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 §1.
  • 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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  • Posted by: Ignacio177 - Dec. 22, 2004 3:52 PM ET USA

    As an x-coach may I cite Woody Hayes: "You win with people". The methods proposed are not bad but there are no foolproof methods. The key to reform is the naming of orthodox, chaste, heterosexual, vocation directrors, novice masters, seminary rectors and faculty. You have to distinguish friends and foes. It is of utmost urgency to select the gatekeepers well.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 21, 2004 9:55 AM ET USA

    I remember Bishop Neinstadt from years back as a good, solid priest who won't take any **** from those who want to challenge Rome's atempts to reform. I will trust his approach, especially with Diogene's additional advice. I also have to believe that there are currents of change going on in even the most liberal of places - whether out of fear or real attempts to adhere to orthodoxy. May the charism of reform of Charles Borromeo be instilled in those who are out to correct and admonish and help.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 21, 2004 9:03 AM ET USA

    I certainly hope your recommendations turn out to be something more than a wish list. Does asking for a return to discipline violate any document of the Second Vatican Council? Forgive me for being skeptical and waiting to see the outcome. Previous results of like endeavors are not very encouraging.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 21, 2004 6:00 AM ET USA

    A recent writer said that "bishops cannot give what they do not have" [faith, charity, supernatural virtue etc] to their dioceses. Same goes for priests - & especially seminary faculty. Less than qualified men staffed some of our seminaries. An "as you sow, so you reap" situation is what we have in some dioceses today. The "club" continues and the good old boys stick together. Cocktails at 5, Monsignor?

  • Posted by: Fr. William - Dec. 21, 2004 12:55 AM ET USA

    Diogenes, would you please send your plan to Bishop Nienstedt and his Visitation Team?

  • Posted by: Fr. Walter - Dec. 20, 2004 8:40 PM ET USA

    I think back to my salad days, the time of the last "visitation," but how might one describe it? The Bard puts it well, "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!" Bishop "N" declares, "I believe the seminaries today are not the seminaries they were..." But, Your Excellency, 30 years ago our Bishops and Rectors said the seminaries were fine... what are we to believe? Look at the last 40 years of decline and scandal, there is the truth. Expect nothing!

  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2004 7:58 PM ET USA

    Diogenes, your suggestions would probably make the visitation meaningful. Do you think the bureaucrats actually want that?

  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2004 5:36 PM ET USA

    When the US Treasury department or the IRS or the FBI have a concern with some organization, they just show up, warrant, gun, computers, forms, and sometimes dogs in hand. They are not above segregating the concerns occupants into groups for separate interrogation. There actually are things that the Church could learn from modern government. Also, there are plenty of no-nonsense audit firms that could be hired to audit to any specification. That is if you really wanted to know the answer.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2004 3:35 PM ET USA

    The VT should be vetted for homosexuals and selectees required to read Michael Rose’s Goodbye, Good Men, & they should attempt to interview Rose’s sources—both those he named & those whose stories were credited anonymously. The VT schedule should not be published and arrival time at each seminary should be revealed only 24 hours in advance. And those searches, Di, should be thorough “shakedowns” of seminarian and staff quarters--including computers--especially at the seminaries fingered by Rose

  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2004 2:10 PM ET USA

    Being a recently ordained priest, I know many seminaries have changed for the better: seminarians at some of the most liberal seminaries have told me that things are turning around. On the other hand, how are the VTs going to do what you suggest they do in over 100 seminaries? That would take several years to accomplish. It ain't going to happen. My suggestion is we close any major diocesan seminaries that have less than 50 seminarians. There are not enough good priest theologian professors.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2004 1:19 PM ET USA

    As a former seminarian of recent years, I would say if any of the above happens it will be because the VT is being led by the Four Horsemen. I wasn't in seminary long, but I was there long enough to know they are in the business of producing company men--men who know that relationships come first and doctrine, if ever, comes last. Our clergy, by and large, are an insulated, self-congratulatory club and there won't be any getting through to them. Best to have them around as little as possible.