Vatican Visitations Aimed at Producing Faithful American Priests

NEW YORK — Say “The Visitation” around your average Catholic and they may recall the Virgin Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth.

But say “The Visitation” around seminaries in the United States today, and a different visit comes to mind: the ongoing Vatican-initiated Apostolic Visitation of the 229 seminaries and houses of formation across the country.

Will the Vatican like what it sees?

“It’s all about fidelity,” Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of the journal First Things, said. “The Vatican is asking if these places are aimed at producing faithful priests.”

The visitations were prompted partly because of questions asked about seminary formation during the sexual abuse scandals of 2002, when concerns were raised if seminaries were forming future priests with faithfulness to the Church’s teachings.

In his April 23, 2002 address to U.S. Cardinals, during a Vatican summit, Pope John Paul II said, “It must be absolutely clear to the Catholic faithful, and to the wider community, that bishops and superiors are concerned, above all else, with the spiritual good of souls. People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young. They must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.”

In that context, the visitations are a way to monitor whether Catholic seminaries are healthy, joyful and psychologically balanced places where the Church’s message can be taught with fidelity. Few dispute that this hasn’t always been the case in the United States.

“Anyone who denies that doctrinal and moral dissent is a major problem in some seminaries and houses of formation in the U.S.,” Father Neuhaus said, “must, to put it kindly, not know what he’s talking about.”

“Legitimately, there were problems in seminaries in the past,” acknowledged Archbishop Daniel Buechlein of Indianapolis, “specifically in the areas of fidelity to the magisterium and teaching the completeness of the faith. But in the past five years or so, the situation has greatly improved.”

Archbishop Buechlein believes the visitations will provide an objective view of seminaries in order to “make things better.” Yet, he said, “Things aren’t as bad as some people think they are.”

In order to verify the actual state of affairs in U.S. seminaries, the Vatican’s instrumentum laboris (working document) guides the process with a list of questions — some mandatory, some optional. Members of the visitation team (or an individual member, in the case of smaller seminaries) interview every faculty member, seminarian and recent alumnus privately.

The seminary visitations began in the fall of last year and should be completed by May of this year.

The timing of the visitations, in light of the Vatican document regarding homosexuality and the priesthood, gave the appearance to some that the main purpose of the visitations is to root out homosexuality in seminaries. The visitations were announced Dec. 17, 2004; they began Sept. 26, 2005 and the Vatican document, officially titled “Instruction Concerning the Criteria of Vocational Discernment Regarding Persons With Homosexual Tendencies, Considering Their Admission to Seminary and to Holy Orders,” was issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education Nov. 29, 2005.

Contrary to headlines such as “Vatican to Check U.S. Seminaries on Gay Presence” (The New York Times, Sept. 15, 2005), however, homosexuality is not the sole or primary issue under investigation.

Faithfulness to Church doctrine regarding sexual morality, which necessarily includes the issue of homosexuality, is certainly addressed in the visitations. But none of the seminaries interviewed for this story felt it was the “witch hunt” some in the media portrayed it. And issues of faithfulness go beyond homosexuality.

The central purpose of the visitation, according to the instrumentum laboris, is to examine priestly formation.

“Particular attention will be reserved for the intellectual formation of seminarians, to examine its fidelity to the magisterium, especially in the field of moral theology, in light of Veritatis Splendor,” it states.

“At the heart of the visitations, the Church wants to know that candidates to the priesthood will be convinced that what they teach and preach in the name of Christ Jesus is true,” said Bishop John Nienstedt of New Ulm, Minn. “Relativism has been pervasive in our society, and we have to ensure it has not infiltrated seminary programs.”

Bishop Nienstedt is one of the 117 members appointed by the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education to oversee the seminary visits. Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, who is a former rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York and of the North American College in Rome, is the coordinator ofthe visitation.

Bishop Neinstedt said major changes have already been implemented in American seminaries, contending that “seminaries today are not the same as the seminaries 40 years ago.”

The Results

Results of the seminary visitations are not immediately known. The visitors do not express recommendations or judgments to the seminary after the visitation. Instead, a report is filed directly to the Vatican with strict confidentiality.

This confidentiality, though, is not intended as a lack of transparency.

Father John Allen, dean of men at the Pontifical Josephinum College in Columbus, Ohio, suggested that since the Vatican initiated the study, it is proper that the report be made directly to the Holy See.

“All seminaries, all authentic Catholic teaching must necessarily find its origin and its communion with the Successor of Peter,” he said.

It is the Vatican, through the Congregation for Catholic Education, which will make the final reports and recommendations to the local bishop or religious superior responsible for the institution. These will not be released publicly.

No one interviewed for this story, however, expected radical moves to be recommended.

“The report may suggest particular seminaries improve in one area or another,” said Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix. “But I would be surprised if there were sweeping changes throughout the country.”

Amid the continuing repercussions from the abuse scandal, Bishop Olmsted said there is reason for hope for the future. He is heartened by the “inspiring group of young men” entering seminaries and sees the visitations as very helpful in obtaining quality objective criteria in assisting seminaries to “be even better than they are right now.”

Others shared Bishop Olmsted’s optimism.

“One always has the hope,” Father Allen said, “that every seminary will take very seriously its responsibility to communicate effectively and authentically the Church’s teaching.”

Lino Rulli is based in

Minneapolis, Minnesota.