Extensive Reforms Already Underway at US Seminaries

While the McCarrick scandal indicates the need for further progress, many significant improvements to improve priestly formation have been instituted in recent years.

St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, is among those seminaries that have implemented reforms to ensure well-formed priests.
St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, is among those seminaries that have implemented reforms to ensure well-formed priests. (photo: via St. Joseph’s Seminary Facebook page)

The 2018 Theodore McCarrick scandal underscored the need for deep reform of Church institutions, but many important changes had already been underway — some even before the 2002 sex-abuse scandal, according to the rectors of several U.S. seminaries.

“People have no idea how many changes have occurred in seminaries and how high the quality is in so many diocesan seminaries today,” said Father Carter Griffin, the rector at St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C.

One of the biggest changes affects men before they even enter the seminary. Gone are the days when a simple letter of recommendation from a pastor could get a young man into seminary, Father Griffin said.

Instead, dioceses undertake a “fuller and deeper” look into the background of prospective seminarians, requiring background checks, psychological screening, and a range of references from teachers, employers, priests and others.

“All of them are doing it better than they were in the past,” Father Griffin said. “You can’t say they’re doing it all equally well, and so I think that’s where the difference lies. But without a doubt I would say that even the weakest diocese today is doing better than the average ones 40 years ago.”


Admissions Policy

In addition to the screening done by the diocese, the admissions process at the seminary itself has become equally rigorous. For example, at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida, the admissions process “includes multiple layers of screening, safe-environment training, background checks … batteries of psychological exams, interviews, previous seminary evaluations, recommendations,” said Msgr. David Toups, the seminary’s rector-president.

“It is by no means a fait accompli of simply studying here if they want to,” Msgr. Toups said. “We know the stakes are too high for the People of God and the good of the Church. All seminaries have redoubled their efforts at this crucial moment of entrance.”

The turning point came a decade before the 2002 sex-abuse crisis, with the 1992 apostolic exhortation from Pope St. John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis (The Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day). The document outlined four dimensions of priestly formation: the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral.

It was under the categories of human and spiritual formation that John Paul II addressed the topic of celibacy. He wrote, “The spiritual formation of one who is called to live celibacy should pay particular attention to preparing the future priest so that he may know, appreciate, love and live celibacy according to its true nature and according to its real purposes, that is, for evangelical, spiritual and pastoral motives.”

Since the encyclical, and especially in recent years, seminaries have undertaken three key reforms, according to Father Thomas Berg, the vice rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

The first is an emphasis on the formation of those responsible for forming priests. “The problem is that priests were appointed to the seminary. They may have a doctorate in theology, but they had absolutely no training to engage in formation, or very little. … They were just expected to figure this out. That’s all changing dramatically,” Father Berg said.

A second trend is a turn to having a full-time psychologist on staff — not so much to provide therapy as counseling and emotional coaching. “Therapy is for men who have large, gaping holes in their personal integration. Counseling is for anyone who wishes to benefit from the self-knowledge it provides to continue a process of personal psychological integration, which is already well underway,” Father Berg explained.

The psychologists supplement the ongoing work of the formation adviser and spiritual director, according to Father Berg. “Our guys are loving it. Wherever you have [psychologists available], most of the guys will take advantage of that,” Father Berg said.


Community Approach

A third shift is the recognition that it takes a community to form seminarians for lifelong celibacy. In seminary, that community consists of the formation team and their peers, according to Father Berg. “Community in the seminary is often the seedbed of lifelong friendships, and friendships are essential to happy and healthy living of celibacy,” Father Berg said.

That insight builds on John Paul II’s vision of what a seminary should be. In Pastores Dabo Vobis, the Pope had called for seminaries to be tightknit communities modeled on the experience of the apostles as followers of Jesus, according to Father Berg.

The Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, offers one example of how seminaries have taken a community approach to forming priests in chastity and celibacy. The seminary has developed a specialized program known as the “Augustine Way,” which uses a small-group model to guide its seminarians in achieving and maintaining chaste internet usage.

While the seminary would not accept candidates who had a compulsive problem with online pornography, some of those entering may still experience occasional falls, according to Father James Mason, Kenrick-Glennon’s president-rector. “They’re just regular guys who answered the call from the Lord, and they’re coming out of a real society,” Father Mason said. “We meet them where they’re at.”

Another area where the seminary has made strides is in its implementation of the Vatican’s 2005 prohibition of ordaining men with same-sex attraction to the priesthood. The document bars ordination for men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies, but it permits it for those who once had “homosexual tendencies that were only the expression of a transitory problem.” Men who are ordained to the priesthood, Father Mason said, are expected to have a healthy desire for marriage, making their entrance into the priesthood a truly sacrificial choice.

The seminary has its own guide to applying those principles, titled “Seminary Formation and Same-Sex Attraction: A Proposal.” It will be sharing that guide, along with a copy of its Augustine Way program, at a symposium on human formation it is hosting next May.

A third area of formation where Kenrick-Glennon Seminary has distinguished itself is in its exhaustive, ongoing evaluation process known as “cohorts.” The evaluations, undertaken twice a semester, look at a range of indicators for how seminarians are progressing in their formation, including self-knowledge, self-discipline, readiness to be a pastor, and manifestation of “masculine qualities of governance, protection, nurturing and fatherly love,” according to Father Mason.

