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Cover story

Some seminaries thrive, other struggle

Special Report Writer

Once upon a time the U.S. landscape was dotted from sea to shining sea with schools of theology, many of them clones of one another, where substantial cohorts of seminarians prepared for the priesthood.

In that earlier age, in many ways, it mattered little whether one trained in Philadelphia or Chicago or Portland. What was taught was not very different from one place to the next. The priesthood as a focal point of questions, dissent and controversy would have seemed unimaginable at the time.

Today, however, with a dwindling number of candidates and a sharp decline in the number of seminaries, the old assumptions drop away. Where young men study today might make a difference in what kind of priests end up leading the local parish.

In 1967 there were more than 120 seminaries, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Then came the tidal wave of the Second Vatican Council, washing away scores of those schools and leaving the survivors radically changed. For the 1996-97 school year, the recently published 1997-98 CARA Ministry Formation Directory lists only 43 seminary schools of theology in the United States.

Of these, 32 educate candidates exclusively or predominantly for the diocesan priesthood.

The most obvious reason for the dramatic shrinkage in seminaries is the reduced demand for their services. The total of diocesan students in theology schools was 4,876 in 1967. In the past school year it was 2,354, a 48 percent decline. For 30 years the erosion has been steady, CARA’s analysis shows.

Small surges in the mid-1980s and early 1990s provided some hope that the plunge had bottomed out and was reversing itself. But the general pattern is one of ongoing shrinkage.

Dioceses that once ordained 15 to 40 priests a year have to be content with five or six -- or none in a truly slow year. Seminaries have had to adjust, and the strain of adjustment shows in many ways.

Better than 10 years ago

When you look at the big picture, said Franciscan Sr. Katarina Schuth, it must be admitted that seminaries are better now than they were 10 years ago. Schuth, who teaches at St. Thomas Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, Minn., has been studying U.S. seminaries for the past 10 years. “The teaching is better, faculties are better qualified, students are older, more settled -- very moderate, very decent people, really,” she said, “and there is a lot of emphasis on human formation and a free commitment to celibacy. They are also doing good work in multicultural education, in preparing men who can relate to the people they will work with.”

Schuth has concerns as well. Some bishops and seminaries, it appears, are still accepting questionable candidates, she said, and the U.S. church still lacks directives to remedy the situation some 10 years after the Vatican sought reforms. In addition, Schuth has misgivings about how well today’s seminarians grasp church history. Though teaching is generally solid, she said, many students, born long after Vatican II and perhaps with little previous Catholic education, lack the depth to grasp historical nuances and subtleties and therefore may take too simplistic an approach to religion.

Schuth also worries about the future when numbers of priests so educated take over leadership positions in the seminaries. Meanwhile, many seminaries are popular educational centers for non-seminarians.

Schuth said some 2,000 laypersons are currently enrolled in seminary degree programs, with women constituting better than 60 percent of that total. Her insights were well illustrated when NCR studied the data and contacted more than a dozen rectors and vocation experts concerning the issues and people in the ever-shifting world of today’s seminaries.

For the most part, seminarians still attend theology schools in their own area and serve as priests in their home dioceses. But in the restless, highly mobile world of the late 20th century, a considerable amount of shifting around occurs. More commonly than in the past, a prospective seminarian may move from his home diocese to one that seems more compatible with his theological or pastoral perceptions. A bishop may feel free to find a seminary for his candidates far from home because it better meets his expectations.

These trends would appear to be especially beneficial to more conservative dioceses and seminaries, which are weathering the vocation shortage more comfortably than others. Three dioceses that invariably stand out for their number of ordinations each year -- far out of proportion to the size of their Catholic population -- are often considered among the most conservative in the nation: Arlington, Va., Lincoln, Neb., and Peoria, Ill.

Arlington ranked seventh among U.S. dioceses with 22 ordinations between 1993 and 1995, according to CARA, placing it among big-city giants like Chicago and Los Angeles. Currently, this diocese of 60 parishes has 35 seminarians in theological studies, 22 of them at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., generally rated among the most conservative seminaries in the country.

Fr. James Gould, Arlington vocations director, said the diocese is extremely cautious in accepting candidates, and only six currently in theology are not native Arlingtonians. “Young men just seem to find this an ideal place to practice the priesthood,” he said. “We have candidates coming out our ears.” In part, he explained, the boom may be due to the fact that Arlington, with its very orderly, conservative approach to church matters and its Southern sense of tradition, is attractive to the many military families in the region who value discipline and authority.

