Any college-aged man entering a Catholic seminary during the ongoing crisis of the priestly sexual-abuse scandals does so with a certain amount of self-consciousness. Alongside predictable questions raised by the decision to embrace a life of celibacy, the seminarian faces widespread doubt about whether the church is capable of providing the formation necessary to produce well-adjusted, sexually healthy priests. Some critics of the church see sexual abuse as the natural result of celibacy, which they regard as a psychologically unnatural way of life. On this view, there is nothing mysterious about the church’s failure to provide adequate sexual formation, since the very attempt to form sexually normal celibate men poses an impossible task. The only solution to the problem of priestly sexual abuse would be to drop mandatory celibacy.
[This article is part of a larger package of stories on the priesthood. Read all of them here.]
But this view is simplistic. For one thing, most sexual abuse is committed by non-celibates, a lot of it within families. For another, the percentage of celibate clergy who abuse tends to mirror the percentage among their non-celibate counterparts in other faiths, as well as among secular professionals. And even if the alleged psychological abnormality of celibacy explains why a particular priest commits abuse, it does nothing to explain the equally or more troubling fact that large numbers of non-abusing priests and bishops have been willing to ignore, or in many cases cover up, the actions of those who did. The critique of celibacy alone cannot explain why priests systematically shirked their moral duty to report such crimes, or why bishops chose to assign and reassign serial child molesters to unsuspecting parishes. It does not account for the systemic nature of the church’s failed response to the abuse of children, and this is at least partly what makes these scandals so heinous.
From 2008 through 2010, I was a seminarian in St. Paul, Minneapolis, an archdiocese now entrenched in its own abuse scandal. My experience there led me to believe that the problem of priestly sexual abuse is due, at least in part, to the failure of seminaries to provide adequate human and sexual formation to men studying for the priesthood. More specifically, my seminary formation failed to confront the questions surrounding sexual abuse in a candid and psychologically sophisticated way. I realize that my experience is limited, and that it would be unwise to generalize about seminary education from the the operations and culture of one institution. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to tell my story in the hope of calling attention to what might very well be more widespread problems.
At a recruitment event I attended before joining the seminary, the specter of the abuse crisis was addressed by the rector. He was an imposing man, revered by his seminarians, and well known throughout the archdiocese as a direct and forceful preacher. In a speech given in the seminary’s chapel, he told us that he didn’t want any “perverts” in his seminary, and that the church was done tolerating any form of “sexual deviance” in the priesthood. This got a round of vigorous head nods from the seminarians attending the event with us visitors. The rector went on to warn that if he found any of us unable to live a healthy celibate life in the manner prescribed by the church, he would throw us out on the spot.
The speech was terrifying, but it also inspired a certain amount of confidence. Here was a man with the vision—and the power—to enact change for a priesthood in crisis. When I entered the seminary a few months later, I was optimistic about the formation I would receive. Under the guidance of our rector and his staff, I trusted that my fellow seminarians and I would receive the resources necessary to live healthy and satisfying lives as Catholic priests.
But just a few weeks into my time at the seminary, my confidence began to waver. I recall the day when the first-year seminarians, or “new men” as we were called, gathered in the seminary’s spacious basement to attend a workshop on sexual ethics titled “Freedom and Victory.” The workshop was run by a psychologist from something called the Theology of the Body Training and Healing Center, together with a blind priest who, we were told during his introduction, had witnessed at least one eucharistic miracle and had had extensive experience with exorcisms. The breakout sessions had titles like “Masturbation: Is it Healthy? Is it Holy?” (you can guess the answer to both questions); and at various points throughout the workshop we were invited to approach the microphone and share stories of sexual pain and healing—“if you feel called by the spirit to do so”—with the sixty or so priests and other seminarians in the room.
