fact is, nevertheless, that the Holy See had independently decided to make apostolic visitations, or ecclesial visits, of seminaries and houses of formation around the world at regular intervals (approximately every 20 years) for many different reasons. The Congregation for Catholic Education has the obligation to give sound oversight to the education of priests. The church has need of a well-educated and spiritually fortified clergy. More important, the faithful have a right to a properly formed and ethically upright clergy. They want good, holy, intelligent and dedicated priests who know how to serve, who represent Jesus Christ authentically (in persona Christi) and who are faithful to their promise of celibacy.

Some people also have the false impression that only the United States is undergoing intense scrutiny from the Holy See. That is not the case. In July 2004 there was a notorious incident of sexual acting out at the seminary in Sankt Pölten, Austria. A special investigator was named to examine a sordid situation that involved the complicity of the local bishop. Investigations also occurred earlier in other places around the world, notably in South America and Africa.

The last extensive visitation of U.S. seminaries took place some 20 years ago, from 1983 to 1989, under the coordination of the late Bishop John Marshall. It too was conducted using an IL to ascertain strengths and weaknesses in seminary formation. Apparently, though, some think that visitation was a whitewash. George Weigel, for example, has implied as much in a syndicated column (June 2005), and his is not the sole voice expressing such an attitude. What does the current IL say about the nature of this latest ecclesial visit?

Outline and Procedure in the Instrumentum Laboris 

The 13-page document issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education describes the purpose and nature of the visit, as well as the procedure to be followed. It also calls attention to 10 areas:

• The concept of the priesthood
• The governance of the seminary
• Admission policies
• The seminarians
• Human formation
• Spiritual formation
• Intellectual formation
• Pastoral formation
• Promotion to holy orders
• Service of the seminary to newly ordained priests

In addition, there is a catchall final category of “other concerns” that the visitation team might wish to bring to the attention of the Holy See and an extensive, but “not exhaustive” two-page list of 41 guiding documents from the Holy See on priestly formation.

The procedure is simple enough. The Holy See appointed Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of the U.S. Archdiocese for Military Services, who has twice been a seminary rector, as logistical coordinator of the visitation. He in turn proposed teams of three or four Vatican-approved visitors (all clerics), each headed by a bishop, to visit each seminary or post-novitiate religious house of priestly formation over the course of the current academic year. These teams are to interview every full-time faculty member or formator, every seminarian and graduates from the last three years. After the visitation (of four days or so, depending on the size of the program), the team submits directly to the Holy See a final report.

It is striking, if one assumes that sexual abuse is the primary background issue, that not one of the 96 questions addresses this explicitly. There is also no reference to professional expectations in priestly formation, a curious omission, given that we now know some Catholic priests, primarily in the 1970’s and 80’s, seriously transgressed professional boundaries and their promises of celibacy by sexual abuse or other misconduct.

Similarly striking, if homosexuality is the primary concern (as some suggest), only one related question appears in the form, and this is phrased imprecisely: “Is there evidence of homosexuality in the seminary?”—with no clarity about what constitutes “evidence,” or whether the focus is primarily on activity, orientation, promotion of a subculture or all of these.

Strengths of the Document

There are some strengths in the IL. First, the Holy See consulted widely for input in drafting it. The congregation invited feedback from other Vatican dicasteries, seminary rectors, bishops and major superiors, as well as representatives from both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. Although not every recommendation was accepted, consultation took place. Moreover, Archbishop O’Brien himself was open about soliciting assistance with preparations for the visitation, especially through consultations with C.M.S.M. Also, the general outline of the IL takes its inspiration from John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, which the majority of people working in formation regard as the most important document on priestly formation since the Second Vatican Council. The U.S.C.C.B.’s Program of Priestly For-mation (4th ed.) also helped to shape the IL. The integration of four major components of formation (human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral) is key, and the IL tries to emphasize this. The inclusion of human formation issues, which was largely left out of previous visitations, is admirable and, in light of the issues at stake after the sexual abuse scandal, extremely important.

