What’s Wrong With Our Seminaries? An Insider Speaks Out

In recent years, even before the scandals, there has been growing concern about the institutions that form our priests. Books and articles in the Catholic press have shocked the faithful with lurid accounts of heterodoxy, corruption, and outright immorality festering in the seminaries. Some of the problems these writers describe are now being addressed. But many still remain, and the seminary system cannot be restored until these issues are dealt with.

So what’s really wrong with the seminaries? And how can we fix them?

The answers can be broken down into two broad categories that make up seminary formation: the academic and the formational. The academic category is self-explanatory: What classes make up the seminary curriculum? What knowledge should a seminarian master? What skills should the seminarian learn? The formational component, on the other hand, is much broader and more difficult to define. This has to do with “forming” the seminarian—that is, helping him to acquire the virtues and dispositions that will make him a good parish priest. Included in this category are things like the liturgical and devotional life of the seminary—does it encourage the seminarian to develop the habit of prayer and a spirit of reverence?—as well as formation for chastity and celibacy. Finally, the seminarian’s formation in what are known as “human virtues”—docility, self-awareness, and pastoral sensitivity—fall under this category.

Faithful Academics

The first requirement of any seminary curriculum is that it must be orthodox—that it passes on the full and authentic Catholic faith as revealed in Scripture and Tradition and as handed down by the Church’s Magisterium. If the seminary isn’t doing that, it simply doesn’t deserve the label “Catholic.” The teachings of the Church should be taken as truth, which we then try to understand and assent to. This approach rules out the culture of dissent that has characterized so much of Catholic intellectual life for the last 30 years.

According to Todd Reitmeyer, a fourth-year theologian and transitional deacon at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, this orthodoxy needs to be something vigorous and proactive. “In some places,” he said, “the teaching of the Church is presented with a wink and a nod, which reveals an underlying scorn for the Magisterium.” Personal experience bears out Reitmeyer’s concerns: During a discernment visit to St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana in 1989, I sat in on a moral theology class. In that session the professor, a priest, presented accurately and dispassionately the Church’s teaching on contraception. But he failed to give any explanations of the “why” behind the Church’s teaching, and when challenged by some seminarians who did not accept the teaching as presented, the professor replied, “I can’t make you guys accept this. My job is to tell you what the Church teaches.” This kind of approach signals to the students that the professor doesn’t take Church teaching seriously and breeds contempt for the Magisterium.

The “wink and nod” attitude is contrasted by that found at seminaries such as Mount St. Mary’s (Maryland), Dunwoodie (New York), and Sacred Heart (Michigan). In these seminaries, Church teaching is presented as true, and students are encouraged to understand and defend it. Mount St. Mary’s has several excellent faculty members, such as Dr. Germain Grisez, who are well known for their outspoken defense of Church teaching. Sacred Heart has had, until recently, an outstanding rector in Bishop Allen Vigneron (who was recently named coadjutor bishop of Oakland, California) and has excellent professors, such as systematic theologian Dr. Robert Fastiggi. According to Bishop Earl Boyea, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit and former rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, the academic dean is the key figure in ensuring the seminary’s fidelity. “The academic dean,” he said, “has to be a watchdog,” with a solid background to engage the issues at hand. The rector and the dean, he said, “have a responsibility to engage faculty with whom there are difficulties—to clarify, to investigate, to persuade, and if necessary, to discipline” professors who are out of line with Church teaching.

One key element in forming orthodox and faithful priests is providing them with a solid foundation in philosophy. Some seminaries have college programs in which a student receives a philosophy B.A. before proceeding to the graduate study of theology. But many seminarians today come with college degrees in fields other than philosophy and have little or no foundation in it. To cope with this, seminaries have added a two-year “pre-theology” program to make up students’ deficiencies. But these college and pre-theology programs are of varying quality. “The most effective way of heading off theological error is to give seminarians a solid philosophical training,” Reitmeyer said. While Reitmeyer characterized his philosophy program at St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, as a “good overall experience,” it was not without shortcomings. “There were so many requirements,” he said, but not in the right areas. “There were no required courses in natural theology [the discipline in which one studies what can be known about God apart from revelation] or in metaphysics [which is concerned with the nature and essence of things].” Such gaps in one’s foundation can leave a seminarian ill-prepared to understand systematic and moral theology later on.

