Many Catholics, understandably, have grown skeptical of seminary formation. After all, it is priests and bishops who have caused the scandal of clergy sexual abuse, and every one of them is a product of seminaries.
Sometimes it is presumed that little has changed in seminaries since the time, decades ago, when the vast majority of those abusive priests were formed. Professor Janet Smith recently published a commentary that rightly asks whether seminary reforms are authentic and lasting or simply “window dressing.”
As the rectors of two seminaries forming men for the priesthood today, we would like to offer our own perspective in order to throw some light on the present situation — because, in fact, a great deal has changed.
Admittedly, the complexities of any topic as sprawling as the formation of Catholic priests cannot be covered in a short essay like this. Our remarks apply mainly to diocesan seminaries in the United States and the North American College in Rome, for example, since we are most familiar with those. Even among those seminaries, reforms have not been uniform; some changes have probably been merely superficial, as Janet Smith surmises. Furthermore, even the most wholesome seminary environment does not guarantee that graduates will remain faithful, any more than a good family guarantees that every child will turn out well. We are therefore painting with a broad brush.
Nevertheless, despite these caveats, we emphatically believe that any impartial observer with all the facts would come to the same conclusion: Seminary admissions are far more stringent, and formation far more rigorous, than they were when the great majority of clerical sexual abusers were ordained. We believe this to be a source of hope and encouragement for us all.
First, it is much harder to be admitted to the seminary. For years, to enter priestly formation there was precious little that a man had to do. Usually a pastor’s recommendation, filling out a brief admission form, and decent grades were enough. No deep investigations into moral character and spiritual maturity, no references, no psychological examination.
Unquestionably, many good and faithful priests were ordained even in those difficult years. Nevertheless, as the intervening decades have tragically demonstrated, a disproportionate number of corrupt and unfaithful clergy were also ordained during that span. Among other issues, many were admitted who were psychologically or emotionally immature, including many who struggle with same-sex attractions, and therefore ill-suited to the life to which they thought they were called.
The Church has repeatedly insisted that men with homosexual inclinations, though called to holiness like the rest of us and deserving of respect and compassion, should not be admitted to holy orders. (The latest official document that addressed it, incidentally, was approved by Pope Francis in 2016.)
It should be emphasized that there are men with same-sex attractions who have been ordained to the priesthood — and that most of these priests are not guilty of sexual abuse and live their celibacy faithfully. But it is equally clear that the great majority of priest abuse cases have involved the homosexual abuse of boys and young men. However controversial, the wisdom of the Church’s resolve regarding deep-seated same-sex attraction has become crystal clear in hindsight.
Today, in contrast, there is a far more rigorous process of application. Candidates must undergo extensive background screening and psychological testing.
At the diocesan level, the director of vocations obtains multiple references from priests, teachers, employers, family members and friends. Candidates are interviewed by various individuals. Experiences of family life and their adolescent years as well as their moral and spiritual character are all evaluated. Many dioceses, in addition, have application review boards that include both priests and laypeople. After being accepted by their respective dioceses, candidates must then be accepted, after a second full review, by the seminary.
The system is not perfect, and some dioceses and seminaries still admit men they shouldn’t, but it is a far cry from the hazy standards of admission used by dioceses and seminaries a few decades ago.
Priestly formation itself has changed even more dramatically. St. John Paul II ordered two investigations of all American seminaries, one that began in 1981 and another that began in 2005. Both of these apostolic visitations highlighted areas of improvement and encouraged many seminaries to re-evaluate their formation programs.
In 1992, St. John Paul II issued Pastores Dabo Vobis, a sweeping document that has done more to reform seminaries than perhaps any single factor. It proposes a bracing vision of priesthood and a demanding set of spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral expectations for seminary admissions and formation. At a time when the priestly vocation was losing focus, it reclaimed a confident vision of the priesthood as a share in the priesthood of Christ the Good Shepherd, Head of the Church, at the service of all souls. The priest, he declared, is not a mere social worker, but “a derivation, a specific participation in and continuation of Christ himself, the one high priest of the new and eternal covenant” (12).
To be honest, the document was not welcomed in every seminary, and it was not implemented perfectly or uniformly, but it gave decisive support to many reform elements in dioceses and seminaries and set in motion an approach to formation that gained momentum over time, even to our own day. It also inspired the “handbook” for American seminaries called the Program for Priestly Formation, now in its fifth edition, which gives practical indications and explicit standards for seminary formation.