In addition, each seminarian undergoes an evaluation by his peers at the end of each year, according to Father Mason.


Reporting Requirements

In addition to formation, seminaries now have to follow strict reporting requirements for accusations of abuse and misconduct. The regulatory structure is fairly extensive. For example, St. Patrick’s Seminary and University (STPSU) in Menlo Park, California, follows three guiding documents — the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, published in 2002 in response to the sex-abuse crisis; the policies and procedures of the Archdiocese of San Francisco; and its own internal policies on sexual abuse.

The seminary “fully participates” in the archdiocese’s safe-environment program. “If anyone has reason to believe, or might suspect, there is or has been criminal abuse involving clergy, employees, volunteers, seminarians or children at STPSU, those suspicions or allegations are to be reported first to civil authorities and then immediately to the rector or vice-rector if needed and to the archdiocese via its assigned victim-assistance coordinator,” said Stephen Terlizzi, STPSU’s director of marketing and communications.

The seminary trains all new hires, faculty and otherwise, on its sexual-harassment policies. Those policies are also shared with seminarians in “town-hall settings” by the rector, dean of students or other staff, Terlizzi said.

Students and faculty who become aware of a potential instance of sexual harassment can report the incident to the rector or dean of men. Seminarians who aren’t comfortable with those options can also report the issue to their local diocesan vocation director or the archdiocese, according to Terlizzi.

“St. Patrick’s Seminary and University is fully committed to providing a safe environment for its students, faculty, staff and guests,” Terlizzi said. “We are also committed to forming priests who understand the great harm caused by the sin of the abuse of children in the Church and are committed to preventing abuse in the future. We are also dedicated to forming men who take their promise of clerical celibacy seriously and understand the serious sin and harm that can be caused even by consensual sexual activity between a priest and a member of the faithful.”


National Scope

A number of changes have occurred at the national level. One is the establishment of the Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF) 25 years ago. “The institute has been a bright light of assisting men to grow in their relationship with Christ and their ability to freely give themselves to the Church as priests,” according to Msgr. Toups. He said the IPF has also trained spiritual directors who accompany men in the process of spiritual formation.

Another collective response has been the establishment eight years ago of the National Association of Theological Schools, a collective of the country’s seminarian leaders who meet regularly. “Now we can speak and discuss issues arising in our seminaries system and assist each other,” Msgr. Toups said.

Another major milestone in seminary reform was the issuing of the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis by the Congregation for the Clergy in December 2016.

“There is plenty of stuff in the Ratio that works very well with some of the best practices that we’ve been coming up with in terms of how to better prepare our men. The Ratio certainly reflects fully 15 years of dealing with the crisis of clergy sex abuse,” Father Berg said.

Those best practices, he added, include using professional psychologists in seminary admissions, establishing a “climate and culture of trust between seminarians and formators,” and “insistence on transparency in the formation process.”

The document outlines principles intended to guide further reform.

The Ratio’s understanding that formation of priests is an individualized process that doesn’t have to conform to a universal timeline could lead to further reform. The document also calls for a spiritual year of preparation before entry into seminary.

“The ‘spiritual year,’ or also called in the Ratio the ‘propaedeutic year,’ is really the first year of formation, focused on some of the basics of human formation (growth in self-knowledge, addressing life wounds, identifying those areas where personal maturation is most urgently needed, setting out personalized benchmarks for growth), and the basics of the spiritual life: forming habits of prayer and piety,” Father Berg said.

The Ratio also calls for a full year as a deacon involved in pastoral ministry after classes have been completed — more intensive than the pastoral assignments that are now the norm, according to Father Berg.

“The document is also saying: We need more time; the men need more time,” Father Berg said.

“The new Ratio Fundamentalis from the Holy See very much captured the mind of Pope Francis, and we are striving to form our programs following his main themes of accompaniment, missionary discipleship, reaching out to the peripheries, collaboration, involvement of the laity, and configuration to the Heart of Christ,” Msgr. Toups said.

Just how the new reforms will be implemented have yet to be finalized, but they will be reflected in the sixth edition of the national “Program of Priestly Formation,” which was formally approved during the U.S bishops’ Nov. 11-13 fall assembly in Baltimore. Inclusion of the propaedeutic stage of formation will be a key element of the new revision.

“There is, in fact, good news in the sphere of seminary formation that should give the faithful hope for the future,” Msgr. Toups said. “We recognize that since 2002 there are very few occurrences of abuse from our recently ordained (although even one is too many). From the moment of application all the way to ordination, our mantra is ‘excellence’ — the People of God need men who are striving for excellence in everything they do in order to be missionary disciples who have come to serve and not be served.”


Improvement Continues

But in the wake of the McCarrick scandal is further reform needed?

Father Berg says U.S. seminaries could benefit from an apostolic visitation. There have been two previous ones — in 1981 and 2005. Even if the Vatican does not order a visitation, Father Berg says he hopes U.S. bishops organize their own independent visitations.

“I don’t think it’s overkill just to continue to make sure that we’re healthy, especially that the internal cultures of the seminaries are, in fact, healthy, and [assessing] where there could still be in some places an unhealthy culture, where there could still be a subculture of active homosexuality. … To the extent that that [activity] could still exist, that still needs to be addressed,” Father Berg said. “I would welcome very substantial, thorough, very invasive visitations, which would also, in an independent way, reaffirm the health of our seminaries.”

Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.

This story was updated after posting.