National Affairs Correspondent

A VATICAN document urging the world's bishops to take a careful look at their seminary candidates who have a record of attending other seminaries has opened discussion of a little-noticed phenomenon in Church circles.

The practice of “seminary shopping”—with seminarians asked to leave one institution only to surface at another—may come under greater scrutiny as the result of an instruction to the world's bishops sent out this fall by the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education.

The congregation warned that “too easy acceptance of ex-Religious and ex-seminarians, made without thorough preliminary investigation, is usually the cause of unpleasant surprises and disappoints for indulgent bishops.” According to the document, lax investigation of seminary shoppers is “a cause for discomfort” among those bishops “who are rightly demanding in the selection of their candidates.” The congregation urged bishops to examine “problems concerning human and affective maturity, psychological and sexual anomalies” in candidates who have been in different seminaries. Regions where such procedures may be lax were not spelled out in the document.

In the United States, it is not uncommon for seminarians to switch institutions, dioceses, or religious orders. Some have complained that some seminaries and dioceses deliberately discourage seminarians who express strong support for Church teachings in controversial areas such as contraception, papal infallibility, and the all-male priesthood. Such candidates have found homes in what are considered “conservative” dioceses, most notably the Dioceses of Peoria, Ill., Arlington, Va., and Lincoln, Neb.

Elsewhere, seminary officials have argued that candidates who are overlyrigid in their views will not be able to handle the demands of priesthood in contemporary American life.

Dominican Father Peter Cameron, a professor at St. Joseph' Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., cautioned not to read too much into the Vatican statement. “It depends on why a man leaves one seminary to go to another,” he told the Register. The reason men leave seminaries “has many analogies in life,” noted Father Cameron. “Why does a person change a line of work? Or a college? It depends on the character of the individual.” Wherever seminarians are educated, he said, “they have a right to the teaching of the Church and the traditions of the Church. There are seminaries that deprive them of that.” Like others interviewed for this article, Father Cameron declined to identify those institutions where students allegedly don't get the full flavor of Church teaching.

‘There are seminarians who have had a bad experience. They may need a fresh start. I don't think that every seminary is for every candidate.’

Bishop Elden Curtis of Omaha, Neb., in a statement issued in 1995, complained that some worthy candidates were being deprived of ordination because of seminary directors who discouraged those who are seen as overly-zealous in defense of traditional Church teachings.

Father Peter Stravinskas, editor of The Catholic Answer, said that often enough seminary criteria are subjective and stacked against candidates who are not considered liberal enough. Frequently, he said, psychological criteria “are unfairly open to manipulation.” The result is that theologically conservative candidates will leave—or be asked to leave—seminaries with a liberal reputation. “The rector is not going to say it's because the candidate is opposed to women's ordination. He's going to say that the seminarian is unbending or rigid,” said Father Stravinskas, who claimed to have a similar experience happen to him before he was ordained in 1977.

He added, however, that this document will not preclude seminarians who have been treated unjustly from finding a diocese or religious order who will accept them. It is a legitimate attempt by the Vatican, he said, to assure that bishops weed out those candidates with sexual, financial or criminal problems that would preclude ordination. Finding out information about a candidate, he said, is crucial. What bishops do with such information should remain in their hands. “There is a distinction between consultation and following advice, “ he said.

Father David Kipfer, director of vocations for the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., noted that his diocese, and every American See that he knows of, consults with other dioceses and religious orders when men who have been seminarians apply for admission into a new program. “Peoria has followed through. That's mainly for our own protection,” he said.

He noted that the Peoria diocese does have a large number of seminarians, 36— nearly twice that of neighboring dioceses in Illinois. But, he emphasized, most of the candidates are either native to the diocese or were students at the University of Illinois, where they came into contact with diocesan priests. Only a relative handful, he said, have come from other seminary programs. Those cases are carefully examined, according to Father Kipfer. “It depends on why they left. Sometimes you have to be careful. Did he leave because he thought they were going to dismiss him?”

Sometimes a candidate is sent to a local parish in the Peoria diocese as a means of testing a vocation before he is sent away to a seminary. Like many smaller dioceses, Peoria does not operate its own seminary and sends candidates to a variety of institutions across the country.

There are cases, Father Kipfer said, in which seminarians who consider themselves staunch defenders of Church teaching have been treated unfairly. “There are seminarians who have had a bad experience. They may need a fresh start. I don't think that every seminary is for every candidate,” he said. While psychological testing is legitimate in spotting problem areas, said Father Kipfer, “to put all the eggs in the psychological basket may not be fair to the student.” Other areas, such as the development of prayer life, intellectual ability and devotion to the Church should also be considered, he said.

Father James Kimball, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wis., said that at the archdiocese's St. Francis Seminary there are no horror stories that he is aware of regarding seminarians being told to leave because of conservative theological views. “We are doing all we can to get them through,” said Father Kimball, noting that the archdiocese has 23 students in various stages of formation.

He said the complaints about expulsions may be coming from angry students dismissed for reasons that have nothing to do with views on theology. “Because a student may be angry, he might misinterpret what a faculty member says,” said Father Kimball.

Psychological testing, he noted, is necessary “to help the student realize whether he has the psychological strength to do good ministry” and to discover if he is free of major psychological difficulties that could hinder the exercise of his priesthood. “Sometimes [some]one who has experienced failure in life thinks that priesthood is the solution,” he said. Testing candidates can be a way to help students who need to leave the seminary deal with personal problems. Abuse of such criteria, “hasn't been a difficulty here. If anything, there's a tendency to be lenient,” he said.

Keiren O'Kelly, director of admissions for the Chicago Theological Union, argued that one purpose of seminary education is to expose candidates to different views of the priesthood. Her school trains candidates for the priesthood, various religious orders, and lay ministry. About half of the students are women. The school is located in a city neighborhood.

Such an atmosphere may be a different experience for some seminarians used to all-male institutions in isolated settings, said O'Kelly, particularly seminarians from other countries. “If they are from Poland, Guatemala or Ireland they might have a more conservative view of priesthood,” she said. “They have the opportunity here to explore other notions of what priesthood is all about.”

The International view of the Church may be a key to the recent Vatican document. Experts contacted for this article said that it was routine procedure for U.S. dioceses to check on their candidates. The concern is to weed out potential problem cases. Seminarians who come from other dioceses, said Father Kimball, “at times are not completely honest with what happened.”

Father Kipfer suggested that the Vatican document is probably aimed at situations which may have nothing to do with the routine situation in U.S. seminaries. For example, he's found that “it's very difficult to get information from a diocese in Africa about a candidate. “I don't think it's just a U.S. problem.”

The document itself provides clues that what may be involved is simply a need to communicate pertinent information. Documents about seminarians, it said, must “not hide or mask the true state of affairs”—but must also protect a candidate's right to privacy and his reputation, the texts says. Roman officials, not surprisingly, have remained mum on the issue.

Peter Feuerherd is based in New York.