What Did They Find?

A look at the Holy See’s report on US seminaries and the upcoming apostolic visitation to convents.

In 1981, the Holy See launched an apostolic visitation of American seminaries and named the late Bishop John Marshall of Burlington (Vermont) as apostolic visitator. Two decades later, the Holy See found need to intervene again to examine American seminary formation and religious communities.

In April 2002, at the height of the clerical abuse scandal, the heads of several curial offices met with US cardinals and leaders of the bishops’ conference. Their joint communiqué stated that “a new and serious apostolic visitation of seminaries and other institutes of formation must be made without delay, with particular emphasis on the need for fidelity to the Church’s teaching, especially in the area of morality, and the need for a deeper study of the criteria of suitability of candidates to the priesthood.”

That visitation issued its final report on December 15, 2008. This report has been made public on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, while individual evaluations addressed to each seminary are confidential.

In a 1986 letter to US bishops, Pope John Paul expressed appreciation for Bishop Marshall’s work: “The manner in which the visitation was conducted renders honor to the Church in the United States and gives great hope for the future.” Confidential assessmentswere made of each seminary, and in 1988, the visitation submitted its final report to the Holy See.

A dozen years later, Notre Dame professor Ralph McInerny called Bishop Marshall’s apostolic visitation “a failure, and by churchmen who had to make a determined effort not to acquaint themselves with the facts they were supposedly investigating.” In Michael S. Rose’s 2002 book Goodbye! Good Men, some seminarians of the time said they were prevented from speaking with visitation teams and recalled that their institutions dramatically changed during the weeklong visitation of each seminary.

One of these 1980s-era seminarians, Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, now serves on the faculty of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. “The Marshall visitation was less a true visitation than an exercise in institutional self-evaluation, whose results were communicated to a benign visiting committee,” he told CWR. “It was not designed to expose inadequacies or injustices, and signally failed to do so…. Like Admiral Nelson clapping his telescope to his blind eye, the visitors arranged matters so that they would not see problems that required difficult, conflictual, or embarrassing solutions.”

The December 2008 final report of the more recent apostolic visitation appears to validate some criticisms of the Bishop Marshall’s apostolic visitation. Issued by the prefect and secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, the report implies that the 1980s were a time of instability for seminaries, led in too many cases by rectors whose fidelity to Catholic teaching was in doubt. “Since the 1990s, a greater sense of stability now prevails in the US seminaries,” the report concludes. “The appointment, over time, of rectors who are wise and faithful to the Church has meant a gradual improvement, at least in diocesan seminaries.”

Bishop Marshall’s chief assistants were Father Donald Wuerl (now archbishop of Washington) and Monsignor Richard Pates (now bishop of Des Moines). Bishop Pates believes that the apostolic visitation of the 1980s helped make possible the improvements of the 1990s. He told CWR, “The 1980s seminary study identified strengths but also significant weaknesses in the priesthood preparation programs, as was its purpose. The fact that strengths began to emerge in the 1990s would indicate that the recommendations for change of the Marshall study were widely adopted, leading to the continuing improvements, which was the original intent of the study.”

The 2008 final report did more than conclude that seminary formation in the 1980s suffered from widespread problems. While stating that “the diocesan seminaries are, in general, healthy,” the report candidly chronicles numerous weaknesses in current seminary formation, particularly in the formation of future religious-order priests.

This “new and serious apostolic visitation,” first announced in 2002, did most of its work in 2005 and 2006 and was coordinated by Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, now archbishop of Baltimore. “The composition of the visiting committees,” says Father Mankowski, “made it clear that the organizers were going to great lengths to prevent the closed-loop arrangement that, in the case of the Marshall visitation, had assured the fix was in from the outset. In the recent visitation, individual visitors had the freedom to communicate dissenting opinions directly to the Holy See, unfiltered by their committee.”