When Arlington Bishop John R. Keating banned altar girls several years ago, said Gould, this actually “piqued awareness of what church authority is all about” for many young men -- especially when the diocese “took hits” in The Washington Post and other publications for its bold stand. The furor has been much exaggerated, he said, “as if the church had nothing else to offer.” The altar girl ban, he hastened to add, does not apply to home liturgies and Masses in funeral homes, nursing homes and convents.

Peoria, which ranked 11th with 18 ordinations in the 1993-95 period, is frequently cited as an appealing and welcoming diocese for conservative outsiders. It currently has 12 students enrolled in theology at Mount St. Mary’s and several small contingents at other schools. Fr. Joseph Dunton, the Peoria vocations director, did not return NCR phone calls.

Also declining comment was Msgr. Leonard Kalin, Lincoln vocations director. It is generally acknowledged that Kalin is a major contributor to stimulating vocations through his long work with the Newman Club at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Some of the diocese’s more than 20 current theology students established residence in Lincoln after attending the university. Eleven of those seminarians currently in theology are at Mount St. Mary’s.

In fact, the above-mentioned three dioceses are the top three in numbers at Mount St. Mary’s, together accounting for 27 percent of the total enrollment. Only four others among the 37 dioceses represented at the school -- Baltimore, Lafayette, Ind., Rockford, Ill., and Wichita, Kan. -- have as many as eight students. Founded in 1808 as a national seminary, Mount St. Mary’s has the second largest theology school in the country and has not had to hustle for students, said the incoming rector, Fr. Kevin Rhoades. Its theological approach, he said, is “down the center and certainly not reactionary.” But, he emphasized, “We are faithful to the magisterium and carefully follow all the Vatican documents on priestly formation. No one is in dissent here.”

Above capacity

The 21-member faculty includes a half-dozen laypersons, the most prominent being Germain Grisez, who holds a chair in Christian ethics. Grisez is best known for his scholarly efforts to establish that the ban on artificial birth is an infallible church teaching. At this time, Mount St. Mary’s does no recruiting, Rhodes said, because it is operating above capacity (164 students in 110 rooms) and there is need for expansion.

Other seminaries frequently cited as appealing to tradition-minded bishops and seminarians are also in the East. St. Joseph’s Seminary (commonly known as Dunwoodie) in New York City hosts 38 theology students for the New York archdiocese, five for Lincoln, Neb., and a few for several other dioceses. Among its better known faculty are Msgr. William Smith, a regular commentator on Catholic belief for the conservative Mother Angelica’s television network, and Jesuit Fr. Avery Dulles, a scholar in residence. St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, the fourth largest diocesan seminary (133 students), educates seminarians for the archdiocese and nearby Pennsylvania dioceses and also has room for students from Arlington and Lincoln, as well as Corpus Christi, Texas. St. John’s Seminary in Boston, the sixth largest (87 diocesan students), provides for the archdiocese and nearby dioceses.

Schuth emphasized that many schools regarded as quite conservative have excellent administrations and faculties and are providing a well-rounded formation. St. John’s in Boston, for example, is part of an interfaith consortium of local seminaries, thus exposing students to a variety of non-Catholic approaches to religion.

One of the most theologically conservative schools cited by those NCR contacted was Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Conn. (73 students). Here diocesan and religious order seminarians are almost equally represented, and that has been the arrangement since the school was opened -- primarily for late vocations -- in 1970. “We have a melange of people from all over the country,” said Fr. Ray Halliwell, director of admissions. “All ages, all sizes. Everybody rubs shoulders together, and it works out fine.”

Among the faculty members is another Mother Angelica regular, Dominican Fr. Brian Mullady of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. “Loyalty to the pope” is the major attraction for the school, said Halliwell, adding that it has had little trouble enrolling priesthood candidates.

Diocesan candidates at Holy Apostles are studying for a broad geographical range including Yakima, Wash., Santa Fe, N.M., Stamford, Conn., and Metuchen, N.J. Some older religious orders like the Franciscans and Benedictines are represented, as are small, newer groups, noted Halliwell, like the Society of Our Lady of the Blessed Trinity and the John Vianney Society. Listed as the principal languages spoken at Holy Apostles are English, Spanish and Latin.

