Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston ordains seminarians studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome to the transitional diaconate (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

As former seminary professors, we have looked upon the last several months of revelations about clergy sex abuse, cover-ups, and institutional infighting with the same disgust and sadness as our sisters and brothers—but we are not surprised. Though we honor and support the many good people who work and study in seminaries, we know that seminaries have played a significant role in the church’s current crisis. It is essential to understand how priests and thus, ultimately, bishops are formed, especially the way they are enculturated into clericalism from their first days in seminary. It is the air they breathe there.

Clericalism in seminary formation is explicitly singled out as a problem in the Synod on Youth’s final document, approved in late October 2018, and it affects everyone in the church—it is a systemic and widespread problem. While not new in church history, of course, it is a particularly pressing concern during this time of scandal. Pope Francis has repeatedly targeted clericalism as the great enemy of ordained ministry today. You can easily see the career-climbers he warns about in seminaries. If you want to learn how to work your way into the clerical caste, watch these men. They are learning Italian, wearing cufflinks and cassocks, and don’t at all mind being called “Father,” even though they are still in studies. Along with our colleagues in other formation programs, we have easily singled out seminarians with scarlet fever: while there may be few vocations to the priesthood, there are plenty of ambitious young men aiming for a bishop’s miter.

Clericalism can be thought of as a type of exceptionalism. Seminarians soon learn that the rules and standards, such as mastery of course material, do not really apply to them. As lay faculty members we have both been told, “You don’t vote on our advancement or ordination,” which falls just short of saying “so you don’t matter.” We have had discussions with seminarians who struggle with drinking or drugs and sexual activity that they commit or observe around them. Some are sexually harassed in the seminary, a problem that the case of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has brought to much needed attention. There are few consequences for any of this.

Seminarians know that, given the shortage of priests in the United States, it won’t be long after they’re ordained that they’ll be pastors with a parish of their own. We often heard conversations in the lunchroom that indicated as much: “When I’m pastor, I’m going to put my place on the map.” We heard very little talk of service or shared leadership, collegial relations with parish councils, or facilitating the talents of parishioners. The parish, it was clear, belonged to the pastor and not the people. Once, Cardinal Francis George explained to a group of seminarians in Chicago that Pope Benedict XVI stressed that the role of the priest and bishop was governance, not leadership. This was not unusual. Seminarians are fed a consistent message: their role is to rule over the laity and the religious as a result of their ontological change at ordination, not as a result of their virtue, knowledge, or model behavior. They are being trained to be autocratic bosses, not servant leaders.

One suggested reform, then, is to make an explicit effort to keep seminarians as the lay people they are. The goal of a seminarian’s path is ordination, but until ordination to the diaconate, that seminarian is a lay man. Why are they wearing cassocks and a Roman collar before then? When we asked that question of seminarians and priests on faculty, we were repeatedly told, “So they will get used to it.” Nonsense. This practice amounts to training in clerical condescension and strutting more often than not. It reinforces the hierarchy of vocations that still plagues the church—indicated by the way we say that a former priest is “reduced” to the lay state.


We believe a further step should be taken as well: seminaries should not be strictly and exclusively under the control of the bishop.

But an even more important reform in seminary education and, in turn, parish life, would be to mix men and women in classes. If that sounds radical, it is precisely what the Synod on Youth’s final document proposes: the joint formation of laity, consecrated religious, and priests.

Separating men and women can lead to hypermasculinity and a focus on the “otherness” of priests. This was especially fostered during John Paul II’s papacy, with its near-cult of the priesthood. It also contributes to a related problem nearly as long-standing as the structured church itself: institutional misogyny. We have witnessed seminarians going on and on about how they must keep custody of their eyes so as not to be tempted by women seeking to steal their celibacy. It is the modern version of the ancient Madonna-whore complex. It only takes a few minutes of observing these men in social situations to realize many have no idea how to interact professionally with women.

Mixing men and women, especially in classes, is good ecclesiology and good economics. Many seminaries have already realized that the law of supply and demand dictates that more attention needs to be paid to ministry programs for lay people. Professors cost money, so why not have one course section with one teacher teaching a mixed group of men and women? Given the number of adults who pursue advanced degrees and certificates, it makes no sense to reserve classes just for those who might end up ordained priests. A New Testament class is a New Testament class.

