the new & serious apostolic visitation

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Dec 20, 2004

The working document for the upcoming visitation of the U.S. seminaries -- known in Vatican slang as the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- occasioned some grim prognostications on our part that were blogged below. Yet I passed over the single ray of hope given by Bishop Nienstedt: his assurance that "a key element of the visitation is that any faculty member or student will be allowed to speak with the visitation team about the condition of the seminary." Provided there isn't an antecedent desire to bury negative feedback, this is a great step forward.

We're told that, as in the 1980s Marshall Visitation, a questionnaire will be sent to each seminary in advance, and then a Visitation Team (VT) will meet with the seminary personnel to evaluate the responses.

Any worthwhile visitation must be predicated on a firm recognition of the clergyman's fondness for the expedient lie. The VT has to take it as understood that the seminary staff is not going to report facts that are damaging to itself, period. The VT can use the questionnaire for curricular data, but no rector will ever write, "Our NT prof is a heretical Bultmannian and our dean is dating the bishop's MC." If the VT wants to know the real picture, it has to go behind the scenes to get it. With that in mind, I propose the following:

  • Require that, in advance of the team's arrival, every seminarian be given a copy of the questionnaire replies that the staff submitted to the VT. Reason: the questionnaire will tell the VT, e.g., there were three Days of Recollection last year; it won't mention that all three were conducted by a Sister of Loreto who's a part-time druidess. Seminarians can and will.
  • Require a list of names and contact info for all former seminarians of the past decade, and require that the list be posted so current seminarians can complete the gaps where possible. Reason: not all seminarians will have left or been expelled for reasons the staff wants known. Random contacts of ex-candidates will reveal info not available by interviewing only those who 1) have been "filtered in" by the system, and 2) are still cowed by the risk of discovery and dismissal.
  • Require a list of priests, ordained in the past five years, who have left the priesthood. Find out why they left and, if possible, interview a few. Reason: the resentments and satisfactions of these men will testify both to the aims of those who formed them and to methods of selection and promotion.
  • Ask for a list of the most prominent lay supporters and lay critics of the seminary, from both right and left wing perspectives. Reason: the view of the seminary among interested extern parties will help separate fact from gossip. If the bishop tells Rome his faculty is known for its orthodoxy, is that what the heads of the local CUF chapter and VOTF group think as well? Make some phone calls and do some cross-questioning. "So-and-so says too many seminarians are second-career travel agents -- what's your take on the situation?" Moreover, a consideration of those names left off the list will tell the VT a lot about what the diocese does not want known.
  • Talk to the local pro-lifers. Reason: in every diocese in the U.S., pro-lifers have a vivid interest in the next generation of priests and an especially acute awareness of the gap between diocesan rhetoric and reality.
  • Call the cops and the DA's office, and ask about recent relations with the seminary staff and students. Reason: They see and hear things others don't, and even their reluctances to respond to certain questions can point to areas of profitable investigation.
  • Stage random visits of both faculty living quarters and students' rooms. Look for indications of a godly, sober, reasonably simple manner of life. Reason: Canon 282 ยง1.
  • Conduct an open faculty discussion of Dominus Iesus, with the seminarians in attendance. Ask follow-up questions of faculty who say nothing. Reason: DI is a flash-point document, excellent at bringing up ugly and long-hidden doctrinal mutants from the lake bottom. If the seminarians tell you, "What he said at the round table was the opposite of what he tells us in class" -- well, then you have something to discuss, don't you?

Bishop Nienstedt says "I believe the seminaries today are not the seminaries they were 30 years ago," and insists, "I think that we have advanced tremendously." But the fact is that most of the priests and all of the bishops on the Visitation Team were formed by the seminaries of 30 years ago, i.e., at their nadir. The success of the visitation depends entirely on the will to confront unpleasant truths, and it's not mere tendentiousness to view the advance happy-talk as an announcement that such will is lacking.

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