Among the progressive

Frequently cited as among the more progressive theologates were Mount St. Mary’s of the West in Cincinnati, Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans (99 diocesan students), St. Patrick’s Seminary serving San Francisco (47), Mount Angel Seminary serving Portland, Ore., (86), and Mundelein Seminary of Chicago (186).

Determining which seminaries are exceptionally traditional and which are progressive can be a difficult task. Rectors and vocation directors flee such designations like the plague. Schuth said that in some cases the student body more than the faculty gives a seminary an aura of conservatism. “You may visit a place where everybody receives Communion on the tongue and there’s a great deal of pious eucharistic devotion,” she said, “and discover it’s the students who are setting the tone.”

One measure, of course, is how involved the students are with lay people in their education. But this is not an altogether reliable guide, according to seminary officials, because some very conservative schools have laity enrolled, but they are generally kept far removed from seminarians or are permitted to take only elective or noncredit courses. However, both St. Joseph’s in New York and St. Charles in Philadelphia are welcoming to the laity and allow laypersons to enroll in degree courses. On the other hand, some other schools recognized for a more progressive theological approach have few or no lay students because their distance from urban centers makes them practically inaccessible to commuters.

Seminaries today differ greatly not only in approach but in size, thanks to mergers and closings in the wake of the council. Enrollment at the 32 theologates largely invested in training diocesan seminarians ranges from a high of 186 at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary to a low of five at St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee (see accompanying story). Only four of the schools have more than 100 students, and 18 have fewer than 70; six have fewer than 30. All of which raises the question whether there are too many major seminaries today.

“I think it would benefit everyone to consider regional consolidation,” said Bishop Gregory Aymond, president and rector of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. Notre Dame (with 99 diocesan seminarians) is geared toward preparing men to work in the largely rural, predominantly non-Catholic South. Its largest groups of students are from the six Louisiana dioceses and a few other Southern locales such as Atlanta, Memphis and Tallahassee, Fla. “We have a lot of commitment from bishops in this area,” noted Aymond, “so recruiting is not a problem for us.”

The church has its own characteristics in the South, Aymond said, very different from other areas. Besides, he noted, the number of priests qualified to teach in seminaries is declining, and those who are qualified are not only needed in parishes but less than enthusiastic about seminary work. Unfortunately, he said, “very few at this point seem to be encouraging consolidation or collaboration.”

Regional or specialized education is almost a necessity at places like St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Calif. Of its 95 students, 53 are studying for the heavily Hispanic Los Angeles or Orange County dioceses, and the others also represent highly Hispanic or Asian areas in the West. Thirty-one percent of the students are Hispanic, 23 percent Asian and four percent black, said Fr. Jeremiah McCarthy, chief administrative officer.

“Relating to minority concerns is absolutely essential,” said McCarthy. “No one is exempt from the diversity of the church.” Accordingly, all students are required to study Spanish five mornings a week before regular classes, and all are immersed in ministry in Mexico during their four years of theology. Social justice issues receive high priority too, said McCarthy.

Yet consolidation is far from the minds of other observers. Many seminaries on the East Coast represent only one large diocese (with openings for nearby dioceses) and feel no pressure to pull together on a regional basis. “We have a well-qualified, talented pool of priests to teach here,” said Msgr. Francis J. McAree, chief administrative officer at New York city’s St. Joseph’s Seminary (52 diocesan seminarians).

Solid programs

Like theology schools in Philadelphia and Boston, St. Joseph’s is a freestanding operation, and, said McAree, “concentrates largely on the needs of this archdiocese.”

Elsewhere in the country, some church officials would also prefer a degree of seminary independence. “Every presbyterate has its own flavor,” said Fr. Michael Glynn, vocations director for the Denver archdiocese. “Training in a common theologate does a lot to encourage lifelong friendships in the ministry.” But, he lamented, only the largest dioceses have the luxury of their own theology school. A kind of cross-regional, catchall consolidation already exists at the few giant theologates. Chicago’s Mundelein and Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Md., are the two largest diocesan theology schools in the country, accounting for some 350 students (or 15 percent of the U.S total).

While Mundelein is officially a Chicago seminary (51 students for the archdiocese), it also has representation from 36 other dioceses. Some are Midwestern, such as Madison, La Crosse and Green Bay, Wis., and Joliet, Ill. Others are from dioceses across the country: Denver, Seattle, Raleigh, N.C., Greensburg, Pa., Knoxville, Tenn., Patterson, N.J.

