Friday, December 01, 2006

A Quiet Anniversary

So Wednesday marked a year since the publication of the Congregation for Catholic Education's "Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders."

Sorry for the full blast -- every shorthand term previously used for the document has ended up offending someone or other.... Further proof that the church beat is a headline writer's nightmare.

Anyways, talk of priestly formation and the current challenges of it continue across the spectrum. Commonweal's gotten quite heavily into it of late, first featuring an editorial on the stats of some recent findings last month and, in the current issue, a rather provocative indictment of the state of affairs from a Milwaukee priest, writing in response to the first column.

The latter is subscribers-only, so here are some snips:
To shed some light on the crisis in seminary formation today, 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....

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.... 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.

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....

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?...

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.
Heady stuff, eh?

Regrettably, it must be noted that the piece does its point the disservice of not placing the ordination of women and married men out of bounds, at one point condescendingly accusing the church's teaching and discipline on admission to orders of being "intransigent" -- as if, with the wave of a wand, Tradition could change and all our problems would be solved.

In a word, hardly.

Despite these grave lapses of argument, however, it doesn't mean that a discussion of what makes quality -- and an increased emphasis in its favor -- cannot be had whilst simultaneously adhering to the parameters of Tradition with the utmost reverence. In fact, even if it means taking a short-term hit in terms of numbers, an unassailably qualitative approach would manifest a more substantive esteem for the priesthood and a greater recognition of the vocation to it, which is in itself a path to growth. With time, said investment would serve to restore more credibility in the church than any excess of fleetingly superficial flourishes. Some places have learned this by heeding it, others have experienced its truths the hard way.

History teaches us that, if anything, the church has received its greatest momentum and most enduring nourishment not from massive crops of candidates, but from those singular, intrepid souls for whom the teaching of Christ and the exercise of his priesthood provided the grace and strength to build upon the already considerable gifts of a sound nature. Luckily, through the ages, the witness of these is something that's transcended waves of ideology, scandal and other forces of difficulty and thankfully, in the unsung heroism of so many of our priests, it remains with us today.

In light of that, we owe it to our past and our future to build on the great riches -- spiritual, academic, pastoral and human -- that've been given us, as opposed to casting our hopes on a cheap fix. In the recruitment and tending of candidates, the external criteria mark only the beginning of the responsibility and challenge of sound priestly formation.
A contribution that each Bishop should make to the future of his diocese concerns the quality and the quantity of priests. We not only suffer a great reduction of priestly and religious vocations; also a pastoral plan for vocations seems to be lacking intensity, clarity and determination. Today, Jesus Christ, with difficulty, will find in the family, in the school and in the Church someone who will lend Him his or her voice to call others to follow Him. Ten to twenty years from now, how many priests will there be to serve the Church in the United States? This is a pressing problem that we cannot ignore.

What type of priest or religious Brother or Sister is needed in the Church in these United States, today and tomorrow? This is a question with which every Bishop must be personally concerned. Speaking to the Bishops of Switzerland, this past November 7th, the Holy Father said: “one thing which causes us all concern, in the positive sense of the word, is the fact that the theological formation of future priests and of other teachers and announcers of the faith should be outstanding. We need, then, good theological faculties, good major seminaries and well-trained teachers of theology who can communicate not merely knowledge, but who can lead those seminarians toward an intelligent faith; in this way faith becomes intelligence and intelligence becomes faith.” (Source.)