Meet Father Freud: An Eyewitness Account of Seminary Life

Author’s Note: I’ll be ordained soon. And I look forward to these years of service. But I am no longer naive about the advanced disrepair of the Church in America. The observations I’m about to make are admittedly those of a young man. More tempered and weathered souls might be more reflective, have a wider perspective. But since it is youth from which the Church must attract its vocations, I think the perspective of a young man counts for something.

Heterodoxy and Homosexuality

More than any other organization, the Church has to rely on unity for success. When that unity doesn’t exist, every imaginable problem can (and does) occur. The seminaries in the United States and at the two American seminaries abroad, Louvain in Belgium and the North American College in Rome, offer a microcosm of the problems in the Church in the United States. All these problems and difficulties that besiege the Church first occur in the seminaries, whether it be the theological rifts between a Charles Curran and Cardinal Ratzinger or the tragic pederasty cases in Lafayette, Louisiana. What happens at the Church in the world first occurs or gives evidence of occurring in the seminary.

In fact the two cases cited above—Curran and the pederasty problem—are not unrelated. I know from experience that there is a high correlation between priests who fully practice the virtue of chastity and the promise of celibacy, and those who embrace the totality of Catholic teaching and worship. It is too late to deny that there are numerous seminarians and priests who are sexually active, both with women and with men. An even more widespread problem—effeminacy and lack of masculinity among priests—has become an open secret, widely discussed in private even as it is never brought up in public. Years in the seminary world have taught me that effeminate priests tend to have a “soft” view of Church teaching, to regard doctrine as a necessary evil and true religion as an amalgam of caring, compassion, and endless “dialogue.”

Priests who find it impossible to be celibate are, even more so, gradually eroded in their dedication to the magisterium; understandably, they rationalize their wrongful habits with the argument that they are simply out of harmony with the temporary regulations of the Church, but given the right pressures, these rules can and will be amended. Maybe it’s just a question of waiting for the “current administration” of the Vatican to pass; I have heard priests describe the current Pope as though he were Reagan or Dukakis—just serving a term in office, soon to be replaced, one hopes, by a more flexible pontiff.

In the ecclesiastical world of gossip, the seminary at Catholic University has been associated with a homosexual reputation for years. Last year the National Catholic Reporter focused on that aspect in a series on seminaries. I have never believed the Reporter to be a bastion of credible journalism, so I feel hesitant to generalize based on its tidbits. Nevertheless, I know of at least one case of a seminarian who witnessed his classmates frequent homosexual bars in the Dupont Circle area; he brought this up with the rector, who instead of investigating the problem accused the student of “unhealthy curiosity” and raised questions about the individual’s psychological equilibrium. It was only when the student offered to resolve the question through his bishop that the rector panicked and agreed to have a chat with some of the offending seminarians.

Some seminaries do address the problem. A student at St. John’s in Boston says a number of people have been asked to leave. When no reason is stated, it’s sometimes easy to surmise that the explanation is sexual. Nevertheless, he says the authorities are reluctant to address the situation unless the person is “flagrant” or there are “multiple attestations.”

Despite Catholic University’s homosexual reputation, I find it significant that no one attempts to discover connections between the behavior of seminarians and priests and what is being taught in the theology department at the university. Actions flow at least to some degree from ideas, and thus sound teaching can influence the way that seminarians regard such behavior as “hanging out” at gay bars.

The Vatican seems to understand this—Charles Curran was disciplined by the Church not for his stand on, say, the notion of filial spiration, but explicitly for his teachings in sexual ethics. Some people consider Rome in particular, and Catholic authorities generally, to be “obsessed” with sex. But these people don’t seem to understand the centrality of sexuality to one’s sense of identity and one’s relations with others. The Church knows this intellectually and intuitively; consequently, the Church understands how problems in this area—if unchecked—inevitably lead to problems in all other areas.

Right Wing Seminaries

On the other hand, a so-called “conservative” seminary such as St. Charles at Overbrook in Philadelphia has no homosexual reputation; no doubt much of the credit should go to Cardinal Krol, who was a fount of orthodoxy. Yet St. Charles and other seminaries of its kind have another problem: mediocrity in academics.