The whole thing felt more than a little strange to me, and for the most part I kept my head down, pretending to take notes in the workbook that had been provided. The strangeness culminated with a workshop session devoted to reenacting the “spiritual warfare” that goes on when a young man watches pornography. Each of us was given a nametag with the name of a demon on it. These demons, we were told, were the principalities most closely associated with sexual temptation. We were then gathered around the chosen man and told to hiss and curse at him, trying to entice him to “watch pornography” and “masturbate.” Afterwards, the priest came around with a coffee tin, collecting the nametags—he had to burn them, he told us, while reciting prayers of exorcism. Demonic influence wasn’t something to take lightly.
After the session, I caught up with one of the priests on staff and hesitantly expressed my doubts about the workshop. He reassured me that the formation staff knew exactly what they were doing, and encouraged me to defer to the authority of the workshop leader. Doubts about the spiritual realities associated with temptation were not uncommon, he said; and while temptation to such doubts could be a sign of demonic influence, my increased sensitivity in this area might also signal a spiritual gift, an ability to discern the presence of angels and demons. It would probably be good, the priest told me, to try to develop this gift.
There was something obviously circular about this logic; doubts about explanations involving strange spiritual entities were being explained by the presence of strange spiritual entities. But my attempts to point out this circularity were lost on the formation staff. Obedience and humility were the most important virtues of a parish priest, I was reminded; I was encouraged to pray for an increase in these virtues.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE seminary I attended, like the structure of the priesthood and the church more generally, emphasizes an almost blind trust in and obedience to those in charge. This, in itself, is no critique: our church’s structure is unapologetically hierarchical. But in my seminary experience critical inquiry and systematic self-reflection were generally discouraged, and resistance to a particular practice or mode of explanation was often seen as dissidence and promptly disregarded. So how, in such an institution, can lay people, priests, and bishops hold each other accountable? How can we identify and fix problems when it is never our place to doubt or to question? How can the church grow and flourish when a culture of conformity and deference is the norm, and I would argue, a distortion and degeneration of what a hierarchical institution can be at its best?
The problem, as I’ve suggested, is systemic. If bishops are working with the kind of overly spiritualized conception of sexuality we were offered, it’s no wonder that abuse spreads as it does. If a priest’s sexual misconduct is seen merely as his inability to resist temptation, why not assign him to another parish in another town? That’s what priests and bishops do, after all: when people sin, they forgive them their sins, make them pledge to try harder, and send them on their way. The reason that grossly inappropriate actions continued to seem like business as usual for many bishops is precisely because no finer-grained distinctions were available in the area of sexual conduct than those captured by the categories of “sinful” and “permissible.” If my seminary experience is any guide, we are still failing to provide our clergy with the concepts and tools relevant for identifying and addressing sexual abuse.
From time to time at the seminary, this or that fellow seminarian would simply disappear. A guy would be sitting next to you during adoration one morning, and his chair would be empty the next. Usually we were told that our colleague had “discerned out,” or had “agreed to leave” for some opaque reason. Always we were told that he had left “in good standing with the seminary,” even though most of us would never have thought otherwise.
The day after one such leave-taking, a good friend came into my room before night prayer. “Did you hear what happened?” he asked, referring to the seminarian who was gone. “It was pretty messed up.”
Apparently, a few weeks earlier, the seminarian in question had been caught—some said in a trap set by an ex-seminarian—looking for anonymous sex online. A week later, I was told, a priest friend of this seminarian had tried to kill himself by jumping from the choir loft of a church upon learning that the police were on their way to arrest him for alleged child abuse. The seminarian, my friend told me, was back in their diocese now, being questioned by police in connection with the charges.
Whether and how any of these events fit together was unclear at the time. Now, though, the unexplained departures of other seminarians started to take on a different light. I found out that some men had been leaving abruptly because it had come out that they were gay; others had been caught acting inappropriately and were asked to leave. This was disconcerting; suddenly there was no way of determining why a man with whom I had regularly interacted had been removed. Worse, there was no way of knowing whether I myself might have said or done something that could get me dismissed. A priest had warned me once that some of the priests on staff found my close friendship with one of the other seminarians suspect. He suggested that we stop hanging out together. When I told him that neither of us was gay, that we really were just good friends, he shook his head and stood his ground. Now I worried: Was his suspicion enough to get me kicked out?
