Although clergy sexual abuse scandals aren’t new, the ones that have rocked the Catholic Church this summer revolved around a group seldom focused on before: seminarians. The sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians, and the response of seminary leaders, have been at the center of the case of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose removal from ministry in June began months of focus on abuse.
Many Catholics share a heightened, even unprecedented, level of concern for the well-being of Catholic seminarians. They rightly wonder, as well, whether our seminaries can not only screen out potential sexual predators, but also rise to the challenge of preparing for life and ministry men who are emotionally mature, and psychologically and sexually healthy. This requires training for contemporary American society.
The convergence of these concerns invites a long-needed conversation about reform in American seminaries.
Many of us who have labored in seminary formation for years consider 2018 a watershed moment, in fact, to insist on long-overdue adjustments and enhancements to seminary training. In retrospect, many of our institutions have too often failed miserably in preparing men for ministry, and many still fall far short of the goal of forming happy, healthy, holy priests. The church urgently needs new approaches to preparing men for priestly ministry given today’s sexualized, secularized culture and the personal challenges facing seminarians.
Young men who feel called to priesthood, although well intentioned, often have enormous gaps in their prior formation and upbringing. Many lack interpersonal communication skills. Many need basic formation in Catholic teaching. Not infrequently, they need counseling to discover and deal with trauma: “father wounds,” bullying, parental divorce, porn addiction and even sexual abuse. Added to that, they must acquire qualities and pastoral skills before ordination.
Bishops, rectors and seminary formation personnel can too easily believe that the way we’re doing formation today is just fine. But if we’re honest, we know that in many cases it’s not.
Of the approximately 450 men ordained to the Catholic priesthood every year, a small percentage will abandon the ministry within the first few years. Many others will struggle mightily with challenges for which their seminary formation failed to prepare them.
Typically, our seminaries work like this: Upon a chassis of a heavily academic four-year program, we superimpose elements of human, spiritual and pastoral preparation for ministry. In addition, seminary life too often unfolds in the confines of old, cavernous, institutional buildings. Such parameters easily foster isolation, and work at cross purposes to an experience of genuine fraternity and the kind of deep-down formation our men require. This model of seminary is today highly inadequate, and it’s time for bishops to think far outside such boxes.
So what needs to change?
First, an overemphasis on academics must yield to a sharper focus on forming candidates who are emotionally mature and have a healthy, well-integrated personality and spirituality. If we’ve learned one thing since the crisis of clergy sexual abuse erupted in 2002, it’s that many abusive priests reached ordination in a stage of arrested psychosexual and emotional development. Where focus on personal psychological integration is lacking, space opens for disordered living of precisely the type that has made headlines in recent months.
Second, bishops need to work urgently to ensure that in our seminaries there reigns an inner culture of trust, transparency and honest dialogue between seminarians and the formation team. It has pained me to hear, in recent weeks, for example, that some seminarians have felt prohibited from engaging in open dialogue about McCarrick or a grand jury report about clergy sexual abuse in Pennsylvania. Such censoring of honest reactions is utterly wrongheaded. Seminarians must feel that they can freely, frankly and confidently express to the formation team their concerns about the seminary community, their opinions about the formation process and any other honest apprehension or contribution they want to make in the spirit of honest dialogue.
Although I would like to think that the vast majority of our seminaries are healthy environments, to the extent that seminarians might have concerns about their own safety or exposure to potential exploitation, every seminary should have a clear sexual harassment policy and corresponding protocols. Seminaries should appoint an independent ombudsman whom anyone (seminarian, lay student, staff member) can contact, independently of the diocese as part of that policy.
Third, in general, bishops need to slow down the rush to ordination and consider a minimum age for beginning seminary formation — perhaps 22, with the candidate having a college degree and some work experience. They could then follow up with eight years of formation, beginning with a year dedicated to detoxing from the culture and social media, growth in self-knowledge, prayer and a secure masculine identity. The final year before priestly ordination would be dedicated to intensive fieldwork and pastoral ministry.
Given the pressing need for priests, however, the vast majority of bishops staunchly resist the idea of prolonging the formation process. But how is the church well served by rushing men to ordination before they are ready? When years later some of them falter, with addictions or other personal struggles, we all pay a heavy price.
The delayed maturation process of young men these days is well documented. My years of screening candidates for priesthood confirm that our men need ample time to allow life wounds to heal and to grow in a solid, well-integrated interior life. As challenging as it may be, bishops need to think in the direction of a future church with fewer, but better-formed, priests.
Fourth, bishops must not assign to seminary priests who lack the skill set and drive to become mentors, role models and moral guides — nuances all captured in the term “formator.” A doctorate in theology does not render a priest automatically suitable for such ministry. Bishops must also demand and provide for the ongoing professional formation of the formators themselves.
Fifth, let’s identify the seminaries that are working hard to get formation right and those that are not. Bishops should convene an independent blue-ribbon panel of seasoned seminary formators to undertake a visitation and review of our seminaries. Bishops should think seriously about either reforming or closing those seminaries that are failing in their mission.
Sixth, the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate (CARA) annually collects data on the 70 seminaries that serve American dioceses. As reported by CARA in 2017, 11 of those seminaries have 100 or more seminarians enrolled, but one-third have fewer than 50 seminarians. What must we conclude? The United States does not need 70 Catholic seminaries. So, let’s reduce the total number to 15 or 20 regional institutions. Let’s pool and share the best formators to serve as teams in these regional seminaries that offer the quality of formation our times require. Seminary formation needs radical rethinking. The bishops must be catalysts in this process.
The Rev. Thomas Berg is professor of moral theology, vice rector and director of admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. He is the author of “Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics.” He tweets at @frtberg.