These reforms, together with a new generation of seminarians, have dramatically changed seminary culture. For instance, theological dissent and liturgical experimentation, once rampant, are now as rare as lava lamps and bell-bottoms. Among the young seminarians we encounter, there is almost universal fidelity to Church doctrine, including the most countercultural teachings.
Liturgically, the picture is much the same. Young men courageous enough to enter the seminary today have no time for adolescent tinkering with the sacred liturgy. Were seminary formators to try such experimentation today, they soon would find themselves staring at empty pews.
Spiritually, too, seminaries are very different from most of their counterparts a few decades ago. Gone are the days when spiritual formation meant optional daily Mass, the occasional conference and meeting with a spiritual director every few months. Today, a man who shows little interest in daily Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours does not last long in the seminary. Most seminaries have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament regularly. Many have it daily; some have it twice a day. Meeting with a spiritual director every two or three weeks is the norm.
Even in the few seminaries where the faculty does not actively promote spiritual growth, many seminarians take the lead in their own interior lives — applying themselves to mental prayer each day, spiritual reading, a daily Rosary and other spiritual exercises that foster a deep, authentic, personal relationship with Jesus our Lord and devotion to his holy Mother.
It is in the area of human formation, however — including formation for celibate chastity — where seminaries have made the most gains since Pastores Dabo Vobis was issued almost 30 years ago. In fact, the phrase “human formation” was not even in the documents that governed seminaries until St. John Paul II placed it squarely on the table in 1992.
In the immediate wake of the sexual revolution, priestly formation for celibacy was woefully inadequate. Ordinary ascetical practices needed to sustain healthy chastity were not widely inculcated, and in certain seminaries, a culture of sexual license among some seminarians and even faculty members corrupted vulnerable young men or drove away those seeking virtue. Many men were ordained under the false impression, reinforced by seminary faculty, that the requirement for celibacy would soon be lifted.
Once again, the picture is very different today. Many of our seminarians are scarred by the sexual permissiveness of the wider culture and the ravages of internet pornography — in our country, the average age of first exposure to pornography hovers between 8 and 11 years old. More generally, seminarians have seen, sometimes very personally, the dark underbelly of the sexual revolution in broken hearts, broken lives and broken families all around them. They have a profound desire for the freedom of holy purity and a yearning to bring that freedom to those they will serve.
In addition, most seminaries have taken a more robust approach to formation for celibate chastity. We expect candidates for priesthood to have a confident masculine identity and normal, healthy desires for marriage and fatherhood. We then foster a mature capacity to forego these great goods for something even greater, the supernatural fatherhood of celibate priesthood.
We strive to do so by equipping seminarians to live holy purity well, with time-honored supernatural and natural habits such as prayer, mortification, temperance, wholesome recreation, friendships and a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. To the extent that a seminary is able to foster these habits, men have the opportunity to discern the beautiful charism of celibacy and to prepare to live it with joy and fidelity.
There is certainly more that needs to be done. There always will be. This past year, after the harrowing reports of Theodore McCarrick’s predatory behavior with seminarians, we have had to make more explicit the protocols for seminarians to follow if they, or anyone they know, are sexually harassed or approached — protocols that include a path outside the seminary’s internal governance. We have encouraged — even mandated — that the seminarians report any such behavior, no matter who it is.
There are shortfalls, too, yet to be addressed. The standards for admission demanded by the Church, for instance, need to be implemented more evenly throughout the United States. Formation, especially human formation, is not up to scratch at every seminary. Moreover, some bishops are reluctant to release their best priests for seminary work, so important for the future of the Church.
Nevertheless, the overall trend of priestly selection and formation is unquestionably positive. The seeds of renewal that the Holy Spirit planted almost three decades ago are blossoming in many seminaries. It is a hidden reform, but well advanced. Because of it, we have a deep and well-founded hope for the future.
Though fewer in number, the vast majority of our young priests are men of integrity and courage, ready to embrace the challenges ahead and the demanding vocation of spiritual fatherhood with generosity, fidelity and joy.
This commentary is the last of a three-part series, the first of which explored the beauty of priestly celibacy and the second of which focused on the functional view of the priesthood revealed in many debates surrounding celibacy.
Father Carter Griffin is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington and rector of St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington.
Msgr. Andrew Baker is the rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.