Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Seminary Visitation: Bishops, Si; Religious Superiors, No

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 16, 2009

I can recall when the Vatican decided in the 1980's that it was going to have to do a visitation of American seminaries. Many of us hoped this would be the beginning of the end for both heterodoxy and the lavender mafia in the Church in the United States. As I recall, however, the results of the visitation were a closely guarded secret, so much so that, to those of us looking on, it appeared that nothing had come of it. It is possible that I missed something, but in any case we are living now in a very different era. In 2002 the Vatican decided to do another Apostolic Visitation and the general results of this one have been posted on the USCCB web site for all to see. Among other things, the results show that there really has been something going on during all these years.

The mere availability of the report demonstrates the remarkable increase in openness and accountability within the whole Church since the close of the 20th century. I believe this in itself is a clear sign of the gradual restoration of Catholic health and confidence. It is true that the results of the particular visitations to individual seminaries have not been made public; one could not reasonably expect them to be. But the overall assessment is public, and it reveals a great deal. In fact, the report refreshingly confirms what long-time observers already know: Despite some continuing problems, the dioceses of the United States have shown significant improvement in faithful and courageous seminary leadership over the past twenty years; but in contrast, many religious communities have refused to change.

What, if anything, will be done over the next twenty years about this notable failure of religious life will have a major impact on the Catholic future, and not only in the United States.

A Well-Focused Visitation

The general report is just 20 pages long, but it is still worth summarizing here. Please note that in what follows I use the generic term “seminary” (and “seminarian”) to refer not only to seminaries but also to all houses of formation, academic programs, and religious institutes devoted to the training and formation of priests. Such was the scope of the Apostolic Visitation, and from the first it was clearly focused on essentials. An early paragraph in the final report indicates its laudable clarity of purpose:

It was decided early on in the process to give the Apostolic Visitation a rather broad focus, while omitting some issues of a secondary nature, such as the seminaries’ finances, library, holdings, the state of the physical plants, etc. The categories that were eventually included in the Instrumentum laboris all had a direct bearing on priestly formation. A seminary without a proper concept of the priesthood is starting off entirely on the wrong foot. A seminary with weak governance, or unclear lines of authority, cannot properly control what is going on within its walls. The value of examining the admissions policies is obvious, as is the impression made by the seminarians. Human formation and spiritual formation need to be strong—inter al., so that the candidates can lead a celibate life in tranquility of mind. In intellectual formation, clear ethical and moral principles must be taught. Pastoral formation examines how, in the here and now, the candidates interact with others outside the confines of the seminary. The ongoing formation reviews, prior to the conferral of Holy Orders, are of the utmost importance in ensuring that only suitable men enter the sacred ministry. Even post-ordination formation is important, for it helps the candidates to stay committed to their vocation.

A Careful Process

The idea of a new seminary visitation grew out of meetings between John Paul II and the American hierarchy in 2002 following the onset of the abuse scandal. Under the Pope’s direction, the congregations for the Clergy (CC), the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) joined with the Congregation for Catholic Education (CCE) in working out both the purposes and the mechanisms of the visitation and drafting the operational guidelines (Instrumentum laboris). In addition to being reviewed by the prefects of the various congregations, this preliminary work was submitted to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the US Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM). (Women religious, of course, do not train their members to be priests.) A list of potential Apostolic Visitors was drawn up with suggestions from the USCCB and the CMSM, and this list was submitted to the Vatican Secretariat of State, the CDF and the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington. Bishop visitors were cleared by the USCCB. Religious and secular clergy were cleared by the CC and the CICLSAL. At the end of 2004, the CCE asked the CICLSAL and the Congregation for Oriental Churches to grant approval for all American religious institutes and Eastern-rite seminaries to be included in the visitation.

Once all was in order, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien (then the Archbishop of Military Services) was assigned as the prelate in charge of coordinating the visitations. In early 2005, the proposed visitors were contacted. Those who consented were given the Instrumentum laboris for study and were invited to an orientation meeting. The calendar of visits was scheduled for September 2005 through May 2006, with one visitation as late as July 2006. The CCE reported the specific results of each visitation, as applicable, to the bishop of each seminary (and all bishops involved with the one de iure interdiocesan seminary); the major superior of each religious institute, with copies both to the local ordinary and the CICLSAL; and the Congregation for Oriental Churches. For the sole seminary using the 1962 liturgical books, the report was sent to the religious superior, the local ordinary, and the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei”.