Fr. Kevin Rhoades of Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg said his school’s “solid formation programs” and historic dedication to “well grounded theology” make it attractive to a range of bishops; it remains unaffected by trends toward regional education or specialized ministries.

Whether seminaries should accept both diocesan and religious order candidates remains an open question. Many diocesan seminaries have at most a scattering of religious students. The three largest in the country (comprising almost 500 students) have only 10 religious order seminarians enrolled. Similarly, the three largest religious order seminaries (376 students) have just 12 diocesan seminarians. The traditional theory is that the diocesan and religious priesthood are different vocations, requiring different grounding. Yet some seminaries like Connecticut’s Holy Apostles practice wholesale integration.

Enrollment at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio is almost evenly divided between seminarians from 17 dioceses and seven religious congregations. Actually, said Oblate Fr. William Morrell, president, the arrangement did not come about “out of conviction or theory.” Like some other seminaries in the 1970s, the school simply widened its net in response to the dwindling number of candidates for the religious priesthood. “And good things have come as a result,” said Morrell. “We have a happy marriage.”

The contrasting approaches to spirituality and ministry seem to complement each other rather than clash, he noted, resulting in creative fusions and solid friendships. To maintain individual identity, each religious order has its own house of formation, and there is a separate formation for diocesan candidates.

For many seminaries, marketing the school to bishops is a major, time-consuming activity. Morrell of the Oblate Seminary in San Antonio said he has personally visited 30 dioceses in the past 15 months promoting his program. Said Fr. Patrick Brennan, president-rector at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon (70 diocesan theology students), “You spend a lot of time developing personal relations, cultivating donors, tending to assets. It can hurt if bishops lose confidence in your operation.”

Fr. John Canary of Chicago’s Mundelein agreed that seminary officials must be both diplomatic and aggressive. He noted he would soon be traveling to Denver to sit down with the new archbishop, Charles J. Chaput. Mundelein currently has 14 Denver seminarians.

For steady enrollment

To develop and maintain a steady enrollment, many seminaries publish glossy catalogs and promotional brochures, citing their qualifications. Some, like St. Meinrad’s School of Theology in Indiana, offer professionally produced video tapes for easy viewing by bishops, vocations directors and prospective students. Barbara Crawford, St. Meinrad’s communications director, said much time is spent visiting dioceses and arranging for bishops’ visits to the school. “We try to stress our pluses,” she said, “the 125-year tradition of Benedictine liturgy, hospitality and sense of community.”

Although no one would admit on the record the existence of outright competition for students, several asserted it is a reality. The loss or gain of even one diocese can have a profound effect on a seminary’s ability to operate, especially for smaller schools.

Another issue seminary officials are reluctant to discuss is the alleged interference of bishops in their operations. But one case has thrown the issue into public prominence. In 1995 officials at St. Meinrad’s fired Irish Mercy Sr. Carmel McEnroy, a faculty member for 14 years. The charge against her was public dissent from church teaching, based on her signature (alongside 1,499 others’) on a letter published in NCR asking the pope to open discussion concerning women’s ordination. In a scathing review of her dismissal, a committee from the American Association of University Professors concluded that the firing, without the benefit of a hearing, violated McEnroy’s academic freedom and the school’s own provisions for due process.

Moreover, the committee charged that Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel Buechlein had initiated a “campaign against her” several years before and had “manipulated” the ouster by threatening to remove from the school students from his diocese if officials did not terminate McEnroy. Buechlein subsequently denied any involvement, saying her release was founded “solely on religious and ecclesiastic grounds.”

Nonetheless, the university professors’ association in June voted to censure St. Meinrad for its action. McEnroy is appealing the decision in Indiana courts claiming breach of contract and denial of due process.

Clearly, said Brennan, the St. Meinrad case was handled poorly, but the situation is not unique. Usually, he said, such problems are handled quietly and behind the scenes -- with little comment even within the institution.

Formation challenges

Students at U.S. theology schools are older and culturally different from their predecessors of 30 years ago. The often-mentioned age at theologates is “a little over 30.” At seminaries like Holy Apostles specializing in late vocations the average is well over 40, with some even in their late 60s.

It is commonly assumed that older candidates have a level of maturity and breadth of experience that would predict a serious commitment to priesthood. But several rectors expressed misgivings about some older seminarians.

“I’m afraid we’re seeing a substantial number who have tried a variety of careers without achieving any kind of stability,” said Brennan. “So now they’re trying the priesthood. It shows up in some who come here maybe in their late 30s with a whole lot of unpaid personal bills. We like to see people who’ve achieved some stability in their past careers, men with savings and not a lot of debt.”

