With the recent revelations about Theodore McCarrick, new investigations into the seminaries of Boston and Lincoln (Nebraska), and the grand-jury report from Pennsylvania, the sex abuse crisis has reached a new stage. If this is, as many believe, the most serious crisis in the Catholic Church since the Protestant Reformation, then the analysis of this systemic failure of the institutional church needs to take the long view, comparing this period in the church’s history to others in order to discover where exactly things went wrong. Some—for example, Ross Douthat—think of the current period in the church’s history as a “settlement” established by the post-Vatican II pontificates that came before Francis, characterized by changes in the Catholic approach to sexual morality and by the huge social and cultural transformations of the 1960s. This way of understanding the church’s recent history is popular with those who link clerical sexual abuse with the reforms of the Vatican II period, and who are, not coincidentally, suspicious of Pope Francis’s approach to issues connected to marriage, family, and sex, especially homosexuality. This approach, starting as it does with Vatican II, tends to ignore the long history of institutions that presided over the church’s failure to deal with clerical sex abuse. To understand their role in the current crisis, one must look at three key elements that made possible the “Catholic reform” that began with the Council of Trent (1545–1563), elements that Vatican II did not change as much as we tend to think: the formation of priests at seminaries, the diocesan structure based on parish priest and bishop, and the role of the laity.
The seminaries for the formation of clergy. The curriculum at Catholic seminaries has changed a few times over the past five centuries, but the basic model, designed by the Tridentine Church, has not. It is worth recalling that many dioceses in Europe did not have a functioning seminary until the mid-seventeenth century—a century after the Council of Trent ended. Other Tridentine institutions have aged quite well (the role of papal diplomacy in today’s global world, for example), but seminaries clearly have not. The Tridentine diocesan seminary was built for the formation of priests recruited from areas whose Catholic culture provided the primary formation to a much larger pool of potential applicants. This is no longer the case, which is one reason for the proliferation of other kinds of seminaries for the formation of priests belonging to a particular ecclesial movement. Setting aside the very different theological and ideological orientations of these different movements (for example, the Legion of Christ on one side of the spectrum and Sant’ Egidio on the other), they do provide some basic human formation and are able to screen candidates for the priesthood in a way local parishes no longer can. In recent years, many diocesan seminaries have had merge into interdiocesan or regional seminaries, where nineteen-year-old students live and study together with much older men with “mature vocations.” Moreover, the phenomenon of seminarians vagantes—men dismissed from one seminary only to be admitted into another that is looking for any minimally viable candidate—reveals that some bishops are so anxious to keep their seminaries open, and so desperate for vocations, that they will turn a blind eye to the problems that led another seminary to dismiss someone. Moreover, the Tridentine seminary model still reflects the premodern idea that the faithful have no rights before the hierarchy: seminarians still depend totally on their superiors for their future. According to canon law, seminarians have many fewer rights in the church than priests and other clerics do. This means that, from a seminarian’s perspective, the seminary can easily become—and too often does become—an institution exercising a kind of totalitarian power over their lives. Their quasi-monastic isolation from the rest of society and the mediocrity of many programs of formation have become more of a problem today than they were four or five centuries ago, when there was less public scrutiny of clerical culture. The anachronistic and unhealthy culture of seminaries has made them a place where vocations often go to die.