American seminaries mostly 'healthy', but many problems remain

American seminaries mostly 'healthy', but many problems remain

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recently posted on its web site the final report of the apostolic visitation of seminaries in the United States. Dated 15 December 2008, the report, issued by the prefect and secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, offers a generally positive assessment of US seminaries but notes numerous problems.

The apostolic visitation originated at an extraordinary April 2002 meeting between Roman curial prefects and cardinals and other leaders of the American hierarchy.

Issued at the height of the clerical abuse scandal, the meeting's final communique called for 'a new and serious Apostolic Visitation of seminaries and other institutes of formation must be made without delay, with particular emphasis on the need for fidelity to the Church's teaching, especially in the area of morality, and the need for a deeper study of the criteria of suitability of candidates to the priesthood.'

Brief snapshot

The visitation's final report observes that 'an Apostolic Visitation is a blunt instrument but by no means an infallible one,' providing only a brief snapshot of life in US seminaries. Intended to assist US bishops and major superiors in fulfilling their responsibilities related to seminaries, the report chronicles develop- ments from 2002 to 2005, when the visitations began.

The report then issued conclusions in several areas. While concluding that 'in the great majority of diocesan seminaries, the doctrine on the priesthood is well taught,' the report nonetheless noted that in some seminaries, students have an 'insufficient grasp' of Catholic teaching and the distinction between the common priesthood of the faithful and the hierarchal priesthood is blurred.

Some religious institutes speak primarily of 'ministry' rather than the priesthood in a 'mistaken attempt' not to offend opponents of Catholic teaching on women's ordination.

Praising 'most diocesan seminaries' for the unity of their faculty with the magisterium, the report still observed the presence of some faculty members who dissent from magisterial teaching; such dissenters are 'out of kilter with the rest of the faculty and with the seminarians themselves.'

'Quite often,' the visitors found faculty who mocked magisterial teaching without 'speaking openly against Church teaching.'

'More widespread dissent' existed in other places, 'particularly in institutes run by religious,' and in these places, 'there can be no possibility of a unity in direction.' Dissenting superiors and faculty members needed to be removed.

The report also stressed that the formation of laity 'really ought to take place elsewhere' than at a seminary, which exists for the formation of candidates to the priesthood. If lay formation must take place there, laity should not 'routinely be admitted' to certain areas.

The report took special note of moral problems, primarily associated with homosexual behaviour, in some US seminaries. While the situation had improved because of 'better superiors (especially rectors),' there were 'still some places - usually centres of formation for religious - where 'ambiguity vis-ˆ-vis homosexuality persists,' the document said.

Commenting on the report, the Congregation for Catholic Education urged American Church leaders to pay special attention to its 2005 document on criteria for admission to seminaries - a document which states homosexual men are not appropriate candidates for priestly training.

The report on the apostolic visitation does not take into account the public statements from several American seminary officials who, in response to the 2005 directive, announced that they would continue to accept candidates with homosexual inclinations.

The report next criticises a widespread 'laxity of discipline' over students' off-campus activities, a lack of ascetic rules and the practice in some seminaries of 'formation advisers' and psychologists delving into seminarians' spiritual lives.

The heart of seminary formation, the report continued, must be prayer. 'In the diocesan seminaries, the liturgical norms are generally obeyed, but this is not always the case' in religious institutes.

Spiritual formation

Despite this general fidelity, some of the report's strongest criticisms concern spiritual formation. 'Regrettably, very few seminaries fix periods of time for prayer,' and 'some seminaries' need to do more to introduce students to classical Catholic spirituality.

The report exhorts seminaries to celebrate Mass, Lauds, and Vespers daily, including on weekends. 'A great many seminaries' need to introduce seminarians to the Rosary, novenas, litanies, and Stations of the Cross - otherwise, the seminarians 'will be unprepared for ministry in the Church, which greatly treasures these practices.'

The report criticises wide- spread weaknesses in the study of Mariology, patristics, and Latin, and deplores the fact that 'even in the best seminaries,' some faculty members dissent from Catholic teaching on moral theology and the ordination of women. Indeed, dissent remains widespread at some seminaries, 'particularly in some schools of theology run by religious.'

The report's generally positive conclusion notes that seminary formation has gradually improved since the 1990s - 'at least in diocesan seminaries' - due to the appointment of 'wise and faithful' rectors. The bottom line: America's diocesan seminaries 'are, in general, healthy.'

This was a tactful observation, given the many serious criticisms noted above in the final report.

Adapted from a Catholic World News report.

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