Mundelein rector Canary cited the uneven background of religious formation in today’s seminarians. Sometimes, he said, their vocation stems from a religious experience -- like a trip to Medjugorje or perhaps a death in the family. Consequently, said Canary, it has little undergirding and may not long survive. Canary, who has been involved in seminary work for 20 years, still believes in the value of high school and college seminaries where a basic, faith-founded identity may be more easily formed. Without the early nurturing of religious values in an identifiable Catholic family or community, he noted, great effort must be expended to deepen and broaden faith, especially among those who have no recollection of life before Vatican II.

The admission of gay candidates to seminaries is something rectors and bishops wrestle with regularly. Some dioceses like Omaha avoid that problem by rejecting outright anyone with an admittedly gay orientation. Most accept gays but with grave cautions and reservations. Canary said the practice in Chicago is to inquire extensively into the sexual history of a candidate: Anyone who is gay must establish that he has lived a strictly chaste life for two years before he will even be considered for the seminary.

But, said Canary, “If they’ve been involved in the gay subculture, in its activities and values, that doesn’t make for good spiritual leadership potential,” even with a two-year abstinence period. “Some say orientation doesn’t make any difference, but it does!”

There can be, he said, a tendency for a gay man, even a celibate one, to operate out of “a minority syndrome,” to see himself “over and against the larger culture” embraced by the vast majority of his parishioners. Also, he said, gay priests may tend to “gravitate to one another,” creating exclusive bonds and thus diminishing their effectiveness in collaborative ministry.

Thorough evaluation

Concern about older candidates, gay candidates, newly sensitized candidates makes personal and spiritual formation especially important. Theology schools today go to extreme lengths to develop and tout their thorough, sometimes rigorous programs. At Mount Angel in Portland, for instance, an exhaustive series of interviews and written reports is used in evaluating every seminarian at every step of his education. A formation report, an academic report, a pastoral education report and a self-evaluation are all part of the process. Normally involved in the formal evaluation at year’s end are the chair of formation direction, the seminarian’s bishop or vocation director, his spiritual director, the seminary rector and the director of pastoral internships.

Among some 40 “dimensions” or checkpoints to be weighed in the second year of theology are whether the student takes responsibility for his own formation, works in a collaborative and professional manner with men and women, listens to and values opinions of others, demonstrates commitment to social justice, demonstrates genuine ability to empathize, freely chooses the celibate life, owns his personal sexual history and manages stress.

Closer to ordination additional considerations emerge, including the ability to work in a multicultural setting with people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds; fidelity to the Word of God and the teaching of the magisterium combined with a deep love for the church; sensitivity to the ecumenical dimension of the church’s mission; and a capacity for courageous and decisive leadership.

“Our formation program is the most thorough I’ve seen,” said Brennan. “The aim is to be as objective as possible.”

Those who do not display acceptable development at Mount Angel leave the seminary, he noted, either voluntarily, through dismissal or by a “nonrecommendation” from the evaluation team (a kind of less-than-honorable discharge).

Schuth said formation programs have improved greatly in the past 10 years -- so much so that seminaries specializing in older vocations like Pope John XXIII National Seminary in Massachusetts (87 diocesan students) and Sacred Heart School of Theology in Wisconsin (81) are much better able to “sort out” good applicants from those with questionable character or motives.

Rumors persist

Despite intensive formation efforts and other precautions at seminaries, rumors persist that some poorly suited or unsuited candidates are slipping through into the priesthood. Last year the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education and Seminaries instructed, “The too-easy acceptance of ex-religious and ex-seminarians, made without thorough preliminary investigation is usually the cause of unpleasant surprises and disappointments for ‘indulgent’ bishops.”

Cardinal Pio Laghi, prefect of the congregation, said the problem concerns not only expelled seminarians but also those who withdrew voluntarily, given that such a withdrawal at times happens in order to avoid a formal expulsion. Each national bishops’ conference must draw up “general decrees”’ to remedy a situation that, Laghi said, has remained unchanged despite Vatican warnings.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops is currently developing a set of decrees for this country. Precisely what U.S. dioceses (if any) Laghi was talking about has not been revealed, though rumors swirl. Without exception, the seminary officials NCR talked with insisted that the screening of applicants and the quality of their formation programs were at the top of their agenda.

National Catholic Reporter, September 12, 1997