I have friends, both at St. Charles and at the Dunwoodie seminary in upstate New York. A number of them have expressed disappointment at the lack of intellectual seriousness there. Orthodoxy is not the problem; the problem is staleness of mind. Gone are the days when the Church represented intellectual excitement and investigative zeal. We can only wistfully remember the University of Paris, with St. Thomas roaming the corridors, or the Jesuit schools during the counter-Reformation. Today even the “good” seminaries are often content to mouth slogans and repeat buzzwords which substitute for clear thought. Any mental exertion, even if safely within the parameters of orthodoxy, is regarded as dangerous and suspect. Dull conformity is the norm.

Indeed, it seems a shame that a seminary such as Theological College with the resources of Catholic University, the Dominican House of Studies, the new John Paul II Institute on the Family arriving in September, and the rest of the Washington Theological Union at its fingertips cannot maintain a healthy balance of assent to Church teaching (such as at St. Charles) and virtuous Christian living with a healthy, ambitious intellectual environment.

I don’t understand why seminaries cannot strike that important balance. One is easily tempted to think that problems stem from the very nature of a group of unmarried men living together or from the innate quality of the candidates. Maybe these are men in exile from the world; maybe all the bright, well-balanced Catholic young men become professionals and start families. But then I remember the way the Church has operated for over a thousand years. Surely, there were problems in the past, but it takes a fool not to recognize that while difficulties were the exception in the Church of the past, today they are the norm.

In fact, some good priests I know have raised the question of whether the seminary system—like the rectory system—is itself flawed beyond repair, with a view to exploring alternatives for priestly training in the Western Church.

Poaching Seminarians

Disunity in the seminaries is a major problem. It starts even before the seminarian reaches a particular seminary. There is a phenomenon occurring in recruitment of seminarians in particular dioceses that invariably will have a significant effect on the makeup of the Church in America.

It became one of the truisms of Vatican II that each diocese was a particular Church. That description, however, was not meant to signify divisions from one diocese to another but rather individual parts of a unified whole. The fact is there are often significant divisions from diocese to diocese—and this fact is making itself known in vocations.

In days of old, a young man considering the priesthood would enter the diocese where he had been raised or gone to school. Now, other considerations have to be made. One of those is the diocesan commitment to Church teaching, as seen in the vitality of its presbyterate, its support of the Pope and various other indices. Strong vocations, not surprisingly, seem to be from dioceses that have a reputation for—there’s no other word to describe it—doctrinal integrity, and from vocation directors who are not ashamed to recruit young men for the priesthood.

A case in point. A midwest diocese now has over 50 men studying for the priesthood. Over 30 of them are being placed in pastoral assignments this summer. These figures are far greater than all dioceses of the same size and most larger dioceses, in fact greater than nearly all dioceses in the country.

One explanation is that particular Church has a strong vocation director who actually singles out young men he thinks would make good priests, and keeps an eye on their training. He reluctantly welcomes good vocations from other dioceses if the students are facing difficulties that stem from either a diocese’s lack of commitment to sound Church teaching and Vatican II, or unfair treatment or persecution of the seminarian’s views in a seminary which—again, to crystalize the description—is not in union with Rome.

Critics refer to the latter as “poaching.” But it may be the only effective way for the Church as a whole to save quality vocations from atrophy. The Diocese of Portland, Oregon is still recovering from a vocation director who would interview prospective students about their views on celibacy, women’s ordination and other fad topics in the news. If the student’s views were traditional, he was rejected by the diocese for consideration.

Recently, the midwest diocese was able to snag a good catch. An outstanding candidate, a graduate of a prestigious Eastern university and a Rhodes scholar, this individual chose to leave an eastern diocese which had undergone a series of debilitating problems. The student even transferred from a reputedly liberal seminary to a conservative one.

While it’s true that diocesan divisions can be overstated, and that some conservatives in the Church are guilty of a very debilitating negativism, the fact is that an individual of such background and education doesn’t make such a move lightly or without good reason.