This was an extremely careful, highly-focused and well-conceived process. Interestingly, the final general report states that “at the fervent request of the US bishops, some lay persons were attached to each team of Visitors.” However, these laity served only as advisors; they did not participate in confidential meetings, and had no direct voice in the writing of the reports. I leave to the good judgment of each reader the matter of whether this desire of the American bishops to include the laity in seminary visitations reflects a strength or a weakness!

The Results

The results of the Apostolic Visitation of the American seminaries are most conveniently summarized under the same headings used in the general report:

  1. Concept of priesthood: This was generally good, but with a few concerns. In some seminaries, where theological education is given to both seminarians and the laity in general, the finality of priestly formation is sometimes lost in a sea of generalized instruction. Similarly, among religious, priestly formation is sometimes subsumed into general religious formation. A more serious problem affects some seminaries which thoroughly teach the idea of priestly service while giving insufficient attention to the indelible priestly character. In extreme cases, there is an actual blurring of the common and ministerial priesthoods. A significant number of religious communities are afflicted with this problem:

    In some academic centers run by religious, there is a certain reticence, on the part of both students and teachers, to discuss the priestly ministry. Instead, there is a preference for discussing simply ‘ministry’—in the broad sense, including also the various apostolates of the laity—in part, perhaps, as a mistaken attempt not to offend those who judge the reservation of the Sacrament of Orders to men alone as discriminatory.
  2. Governance of the seminary: Since the Visitors were aware from the first of the many past criticisms of the running of U.S. seminaries, the final report stresses that “one of the most encouraging results of the Visitation was the conclusion that most seminary superiors (rectors, vice rectors, etc.) are good and holy men, dedicated to their special apostolate, and who genuinely are doing all they can to prepare men well for the priesthood.” This is not window-dressing; the report notes in several places that there has been a marked improvement since the 1990’s. As the report stresses: “Where the rector is weak, then an unraveling of the fabric of seminary life is the unfortunate consequence.” It is not enough for the man in charge to be an exemplary priest or religious; “he must be a leader, comfortable making difficult decisions.”

    The report also cautions that seminary rectors should normally be present at the seminary, not engaging in excessive travel (e.g., for fund-raising); that formation faculty (rector, vice rector, spiritual director, pastoral director, etc.) must be priests, while teaching faculty may at times be religious or lay; and that many seminaries are hampered by a lack of stability (that is, constant changes) among the faculty.

    The report made important points about faculty harmony, indicating that most diocesan seminaries show strong faculty unity and harmony. “A lack of harmony, on the other hand, is almost always due to one or more educators being less than faithful to the Magisterium of the Church…. In centers of priestly formation with an atmosphere of more widespread dissent—which is the case particularly in centers run by religious—there can be no possibility of a unity of direction.” The report continues:

    Quite often, the Visitation discovered one or more faculty members who, although not speaking openly against Church teaching, let the students understand—through hints, off-the-cuff remarks, etc.—their disapproval of some articles of Magisterial teaching. In a few institutes, one even found the occasional non-Catholic teaching the seminarians.

    The Visitation found that while the provisions of Canon 833 (regarding the faculty profession of faith) are generally respected on paper, with procedures for removal of dissenting faculty, “Nevertheless, in consideration of various problems in respect to doctrinal teaching, it appears that these procedures are not invoked as often as they should be.”

