The Visitation


Last fall the seminary where I teach was visited by a team of examiners sent by the Vatican. Interviews were conducted with faculty members and with students studying for the priesthood. Initially, I was hopeful that the visit would lead to a fruitful discussion on the education and formation of priests. I was disappointed. Instead of taking a broad look at our curriculum, the interviewers focused almost exclusively on our “fidelity” to the church’s sexual teaching. Other aspects of priestly formation did not seem to interest them.

The visit to my school-the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley (JSTB)-was part of an investigation of U.S. seminaries begun in September 2005 in response to the sexual-abuse scandal. (Most concluded last spring, although a few small houses of formation were visited over the summer.) The mandate was to investigate how seminaries evaluate candidates for the priesthood, and to gauge each school’s faithfulness to magisterial teaching, especially in the area of moral theology. These aims reflected the tendentious assessment of the sexual-abuse crisis put forward by some conservative Catholic commentators-that the abuse of children was rooted in lax teaching and loose observance of sexual norms, especially with regard to homosexuality.

I was skeptical about the presuppositions underlying the visitation. Is visiting seminaries and questioning moral theologians an appropriate response to a crisis that was at least as much a failure of the episcopacy to protect children as it was the consequence of poor formation practices? Still, I tried to be optimistic. Reading through the Instrumentum laboris (IL), the working paper that was to serve as the basis for the evaluations, I was encouraged to read that “all aspects of priestly formation” (italics original) were to be scrutinized. I looked forward to discussing what our model of ministry at Berkeley, which entails the constant interaction of seminarians and lay students, could offer the church.

The members of our visiting team were Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Illinois; Bishop David Zubik of Green Bay, Wisconsin; Msgr. James T. O’Connor, a former professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York; and Janet Smith, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. The group spent four days at JSTB. Doran, Zubik, and O’Connor conducted the interviews. Smith, the “lay resource person,” was assigned to examine course materials and the overall requirements for our degree programs.

Our examiners were cordial and professional, but I was frustrated with the structure of the visit. For one thing, only seminarians were interviewed. But about half of our students are laymen and -women pursuing advanced degrees in theology. By educating priests and laity together, we hope they will learn how to collaborate with one another-something that is essential to the future of the church. This sort of collaboration is not merely the result of the dwindling number of seminarians, but rather a celebration of the fruitful engagement that occurs when students of different backgrounds prepare for ministry together. Yet our examiners were not interested in this fundamental aspect of our curriculum.

To be fair, this problem can be traced to the IL. The fifty-six questions put forward in that document about seminary life left out a great deal. Those concerning intellectual formation, for instance, reflected a cramped view of the Catholic moral tradition. A good example is the following: “Is the moral doctrine taught in conformity with the documents of the Holy See, in particular the encyclical letters Humanae vitae (1968), Veritatis splendor (1993), and Evangelium vitae (1995); the declaration Persona humana (1975); and the circular letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ‘The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons’ (1986)?”

Needless to say, Catholic moral theology did not begin with Humanae vitae, nor does it deal predominantly with sex. It is an exceptionally rich and broad tradition that stretches back to the early church, one that includes Augustine’s wrestling with the mystery of human sin, and Thomas Aquinas’s omnivorous quest for human knowledge, both Christian and pagan. Catholic moral theology includes not just apodictic magisterial pronouncements, but a tradition of casuistry that uses human reason and analogical imagination to apply old insights to novel situations. (For example, while “thou shalt not kill” generally forbids taking human life, the tradition has allowed killing in certain cases, like self-defense or just wars. These cases are seen as more like the defense of innocents-a Christian imperative-than the kind of killing forbidden by the commandment.) That tradition has grown and developed as the community has confronted new and difficult questions. Unfortunately, little of this beautiful complexity informed the IL.

Another point of frustration was the IL’s heavy emphasis on moral issues to the exclusion of other aspects of theology. One of the few questions that did gesture in the latter direction was unfortunately too broad to be helpful: “Are all philosophical/theological tracts adequately taught?” After his interview, my colleague John Endres, SJ, a Scripture scholar, remarked: “After going through the [IL], all the questions and all the concerns, I didn’t see anything about Sacred Scripture.” “I know,” his interviewer replied, “there’s nothing about dogmatics, either.” For some professors, it was hard to see how the visit pertained to their day-to-day work.

As expected, many questions dealt with the human and spiritual formation of seminarians. Four of the eleven questions concerning spirituality focused specifically on how seminarians are prepared for the celibate life. The others dealt with issues of personal piety and devotion, emphasizing forms of prayer like the rosary, eucharistic adoration, and the Stations of the Cross.

Devotional practice and preparation for the celibate life are, to be sure, essential aspects of priestly ministry. The problem is not what was mentioned in the IL, but what was missing. There was no mention of social justice, solidarity with the poor and marginalized, issues of war and peace, or ecumenism-all of which are crucial aspects of priestly ministry in a religiously and politically diverse world. Surely spiritual formation for ministry, like moral instruction, is incomplete if it fails to inspire action for justice. Overall, the IL’s “insistence on laws and rubrics comes across as cold and even rather pre-Christian,” my colleague Robert Hale, OSB Cam, told me. (The fact that Jesus Christ was not mentioned anywhere in the IL did not help.)

Finally, I was disappointed that an atmosphere of secrecy accompanied the apostolic visitation. No complete list of seminary examiners has been published, nor is it known how the examiners were selected. (One wonders why no member of our visiting team had a doctorate in moral theology or Christian ethics.) Interviewers are bound by confidentiality sub secreto pontifico, as I was reminded when I asked whether I could tape my interview. Examiners were forbidden to share their reports with anyone in the seminary. These reports go to the appropriate Vatican office, thence to the bishop or religious superior in charge of the seminary before any word gets back to the people directly involved. A general report on all the seminaries will also go to U.S. bishops. Yet surely some immediate feedback, at least to the seminary administration, would lead more promptly to necessary corrections. As far as I know, no seminary has yet received word concerning its evaluation.

Accountability is important. Like all dedicated professionals, seminary professors are proud of the institutions where they work. We are routinely visited by academic accreditation teams; we welcome visiting scholars and prospective students into our classes; and we participate in public discussions among scholars and in the church at large. As Catholic scholars, we are dedicated to handing on the best of our intellectual and spiritual tradition, so that our students are ready to enter ministry as “leaven in the world.” In that same spirit of accountability and open engagement, we welcome the opportunity to demonstrate to church leadership what we do, and why. Unfortunately, the recent examination of our seminaries prevented this from happening.

Published in the 2006-09-22 issue: 

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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