Goodbye Mr. Chips

The faculty members in seminaries are often drawn from priests who were ordained around the time of the Second Vatican Council. These priests, most of whom are under 50, many of whom are in their late thirties and early forties, find themselves at odds with student bodies they judge too conservative.

According to the faculty, the current crop of students was not raised in an era which had to fight for certain rights and beliefs. Faculty contend that the current students are throwbacks to an archaic era, and this scares faculty because it means that all their efforts to revolutionize the Church may have failed.

Pope John Paul II ordered an investigation into American seminaries five years ago. In preparation for the visit of the Marshall Committee (named after Burlington, Vermont Bishop John Marshall), each faculty prepared lengthy dossiers on their respective seminaries. At the North American College in Rome, a report was prepared which in the section on the student body spoke of the conservative nature of the students in relation to the faculty and the faculty’s vision of the Church in the 1960s. The faculty statement attempted to portray the students as reactionary, the product in some cases of bad homes, alcoholism, and sexual deficiencies. Fortunately, the report lost its credibility because it was premised on a vision of the Church demonstrably at odds with the Pope. The bishop of Gary, Indiana, who was on the team noted, “The report says more about the faculty than it does about the students.”

Liberal seminary faculties kept their heads in the sands of the Sixties hoping they could ride out the reign of John Paul II. They saw these last 10 years as a time to batten down the hatches and resist the cold wind from the East. But this initial reaction has now given way to frustration and a realization that despite the faculties’ best efforts to maintain the liberal and even heterodox sea walls, the students are riding a wave of theological and cultural restoration.

Nevertheless, seminarians have to live with these people for four years. Seminarian faculties can cause a great deal of pain and damage in the meantime. Unlike a normal secular university, in which a student is free to study and to live his own life, the only usual indicator of his progress there being a report card, the modern seminary student has to endure an evaluation process for ordination. Each year the faculty gather to evaluate the individual’s worthiness for orders. Here the fireworks begin.

It would be one thing if the seminary rector, faculty, and student agreed on the nature and role of a priest in the modern world or of doctrine in the lives of individual Christians. But such isn’t the case. The question is, then, how can men who have one concept of the Church—a concept that differs substantially with that of the head of the Church—evaluate other men they already prejudge to be beyond the pale? Or for that matter, how can students—who do need guidance and evaluation on the road to priestly ministry—rely on or trust those men they know to be “flaky” both in their personal lives and in the teachings they espouse?

In many houses seminarians know that they shouldn’t speak too loudly or too clearly on Humanae Vitae because that is still a very sore issue among many faculty members. It’s one of the “wink-wink” issues, as in “We have to teach that encyclical as the Church’s (wink-wink) current position.”

Seminarians who have learned to survive are equally sure that they should refrain from being wildly enthusiastic about Pope John Paul II or Cardinal Ratzinger. These men are lightning rods; far better to praise the “flexibility” of a Cardinal Bernardin or the progressive fervor of an Archbishop Weakland. It is fairly safe to be anti-abortion in seminaries, but again, seminarians know that they should avoid the impression of “zealotry.” The “seamless garment” approach, which dissolves the abortion issue in an alphabet soup of other questions such as homelessness and the death penalty, is much more prudent in today’s American Church.

Psychology Today

It’s not even the issues that are so important; it is the method, the approach. The approach in seminaries has drastically changed over the years. It has gone from what one might call the “doctrinal” approach to what one might call the “psychological” approach. The doctrinal approach is concerned with truth; the psychological approach with the process of getting to the truth. The doctrinal approach emphasizes Scripture, tradition, and papal teaching; the psychological approach emphasizes current-day problems seen through the lens of Freudianism, Jungianism, or simply pop psychobabble.

I am well aware that there is no reason one cannot be concerned both with doctrine and psychology, with truth and with process; nevertheless the mind games and mumbo-jumbo have, in my experience, reached such a point that they substitute for sound teaching and healthy priestly formation.

In fact, psychology has become a substitute in many seminaries for formation. It would be an interesting survey to visit the rooms of individual faculty members or spiritual directors and see the periodicals and books these individuals choose to read. Magazines such as Psychology Today will often be prevalent rather than Vatican II documents on priestly formation; despite whatever obeisance may be given to the Council, the texts of the documents have become often meaningless to those who, as the cliche goes, wrap themselves in the ethereal “spirit” of Vatican II. Part of that spirit, part of that code language, is that the substance of the Council is reactionary and thus meaningless in the eyes of progressive theologians.