Coherent Academics

Another problem at most American seminaries is fragmentation or lack of coherence in the curriculum. A look at seminary course schedules reveals something of a hodgepodge of different classes and subjects, often arranged with little concern as to how they may or may not fit together. A seminarian may, in one semester, take a course on the Pentateuch and a course on the synoptic Gospels and never hear from either professor about how these Scriptures relate to one another. Conversely, courses that would seem to invite a coordinated approach usually aren’t offered that way.

This balkanization of disciplines is found throughout higher education in the United States, and according to Bishop Boyea, it is to some extent unavoidable. “Not all professors,” he said, “can see the broader picture. And most feel incompetent to speak outside their own field.” That being said, he did admit that the fragmentation of the curriculum is a problem and that the seminary does have a duty to try to show seminarians how the different disciplines relate to each other. But for that to happen, he said, the seminary has to be a “community of learning…. There has to be a critical mass of faculty and students motivated by intellectual curiosity.”

The existence of this community of learning, motivated by intellectual curiosity, points to another problem: the lack of intellectual rigor in some seminary programs. According to Rev. Robert Boyd, an alumnus of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, “Seminaries don’t welcome critical thinking.” By “critical thinking,” he explained, he didn’t mean dissent. Rather, good critical thinking involves the effort to delve deeply into the mysteries of the Faith and try to understand the why of our beliefs as well as the what. After all, seminary curriculum in theology is supposed to be graduate-level work. Nevertheless, it’s too easy for seminarians to get through their programs without reading and mastering essential material. I’ve talked to numerous priests and seminarians who have admitted to me that while in the seminary, they never read or discussed in class such foundational documents as Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II). How many liturgical irregularities can be explained by such ignorance?

Uprooting Dissent

One area deserving special scrutiny in evaluating seminaries is their curricula in moral theology. The primary locus of dissent over the past 30 years has been in the moral realm (mostly over Church teaching on contraception and homosexual activity). While seminaries such as Mount St. Mary’s, St. Charles Borromeo, and Sacred Heart have very good moral theology programs taught by faculty loyal to church teaching, this is not the case everywhere. In some seminaries an examination of the textbooks used reveals that their moral theology programs are taught from a proportionalist or consequentialist perspective. Proportionalism is a moral theory that holds that the goodness or badness of a choice depends on the “proportion” of benefit to harm in the act and its outcome. If the amount of benefit outweighs the amount of harm in the action, it is morally licit. Consequentialism goes a step farther to consider only the consequences of an act in making moral judgments. With both theories, it is difficult if not impossible to exclude any action as inherently immoral. Both of these methods were condemned and refuted by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). Moral theology courses for which texts are used that are dominated by proportionalists like Rev. Charles Curran or Richard McCormick or consequentialists like Timothy O’Connell should be regarded as deeply suspect. These approaches are fundamentally flawed and have led to dissent from Humanae Vitae and attempts by Father Curran and others to legitimize masturbation, homosexual activity, and even abortion. On the other hand, the presence of authors such as Dr. William May, Dr. Germain Grisez, and Rev. Benedict Ashley in a moral theology curriculum are a good sign: They indicate that the program is trying to teach morality from within the Magisterium.

A seminary’s program in Sacred Scripture is another area requiring special scrutiny. While Catholic seminaries are not embracing the deconstruction of Scripture propagated by John Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar, the historical-critical method of teaching Sacred Scripture dominates the curriculum to an unhealthy extent. According to Rev. Robert Boyd, the Scripture courses at St. Charles Borromeo were “all historical-critical, all the time.” But the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” says that the historical-critical method is only one of several methods we should use to understand and teach Scripture. According to that same document, the Church Fathers “have a foundational role…which unceasingly accompanies and guides the Church’s reading and interpretation of Scripture.” Furthermore, we’re told that we must refer to the four traditional senses of Scripture (the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses) in understanding and teaching the Bible. But in most Catholic seminaries, the historical-critical method is all one gets, subjecting the seminarian to endless and tedious discussions of the Documentary Hypothesis and the Q-Source.

In my own studies at St. Charles Borromeo, it wasn’t enough to discuss the synoptic problem (the questions and problems surrounding the sources of the Gospels) once: I was subjected to a one-to-two-week unit on the synoptic problem in each of the three Gospel courses I took there. In five years of seminary education, only one Scripture professor (at Sacred Heart Major Seminary) attempted to incorporate the Church Fathers into the syllabus.

