The rest of the story?

I write in response to your package of articles Clerical Errors: How Are We Training Our Priests?. We are particularly disappointed by the publication of Paul Blaschko’s piece “Inside the Seminary,” and are surprised that, by your own admission, neither the rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary (SJV) in St. Paul, where Blaschko was a seminarian, nor members of the staff were contacted prior to publication. As a Catholic magazine committed to providing “a forum for civil, reasoned debate on the interaction of the faith,” we ask that the editors of Commonweal include a balanced perspective in future discussions.

Our goal is that SJV men become well-rounded men in Christ, men of the church and men for others, by emphasizing their human, intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral formation. These young men—with the support of their families, vocation directors, and bishops—take a very bold step by choosing to discern a path to serve God and the church while earning their undergraduate degree at the University of St. Thomas.

Throughout a seminarian’s time at SJV, we encourage and foster healthy and open dialogue in the areas of chastity and sexuality. This is a very important component of the discernment process. We adhere faithfully to the church’s teaching in these areas and follow the guidelines of the Program of Priestly Formation. Because the men are discerning a life of celibate priesthood, the journey can be challenging at times. We are blessed to have priest formators, spiritual directors, and a licensed psychologist on staff—all of whom are dedicated to guiding our men through this process. In addition, our formation committee, which includes members of the laity, oversees the entire formation program. The seminary is also reviewed by an apostolic visitation team sponsored by the Congregation for Catholic Education. Within the past year, we have conducted both internal and external reviews of our acceptance and formation practices. Both reviews gave SJV high praise and confidence in our practices. We respond accordingly where improvements are needed, and we are very pleased that SJV consistently adheres to the best formation practices available.

Blaschko refers to an experience in which a re-enactment of spiritual warfare took place. What he did not note is that this was one very small part of a much larger, comprehensive formation program, which includes the study and discussion of texts such as St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” as well as undergraduate courses on marriage, family, and chastity. Experiences of individuals will vary, but the majority of those who attend SJV find their formation a foundation for a life of active leadership in the church and their communities, regardless of their vocational call.

Because these are undergraduate men, we emphasize the concept of discernment. These young men are earnestly discerning God’s will for their lives, and, as a result, it is very natural to expect that some men “discern out” of the seminary. Not everyone who enters the seminary will become a priest. Either the seminarians come to this decision on their own or their formation directors, families, vocation directors and/or bishops encourage them to discontinue their seminary formation. There may be many reasons why a man discerns out of the seminary, and it would not be appropriate or professional to share this information publicly. We are not secretive when a man leaves, but we are confidential about the reasons why he leaves the seminary.

Additionally, Blaschko describes what he calls “the problem with women” for seminarians. Because SJV is situated on a co-ed college campus, and because these men are considering a vocation to the priesthood, it is likely and necessary that these conversations about their relationships with women take place. Every day SJV seminarians attend class with women, participate in campus activities with women, and work with female faculty and staff members. They are integrated into a very normal, healthy, balanced environment throughout their college years. As they discuss topics of sexuality and celibacy, their relationships with females should always be examined. To “guard your heart” is to encourage a young man to lead a life of virtue, not a life of isolation.

More than one hundred thirty undergraduate men from twenty dioceses are prayerfully asking themselves every day at SJV if the Lord is calling them to the priesthood and if they are fit for the vocation. There are joys in this examination, and there are challenges. We believe it is far better for them to consider these questions in a supportive, prayerful, formative environment.

It is our hope that, in the future, you consider all sides of the story prior to publication in order to provide a professional, balanced account of the topics for your readers.

(Rev.) Michael Becker
St. Paul, Minn.
The writer is rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary.


The Editors reply

As the letter writer notes, Commonweal is committed to providing a forum for civil debate. The magazine’s editors try to do this mainly by publishing articles by writers with various points of view—not by publishing articles that pretend to represent either no point of view or all points of view. Of course, this does not absolve the magazine’s editors from checking the facts. In the case of Paul Blaschko’s article, we did this by communicating with someone else who had been at St. John Vianney College Seminary during the period in question and by examining documentation provided by the author.


The author replies

Thanks to Fr. Michael Becker for responding to my article. As Becker notes, there are several ways in which SJV stands out among college seminaries, and there are many who consider it to be exemplary. For me, however, this is all the more reason to worry that the experiences I had there are symptomatic of problems that are broader and more systemic in seminary education.

Becker does not point to any inaccuracies in my article. Instead, he suggests that I didn’t provide a rich enough picture of human formation at SJV, and that, had I included more detail, the examples I gave would have been cast in a more favorable light. I certainly agree that there are good aspects of SJV’s formation, but I don’t see how these are relevant to the particular concerns I raised about sexual formation.

Although we disagree on several things, Becker and I have the same goal: we both think that it’s important to provide those studying for the priesthood with the tools and resources they’ll need to succeed in this important role. I hope that my article, and this exchange, can be part of a larger conversation about how our church can best train its future priests.

Paul Blaschko
Notre Dame, Ind.


Let’s talk about sex

Paul Blaschko, Barbara Parsons, and Mary Gautier each contribute to our understanding of the dynamics and structures shaping the formation of priests today (Clerical Errors: How Are We Training Our Priests?). As a former seminary rector, I want to call attention to a regularly ignored Catholic moral teaching that plays a major role in the sexual formation of celibate seminarians.

Mary Gautier concludes her article saying, “Priestly formation is still far from ideal...seminaries are continually revising curricula and formation programs in consultation with vocation directors, faculty, and other experts. Progress is being made.”

Is it? Certainly there are more workshops and conferences today on the subject of celibate sexuality and the boundaries priests must respect than in the past.

But underneath the current seminary formation program lies an overlooked theological flaw that subverts the best efforts of seminary faculties. The Catholic Church continues to teach that, when it comes to sexual behavior outside marriage, there are no venial sins. In other words, sexual fantasies, desires, and actions freely entered into are, at least objectively speaking, mortal sins.

Once we link all sex outside marriage with mortal sin, we handcuff efforts at healthy seminary formation. That’s because, according to the Catholic moral tradition, no one should be asked to make a manifestation of conscience. For example: Do you commit adultery? Do you watch pornography? Do you masturbate? Answering yes to any of these questions would reveal a person’s state of soul. Avoiding such invasive questions is, of course, fundamental to human dignity and is sound -pastoral practice. But “sex outside marriage equals mortal sin” inevitably places a sin-laden cloud over discussions about sexual morality in general and celibate formation in particular. Ordinary human struggles to chaste living as well as serious red-flags—a seminarian’s viewing of child pornography—tend to remain in the shadows as matters of conscience. As a result of this hermeneutic of sin, conversations between faculty and seminarians are mostly guarded and hypothetical. And efforts at healthy sexual formation often resemble the workshop and fallout described by Paul Blaschko during his years of seminary formation.

If we really want to make progress, a renewed Catholic theology of human sexuality is a necessary first step.

(Rev.) Donald Cozzens
Cleveland, Ohio

Also by this author

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Published in the April 10, 2015 issue: View Contents
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