The students have long recognized this. They know that in order to receive an academic and spiritual education, they must press forward despite the faculty. Students often turn for guidance to outside spiritual directors—whom they have to see on the sly—because of the pulp they receive in their house. They learn to play the game—e.g., never sound too conservative (i.e., too orthodox), don’t wear clerical clothing too often, even in houses that require it for classes or meals. Some still don’t abide by the Vatican request on this matter, notably Theological College at Catholic University.

Now, the faculty, to be sure, has genuine concerns about the makeup of individual students. And it should go without saying that a seminarian who espouses orthodox teaching is not per se a quality candidate for priesthood. The fact is that so-called conservative students possess qualities that could be refined or even certain aspects of personality or behavior that make them unacceptable candidates for the priesthood. The problem here, though, is that it’s more difficult for a fair case to be made against a student if ostensibly the faculty members making the evaluation are themselves not in unity with the great broad base of Church teaching or are themselves oddly peculiar.

A case in point. A letter was written by a priest to the Homiletic and Pastoral Review about a young man who had been told by officials at the North American College that he should “take some time off.” The candidate told the priest the faculty’s action stemmed from the fact that he kneeled during the consecration, received communion on the tongue, and that his post-communion meditations were too lengthy.

This was no isolated incident: all seminarians are aware that pressure exists to conform to sub-standard or heterodox notions in order to avoid ridicule or, a worse weapon, the MX missile of the modern seminary: psychological accusations.

Faculty members, who themselves are usually not trained or competent in the field or have received some baby Church degree in pastoral counseling, will sit for hours with a student telling him what his psychological troubles are. Some faculty members are able to hoodwink the more impressionable young men, especially those students who come to the seminary directly out of seminary high schools or colleges. The more sophisticated seminarians or those with outside experience see through these shams. In most cases they grin and bear it, knowing they are in no position to fight back.

One blatant case involved a faculty member at one seminary who spoke on the subject of homosexuality nearly all the time. This was also the subject of his graduate work. His obsession was well-noted by students and the source of wry amusement. But the real danger was that the faculty member was involved in rather intensely domineering (though not necessarily sexual) relationships with particularly impressionable students. The rector and other faculty were well-aware of this but failed to do anything about it.

In fact, this incident touches on another aspect of seminarian relationships with faculty. There is a blurring in these particularly parochial worlds of the distinction between friendships and teacher-student relationships. Often, faculty members are not that much older than the students. The relationship between some faculty and some students takes on big-brother characteristics. The faculty member has the power. He can be manipulative given his dual role with the student—and the results can be disastrous.

Posture Politics

One of the peculiar emphases of faculty at many American seminaries is what I call “posture politics.” This means that where you stand theologically is largely a function of when you kneel and cross yourself, and other such absurdities. For instance, an argument occurred at the North American College last year about whether to stand or kneel during the Eucharistic prayer. It began when many members of the entering class—most likely by force of habit—went to kneel at their opening Mass. Most older students at the house knew that “you’re supposed to stand here because that’s what the faculty want.” The new students hadn’t been taught to conform yet. Over the next couple months while the majority of people stood—as the faculty wished—a considerable minority of students continued to kneel. A complaint was made that this “division” was disruptive to “liturgical unity.”

The faculty solution was that everyone should stand—even though a poll indicated that if the students had their choice most of them would kneel, including the majority of those standing. This was proof to many observers that students only stood because they did not want to put up with abuse from the faculty. Moreover, the practice of standing was in direct confrontation with the liturgical rubric, with the practice of the Church in most dioceses in America, and, especially, with the practice of the diocese of Rome.

The problem is even more pronounced at many American seminaries, notably at Collegeville, Minnesota, renowned as a “liturgical playpen” because of its continuous deviations from Church teaching and practice. Feminism has literally gone berserk at Collegeville, my seminarian contacts there tell me. For instance, Collegeville won’t allow concelebration of Mass (the only exception occurring the week Bishop Marshall’s team was present to investigate) largely because if women can’t do it (so runs the feeling among the faculty) no one should be allowed to.