Apart from the tedium and consequent disinterest in Scripture that such total reliance on the historical-critical method engenders, the other problem with it is that it’s virtually useless for training priests to preach meaningfully from the Scriptures. The historical-critical method is certainly helpful for understanding the background and context of a Scripture passage, but it’s powerless to answer the questions in the minds of the average Catholic in the pew: How does this scripture relate to my life as a Catholic, and how does it nourish my faith? The historical-critical approach is even more inimical to penetrating the mysteries of the Faith themselves. To do that, one needs the Fathers and the spiritual senses, and that’s precisely what our seminarians aren’t getting. While this deficiency may not be the sole cause of the poor preaching many Catholics experience today, it certainly doesn’t help.

The Poison of Poor Formation

Academic weaknesses in seminaries result in priests who are ill-equipped to teach and preach the Faith effectively and may even lead those priests to embrace heterodoxy or dissent. But the consequences of weaknesses in a seminary’s formational program are even more serious. Problems in this area can keep the seminarian from developing the virtues and dispositions that will be absolutely necessary for him to function (and even survive) as a priest.

For example, a climate of suspicion and excessive criticism in a seminary will be an obstacle to the virtue of courage: You don’t train a man to stand up for the truth in season and out by showing him over and over again that he isn’t trusted and that he must learn to keep his mouth shut in order to survive. Or if the seminary doesn’t promote a spirit of devotion by celebrating the liturgy with reverence and by encouraging an active devotional life, it’ll produce priests who are flippant and careless regarding sacred things.

In my article “Liturgy as Ecology,” published in Adoremus Bulletin in the summer of 2000, Bishop Vigneron characterized the liturgical formation of the seminarian as an “ecology”—an environment in which the seminarian learns by experience and by studying the principles of good liturgy. This ecological analogy could be extended to the whole of the seminary’s formation program. A seminarian learns what it means to be a priest in a host of ways that aren’t academic. The experience of living in the seminary is in itself formative. “Men come here who have never had the experience of having to wait to use the phone,” Bishop Vigneron explains. They learn patience by living in close quarters with their brother seminarians and have the experience of praying alongside the man they may have had an argument with a few hours ago. A well-ordered seminary, Bishop Vigneron says, “acts as a counter to our self-focused privatized culture.” The goal of seminary formation is that “a man should get to the point where he has the virtues and habits to be able to make a gift of himself.”

Men develop the habit of prayer by being in an environment in which prayer is a priority. Likewise, men learn to appreciate and embrace the gift of celibacy by being with priests who live spiritually fruitful celibate lives and by being in an environment that reinforces the meaning and value of celibacy. If the seminary environment is full of priests who question the value of celibacy or agitate for a relaxation of the Church’s discipline, it will produce priests who in turn will be poorly prepared to live productively as celibates.

Taking the Spiritual Temperature

In general, the quality of spiritual formation in our seminaries is good and getting better. The atmosphere of experimentation and “do-it-yourself” liturgy that characterized the 1970s and 1980s has largely evaporated. Francis Cardinal George’s efforts at Mundelein Seminary and Bishop Vigneron’s at Sacred Heart have been well reported; both institutions now boast more reverent liturgies.

For my part, I found excellent spiritual directors both at St. Charles and Sacred Heart, and seminarians at Mount St. Mary’s, Mundelein, and elsewhere report similar experiences. These seminaries have active devotional lives as well, with regular rosaries and eucharistic adoration. At Sacred Heart students frequently organize their own devotions in addition to the officially sanctioned offerings, and as far as I know, such efforts have never been impeded by seminary staff.

One area in need of improvement, however, is a more systematic introduction to the depth and richness of the Church’s patrimony of spiritual literature. At Sacred Heart an introductory course in the spiritual tradition is required, and at St. Charles the spiritual tradition is introduced during the Spirituality Year. As encouraging as this is, these efforts need to be expanded so that reading in the Church’s spiritual tradition is incorporated throughout the seminary program.

Problems With Pastoral Formation

One consistent area of weakness throughout the seminary system is that of pastoral formation. Pastoral formation generally consists of practical and clinical activities that are supposed to give the seminarian supervised “hands-on” ministry experience. This is essential to a seminarian’s formation and is prescribed by the Church’s norms on priestly formation. All too often, though, insufficient attention is paid to the nature of these experiences and the identity and quality of the supervisor. For example, at St. Charles Borromeo, there were a number of apostolate placements that were dreaded by seminarians. These were supervised by dissident priests—or, in some cases, feminist nuns—who used their supervisory and evaluative power to attempt to indoctrinate seminarians into their own ideologies and punish those who were insufficiently pliable. In spite of seminarians’ complaints, these same assignments came up year after year to assault a new class.