Acknowledging that “an apostolic visitation is a blunt instrument but by no means an infallible one,” the new visitation’s final report concluded that “in the great majority of diocesan seminaries, the doctrine on the priesthood is well taught,” though in other places seminarians have an “incomplete grasp” of Catholic teaching. Some religious-order institutes refer primarily to “ministry” rather than the priesthood in a “mistaken attempt” not to offend opponents of Catholic teaching on women’s ordination.

Although the majority of seminary rectors are “good and holy men,” not all are leaders who are “comfortable making difficult decisions.” Praising “most diocesan seminaries” for the unity of their faculty with the Magisterium, the report nonetheless noted the presence of some faculty members who dissent from magisterial teaching and are thus “out of kilter with the rest of the faculty and with the seminarians themselves.” “More widespread dissent” exists in other places, “particularly in institutes run by religious,” and in these places, “there can be no possibility of a unity in direction.” The visiting teams “quite often” found faculty who mocked Church teaching without “speaking openly against” it. Dissenting superiors and faculty members, the report observed diplomatically, need to be removed.

The report urged bishops to take a greater role in the acceptance or rejection of priestly formation candidates and noted that in some places, “lack of vocations has caused a lowering of standards,” with “possible wretched consequences.” In “a few places,” the process of evaluating candidates for the priesthood was suspect—with the nonordained, and even non-Catholics, determining whether candidates should be ordained. “Such practices are to cease.”

The report found deficiencies in seminary formation before the four years of theology formation. “Almost nowhere” has the required propadeutic year before the two years of philosophical formation been implemented.

The report took special note of moral problems, primarily associated with homosexual behavior, in some US seminaries. While the situation has improved because of “better superiors (especially rectors),” there are “still some places—usually centers of formation for religious—where ambiguity vis-Àvis homosexuality persists.” The report underscored the importance of the 2005 curial document that affirmed that the Church “cannot admit to the seminary or to Holy Orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or who support the so-called ‘gay culture.’”

The report also observed many seminaries’ “laxity of discipline” over students’ off-campus activities. In some places, “formation advisers” and psychologists delve inappropriately into seminarians’ spiritual lives, while ascetic rules are lacking.

The heart of seminary formation, the report continued, is prayer. “In the diocesan seminaries, the liturgical norms are generally obeyed, but this is not always the case” in religious institutes. Despite this general fidelity, some of the report’s strongest criticisms come in the area of spiritual formation. “Regrettably very few seminaries fix periods of time for prayer,” the report noted, homily the Pope referred again to the challenge secular Australia, where “in the name of human and “it is profoundly regrettable that many seminaries do not include traditional acts of piety in their horarium…. Unless a great many seminaries introduce regular recitation of the rosary, novenas, litanies, Stations of the Cross, and so on, the seminarians will lack an education in the sacramentals and will be unprepared for ministry in the Church, which greatly treasures these practices.”

While praising the intellectual formation seminaries offer in philosophy and theology—with some seminaries being “truly remarkable”—the report criticized widespread weaknesses in the study of Mariology, patristics, and Latin, with the observation that “even in the best seminaries,” some faculty members dissent from Catholic teaching on moral theology and the ordination of women.

After chronicling these problems, the report concluded:

There is no doubt that, in recent decades, US seminaries, along with seminaries throughout much of the Western world, were in flux. This led to a breakdown in structures, which had a negative impact on priestly formation. A false sense of freedom was sometimes cultivated, which led to the throwing off of centuries of acquired wisdom in priestly formation. However, this visitation has demonstrated that, since the 1990s, a greater sense of stability now prevails in the US seminaries…. The general conclusion, therefore, of the visitation was positive. While there are some institutes that continue to be inadequate, the diocesan seminaries are, in general, healthy.

Three administrators of seminaries that already have particularly strong formation programs welcomed the apostolic visitation. Father Douglas Mosey, CSB, president-rector of Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Connecticut— where seminarians are expected to attend Mass, lauds, and vespers, make a holy hour, and pray the rosary each day—told CWR that because of the visitation, “we are going to increase the required courses in mystical theology from one to three courses and add a fourth on spiritual direction.”

