Later this year, the Vatican is expected to begin an apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries. The visitation comes in the wake of the clergy sexual-abuse scandal, a scandal some in the Vatican attribute to the alleged lack of discipline or worse in our seminaries.
What can we expect from the visitation? Most likely, to borrow a military term, we will see an exercise in command and control. Certainly, the examiners will want to ensure that seminaries are teaching what the Vatican understands to be appropriate and necessary for the formation of priests. Gatekeeper concerns are also likely to be high on the agenda, particularly admission policies and whether they are strict enough to screen out those who are unsuited for ministry.
Another concern will be how seminaries approach moral issues-particularly those of a sexual nature-and whether, in presenting church teaching, too much of an emphasis is placed on pastoral rather than doctrinal considerations. A number of conservatives have charged that in the recent past an atmosphere of moral laxity crept into seminaries and into seminary curricula, which in turn created a climate of sexual permissiveness. These critics also complain that candidates for the priesthood with conservative theological views are not being admitted and retained while candidates who are homosexual are. This has led, so the charge goes, to the establishment of gay subcultures that condone sexual activity among seminarians and, in some cases, between students and faculty. Other critics argue that the curricula in many seminaries embrace humanistic psychologies that stress the importance of personal fulfillment at the expense of disciplined self-denial.
If they concentrate on seminary admissions standards and strict compliance with the church’s teaching on sexuality, the Vatican’s visitation teams are likely to overlook two other critical issues. If we want to improve seminary education, the church will have to reconsider both the discipline of mandated celibacy for diocesan priests in the Latin rite and a moral teaching that continues to regard all sexual sins as equally serious.
In my judgment, it is crucial that seminary education move beyond the teaching of a legalistic, act-centered morality. While acknowledging the fundamental goodness of sexuality, the church continues to insist that all freely willed sexual thoughts, desires, and behaviors outside of marriage are seriously sinful. When it comes to sex, the church teaches that there is no parvity of matter-a theological term relating to the degree of material gravity associated with various sins. Stealing a candy bar, for example, may be judged venially sinful because of its relative parvity of matter. Embezzling a substantial sum of money would be understood as seriously sinful. When it comes to sex, however, there are no misdemeanors. Every deliberate, willful sexual sin is, from the church’s perspective, a felony-a mortal sin.
This understanding of sexual morality creates enormous difficulties in the seminary, and prevents almost any candid conversation about sexuality from taking place. This state of affairs is further complicated by the fact that, according to church teaching, no individual is to be compelled or asked to reveal the “state of his or her soul.” As a consequence, the candid dialogue needed to form mature celibates is hampered and the specter of sin hangs heavy in the air. In such a climate, behavioral signs that might indicate future difficulties are often masked or simply missed. Worse, if such signs are noticed, they are addressed with studied indirection. When a seminarian does raise a sexual issue with a teacher or counselor, it is almost always in the context of the internal forum-another ecclesial expression referring to information that must be held in strict confidence. A seminarian’s spiritual director may know some of the particulars of the individual’s sexual life and orientation, but this privileged information cannot be used in any formal evaluation of the student. This raises significant difficulties for those who are responsible for judging a seminarian’s suitability for the priesthood. Unless a seminarian is “caught in the act” (say of viewing child pornography) or his problematic behavior comes to the attention of seminary authorities from outside sources, it is easy to hide behind the seminary’s culture of confidentiality and secrecy.
As common sense tells us, seminarians (with some exceptions) want to be ordained. They understand perfectly well, though, that should they bring certain personal struggles of a sexual nature to the attention of the rector or seminary faculty outside the internal forum, they face the threat of dismissal (see “A Gay Priest Speaks Out,” January 28, 2005). Thus, a culture of secrecy is perpetuated.
The current approach to sexuality in seminaries is, in my view, further skewed by the church’s “no parvity of matter” teaching concerning all sexual behaviors. In such a moral climate, open, honest discussion of struggles and anxieties relating to consecrated celibacy is a threat to the seminarian’s eventual ordination. Again, a culture of secrecy develops, one that is carried over into the larger clerical culture.
All the courses, conferences, workshops, and retreats now offered on the subject of sexuality and celibacy by those involved in vocational formation will remain only partially effective as long as the church’s teaching on sexual morality remains fixed. In general, it is my experience that seminaries are addressing, more or less successfully, the theoretical issues related to sexuality and celibacy. The personal, existential issues remain unaddressed. The controlling conceit fostered in the seminary community is that, as an institution, it is asexual.
Helping seminarians come to terms with compulsory celibacy remains a serious challenge. Many, perhaps most, seminarians who believe they are being called to priesthood do not have a charism for celibacy-a graced aptitude for consecrated single life. Although the church speaks of celibacy as both a charism and an ecclesial discipline, from theological and spiritual perspectives the charismatic character holds the high ground. The tension inherent in mandating a charism was caught by a noted professor of Scripture who quipped that seminary faculty find themselves in the impossible situation of trying to train people who cannot dance the two-step to be ballerinas. Charisms, by definition, cannot be legislated unless one believes that God, following the long-standing practice of the church, will grant the charism to each and every candidate for the priesthood.
Celibacy, of course, has been mandated for all Latin rite priests for the past nine centuries, and it is only recently that large numbers of the faithful have called it into question. People have begun to ask: Does the church really believe that God will call to the priesthood only candidates who are not called to the sacrament of marriage?
It is clear that for long periods of the church’s history God indeed called individuals both to the priesthood and to the sacrament of marriage, and continues to do so in the Eastern churches in full communion with Rome. Has the hierarchical church forgotten that if mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests were in place in the first ten centuries of the church’s history we would have inherited a significantly different papal lineage (some popes fathered future popes), and a different canon of saints, not to mention exemplars of family life? While some argue that mandatory priestly celibacy not only enriches church ministry but is now a revered part of the tradition, to make greater room for the Latin rite’s earlier practice of married priests would manifest not only regard for the tradition but also a sense of the tradition’s genuine catholicity.
Seminary rectors and teachers know that mandatory celibacy has dramatically shrunk the pool of candidates for the priesthood. Concern is widespread that the best and the brightest, the healthiest and the most authentic candidates, are no longer considering the priesthood. Furthermore, training individuals for a charism they do not possess lends an air of hypocrisy and unreality to the entire enterprise.
Unless the Vatican is willing to reconsider the discipline of mandatory celibacy, it will miss the heart of the matter. Instead of improving seminaries by tackling the real theological and structural flaws, they will only temporarily shore up a flawed system.
Have our seminaries unwittingly contributed to the clergy abuse scandals? Yes, but only to the extent that the church itself has done so. Seminaries reflect the health and neurosis, the lofty idealism and the self-serving denials of the church itself.