At Sacred Heart, an eight-month internship is an integral part of the program. The seminarian is sent to live and work in a parish under the close supervision of the pastor. Such an experience can be an unparalleled learning opportunity, but all too often, it’s a source of discouragement and frustration. If the seminarian is assigned to work under an orthodox or even moderately liberal pastor, he generally has a good experience (he gets a front-row view of what life as a priest looks like). But if, as sometimes happens, he’s sent to work under a dissident pastor, the experience can be disheartening. Frequently such priests ordered seminarians to do something contrary to Church teaching and discipline, and when the seminarians resisted and appealed to the seminary, they were often told to go along with what the pastor wanted. It seemed that a premium was placed on placating the internship pastor rather than supporting the seminarian in following Church teaching. Placing a seminarian in a situation where he’s required to violate his Faith and conscience is an inexcusable abuse. Seminarians are better off not completing an internship than doing it under a dissenting or disobedient priest.

The area of priestly formation that has received the most attention of late is that concerning sexuality, chastity, and celibacy. The sex-abuse scandals have revealed the high cost of ordaining men who are either sexually disordered or otherwise poorly formed in the virtue of chastity. While some pundits have suggested that the solution to the “problem” of celibacy is to drop the discipline, such ideas are not popular in the seminaries. According to Bishop Vigneron, he and the seminary rectors of his acquaintance have a “firm conviction” about the positive meaning and value of priestly celibacy. He adds that he’s convinced “that the challenge of the pope to embrace celibate chastity and his invitation to build that on the theology of the body is right.” Furthermore, he perceives that seminarians have the right intentions regarding celibacy. “They want to grow in the virtue,” he said. Bishop Boyea is likewise convinced that today’s seminarians are with the Church on celibacy. “They want to embrace it,” he says. “And they want to learn what that means…. The key is this: This is the way Christ lived, and we want to do the same. The reason for celibacy is to want to live like Christ.”

While this is all good, what steps are our seminaries taking to make sure that no more Geoghans and Shanleys slip through the system? While it’s true that fewer than 1 percent of all priests have been implicated in abuse, those priests are spread far and wide. All but two dioceses in this country have had some sort of brush with scandal. Such a widespread phenomenon suggests a systemic failure of spectacular proportions.

The widespread nature of the scandal and the fact that the victims are overwhelmingly adolescent boys has led many to conclude that the real problem is homosexuality within the priesthood. This conclusion has occasioned calls for barring homosexuals from ordination and admission to the seminary.

It appears that Rome is also leaning in this direction: In a September address to the bishops of Brazil, the pope called for the exclusion from Holy Orders of men having “obvious signs of affective deviations,” meaning homosexual orientation. Furthermore, in December, Jorge Cardinal Medina Estevez, then-prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, wrote that “a person who is homosexual or has homosexual tendencies is not…suitable to receive the sacrament of sacred orders.” Many Rome-watchers believe the Holy See will soon issue a directive confirming that position.

It may be the case that such a directive may have strictly symbolic value. First, the perception of most seminary rectors, faculty, and students is that there’s no longer a widespread homosexual subculture in our seminaries (at least in most of them). The efforts at cleaning up this problem—prompted by several incidents in the 1980s—began more than a decade ago and have been largely successful. Bishop Boyea said of his experience as a seminary rector that “there were some men struggling with same-sex attraction, but not large numbers; it certainly wasn’t endemic.” Reitmeyer believes that the percentage of homosexuals within seminaries is “somewhat higher” than that of the general population but concedes that rumors of a “homosexual subculture” in American seminaries are overstated.

Other difficulties with a directive excluding homosexuals from seminaries are more practical. For example, how does one identify a closet homosexual? According to several psychologists interviewed, there’s no completely reliable psychological test that reveals homosexuality. Some men who later come out as gay are not flagged by these tests. Furthermore—and perhaps worse—such tests can falsely identify normal heterosexual men as having homosexual tendencies. Psychological testing relies heavily on self-report, so someone determined to mask his homosexuality could do so. And relying on such external factors as the appearance of effeminacy can be notoriously unreliable. While effeminacy in a seminarian or priest is certainly undesirable (and can be remedied in part by good formation), it isn’t always predictive of homosexuality.

