the seminary visitation: John Allen's mid-term report

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jan 04, 2006

Reporting that almost a third of the 229 seminaries and formation programs have undergone their apostolic visitation, the NCR's John Allen gives an account of the process so far. Ominously, the buzz-word is "cordial."

[M]ost bishops who have led visitation teams say they see the process as a matter of "fine-tuning," rather than remedying systemic problems. Several bishops have likened the visitation to an academic accreditation process, helping institutions to build on strengths and correct weaknesses.

Great. That's doubtless why the Holy See called the U.S. cardinals together in April of 2002 and insisted on a "new and serious" visitation: for purposes of accreditation and fine-tuning.

"I believe one result will be to show great trust in our seminaries," said Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin, Texas.

And if I were a tort lawyer in Fullerton, I'd hope so too.

"By and large, rectors, staff, and professors are doing a very, very good job," Aymond told NCR Dec. 22. "Sometimes they've been unfairly criticized, as if every problem a priest later has is the fault of the seminary. That's always been wrong. These are men and women who have given their lives to seminary formation, and they deserve our confidence."

Confidence? Look, you've got a brother bishop who played Brokeback Mouton with his seminarians while he was their rector, currently hiding behind Fifth Amendment immunity to stay out of the hoosegow. No one disputes the contention that the greater number of formatores are doing their job, but many aren't -- including some who have "given their lives to seminary formation." Why not separate the shepherds from the goatherds, as it were, and then let us decide who deserves our confidence? Back to Allen:

In NCR's late December interviews with five bishops and four rectors, as well as seminarians, Vatican officials and experts on American seminary life, no one suggested there is a crisis in moral theology in American seminaries. ... A senior Vatican official, for example, asked to pinpoint areas where the visits might make a difference in seminary life, responded: "It could be that some reading lists in moral theology are a little deficient, and need to be corrected."

Reading lists. Right. If Robert "Do I wish I didn't feel his biceps?" Lynch had skimmed Arregui's Theologia Moralis in 1978, he'd be Cardinal Archbishop of Singapore today.

Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh, another visitor, told NCR that after what he calls "unevenness" in formation following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), an "enormous amount" was learned in the 1980s, and today he expects a major focus of the visitation will be to "affirm what's in place … and to commend the good things happening."

Let me single out for special affirmation the outstanding automatic lawn-sprinkling system at St. Vincent's Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida, installed in response to the call to discipleship of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). I'd like to hear Bishop Patrick Ziemann elaborate on Bishop Wuerl's discourse on the "unevenness" of post-Conciliar formation.

"I don't anticipate any sweeping changes," said Franciscan Sr. Katarina Schuth of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Schuth, widely noted for her research on seminaries, said institutions have made great strides in dealing with issues of psychosexual maturity and formation for celibacy. "The best minds have been working on these issues for 20, 30, 40 years," Schuth told NCR Dec. 20. "To think this whole group has missed something essential is hard to imagine."

Three dioceses bankrupt and another half-dozen on the brink. A billion-dollar buggery bill. More than four hundred priests tail-piped to death. Church auctions. School closings. Dead-beat dads in roman collars. That's 40 years of The Best Minds at work, folks. To think this whole group has missed something essential -- they've done a heckuva job -- is hard to imagine.

Some bishops privately told NCR that the visits may provide cover for seminaries and houses of formation, especially those run by religious orders, which are sometimes unjustly criticized for lax oversight or ambiguity on church teaching.

Unjustly criticized? The Aquinas Institute of St. Louis took on the Visitation norms directly by putting its queen en prise at the beginning of the match and defying the visitators to act. The Institute displays no ambiguity whatsoever on Church teaching: it rejects it. Whether the Holy See responds with pink slips or a corrected reading list remains to be seen.

Msgr. Kevin McCoy, former rector of the North American College in Rome, told NCR that the focus on sexual morality should not distract seminaries from other "meat and potatoes" issues of priestly formation. ... "A man who can't, or who refuses, to greet you with a 'good morning' can do more damage in a parish," McCoy told NCR. "If he doesn't display readiness for compassion, if there's no affect, this is not a man who can build community."

Now there, boys and girls, is a man destined for ecclesiastical preferment.

[Fr. Donald] Cozzens said he worries that the visitation is a "command and control" exercise that may not adequately capture the experience of professors and staff. He said he's also concerned that the emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy may compromise the intellectual quality of seminaries, turning them into "graduate schools of apologetics."

"We have to be careful not to be fooled by surface cordiality," Cozzens told NCR. "The jury is still out."

What gives Cozzens reason for consternation gives your Uncle Di reason for hope. He's right: the jury is still out. The visitators may conduct the inspection courteously and still submit candid reports to Rome. Whether the reports languish there, or serve as part of a stable-cleaning, is yet to be determined. Bishops are not good at correcting bishops -- in fact, most of them have their jobs because, inter alia, they can be relied upon to be "team players" -- which, as The Crisis has shown us in humiliating detail, includes looking the other way when there's mischief afoot. The cordiality may be a reflex of the same instinct.

Years after the Marshall Visitation, we saw the firing of Sister Carmel McElroy from Saint Meinrad's, which the Lefties correctly understood as a token gesture and -- in view of the ordained tapeworms left untouched -- rightly condemned as scapegoating ("See, we cleaned house!"). It may be that there'll be a pair of McElroys in our future for PR reasons. But if Rome truly wants to tackle the problems instead of handing out participation trophies, it'll be deans and rectors that are sent packing. At least this visitation came with Instructions.

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