The Holy See made clear, appropriately in my judgment, that formation in celibacy is a central focus of this visitation. But this should not be reduced to an investigation only of sexual issues. As indicated by the preponderance of questions on theological themes, the real interest of the Holy See is doctrinal fidelity. The primary intention of the IL is found in the second paragraph of the first page: “Particular attention will be reserved for the intellectual formation of seminarians, to examine its [i.e., priestly formation in the United States] fidelity to the magisterium, especially in the field of moral theology, in light of Veritatis Splendor, ” John Paul’s encyclical published in 1995.

Limitations of the Document

Although I am optimistic that the visitation will largely affirm U.S. priestly formation and offer some useful recommendations, there are limitations—both in procedure and content—that may inhibit its full effectiveness. Procedurally, three problems stand out. First, there is the ongoing insistence on secrecy. Not only was no list of the visitors made public; the IL itself was kept secret until someone leaked it. In the U.S. context especially, one would have thought that the serious criticism of excessive secrecy aimed at church authorities in the midst of the sexual abuse crisis would have led to greater transparency in the apostolic visitation, but it did not.

A second procedural problem is the lack of an “exit interview” at the conclusion of the visitation. Seminary personnel, and even bishops or religious ordinaries, are left in the dark about the impressions made on the visitors. In United States, where most seminaries are used to being scrutinized by accreditation agencies (whether secular or theological), at least an oral interview outlining major impressions has become de rigueur. Withholding such a judgment for what may be a period of many months or, more likely, years (if the last visitation is any indication) is a disservice. Ostensibly, the reason for this procedure is so that officials of the Holy See alone can make the final judgment about the adequacy of any seminary or formation program. (The congregation eventually allowed a preliminary report to be reviewed for factual accuracy, but only by the ordinary of the diocese or religious community; no evaluative judgments can be questioned.)

Third, the lack of extensive lay participation in the visitation seems odd, given the recent experience of the U.S. church in the abuse crisis, where excessive clericalism has been blamed for the lack of oversight and transparency. Actually, the congregation did make a concession in the case of this visitation, by agreeing to have some laity serve as “consultors” in the process. But they are not allowed to participate in interviews or be official apostolic visitors. Rather, their role is to peruse seminary documentation, visit the library and so on. Perhaps this concession will lead to further lay participation in the future, but in a U.S. context, this limited role seems overly restrictive.

There are also some serious limitations in the content of the IL. From the perspective of religious communities, the IL is still too oriented to diocesan seminary settings. Many questions do not fit religious houses of formation. This has been a longstanding problem with a one-size-fits-all approach that is not likely to change soon.

Another limitation is the lack of sufficient attention to a theology of the priesthood. The section on the “concept” of the priesthood seems more focused on awareness of various magisterial documents than on any in-depth understanding of the nature of the priesthood. Even less is there any question dealing with the relationship of the priesthood to other ministries in the church, especially lay ecclesial ministries and religious life. (One question, though, does deal with how a religious institute’s charism is integrated into priestly formation.) A question is also devoted to “a proper understanding of the role of women in ecclesial life” and models of “clergy-lay cooperation,” with reference to several Vatican documents. However, it is ambiguous enough to allow for broad interpretations that could be misconstrued.

Although the IL covers in general the four main areas outlined by Pastores Dabo Vobis (human, spiritual, intellectual, pastoral), one looks in vain for questions about how formation programs deal with multiculturalism, social justice, liturgy and sacred Scripture. These areas are vital to the formation of contemporary priests, and sometimes are also the very areas where tensions exist in formation programs (and in the church).

Given the historical context of the visitation, it is curious that the IL treats celibacy only under the heading of spiritual formation. Celibacy is clearly a focus of the visitation—for understandable reasons. One would have expected that human formation, which fortunately since the publication of Pastores Dabo Vobis has come to the fore, would have also been an appropriate place to discuss this topic. Indeed, although the IL has a question on such “human” issues as appropriate use of alcohol, the Internet and television, looking for evidence of prudence and the ability to act in responsible ways, there is no question to assess the seminarians’ relational capabilities within a community or their ability to work collegially.

