National Catholic Register


Vatican Reports on U.S. Seminaries



February 15-21, 2009 Issue | Posted 2/6/09 at 11:53 AM


ROME — The Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education released a general report Jan. 12 on the state of U.S. priestly formation. It follows a historic apostolic visitation to U.S. seminaries in 2005-06.

The reception to the visitation was “overwhelmingly cooperative,” Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien told the Register. “Some of the naysayers at the beginning were saying, ‘It’s all an investigation to throw out homosexuals,’ or something, and it was not that at all,” he said. “It was reviewing how our seminarians today are being prepared for a lifelong commitment to celibacy.”

The report found “since the 1990s, a greater sense of stability now prevails in the U.S. seminaries.” The general conclusion was “positive,” it said, and “the diocesan seminaries are, in general, healthy.”

The report distinguished between seminaries owned and operated by dioceses or archdioceses and those owned and operated by religious orders. Problems highlighted by the report, particularly in moral theology and governance, were found most often in religious institutes, according to the report. Homosexual activity was a problem primarily in the religious, rather than diocesan, seminaries.

The report also discusses the nature of problems that persisted in many seminaries into the 1990s. A period of “flux” in recent decades “led to a breakdown in structures, which had a negative impact on priestly formation,” the report said. “A false sense of freedom was sometimes cultivated, which led to the throwing off of centuries of acquired wisdom in priestly formation.”

The decision to undertake an apostolic visitation grew out of an April 2002 meeting between Pope John Paul II, members of the Roman Curia, and a delegation of U.S. bishops held during the height of the priestly sex abuse scandal. Various Roman congregations drafted an Instrumentum laboris, instructions on how to carry out the visitation, which included categories for study bearing directly on priestly formation.

Archbishop O’Brien, then of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, was “appointed to coordinate, from a practical point of view, the individual apostolic visitations.” Archbishop O’Brien had been rector of the North American College in Rome and the seminary of the Archdiocese of New York.

Father James Steffes, an apostolic visitor to four seminaries, told the Register, “Overall, what the Vatican wanted was to make sure there was fidelity to the doctrine of the Church and to formation in the character of the priesthood and the identity of the priesthood.”

Father Steffes, former rector of Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Minnesota, directs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.

Reasons for Improvement

Archbishop O’Brien said the “clear idea and vision of the priesthood” put forth by Pope John Paul II in “his letters at Holy Thursday, his writings, his talks to seminarians and priests really clarified and solidified the traditional doctrine of the priesthood that was kind of shaky after the Second Vatican Council. A lot of theories were out there that were kind of distracting.”

The reception of that message has had a major impact on the improvement of U.S. seminaries, Archbishop O’Brien explained. “Seminarians have become much more traditional and receptive of the tradition on priesthood,” he said. In addition, bishops have been “more careful in choosing men to study for graduate degrees and place them in positions of responsibility in seminaries.”

Father Steffes also credits the promulgation of Pope John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (On the Formation of Priests), “which is a strong document that the seminaries really follow closely.” The document “laid forth a formation program that we had never had before ... where it is so clearly defined,” he said.

Father Steffes also mentioned “the attentiveness of bishops to their seminaries in the appointment of rectors and faculty members” as a reason for improvement. “It was really the leadership knowing the documentation and their efforts to adhere to it,” he said.

The Vatican report also says “the appointment ... of rectors who are wise and faithful to the Church has meant a gradual improvement, at least in diocesan seminaries.”

Remaining Concerns

Visitors examined seminaries in 10 areas outlined by the Instrumentum laboris. In most, the general report examines historical problems and the progress made by U.S. seminaries and makes suggestions for improvement.

Calling “a proper and full understanding of the priesthood ... the sine qua non of all priestly formation,” the report found “that in the great majority of diocesan seminaries, the doctrine of the priesthood is well taught.” The report recommended that “proper safeguards” need to be in place to ensure “specifically priestly formation” in centers where theological training is offered both to seminarians and laity.

