Visiting the Seminaries

Published March 17, 2005

When the U.S. cardinals came to Rome to discuss the Long Lent of 2002 in April of that year, they recommended that a visitation be made of all U.S. seminaries, houses of priestly formation, and theological consortia, with an eye toward accelerating the process of reform already underway in many of those institutions. Those visitations, which may begin as soon as this coming fall, are crucial to authentic Catholic reform in light of the crisis caused by clerical sexual misconduct and failed episcopal leadership. If the visitations are the fulfill their promise, they must be conducted with certain imperatives in mind. Here are three.

(1) The purpose of a visitation is to ascertain the truth about the spiritual, moral, and intellectual life of the institution being visited. The primary task of the visitators, in interviewing faculty, staff, and students, is to establish the truth about this particular situation. That is not going to be easy.

Those who have built careers by skating around issues like improper sexual activity in seminaries and houses of formation are not going to want those careers jeopardized. Those who have seen problems and yet have not had the courage to name them for what they are must be encouraged to tell the truth, even if the truth is painful – and so must students, who must be confident that they will not be jeopardizing their chances for a positive faculty evaluation if they tell the truth to visitators. Which means that students must be assured that their comments to visitators will be held in the strictest confidentiality.

There are prudent and experienced priests throughout the country who are quite familiar with the games that are often played to prevent the truth of certain seminary situations coming to light. A roster of such priests should be put together, and the relevant names should be made available to a visitation team before it visits an institution with which one or more of these priests is familiar. Visitators who know what to look for, and where, will be more likely to get at the truth of things.

(2) The intellectual, spiritual, and human formation of seminarians, especially on issues of sexuality, all intersect in the field of moral theology. Yet there are still seminaries in the United States where the teaching of moral theology remains in the hands of those who do not seem to have read the 1993 encylical Veritatis Splendorm, which rejected certain approaches to moral reasoning that, in my judgment and that of others, contributed to the meltdown of discipline in seminaries and houses of formation in the 1970s and 1980s. Or, having read Veritatis Splendor, they have dismissed it as impossibly old hat.

There are knowledgeable and sophisticated moral theologians in America who are both faithful to the teaching authority of the Church and notable scholars in their field. Those scholars should be asked to sketch a model moral theology curriculum, including a list of appropriate textbooks, that visitation teams can use as a template in assessing this critical aspect of priestly formation. The point is not to mandate a return to the pre-conciliar moral manuals. The point is to insure that future priests are taught a method of moral theology that is compatible with the settled teaching of the Church on this matter.

(3) Then there is the issue of psychology and psychologists. When psychology trumped moral theology in dealing with issues of sexual maturation in the seminaries of the 1970s and 1980s, bad things happened and a disciplinary breakdown followed – with what we now know were awful consequences. Today’s seminary visitators need the counsel of psychologists who were not identified, personally or institutionally, with those past problems – psychologists who understand the priority of moral theology over psychology in assessing certain patterns of abusive behavior, and who have not succumbed to the temptation to use clinical jargon to mask the reality of those kinds of sexual abuse.

American seminaries are in considerably better shape than they were two decades ago. Yet there are still problems in some places. Identifying and fixing those problems must be the purpose of these visitations.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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