Another problem with the IL is the tone. Frankly, although it tries to place the visitation in the positive context of promoting better formation, it still comes off in an accusatory fashion (for example, the six questions that “must be answered,” with no clarity as to who must answer them—the team or the people interviewed). The IL implies as well that only those with ecclesiastical doctorates, or at least licentiates, are academically qualified and doctrinally sound. In an American context, where Ph.D.’s tend to be prevalent, this form of qualification might seem too restrictive. Finally, the IL makes no distinction about the level of a seminarian’s competence to make a judgment when asked to determine whether faculty members are doctrinally sound or not. Apparently, it is left entirely to the judgment of individual visitors to determine whether a seminarian is knowledgeable in responding to such a question, may have misunderstood his instructors or simply has an ax to grind.

The IL, of course, contains a disclaimer. It states: “By itself, an Apostolic Visitation can never discover, and even less address, all the various concerns of priestly formation.” This is true, but given the fact that apostolic seminary visitations are now envisioned to be periodic, one would expect that a more comprehensive approach would be in the best interests of the church. After all, it takes an extraordinary expenditure of time, talent and resources to pull off such a complex process in a large country like ours.

Status of the Visitation

My unscientific survey of how the visitation is going, based on informal conversations with people involved in formation in some of the seminaries and houses of formation that have already been visited, has yielded the following observations.

• The visitation has not been as disruptive as anticipated. Although there were a couple of instances of aggressive media intrusion (and misinterpretation of the process), for the most part the visitations have gone smoothly.

• The tone of the visitations has largely been positive. For example, one bishop leading his team announced that they were present to affirm what the seminary was doing well and to point out what could be done better. That is a healthy approach. There have been, however, some instances of overly intrusive and aggressive interrogations inappropriate for an ecclesial visitation. But I am told that most “visitors” have approached their task with the attitude explicitly expressed in the IL, that the visitation is meant to be “a service” and “a help” to the U.S. bishops rather than a threat.

• Even the anticipation of the visitation has been helpful. It forced some programs to design or update their literature, and especially to refine the description of how formation takes place in fulfillment of the church’s expectations. Ideally, this process should take place internally from time to time, but outside pressure can produce concrete results.

• When formators are honest, they acknowledge that mistakes were made in formation programs, especially in the 1970’s and early 80’s. Admission policies were sometimes lax (or absent), and programs at times admitted problematic seminarians, often under pressure from bishops or vocation directors who, strapped for vocations, pressed for the admission of less qualified or risky candidates.

• Some seminary formators remain concerned that the hot-button issue of homosexuality, especially in light of the recent Vatican document, will ignite a destructive witch hunt among seminarians and formation personnel. Given the public misconstruing of the visitation from the beginning, this is indeed a possibility. One hopes that the more central concern about proper formation in celibate chastity will hold sway rather than histrionic overreactions.

In conclusion, the IL and the visitation are far from perfect. But in the end, if the visitation fulfills its goal of improving what is and has been—in general—a good program of priestly formation in this country, then perhaps the process will not have been in vain.

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12 years 10 months ago
As a 'cradle Catholic' who has been dismayed by the more than decade long crisis in the church regarding its' hierarchy and priests involvement in sexual misconduct I am pleased to see the review of seminary formation in all its' aspects. This process can only result in positive developments for a stronger clergy if conducted with full transparency. However, I cannot help but question whether there is a shift of emphasis away from the hierarchy to the parish priest. I am unaware of any similar review of the episcopacy of North America in regard to their decision making and management of what has now been clearly identified as a broken clergy. I would hope the Bishops'of North America will stand the same public scrutiny the seminaries are experiencing.

11 years 11 months ago
In his article about seminaries and what should be expected of the priestly formation they provide, “Will the Seminaries Measure Up?” (3/20), Ronald Witherup, S.S., reports that the primary goal of seminary education should be to integrate “four major components of formation (human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral).” That is a happy thought. But permit me two observations.

First, recent studies of American seminaries suggest that this integration will not come easily. These studies (and my own limited experience) indicate that there is little evidence that parish priests do much to communicate to their congregations either the results of recent biblical scholarship or of post-Vatican II theology about the church, the sacraments or the liturgy. Too often, one hears Scripture talked about in a fundamentalistic way, as if it were akin to modern journalism or popular history. As the weekly column The Word in America, by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., shows, the richness of Scripture is not inaccessible to ordinary lay people, but neither is Scripture as “obvious” as yesterday’s newspaper. To change this situation, priests will have to show more concern for both their own and their congregants’ minds.

