To shed some light on the crisis in seminary formation today (see “Tomorrow’s Priests,” November 3), let me describe a priest I know, a man I will refer to as Fr. Bo. Ordained after barely scraping by in the seminary academically, Fr. Bo identifies strongly with John Paul II. The first in his class to own a cassock, he has a strong devotion to Mary, never misses a papal youth rally, and prides himself on his theological orthodoxy.
He also recently began cruising gay bars.
Bo did not realize he was sexually attracted to males until his mid-thirties. Not sufficiently challenged to face this issue in the seminary, he has remained in many respects an adolescent. He was once a strong proponent of mandatory celibacy and continues to oppose the ordination of women, but he now supports optional celibacy-because “priests need fun too.” Besides the sense of spirituality that drew him to the priesthood, Bo found the role appealing because it meant he would never have to look for another job, worry about money, clean house, or otherwise fend for himself. And because he was compliant and did little to draw attention to himself, he managed to be ordained.
Intellectually unformed, personally immature, Fr. Bo is by no means a rare exception at seminaries today. Indeed, his is a personality one encounters often among the newly ordained. And that’s the problem.
Few organizations take the training of their personnel as seriously as the Roman Catholic Church. Since the Council of Trent, the formation of priests in the Catholic Church has included lengthy periods of seminary training attending to nearly every detail of a candidate’s life. The duration and scope of this formation process have traditionally aimed at assessing the candidate’s ability and developing his commitment to the church’s mission. Yet despite this rigorous process-and increased Vatican scrutiny following the clergy sexual-abuse scandal-my recent doctoral research in several East Coast and Midwest seminaries has made me seriously question our ability to produce mature, intelligent leaders for tomorrow’s church. I reluctantly concluded that we are seeing a decline in the quality of applicants, which, when combined with other dilemmas facing the church, may forecast long-range and deleterious effects on the U.S. Catholic Church.
To be sure, many fine candidates continue to enter seminaries, and not a few seem certain to become holy, caring priests who will serve with devotion and even distinction. Still, growing numbers of seminary faculty are frustrated and alarmed by the declining intellectual ability of the applicant pool. (This is something they would say to me only behind closed doors.) Statistics support their concern. In Educating Leaders for Ministry (The Liturgical Press, 2005), Victor J. Klimoski, Kevin J. O’Neil, and Katerina M. Schuth reported that only 10 percent of today’s seminarians are highly qualified, while 50 percent are adequately qualified, and the remaining 40 percent are impeded in their ability to do successful academic work. Catholicism is not alone in its struggle to attract top candidates to the ministry; unlike Protestant and Jewish denominations, however, it has not benefited from the inclusion of women candidates, who substantially outperform their male counterparts on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). And so, as average GRE scores for all U.S. test takers rose during the 1980s, the scores of prospective seminary students fell, and today, are significantly lower than the national average on the verbal portion of the test. In recent years, some seminaries have been forced to institute pre-theology programs to address the significant shortcomings of their entrants’ theological background.
Seminaries, moreover, are called not only to help students master theology, but to help them grow in maturity. John Paul II’s influential 1993 exhortation, I Will Give Them Shepherds, wisely added human formation to the seminary’s traditional concerns about spiritual, academic, and pastoral development. Indeed, formation on the personal level was to serve as the foundation for all other areas of priestly training. John Paul II noted that a priest’s personality had to act as a bridge, rather than an obstacle, if others were to encounter Christ through his ministry. And so, psychosexual development and affective maturity came to be seen as central to effective seminary formation.
How well are our seminaries succeeding in promoting this maturity? The example of Fr. Bo does not augur well. Though he was ordained in the 1980s, Fr. Bo is representative of what I found in seminaries today. Many of the men in my study entered the seminary in their thirties and forties, yet-like many younger candidates-they frequently seemed to lack well-developed social and relational skills. Many had been away from the church for years before having a conversion experience, and some reported being moved to seek priesthood by the charisma of Pope John Paul II. Faculty members I interviewed noted that today’s seminarians are frequently drawn to theologies that exalt the status and distinctiveness of the clerical role, and are more interested in consulting the Catechism of the Catholic Church for clear answers than in exploring the wide breadth of Catholicism’s theological heritage. My sense from my research visits is that a significant number of seminarians are looking for a religiously saturated environment that will bestow a special sense of sacred identity. Their rooms often have the appearance of shrines, and their days are spent in study and prayer among peers who share their worldview.
My hope is that Fr. Bo resolves the issues related to his arrested development before he gets himself into other kinds of trouble. I am not sure this is likely. While he complains that it is the media’s fault that the clergy sexual-abuse scandal has created the “depressing picture” of the church for people, Fr. Bo seems unaware of the extent of the problems and of his own inconsistencies. What I find depressing is the church’s own lack of candor. Desperately needed are priests who are forthright, not only in terms of their own sexuality, but of their personal integrity.
Are today’s seminaries fostering such an ethos? I have my doubts. Many of the seminarians I conversed with seemed like impressionable, religiously disposed men who were seeking regimentation, self-abnegation, and an institutionally prescribed identity. Such authority-dependent men are likely to frustrate bishops and vicars-not because they will sexually abuse minors or fail to honor their vows, but because they will take little initiative on their own. Followers rather than leaders, they are not likely to show the creativity required for effective parish work. In the past, they might have gotten by serving as associates at larger parishes, but now they will be called on to pastor parishes after only a few years of experience as associate pastors.
The well-being of any organization relies on its ability to attract the best and brightest to its leadership ranks. This clearly isn’t happening in the U.S. Catholic Church. The admission of women into the clergy by other denominations has raised the overall aptitude of their seminarians, but Rome has ruled out this possibility for Catholics. While one wonders what effect optional celibacy would have on the number and quality of men entering the Catholic priesthood, Rome has been intransigent on that option too. The Vatican appears to prefer modestly gifted celibate men over brighter, more capable women or men who want to marry.
While Catholics know that the number of newly ordained priests is down, not enough has been said about the characteristics and abilities of those who are entering the seminary. With fewer well-prepared, gifted, mature men seeking ordination, why aren’t seminary administrators and faculty members publicly calling for a discussion of the quality of applicants to their schools? What will become of a church that settles for mediocre leaders and excludes many who feel called to priesthood simply because of their gender, sexual preference, or desire to marry?
Choruses of bishops, vocation directors, and Serra Clubs calling for priests and laity to promote vocations have not addressed the quality of seminary applicants. Given how acute the priest shortage is and the unwillingness of the Vatican to discuss solutions to the problem, the U.S. Catholic Church is likely to face a continuing crisis of ordained leadership, long after the sexual-abuse crisis abates.