With regard to governance of seminaries, the report found that “most seminary superiors are good and holy men ... who are genuinely doing all they can to prepare men well for the priesthood.” It spoke of the need for harmony among faculty, saying a “lack of harmony ... is almost always due to one or more educators being less than faithful to the magisterium of the Church.”

It warned that in centers “with an atmosphere of more widespread dissent — which is the case particularly in centers run by religious — there can be no possibility of unity of direction.”

The report gave general praise for the intellectual formation in most seminaries, but also noted certain “lacunae in the programs,” including in Mariology and patristics.

In some seminaries, individual faculty were found who show reservations about moral theology or ordination being restricted to men alone.

“In a few seminaries, and particularly in some schools of theology run by religious, dissent is widespread,” the report said.

The report found most seminaries “cultivate an atmosphere of prayer” and that “in diocesan seminaries, the liturgical norms are generally obeyed.” It nonetheless recommended that spiritual formation of seminarians could include more frequent confession and should include more traditional acts of piety.

The report recognized problems in morality suffered by some seminaries in the past.

“Usually, but not exclusively, this meant homosexual behavior. Nevertheless, in almost all the institutes where such problems existed, at least in the diocesan seminaries, the appointment of better superiors (especially rectors) has ensured that such difficulties have been overcome,” the report said. “Nevertheless, there are still some places — usually centers of formation for religious — where ambiguity vis-à-vis homosexuality persists.”

Such activity was found to be limited to “here and there,” the report said, and “what houses they were,” Archbishop O’Brien said, “they certainly know it now and should be addressing it.”

While not directly addressing the apparent lopsided approval of diocesan seminaries in the report, Father Steffes said that if a seminary is experiencing difficulty in formation, it is most likely traceable to fidelity. “I think where there is not fidelity to the Church’s teaching and doctrine, we’re going to have error and problems in formation.”

Many religious institutes did receive strong commendation from the report. “Ours was so glowing that I’m actually using it in our fundraising,” Dominican Father Michael Sweeney told the Register.

Father Sweeney is president of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, Calif., which provides intellectual formation to many religious orders.

“I noticed that overall the general report for religious communities tended not to be as positive as for the seminaries,” Father Sweeney said.

“The problem of presenting the faith in the public square is something the religious orders, because of their specialties, have to undertake,” Father Sweeney explained. “To think with the Church on the one hand and to meet secular society where it is — that exercise itself may be fraught with peril.”

“I don’t think this implies a compromise. On the other hand, I do see that this is a very difficult task. There might be perceived, or even sometimes, real compromise in what is happening,” he said. “In which case, the visitation is a good tool.”

While the report was thorough in detail about problems remaining in some seminaries, it was clear that “bishops, major superiors and rectors” and all involved in formation could “take comfort in the notable improvements that have taken place.”

“Generally speaking, every bishop I’ve spoken to is very pleased with the reports,” Archbishop O’Brien said. “It’s very often said it’s just what they were looking for so that they could make some corrections that maybe up till then were maybe difficult to get by the administration of the seminary.”

Today’s Seminarians

The report reserved its strongest praise for today’s seminarians. “Almost universally, the candidates — both diocesan and religious — received great praise from the apostolic visitors,” the report said. “The candidates are generous, intelligent, full of zeal, pious and faithful to prayer. They are demonstrably loyal to the Church’s magisterium. They are signs of great hope for the Church in the U.S.”

“We’re getting a very solid group of men these days,” Archbishop O’Brien said. “They’re not fighting the battles that were up for grabs after the Council in the ’60s and ’70s. I think they’re in a good sense traditional. They want to know what the Church teaches. They’ll give their lives over to a mystery but not a question mark.”

Father Steffes also commended them for “being very normal, easy to relate to, very approachable. Those are great characteristics for the priesthood.”

Seminarians themselves may even play a role in the improvement seen in seminaries, Father Steffes said. “Any of us who are in teaching roles find out that we do learn from our students,” he said. “I think the students being of higher caliber raises the faculty to a greater accountability and responsibility. It works both ways.”

Jack Smith writes from

Kansas City, Missouri.