  3. Criteria for the admission of candidates: Unlike religious orders, which provide a “propaedeutic” period (that is, an initial introductory period of preliminary formation such as a novitiate), such a period is almost entirely lacking for diocesan seminarians, a deficiency the report says should be addressed. Moreover, in the United States, the full rigor of scrutiny of seminarians seems to be reserved for the Theologate. Instead, the full six years (including the philosophy years) are to be true, strict seminary training and formation with rigorous scrutiny of candidates. The report also noted that bishops too often delegate questions of suitability to subordinates, a mistake. The report also noted that while much attention is given to psychological testing, it is not always clear who should be permitted to review the results. While screening of candidates is generally very good, in some places there has been pressure to ordain unsuitable candidates or to hurry candidates along, especially where there are shortages. The report states flatly that high standards of quality must be maintained.
  4. The seminarians: The report finds that “almost universally, the candidates…are generous, intelligent, full of zeal, pious, and faithful to prayer. They are demonstrably loyal to the Church’s Magisterium.” On the negative side, however, they reflect the problems of the larger culture, coming from broken homes or poor Catholic backgrounds, or perhaps weighed down by their own past lifestyles, all of which complicates the formation process for spiritual, psychological and moral reasons. Then there is the problem of homosexuality: “The Apostolic Visit was obliged to point out the difficulties, in the area of morality, that some seminaries had suffered in past decades. Usually, but not exclusively, this meant homosexual behavior.” In most such places, “at least in the diocesan seminaries,” better superiors have been appointed and the problems have been overcome. Individual cases of immorality—“again, usually homosexual behavior”—are now dealt with promptly and appropriately. “Nevertheless, there are still some places—usually centers of formation for religious—where ambiguity vis-à-vis homosexuality persists.” Finally, in many seminaries a laxity of discipline about how and where seminarians spend their time renders educators unaware of what is going on off-campus.
  5. Human formation: The report notes that American seminaries generally use human formation advisors to help seminarians to grow in all aspects of their personhood. While approving this practice, the report cautions that human formation advisors have sometimes crossed the line into the internal forum—that is, matters pertaining to confession, spiritual direction, and the discussion of sins—which is an abuse that can only confuse and dishearten those in formation. The report recommends that all seminaries consider the need for greater discipline to foster a more priestly and ascetic character. Seminaries should govern the use of alcohol, permission to be off-campus, curfew, areas of the campus off-limits to guests, and the use of the Internet. They should also find ways to observe how seminarians spend their summers, so that they can determine whether each seminarian has gradually interiorized a personal rule of life.
  6. Spiritual formation: The Visitation found that the seminaries generally did a good job in cultivating prayer. With respect to the Mass, “In the diocesan seminaries, the liturgical norms are generally obeyed, but this is not always the case in liturgies celebrated at religious centers of formation.” The report recommends more classical spiritual formation and set times for prayer, as well as weekend masses together at the seminary rather than dispersion to local parishes. Lauds and Vespers should be celebrated (and usually are). Monthly confession is common; on this point the report merely wonders whether twice a month might be even better. One significant criticism:

    It is profoundly regrettable that many seminaries do not include traditional acts of piety in their horarium…. Some institutes even have an atmosphere that discourages traditional acts of Catholic piety—which begs the question as to whether the faculty’s ideas of spirituality are consonant with Church teaching and tradition. Unless a great many seminaries introduce regular recitation of the rosary, novenas, litanies, Stations of the Cross, and so on, the seminarians will lack an education in the sacramentals and will be unprepared for ministry in the Church, which greatly treasures these practices.

    The report repeats in this section that “the internal forum needs to be better safeguarded.” Confusion between psychological counseling and the internal forum must be avoided; full confidentiality must be maintained in anything that relates to the confessional and spiritual direction. This section concludes by noting favorably that formation for celibacy seems very good.

  7. Intellectual formation: The visitors found that the emphasis on studies is very high in American seminaries. Problems lie primarily around the edges: Teachers may lack the proper qualifications from an institute recognized by the Holy See; or there may be too few teachers, so that they must teach outside their subject area or they cannot keep abreast of developments in their own disciplines. The report also notes that a proper grounding in Latin is both “indispensable” and “rare.” By contrast, education in philosophy is generally good, often inspired by Pope John Paul II’s great encyclicals Fides et ratio and Veritatis splendor. However, a few programs use community colleges for philosophy—which is unlikely to work. Education in theology is also at a very high level. But there are gaps, most notably in Mariology and Patristics, and there is sometimes too much freedom of choice, so that all students do not receive adequate coverage.

