Why Seminary Formation Must Be Scrutinized

“Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”   ∼ Matthew 18:3

Ever since I seriously embraced my Catholic faith, I’ve lived with the sensation of biting into an orange right after brushing my teeth.

Toothpaste has a chemical in it that temporarily blocks our receptors of sweetness. Apparently, so do certain smug and sententious Catholics who occupy the ranks of the hierarchy.

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In her book The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller tells the story of a seemingly innocuous incident. She was walking along behind two young parents who had just bought themselves ice cream bars. Their young son skipped alongside, watching his parents enjoy their treat in the park. When he asked for one of his own, his mother rebuked him and told him that it was too cold for him. The same scene played out with his father.

When the parents finished, they handed the child their empty sticks. Then they laughed at him when he cried. “What’s the big deal? It’s not so important!”

Humiliated and hurt, the young boy tossed aside the sticks and lagged obediently behind his parents.

This may not sound like much, but this story is more relevant than ever because it shows how small traumas grow into big ones. In the case of the child in Miller’s story, the damage is two-fold. First, if the parents continue to dismiss the child’s emotions, he’ll become emotionally compliant—he’ll spend his childhood trying to meet the emotional needs of his parents. (Later, he’ll protect himself from that fact by idealizing his parents and painfully striving to earn their approval.) Second, the parents rob their child of the very thing that they themselves desire: someone who takes them seriously.

This kind of encounter—one that teaches people to stuff their emotions down and get in line—is all too common in the Church. It teaches the laity that the bishops don’t take their needs seriously. And who at this moment is taken less seriously than the bishops?

Perhaps the reason that some of us found Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s testimony oddly relieving is that it was a welcome alternative to the smarmy, over-lawyered statements put out by bishops who don’t want to deal with the wounded flock that they have damaged through their actions and inactions.

Archbishop Viganò wrote in solidarity with men and women of good will who are sick of the hypocrisy of the episcopate. Bishops lecture us constantly about solidarity—often equating it with the “preferential option for the poor” and social justice programs—but it often seems that they are not in solidarity with us.

When we speak out, we do not have the voice of an archbishop. We can’t rattle the branches in Rome on which the rotten fruit sits.

But Archbishop Viganò—in solidarity with all those whose righteous anger, frustration, and pain have been minimized—provided a voice.

Contrast this with the attitude of Cardinal Wuerl. During an August 8 television interview with Father Thomas Rosica, Wuerl said this about the abuse cover-up: “I don’t think this is some massive, massive crisis.” In other words, the rest of us are just ignorant. If we only had the perspective of the cardinal, then we wouldn’t be making it such a big deal.

What could explain this complete lack of empathy?

Starting in 2010, I was a Catholic seminarian for five years. As a consequence of that experience, I believe that our search for an answer must probe the formation of priests. It’s a place where many priests first learn how to fall in line and accept the unacceptable.

While there were good, holy men and women on the faculties at both of the seminaries I attended, they were not nearly numerous enough to challenge the culture of clericalism that pervaded the formation process. They were hopeful lights in an otherwise vapid culture of hoop-jumping and appeasement, where the faculty presented themselves as above reproach.

I was told to “trust the formation” hundreds of times in my years of seminary formation. That phrase has taken on new meaning for me in light of the abuse crisis and cover-up. I could give countless examples of how this phrase was used in a troubling way, but I’ll use one in particular to illustrate my point.

During the early stages of my formation, I reported to faculty members that an alarming number of my classmates confided in me that they felt they were hazed by more senior seminarians in a rite-of-passage sporting event. The response from leadership was clear: grow up, stop complaining, and trust the formation. After I continued to fight for the seminarians that had been hurt, one faculty member solemnly told me: “You don’t want to die on that hill.”

The crisis caused such a stir on campus that one of my classmates, defending the victims, wrote a letter to the entire community drawing a connection between the culture that permits sexual abuse in the Church and the dismissive attitude of seminarians and faculty. He was quickly ridiculed for calling such attention to a “minor” incident and put in his place.

The response was always predictable, if there is a problem, it’s not with the formation—it’s with the seminarian. He should pray more. Get more sleep. Go on a diet. Grow up.

And if there remains any doubt, he is reminded that the Holy Spirit is the real formator. How can anyone argue with the Holy Spirit?

This is nothing but an insidious form of clericalism.

Trust the formation.

In a post-Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report world, how can we?

The seminarian who wrote the letter—today a good and courageous priest—was right to do so. “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, That spoil the vineyards” (Song 2:15). Long before there is widespread sexual sin, there is a culture that permits it and teaches those who oppose it that they should shut up and get in line.

The hazing was part of a ritual sporting event. But I saw the same behavior playing out every time concerns were raised about the homosexual subculture in the seminary. The response was essentially this (the following words were never spoken; but they might as well have been because it is the message that was communicated): “You’re too spiritually immature to understand why this is not as big of a deal as you’re making it. We are the formators. Trust the process. We’ve been doing this longer than you have. Someday you will understand.”

The problem is not merely clericalism. Before priests were clerics, they were seminarians. And before they were seminarians, they were children.

Did we listen to them?

Trauma is rooted in the past—in the first time we were asked to show emotional conformity by people who did not tolerate our feelings of anger or confusion resulting from mistreatment.

It is reinforced every time we express fear or frustration over a seemingly “minor” thing—be it the language of a papal encyclical or pronouncement, or an injustice on the parish council—and are told, “What’s the big deal? It’s not so important!” and “This is how we do things.”

And it is perpetuated every time we are placated with pious platitudes.

So don’t trust the next formulaic statement released by a bishop. Trust the spiritual children whose experiences allow them to see through or overcome the insincerity and abusiveness they have encountered in life.

Trust the inspired men and women who will be entering R.C.I.A. this fall. And trust those who, tragically—as a consequence of betrayals like those mentioned above—will not be.

(Photo credit: Seminarian from the North American College; Alexey Gotovskiy / CNA)


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