Additionally, at what point does a seminarian’s struggle with homosexuality trigger the mechanism to dismiss him? If he reports having a troubling dream to a spiritual director, is he then to be advised to leave? Bishop Boyea believes that such a reaction would seem premature, because a young man who struggles with some temptations will not necessarily come to “self-identify as a homosexual.” But on the other hand, if the only threshold for dismissal is actually being caught in immoral behavior, surely that standard is too lax, and would reward those who were dishonest but discreet. Many are struggling with the question of how to identify men with potential problems and yet maintain an atmosphere in which seminarians feel free to discuss issues of sexuality and growth in chastity with their spiritual directors and mentors. Bishop Vigneron stated that the seminary rector has a difficult task in trying to get the information he needs while respecting the seminarian’s internal forum and privacy of conscience. “We have to look for ways to ask questions and probe issues in ways that aren’t coercive,” he said.

One measure being considered by some seminaries as a tool for identifying sexual deviancy among candidates is the “Sexual History Survey” developed by Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti of St. Luke’s Institute. The survey consists of numerous (sometimes graphic) questions ranging across the respondent’s life. A few examples: What messages, direct or tacit, were conveyed about sexuality in your family? How did you learn the facts of life? How old were you when you first masturbated? Some adults prefer to have sexual relationships with younger people, under the age of 18. Have you ever felt that way?

Bishop Vigneron confirmed that some seminaries—including Sacred Heart—were considering using the survey. However, he stressed that none, as far as he knew, had actually adopted it yet. When asked about the apparent invasion such a survey would impose on the candidate’s internal forum, he admitted that he felt that some “caveats” would have to be observed in adopting such a survey to “assure the integrity of the internal forum.” However, he defended in general the practice of inquiring about a seminarian’s sexual past, saying, “Things in a man’s background predict if he can achieve celibate chastity.”

Seminarians are understandably apprehensive at the prospect of answering questions such as those previously mentioned. They are suspicious that such surveys will provide an excuse for “fishing expeditions” into their past. Deacon Reitmeyer expressed doubt that the adoption of such surveys would have any real benefit. Because they still rely on self-report, he said, “They won’t do anything to deter or discover guys who are being secretive or deceptive:’

The “Sexual History Survey” also has a problematic origin. Father Rossetti developed it in the course of his work with priests and religious who were already being treated for sexual misconduct. It is likely, then, that the survey assumes the deviancy of the respondent in both the form and content of its questions. As such, it may be improperly applied to seminarians. Finally, there is no objective, verifiable evidence of the survey’s measurement or predictive value, as it has never been subjected to any scientific or clinical trials.

Bishop Boyea, while not going so far as to advocate the use of the survey, nevertheless believes that some form of inquiry into a seminarian’s past sexual conduct is not only justified but necessary. “The seminary rector has a responsibility to tell the bishop, ‘This man is OK.’ We have to ask questions to be able to say that. We ask these questions not out of suspicion but out of duty.”

Perhaps even more important than the enforcement of a ban on ordaining homosexuals is that the seminary establishes an environment affirming and supporting the goodness and meaning of celibacy.

At Sacred Heart, Bishop Vigneron’s annual series of rector’s conferences on celibacy were always well regarded by students. In these, he characterized various kinds of sexual sins—such as homosexuality or masturbation—as “static” that interferes with a man’s freedom to make a gift of himself to God. The bishop always stressed the need for prayer and mortification in order to acquire self-mastery.

Bishop Boyea has found that the key to embracing celibacy is to see it as a nuptial commitment. The question, he said, is, “Can a man understand and embrace the nuptial quality of celibate life? Can the candidate embrace the Church’s teaching concerning celibacy and sexuality for himself and his people? The thing I found impressive about the seminarians I have talked to is that the majority of them are virgins. I always thanked them for the gift of their virginity that they are willing to make for God.”

Signs of Hope

There’s a need for continuing improvement in Catholic seminaries in this country. The recent scandals should make it clear to all that we simply cannot tolerate formation that doesn’t teach men to uphold and embrace Church teaching.

Nevertheless, Catholics can and should take hope from the direction of most seminaries: They’ve made significant progress in the last decade and give every indication that such progress will continue. Of course, the most encouraging signs are the seminarians themselves. They’re men overwhelmingly loyal to the Church, on fire with the Spirit, and eager to give of themselves. They need and deserve seminary formation that will strengthen these qualities and prepare them for the sacrifices they’ll be called to make.


  • Fr. Robert Johansen

    Fr. Robert Johansen is a priest of the diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan. He holds degrees in Classics and Patristics, and also has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, where he is currently a candidate for the Doctor of Sacred Theology. He has presented a number of papers on musical and liturgical subjects at academic conferences, and published articles on the same topics in several academic and popular journals.

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