    Unfortunately, there is one huge theological caveat. In the area of moral theology things begin to break down:

    Even in the best seminaries, there can be some theology teachers who show reservations about areas of magisterial teaching. This is particularly true in the field of moral theology. Other points of Church teaching, such as ordination being restricted to men alone, are also questioned. Such lack of sentire cum Ecclesia is often not overt, but the students receive the message clearly nevertheless. In a few seminaries, and particularly in some schools of theology run by religious, dissent is widespread.

    The report stresses that moral theology is not only important in its own right but absolutely critical in parish ministry: “While most diocesan seminaries treat the subject fairly well, it is not rare in religious institutes to find basic tenets of Catholic moral doctrine being called into question.”

  8. Pastoral formation: Pastoral formation is generally good, but in a small number of cases seminarians have been sent into pastoral experiences that have proven incompatible with Catholic practice. Fortunately, such situations have tended to be eliminated. In many cases, outstanding pastoral experience is part of the formation, including foreign missionary work.
  9. Promotion to Holy Orders: In general the Visitation found that candidates are typically well-screened and promoted appropriately to Holy Orders. In a few places, however, non-ordained and even non-Catholic faculty members can vote on a candidate’s advancement to Holy Orders. The report is unmistakably clear on this point: “Such practices are to cease.” In a few other places, the mechanisms for advancing a seminarian are “opaque”; in a very few, there is a sense that evaluations are used to “punish”. To minimize such problems, seminaries are to check their candidates for irregularities and impediments at the very start of formation. For their part, bishops are to ensure that “positive arguments have proved” the suitability of each candidate, and they should be slow to ordain anyone over the opposition of the seminary superiors (as sometimes happens). The report quotes I Timothy 5:22: “Do not lay hands too readily on anyone, and do not share in another’s sins.”
  10. Service of the seminary to the newly ordained:
  11. The report notes with approval the American practice of using the seminary to provide some ongoing support to new priests. It regards this as laudable as long as it is recognized that this is not part of the seminary’s core purpose, and as long as it does not detract from the formation of seminarians.

In all, the report concludes that “since the 1990s, a greater sense of stability now prevails in the U.S. seminaries.” It emphasizes repeatedly the much-improved appointment of rectors “who are wise and faithful to the Church”, which naturally leads to a steady and “gradual improvement, at least in diocesan seminaries.”

The Problem of Religious Orders

It comes as no surprise that many of the old-line religious orders remain in rebellion against the Church, her teachings, and her spirituality. Nor does it take an alert reader to see that in nearly every significant area, the Visitation found the most serious problems in the priestly formation programs run by these orders. Dissent is still too widespread in seminary life in general, but it is apparently rampant among religious. This is easily identified, widely known and completely intolerable. As the report noted, processes in place for dismissal of dissenting faculty are too seldom used, particularly in religious institutes. Just in case the reader did not get the point from the individual citations, the report hammers it home twice in the conclusion. Note the last quoted sentence in the previous section, which asserts that there has been gradual improvement at least in diocesan seminaries. And note this further concluding comment: “While there are some institutes that continue to be inadequate, the diocesan seminaries are, in general, healthy” [emphasis added].

Both explicitly and implicitly, then, the report on the Apostolic Visitation emphasizes that the priestly formation provided by religious communities is not, in fact, generally healthy. It is impossible here to distinguish one religious order from another. It is common knowledge that most of the older orders declined dramatically in both fidelity and numbers in the second half of the twentieth century, and that most new foundations—responding in part to this unfortunate trend—are characterized by both a zealous fidelity and rapidly improving numbers. But there are exceptions, and the general report does not name names.

Of course one would love to see the individual critiques on each seminary, but that would scarcely be appropriate unless and until the Vatican begins to write off those that are rotten. Again, the steps taken over the next twenty years to resolve this substantial problem will be critical to the restoration and expansion of the Church's mission. Meanwhile, we ought to be very glad of the growing evidence that our local ordinaries are slowly putting their houses in order—and we ought to pray very hard that many of the Church's older, better-known and often well-endowed religious orders will begin to do the same.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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