Having women and men sit side by side in formation programs also offers significant intellectual and spiritual benefits. Surely a woman’s voice in a classroom discussion of Scripture will expose a seminarian to ideas and perspectives not his own. And won’t that woman be interpreting, explaining, and applying Scripture in RCIA and other formation programs in her parish? Even in more specialized situations—say, a practicum in preaching and penance—wouldn’t it be helpful for seminarians to hear the perspectives of women as they consider what makes for an enriching homily, or as they prepare to encounter parishioners in the confessional and in sacramental preparation, especially for marriage?

A closed caste teaching a closed caste does nothing but further divide the church. Good priestly formation means men must learn to interact with lay men and women in healthy, professional, and respectful ways. This formation can start in classroom learning as fellow students. Seminary training should also deliberately include supervised apostolic experiences under a lay person’s authority. There must also be sisters along with married and single people teaching their specialties (and paid a living wage with medical benefits so that they can support a family).

This leads to another suggested reform: the professional opinions of religious sisters and lay professors, professionals, and supervisors must be taken into real account when voting on whether a seminarian will proceed in formation and eventually to ordination. Their input must be deliberative and not merely consultative—that is, it must really count. Moreover, a seminary’s board of trustees must have lay members who, again, have deliberative and not simply consultative votes that the bishop is free to ignore. It must be clear to the bishop that even if canon law says he can do what he wants, that may be a bad idea if all or most of the board and formation team vote against a candidate. The Synod on Youth’s final document recommends that women be on seminary formation teams. It does not specify whether or not they should be voting members, though the synod called for greater decision-making authority for women at all levels of the church.

We believe a further step should be taken as well: seminaries should not be strictly and exclusively under the control of the bishop. There needs to be a deliberative board consisting of members of the laity and religious that can regularly and independently audit the seminaries to ensure compliance with standards. Audits, assessments, and accreditations must be reported in a public forum so that people know whether the bishop or seminary is doing intellectual, spiritual, pastoral, and human formation properly. If the bishop fails to do as he should, his right to govern the seminaries needs to be taken away from him and given to a prudent person. If this sounds extreme, it is a paraphrase of canon 30 of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215):

It is very serious and absurd that prelates [bishops] of churches, when they can promote suitable men to ecclesiastical benefices, are not afraid to choose unworthy men who lack both learning and honesty of behavior and who follow the urgings of the flesh rather than the judgment of reason. Nobody of sound mind is ignorant of how much damage to churches arises from this…. Therefore he who has been found guilty after a first and second correction is to be suspended from conferring ecclesiastical benefices by the provincial council, and a prudent and honest person is to be appointed at the same council to make up for the suspended person’s failure.

The laity in every diocese should have a formal role in ending the practice of moving unfit men from seminary to seminary until they find one that will testify they are worthy of ordination. The synod’s final document warns specifically against wandering seminarians (seminaristi vaganti). There is a policy requiring a two-year period after a seminarian is formally dismissed before he can enter another program, but because seminaries rarely formally dismiss men, technically the rule is rarely violated. The failure to formally dismiss students allows bishops to move them immediately to other seminaries. In the eleventh century, St. Peter Damian declared that no priest is better than a bad priest, but today just the opposite sentiment seems to hold sway.

A final suggestion involves John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic exhortation on seminary formation, Pastores dabo vobis, which presents high standards in terms of admissions, behavior, and academics. Consider, however, that the current edition of the American bishops’ Program for Priestly Formation still states only that the admissions process “ought” to give sufficient attention to the emotional health of the applicants, that candidates “should” give evidence of having interiorized their seminary formation as evidenced by their ability to work with women and men, that seminarians “should not” be excused from pursuing accredited degrees, and that seminarians “should not” be advanced if they lack positive qualities for formation. Since bishops can and do offer dispensations from anything that is not mandatory, we maintain that those “oughts” and “shoulds” need to be turned to “musts”—and then firmly patrolled.

Make no mistake: seminaries made sense when they were created at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, but they are less than a quarter as old as the church itself. Their programs must not be set in stone, as unyielding as the fortresses where they are currently housed. Seminaries still have a role to play; they should not be abolished. But they should no longer be factories for clericalism, elitism, and misogyny, as they too often still are. It is long past time for fundamental reform.

C. Colt Anderson, is professor of Christian Spirituality at Fordham University. He taught at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary (1999–2008) and Washington Theological Union, where he also served as the Vice President of Academic Affairs (2008–2012). He was a member of two seminary visitations in 2005. Christopher M. Bellitto, is professor of History at Kean University, and taught at New York’s St. Joseph’s Seminary/Dunwoodie and its lay Institute of Religious Studies (1995–2001). He was part of a contentious layoff of faculty at Dunwoodie.

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Published in the April 12, 2019 issue: View Contents
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