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where seminarians are required to learn Greek as well as Latin, will use the visitation report to strengthen “the communal aspect of the seminary horarium and prayer, supervision and direction of seminarians during the summer months, and the seminarian rule of life,” said seminary rector Msgr. Joseph Prior.

At Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, where Mass is celebrated weekly in Latin, alternating between the ordinary and extraordinary forms, “we were glad to see the report and will be employing it as a way of continuing to build on an already solid priestly formation program,” says vice-rector Father Edward Richard.

Despite the candor of the apostolic visitation’s final report, Father Mankowski cautions that

it’s impossible to say what the fruits of the recent visitation will be, in part because only the general report is accessible, not the individual critiques sent to specific institutions. More importantly, we’re not told what measures will be undertaken to correct what remains to be corrected. The diagnostic effort was pretty good, but they’re keeping mum about the treatment. Until we have reason to believe that measures will be taken against non-compliance, we have to be cautious about the long-term health of the patient.

As Bishop Marshall was conducting his apostolic visitation of seminaries, Pope John Paul II, moved by the “marked decline in recent years in the numbers of young people seeking to enter religious life,” appointed a pontifical commission to help religious “whose institutes are engaged in apostolic works to live their ecclesial vocation to the full.” The Pontiff named Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco as pontifical delegate, assisted by Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville and Bishop Raymond Lessard of Savannah, all now retired.

Responding to the commission’s final report with a 1989 letter to the US bishops, Pope John Paul praised the commission but pulled no punches in assessing the weaknesses of many religious communities. He noted, for example, that “a radical feminism which seeks the rights of women by attacking and denying fundamental, clear, and constant moral teaching does not reflect or promote the full reality and true dignity of women, who have not only a temporal worth but also an eternal destiny in the divine plan.”

Amid the continued hemorrhaging of American religious communities— the number of religious sisters has declined from 174,000 in 1965 to 59,000 today—Pope Benedict last year approved an apostolic visitation “of the general houses, provincial houses, and centers of initial formation of the principal religious institutes of women in the United States of America.” The visitation’s purpose is “to look into the quality of the life of religious women in the United States.”

In a decree issued one week after the seminary visitation’s final report, Cardinal Francis Rodé, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, appointed Mother Clare Millea, ASCJ, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as apostolic visitator. After soliciting input from superiors general and US major superiors, the visitation team will make on-site visits and compile a confidential report. The new apostolic visitation has set up a website, www.apostolicvisitation.org.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious reacted with caution to the announcement of the visitation. “The planned visitation comes as a surprise to the conference and its purpose and implications for the lives of US women religious remain unclear,” it said in a statement, counseling leaders of communities “to reflect on the stories of heroic service and creative fidelity of their own members.”

On the other hand, Mother Shaun Vergauwen, FSE, an officer of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which promotes its members’ “union with the Magisterium” and “love for Christ’s Vicar on earth,” welcomed the visitation. She told CWR, “It may be that in some cases there are spiritual endeavors or apostolic works which are intrinsically good but which do not directly participate in, or adequately resonate with, the established norms of consecrated life. There may also be some efforts which have become removed from the essence of the life or the work of the Church. I trust that the visitation will offer the opportunity to address these issues through dialogue, in a spirit ofcharity and mutual respect.”

Mother Millea spoke to CWR about the purpose of her upcoming work: “Since [the time of Archbishop Quinn’s pontifical commission] there has been a significant decline in numbers and an increase in the median age among members in many congregations in the United States…. Given the ferment in newly established communities and the growth of some current religious institutes, Cardinal Rodé may have felt the end of this first decade of the new millennium would be a good time to assess the quality of life of major institutes of women religious which still exist in the United States.”

“The fruits of the visitation will no doubt vary from institute to institute,” adds Father Thomas Nelson, O.Praem., national director of the Institute on Religious Life. “Those who cooperate with the grace of the apostolic visitation will benefit greatly. It can be a spiritual impetus to shed what is extraneous and to focus on the essentials of religious life. Those who do not cooperate with the grace will not benefit, and continue to decline in number and apostolic effectiveness.”


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About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.