Collegeville offers numerous courses on “Women in Ministry,” and everywhere you hear about the “sin of sexism and patriarchialism.” What is depressing is not so much that Collegeville allows liturgical deviations but practically takes pleasure in inventing new ones. The attitude is one of superiority toward hopelessly backward East Coast seminaries which don’t take chances, aren’t on the cutting edge. During one Ash Wednesday service, the ash was passed around in little ashtrays and the congregation anointed each other. This vapidity, in too many quarters, passes for coolness and hipness.

Recently, St. John’s seminary in Plymouth, Michigan was told it had to close its doors, effective this fall. Seminarians who have gone through St. John’s fault former rector Kenneth Untener, now Bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, for the proliferation of unhealthy practices in the seminary. The most pointless and destructive practice was routine dating on the part of not just first year seminarians but deacons preparing for ordination.

Father Thomas Rieden, principal of Lumen Christi High School in Jackson, Michigan, has counseled women who dated deacons at St. John’s. The seminarians were told by their superiors to “experiment” with women and see if they still felt like going through with ordination, he said. And the young women reported some deacons “promised to continue their relationship,” despite the impossibility of marriage, even after ordination. Noting that the purpose of dating is to find a suitable mate, Father Rieden asks, “Since seminarians are on the path to a celibate life, how can such activities be reconciled?”

On the surface some of this seems petty, almost an embarrassment to the millions of lay people these students will serve—faithful people whose worries include sick children, mortgage payments, etc. But at the same time anyone familiar with ecclesiastical politics knows that the issue is not really about posture or liturgy. The issue is theology. The argument over kneeling, for instance, was a radar blip shading a deep theological and ecclesiastical division in the Church. The argument is over an entire vision of the Catholic Church in America.

Intellectual Meltdown

Questions such as “kneeling” or using “sexist language” in the scripture are important as indices of the intellectual shallowness and meltdown that is the norm in American seminaries. In other words, the meager intellectual and spiritual seriousness tends to cause the rising of trivial pursuits to the surface. It is more important to have the “correct” view on whether to wear a cassock than to think through the deeper ramifications of what it means to be another Christ, or to examine the real implications of Christ’s incarnation and redemption.

The enforcement of the new, progressive orthodoxy (not the orthodoxy of John Paul by any means) is a substantial obstacle to learning. Individual students are often so scared of being labeled one thing or another that substantial conversations almost never occur. Political and gossipy talk—the chatter of old maids—takes hold. The irony is that this is the last sort of attitude and behavior the Church needs in the real world.

The Catholic faithful are yearning for substance, especially in spirituality. But seminarians have spent so much of their training period avoiding not only substantial discussions of spirituality or theology but also the technique and skills needed to pull it off—such as debating skills—that they are not adequately prepared to be anything more than mushy “facilitators,” “conciliators,” and the stuff of other feel-good rhetoric.

The evangelization of the Church in America will fall in large part to these young men. This evangelization, if it is to actually occur in any substantial way, must be based on a knowledge of theology and the scriptures, on a deep intellectual and lived spirituality, and on an ability to translate Christian doctrine into Christian living.

But most seminaries today foster an atmosphere that tends to evoke weakness, Anti-intellectualism, and frankly, an anti-masculine personality as well. Many seminarians learn that the way to avoid difficulties is to acquire a chameleon personality: that is, people begin to admire individuals who have no public opinion on anything, especially theology or sexual ethics. The last thing a seminarian wants to be called is “strident.” The mistake here is that stridency can be a good or bad thing depending on circumstances (of course); the accusation of stridency, however, has become code language for doctrinal soundness. “Tom, I think you should be more open” means: Tom better shut up quickly or he’ll have to see the rector.

