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Issue Date:  January 6, 2006

Seminary leaders foresee tightening up of moral teaching


While bishops and rectors participating in the current Vatican-sponsored apostolic visitation of American seminaries seem virtually unanimous that it will not result in sweeping changes, some foresee a “tightening up” on the presentation of church teaching, especially in the area of moral theology.

“The big question is relativism,” Bishop John Nienstedt of New Ulm, Minn., told NCR Dec. 22. “Are our seminarians not just formed in the faith, but do they have a sense of confidence in the objective truth of the faith, and are they able to proclaim and defend it?”

Nienstedt is one of roughly 55 American bishops serving as a visitor.

With approximately a third of the visits to 229 seminaries, colleges, and houses of formation in the United States already complete, and the rest scheduled for the first half of 2006, most bishops who have led visitation teams say they see the process as a matter of “fine-tuning,” rather than remedying systemic problems. Several bishops have likened the visitation to an academic accreditation process, helping institutions to build on strengths and correct weaknesses.

“I believe one result will be to show great trust in our seminaries,” said Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin, Texas.

“By and large, rectors, staff, and professors are doing a very, very good job,” Aymond told NCR Dec. 22. “Sometimes they’ve been unfairly criticized, as if every problem a priest later has is the fault of the seminary. That’s always been wrong. These are men and women who have given their lives to seminary formation, and they deserve our confidence.”

To date, the visits have left a sour taste in only one spot, the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. There, two visitors out of an 11-member team reportedly asked questions about the sexual practices of seminarians that risked invading their consciences, or “internal forum.” In response, the rector confronted those visitors with the support of the archbishop heading the team, ending the questioning.

Most interviewed for this report told NCR that Mundelein’s case is exceptional, and that most visits have been “cordial” and “supportive.”

Indeed, some bishops privately told NCR that the visits may provide cover for seminaries and houses of formation, especially those run by religious orders, which are sometimes unjustly criticized for lax oversight or ambiguity on church teaching.

Other bishops, however, stressed that an overall “thumbs up” does not mean there aren’t pockets where attention is needed.

Despite the coincidence that the visitation is unfolding in the wake of a new Vatican document barring gay priests, most sources agree that homosexuality has not been a major focus, in part because many observers regard that question as largely settled in American seminaries, especially those operated by large dioceses.

Instead, the presentation of church doctrine has been a central concern, especially on sexual morality.

“They wanted to be sure that the seminary is faithfully presenting and advocating church teaching,” Msgr. Steven Rohlfs, rector of Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, told NCR Dec. 20. His seminary was among the first to be visited, in the first week of October.

“Are dissenting positions explained and responded to, so that things are not just left up in the air? Beyond covering the full spectrum of theological positions, they want to know if church teaching is positively advocated,” Rohlfs said.

In NCR’s late December interviews with five bishops and four rectors, as well as seminarians, Vatican officials and experts on American seminary life, no one suggested there is a crisis in moral theology in American seminaries. Yet several sources said that to the extent the visitation makes itself felt, it may be in that area, especially in ensuring that relevant papal texts such as John Paul II’s encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, for example, are adequately covered, as well as monitoring the way in which the material is presented to students.

A senior Vatican official, for example, asked to pinpoint areas where the visits might make a difference in seminary life, responded: “It could be that some reading lists in moral theology are a little deficient, and need to be corrected.”

Another broad topic of conversation has been how seminaries provide formation for a life of chaste celibacy.

The visits are being carried out by 117 bishops, priests, religious women and lay experts, organized into teams appointed by the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education at the suggestion of Archbishop Edward O’Brien, head of the American military archdiocese, who is acting as coordinator.

The apostolic visitation was agreed upon as part of an April 2002 summit meeting between Pope John Paul II, the American cardinals and officers of the U.S. bishops’ conference, in response to the sexual abuse crisis.

Archbishop Daniel Buechlein of Indianapolis, another visitor, linked the concern with moral theology to the sexual abuse crisis.

“What happened after the Second Vatican Council, in the late 1960s through the early 1980s, is part of why people felt they could cross boundaries on the sexual abuse issue,” Buechlein told NCR Dec. 21. “There was confusion, and a little bit of relativism.”

“In the places I know, I think this has been attended to,” Buechlein said. “But there may still be some work to do.”

In general, each visitation team (or single bishop in the case of smaller seminaries) arrives on a Sunday night, and remains through the following Friday. According to the Vatican-issued Instrumentum Laboris, or working document for the visits, each seminarian and faculty member is to be interviewed separately, though not necessarily by each member of the team.

A training program for the visitors, organized by O’Brien, was held in Baltimore in September.

After the visit, each team writes a report for the Congregation for Catholic Education. Vatican officials say those reports will be studied in Rome in order to glean a sense of the overall situation, and then forwarded to the bishop or religious superior responsible for the seminary. Ideally, those reports will begin leaving Rome in late spring. Eventually, Pope Benedict XVI or the congregation is expected to issue general conclusions from the process.

Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburg, another visitor, told NCR that after what he calls “unevenness” in formation following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), an “enormous amount” was learned in the 1980s, and today he expects a major focus of the visitation will be to “affirm what’s in place … and to commend the good things happening.”

Those views were echoed even by people who acknowledged trepidation about some elements of the process.

“I don’t anticipate any sweeping changes,” said Franciscan Sr. Katarina Schuth of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Schuth, widely noted for her research on seminaries, said institutions have made great strides in dealing with issues of psychosexual maturity and formation for celibacy.

“The best minds have been working on these issues for 20, 30, 40 years,” Schuth told NCR Dec. 20. “To think this whole group has missed something essential is hard to imagine.”

Schuth said she had spoken to more than a dozen colleagues across the country who have been through a visit, who reported that relativism, subjectivism, the church’s relationship to culture, and the presentation of magisterial teaching, especially in moral theology, had been the central issues.

In light of that focus, Schuth said she’s puzzled about how the non-bishop members of the visitation teams were selected. Noting that no faculty from institutions such as the Westin Jesuit School of Theology or the Graduate Theological Union had been tapped, she said it seems most of the non-bishop visitors reflect a conservative, “doctrinally unassailable” perspective.

Still, Schuth said, she has heard repeatedly that it has not been “an inquisitorial type of situation.”

The lone exception has been Mundelein.

Fr. John Canary, rector at Mundelein, confirmed to NCR Dec. 21 that two members of the 11-member team, led by Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Neb., asked what Canary called “inappropriate” questions of seminarians about their sexual conduct. Though Canary did not specify, other sources said the two visitors asked, for example, about masturbation.

Canary said he presented his concerns to Curtiss, who supported him in putting a halt to that line of questioning.

“We were the second place visited,” Canary said, “and in all honesty, I think they were just getting their feet on the ground.” He said that Curtiss “did a wonderful job” in overseeing the visit.

Rohlfs said he doubts that visitors will find widespread difficulties with psychosexual formation.

“The church at the universal level has a tendency to be reactive rather than proactive. We send troops to where the enemy was last seen 20 years ago, just to be sure they’re gone,” he said.

Yet Fr. Donald Cozzens, a former seminary rector and noted author on priestly formation, cautioned that there may still be a few seminaries or houses of formation where the culture is predominantly gay. If the visitors identify that, Cozzens said, some facilities could be closed or personnel changes made.

“It’s a difficult question, because a gay culture does not necessarily mean an immoral culture,” Cozzens said. “They could be leading a celibate life.”

Cozzens said he worries that the visitation is a “command and control” exercise that may not adequately capture the experience of professors and staff. He said he’s also concerned that the emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy may compromise the intellectual quality of seminaries, turning them into “graduate schools of apologetics.”

“We have to be careful not to be fooled by surface cordiality,” Cozzens told NCR. “The jury is still out.”

Nienstedt said that while he agreed most seminaries are doing good work, vigilance is still required.

“When I was a new seminary rector, I once interviewed somebody for a faculty position, and I asked what her fundamental goal for the course would be,” he said. “She said, ‘I want students to know they have a right to dissent from church teaching.’ These are the situations we don’t want to get into, and there’s some of that out there.

“We have to be sure people involved in formation have the wherewithal to confront those who dissent,” he said.

Beyond questions of church teaching, Rohlfs said he hopes that the visitation can prompt discussion about a “national protocol agreed to by the bishops for psychological testing.” He said there is currently “a lot of variance” among seminaries and formation programs in which psychological tests are required for admission, and how they’re used.

Nienstedt, former chair of the Bishops’ Committee on Priestly Formation, said such a protocol is already in the works. He said that last year, Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill., asked the committee if it could survey seminaries to find out what tests are being used, and to generate a list of best practices.

Nienstedt said the project is now in the hands of Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Ariz., the new chair of the formation committee.

Like other rectors, Canary said the self-examination his seminary launched to prepare for the visit may turn out to be among the most valuable aspects of the experience.

For example, Canary said, the staff realized that it collects a wealth of information in the admissions process, in the form of psychological tests, letters of recommendation and personal interviews, but does not do much with this information in the formation program after a candidate is admitted. Canary said there’s now a determination to be more deliberate about drawing on this material.

Msgr. Kevin McCoy, former rector of the North American College in Rome, told NCR that the focus on sexual morality should not distract seminaries from other “meat and potatoes” issues of priestly formation.

McCoy stepped down as rector in December in order to head a $25 million capital campaign for the college.

“A man who can’t, or who refuses, to greet you with a ‘good morning’ can do more damage in a parish,” McCoy told NCR. “If he doesn’t display readiness for compassion, if there’s no affect, this is not a man who can build community.”

At the same time, Aymond, of Austin, Texas, said the visitation should assure Catholics that church leaders are serious about learning the lessons of the sexual abuse crisis.

“Seminaries are doing whatever is humanly possible to make sure that there are no pedophiles in our ranks,” he said. “They’re trying to form balanced, healthy, well-prepared men, who are not deviant in a sexual way. That’s the message.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 6, 2006

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