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Catholic World News News Feature

Apostolic visitation deems US seminaries generally healthy, notes numerous problems January 15, 2009

A Vatican investigation into American seminarians, undertaken in a response to the sex-abuse scandal, has given the institutions a passing grade but taken note of many difficulties.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has quietly posted on its web site the final report of the apostolic visitation of seminaries in the United States. Dated December 15, the report, issued by the prefect and secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, offers a generally positive assessment of US seminaries but notes numerous problems.

The apostolic visitation stemmed from an extraordinary April 2002 meeting between Roman curial prefects and cardinals and other leaders of the American hierarchy. Issued at the height of the clerical abuse scandal, the meeting’s final communique called for “a new and serious Apostolic Visitation of seminaries and other institutes of formation must be made without delay, with particular emphasis on the need for fidelity to the Church’s teaching, especially in the area of morality, and the need for a deeper study of the criteria of suitability of candidates to the priesthood.”

The visitation’s final report observes that “an Apostolic Visitation is a blunt instrument but by no means an infallible one,” providing only a brief snapshot of life in US seminaries. Intended to assist US bishops and major superiors in fulfilling their responsibilities related to seminaries, the report chronicles developments from 2002 to 2005, when the visitations, coordinated by Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, began. Visitations were conducted in 2005 and 2006.

The report then issued conclusions in several areas.

While concluding that “in the great majority of diocesan seminaries, the doctrine on the priesthood is well taught,” the report nonetheless noted in some seminaries, students have an “insufficient grasp” of Catholic teaching and the distinction between the common priesthood of the faithful and the hierarchal priesthood is blurred. Some religious institutes speak primarily of “ministry” rather than the priesthood in a “mistaken attempt” not to offend opponents of Catholic teaching on women’s ordination.

While praising bishops and major superiors for being “interested in and supportive of” seminaries, the report urged each bishop to make the seminary “the object of his most intense and assiduous pastoral care.” Although the majority of seminary rectors are “good and holy men,” not all are leaders who are “comfortable making difficult decisions.“ Rectors need to spend more time at the seminary, while frequent personnel changes among seminary faculty need to end. Praising “most diocesan seminaries” for the unity of their faculty with the magisterium, the report nonetheless noted the presence of some faculty members who dissent from magisterial teaching; such dissenters are “out of kilter with the rest of the faculty and with the seminarians themselves.”

“Quite often,” the visitors found faculty who mocked magisterial teaching without “speaking openly against Church teaching.”

“More widespread dissent” exists in other places, “particularly in institutes run by religious,” and in these places, “there can be no possibility of a unity in direction.” Dissenting superiors and faculty members, the report observed diplomatically, need to be removed.

The report also observed that the formation of laity “really ought to take place elsewhere” than at a seminary, which exists for the formation of candidates to the priesthood. If lay formation must take place there, laity should not “routinely be admitted” to certain areas.

Praising the criteria of admission of seminary candidates, the report nonetheless found grave deficiencies in seminary formation before the four years of theology formation. “Almost nowhere” has a propadeutic year before the two years of philosophical formation been implemented. While most college seminaries-- in which students receive philosophical formation-- are “good,” seminarians, before the four years of theology formation, are at times not formed with adequate oversight and are even not looked upon fully as seminarians. The report urged bishops to take a greater role in the acceptance or rejection of priestly formation candidates and noted that in some institutes, “lack of vocations has caused a lowering of standards,” with “possible wretched consequences.”

The report took special note of moral problems, primarily associated with homosexual behavior, in some US seminaries. While the situation has improved because of “better superiors (especially rectors),” there are “still some places-- usually centers of formation for religious-- where “ambiguity vis-à-vis homosexuality persists," the document said. Commenting on the report, the Congregation for Catholic Education urges American Church leaders to pay special attention to the 2005 document from the same dicastery on criteria for admission to seminaries-- a document which states homosexual men are not appropriate candidates for priestly training. The report on the Apostolic Visitation does not take into account the public statements from several American seminary officials who, in response to the 2005 directive, announced that they would continue to accept candidates with homosexual inclinations.

The report also noted many seminaries’ “laxity of discipline” over students’ off-campus activities-- a problem avoided by Neocatechumenal Way seminaries. In some seminaries, “formation advisers” and psychologists delve into seminarians’ spiritual lives, while ascetic rules are lacking.

The heart of seminary formation, the report continued, is prayer. “In the diocesan seminaries, the liturgical norms are generally obeyed, but this is not always the case” in religious institutes. Despite this general fidelity, some of the report‘s strongest criticisms come in the area of spiritual formation. “Regrettably, very few seminaries fix periods of time for prayer,” and “some seminaries” need to do more to introduce students to classical Catholic spirituality. The report exhorted seminaries to celebrate Mass, Lauds, and Vespers every day, including on weekends. “A great many seminaries” need to introduce seminarians to the Rosary, novenas, litanies, and Stations of the Cross-- otherwise, the seminarians “will be unprepared for ministry in the Church, which greatly treasures these practices.” The report also noted faculty members who criticize the discipline of clerical celibacy.

While praising the intellectual formation seminaries offer in philosophy and theology-- with some seminaries being “truly remarkable”-- the report condemned the practice of sending students to community colleges for their philosophy classes. Criticizing widespread weaknesses in the study of Mariology, patristics, and Latin, the report noted that “even in the best seminaries,” some faculty members dissent from Catholic teaching on moral theology and the ordination of women. Dissent is widespread at some seminaries, “particularly in some schools of theology run by religious.”

Offering strong general praise for seminaries’ pastoral formation programs, the report noted that in some places, bishops ordain men against the advice of rectors, while in “a few places,” the evaluation process was suspect-- with the non-ordained, and even non-Catholics, voting whether candidates should be ordained. “Such practices are to cease.”

The report’s generally positive conclusion noted that seminary formation has gradually improved since the 1990s-- “at least in diocesan seminaries”-- because of the appointment of “wise and faithful” rectors. The bottom line, according to the Apostolic Visitation: “The diocesan seminaries are, in general, healthy.”

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