I have a friend who is very pleased because he had two “flawless” evaluations in a two year period. Yet, he would never tell a faculty member what he really thought. That is not the purpose of the seminary. In fact, history suggests that the saints of the Church in the next generation—as well as the effective bishops and priests—will more likely be the students of this generation who actually confronted the conformist, chameleon nature of the contemporary seminary. Mother Theresa, for instance, minces no words. Liberal faculty realize this only after they invite her to speak. It is amusing, but also sad, to think of John Henry Newman or Francis of Assisi going through a seminary evaluation by some of the faculty members in seminaries today. They would doubtless be considered a serious threat to faculty equilibrium.

It’s common knowledge that many individuals in the Church have often suffered an inferiority complex vis-a-vis professionals or intellectuals in the secular world. In seminaries which labor under the current anti-intellectual atmosphere, this complex has been heightened by the fact that more seminarians are coming from non-Church backgrounds, even professional careers, and good quality schools, including Ivy League universities and Rhodes scholarships. Seminary students with such top-notch secular backgrounds can find themselves increasingly under scrutiny and attack by seminary officials who exude deep inferiority complexes about the student’s secular backgrounds.

One notorious example is the case of a young man who may have the most prestigious and well-rounded background of any candidate in the country. His entire background was outside the parochial orbit of the Church until he entered the seminary. He was treated abusively and patronizingly by officials at one seminary, where the staff psychologist accused him of being an “overachiever” and used other loaded psychological characterizations to try to block his vocation. Fortunately, his bishop moved him to another seminary where both his academic work and staff evaluation have been excellent. But he could have been a lost cause.

Other seminarians don’t always fare as well. Some are asked to leave or take time off, again for putative psychological reasons that mask the true motives of the seminary staff. Other students choose to remove themselves voluntarily because they sense that the rector or staff of their seminary, if given half a chance, will attempt to block an ordination without due cause or process. In yet another case at one seminary, a student who had gone to a prestigious eastern university and was on a lucrative career path, was considered suspect by the staff psychologist and rector because the individual had given up that career. “Why would you give up such a good job?” he was asked.

Whereas faculty will indulge in the rhetoric of flexibility and openness, these are two of the last qualities seminary staff members show when some seminarians choose to practice actual diversity. Such diversity can include receiving the Eucharist on the tongue, kneeling during the consecration, or supporting Humanae Vitae.

It’s difficult to calculate how many seminarians leave on their own because of their frustration or, worse, how many vocations are never even attempted because promising young men intuit the rampant disunity in seminaries and dioceses.

One well-known prelate in a large metropolitan archdiocese actually cautions individuals against following their vocations. When one potential vocation was discussed, a young prolific writer with a number of books to his credit, one observer said that in another era the young man would have been a priest. The prelate snapped, “That’s just it: it’s another era.”

Church Diplomats

All this adds up to one question: what is the effect of the modern seminary on the Church in America? The answer is ambiguous because not enough time has elapsed to weigh the impact. But it is certainly true that the current atmosphere in many seminaries promotes a special sort of ecclesiastical diplomacy—but diplomacy, while certainly a virtue, will never be a substitute for doctrinal or intellectual substance, true charity and compassion, and the requisite skills required for evangelization and proselytizing.

Yes, proselytizing. That’s become a bad word in most seminary programs in the United States and may foreshadow a time when those segments of the Church in Africa or behind the Iron Curtain, parts of the Church that are “militant” in their practice and defense of the faith, may find themselves being called to the New World to re-catechize it five hundred years after the first missionaries came to American shores.

What afflicts the Church outside the seminary is what afflicts it inside the seminary. Disunity doesn’t begin there necessarily. It begins first in the hearts of men. And that’s why ultimately the problems in seminaries are spiritual problems. In fact, there is a spiritual cancer or disease at the root of much of this. I’ve described only some of the symptoms.

But it’s important to remember that ours is an incarnational Church. And the human problems remain and beg for solutions. The seminaries as they are today seem to have outlived their purpose or worse yet not fulfilled their purpose. This may sound like the conclusion of a progressive theologian. But if the Church is interested in spiritual depth, academic rigor, and emotionally well-balanced individuals, the seminary system in the United States needs an overhaul.


  • Francis Sullivan

    At the time this article was written, Francis Sullivan was studying for the priesthood at a seminary on the East Coast. He wouldn't let Crisis publish his real name because "i'm not that dumb."

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