Second, and not wholly independent of the first point, parish priests have to find a better way to show that they really believe that lay people are intelligent and deserve to be talked to as adults. They too, after all, are baptized and thereby charged to make their own distinctive contribution to the church’s mission.

11 years 11 months ago
In reading “Will the Seminaries Measure Up?” by Ronald D. Witherup, S.S., (3/20) the jump-off-the-page statement that there is only one question in the Instrumentum Laboris about homosexuality seems as if that should cover the “sexuality” issues in the church. What disturbs me is that the question should be, “Is there evidence of any inappropriate sexual activity in the seminary?” To me the implication of the first question is that sexual activity between a man and a woman is O.K. because it is evidence that the seminarian is not homosexual. Isn’t celibacy the issue here? Why does the church have to go “around” an issue before facing it? We the people of God have to continue to keep a watchful eye on the leaders of our church, who are not all honorable men.

11 years 11 months ago
The critique of seminaries now in process (“Will the Seminaries Measure Up?” by Ronald D. Witherup, S.S., 3/20), brought to mind an idea I had early in my 61 years of priesthood. Should the future priest be trained in the milieu in which he received his call from the Lord? The years have convinced me that I was not all wrong, maybe partly.

We were trained in a monastic setting, totally cocooned from the ambience and situations in which we would minister. The news of the world we were to conform to—“thy will be done on earth”—was blocked out. No newspapers, no radio, no telephones and limited mail. Distance from women was a rigid requirement. Consequently, we tended to emerge without the muscle in our personalities to cope with a world where women do most parish work and come for counseling. Our ability to preach on justice in the public life we knew little of was limited. We were well educated, spiritual and motivated, but we were like greenhouse plants, ill-fitted for a foreign environment.

The method of our formation was heavy on rules and punishment. Before entering the seminary, we directed our own spiritual development with the aid of worship, prayer, study and advice. We were basically self-propelled. In the seminary, we gave ourselves over to a structure to form us. We assumed a passive role. Passivity was the safest path to ordination. This surrender tends to produce an infantilism that can lead to substance abuse and sexual difficulty.

I am not suggesting a dismantling of the present system, but an adjustment; nor am I saying that the old system did not get good results. The fleet admiral of the Pacific used to say that the Catholics had the best chaplains in the Navy. He added, however, that we also had the worst. Most problems that have come to light dated back to those trained in the way described.

I am aware that substantial changes, some beyond any we would have imagined, have been instituted. My question is, “Are they enough?” In the Navy, I supervised and was supervised by Protestant chaplains, most of whom I respected highly. It would be rash to say that we have nothing to learn from their training. After all, the advancement of ecumenism depends greatly on our humbly learning from one another. I would hope the inspectors would include visits to their seminaries.

11 years 11 months ago
In response to “Will the Seminaries Measure Up?” by Ronald D. Witherup, S.S., (3/20) as a lay student at an institution for older men pursuing the priesthood as well as a small Catholic college for lay people, I witnessed the apostolic visitation last fall. But, being a layperson, I was not asked or allowed to participate in the interview process, although I have attended part time since 2001 and have seen many seminarians come and go. Last year, 14 seminarians were ordained to the priesthood, which is a remarkable number these days. One bothersome fact that surprised me, however, was that there were only about 40 seminarians in the fall of 2005, when ordinarily the seminary handles anywhere from 60 to 80 seminarians in any given semester.

Was there a connection between the low number of seminarians in the fall and the much-advertised fall apostolic visit? And if yes, why?

12 years 10 months ago
As a 'cradle Catholic' who has been dismayed by the more than decade long crisis in the church regarding its' hierarchy and priests involvement in sexual misconduct I am pleased to see the review of seminary formation in all its' aspects. This process can only result in positive developments for a stronger clergy if conducted with full transparency. However, I cannot help but question whether there is a shift of emphasis away from the hierarchy to the parish priest. I am unaware of any similar review of the episcopacy of North America in regard to their decision making and management of what has now been clearly identified as a broken clergy. I would hope the Bishops'of North America will stand the same public scrutiny the seminaries are experiencing.


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