It is such a serious problem that, according to one noted church historian, not even Pope Francis dares to speak about it.
It’s the outdated model of Catholic priesthood and, even more significantly, how candidates for the ordained ministry are selected and prepared for service among the People of God.
Professor Alberto Melloni of the John XXII Foundation for Religious Sciences (Bologna, Italy) recently pointed out that the archetype of today’s priest dates back to over 400 years ago and the reforms stemming from the Council of Trent (1545-1563).
“That remarkable sixteenth century invention that shaped the politics, mentality and interior life, as well as the art and theology of the West and its former colonies, did not die out (there are still roughly 420,000 priests in the world). But in the last century it has been in crisis,” noted Melloni in a March 22 article in the Rome-based daily, La Repubblica.
“Over the past ninety years in Italy we have gone from having nearly 15,000 to only 2,700 seminarians,” he pointed out.
But the enormous drop in numbers is not the most worrying sign of this outdated model of priesthood and seminary formation.
Instead, Melloni says it is the “drop in the intellectual quality” of the men who choose to join the priesthood and the bishops that ordain them. And, furthermore, it is the fact that the current system continues to be a breeding ground of the “vice” the professor correctly identifies as “clericalism.”
Melloni, the leading voice of the so-called “Bologna School,” argues that the “diminished role and affective negligence” of priests has led to the “exaltation of celibacy, which traps sexuality in a search for sublimation and attracts people to the priesthood who have unresolved (problems) or are even sick”.
Pope Francis has said as much on the numerous occasions he has talked about the selection and training of candidates for ordained ministry.
Already in November 2013 he told a closed-door gathering of men who head religious orders that badly formed priests often turn out to be “little monsters” who then “shape the People of God.” The pope said this gives him the “creeps.”
He went on to warn the superiors about the tendency of seminarians who “follow the rules smiling a lot” just to jump through the hoops to finish their formation and get ordained.
“This is hypocrisy that is the result of clericalism, which is one of the worst evils,” Francis said. (He made similar comments to religious superiors this past November.)
In 2015 he warned bishops and seminary formators to be wary of priesthood candidates who are “rigid” or, because they are “unconsciously aware” of having mental issues, “seek strong structures that will protect them in life.” He said this would turn out badly eventually.
Whenever Pope Francis has talked about the selection and training of Catholic priests he has given every indication that he knows there are serious problems. And it is no secret that we find the most obstinate opposition to his blueprint for Church renewal among seminarians, priests most recently ordained and those bishops that ordained them.
But, as Professor Melloni has shown, the pope cannot quite come around to naming the root cause of the problem—the woefully inadequate seminary system and the outdated model of priesthood it is perpetuating.
In fact, according to comments made less than four months after his election, Francis seems convinced that the current system should remain in tact.
“I always think of this: the worst seminary is better than no seminary! Why? Because community life is essential,” he said at a gathering of seminarians and novices of religious orders.