I found all of this deeply disorienting. The sexual formation that trickled down to us from the staff was presented in spiritual doublespeak, and issues of human sexuality were taboo in the conversations among seminarians. These factors contributed to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality. If men left or were removed for reasons connected with their sexual formation, it seemed better not to share too much with anyone in the seminary—not even with one’s spiritual directors.
In my view, the culture that emerged in this context mirrors the culture that long prevailed among clergy before the abuse scandals came to light—a culture of silence, in which most of those in close contact with abusive clergy are kept in ignorance, and justice and accountability are reserved as the prerogatives of those higher up. Not only was it to a seminarian’s advantage to be selective about what he shared with others in such a culture of silence; indeed, there was a sense that it was in everyone’s best interest to know as little as possible about anyone else’s private life.
Nevertheless, several of us thought it would be better to get clarity on some of these issues. During a weekly meeting, we asked a priest on staff if we could start a group to discuss issues of sexual formation—a forum for staff and seminarians, and a resource for those who wanted to better practice the discipline of celibacy. The priest seemed confused by our request. He asked what sorts of things such a group would discuss. Things that young men had to deal with in today’s world, we told him; issues like sexual identity, masturbation, and pornography.
“I don’t think anyone who masturbates should be in seminary,” the priest said. The room went silent. He went on to inform us that the disclosure that any seminarian masturbated or habitually had “impure thoughts” would represent a “serious formation issue.” Interpreting this as “possible grounds for dismissal,” we dropped the idea and never brought it up again.
The next semester, two more seminarians left without explanation.
THERE WERE OTHER things that confused me during my time in the seminary. A number of activities were forbidden for allegedly carrying “connotations” of a homosexual subculture that, we were told, had infected some seminaries in the 1960s and ’70s. Things like gathering in groups to draw or paint. Or wearing shorts. Instead we were encouraged to dress and act “like men.”
Then there was the problem of women. We were often told that girls at the university where our seminary was located, were more attractive than most, and moreover were fond of dressing immodestly. This was a message repeated at floor meetings, all-seminary gatherings, in private conversation, spiritual direction, and in more than one sermon. In fact, it was a sermon the priests involved in our formation took turns giving—in their own way—at some point each spring. Accordingly, we were encouraged to stay off the main quad, and to approach women only in the company of several of our “brother seminarians.” After being caught chatting with a woman from one of my classes, I was approached by an older seminarian who told of priests who had left the priesthood because they had been “seduced” after seemingly innocuous interactions with women. Sexual temptation was often best avoided by avoiding women altogether, he said, and reminded me to “guard my heart.”
In general, attitudes toward women, sexuality, and gender issues among the men I studied with in the seminary were alarmingly retrograde. Women were often regarded with suspicion, either because of their potential to lure men away from the priesthood, or because of the perceived threat that demands for gender equality in the church present to a patriarchal institution in crisis.
Let me be clear: I don’t think the formation staff at my seminary was intentionally trying to confuse or scare us through its approach to sexual formation. Nor do I think that the formation we received was completely useless. I recently received a magazine from my seminary with pictures of my newly ordained classmates. There are some very good priests among them, men I’m glad to see serving the church in this vital and difficult role. I also know men who have been priests for twenty or thirty years, and who have seemingly led healthy and fulfilling celibate lives.
But if my experience is any indication, the state of priestly formation in American seminaries is still far from ideal. Current practices are failing to provide the next generation of priests with the conceptual resources and independent judgment they will need to recognize and avoid the sorts of problems that allowed the sexual abuse of children to occur. This needs to change. No longer can seminaries afford to ignore awkward questions regarding human and sexual formation. A broader dialogue and, perhaps, an openness to hitherto-untried approaches to discerning whether a candidate possesses the spiritual gift of celibacy, are needed. The way forward is uncertain, but we must try. We can’t continue to ignore these issues.