Message From Rome: Maryknoll Seminary to Close This Fall

In a powerful message to the Maryknoll group headquartered in Ossining, New York, the Vatican has pressured the Maryknoll seminary to close down because it ignores basic curricular requirements and subordinates Catholicism to leftist political ideology. “Maryknoll was doing an excellent job training Marxists, but a terrible job training priests,” according to a source close to the Vatican investigation of Maryknoll.

Starting this fall, the 77 year old order of missionary priests, whose official name is the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, will fold its three-year academic component of its six-year course in priestly training. Seminarians now enrolled in theology at the Ossining seminary will be sent to the Catholic Theological Union, part of an interdenominational association.

Richard Albertine, director of formation education at Maryknoll, admits the closing of the seminary, but denies that it is a response to pressure from the Vatican. Albertine says that Maryknoll has been “very pleased” with Church assessments of its seminary, and that “we have taken steps to remedy criticisms which have arisen.” Further, he argues, many of these criticisms have come from Maryknollers themselves.

The reason Maryknoll gives for the Ossining shutdown is economic: this year’s ordination class contains only five men. Even five new priests means a good year for the Maryknoll of the 1980s, when graduating classes of two, three or four priests a year have been common. But sources both within Maryknoll and close to the Vatican say that low enrollment is only a symptom of deeper problems within Maryknoll. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Maryknoll classes routinely graduated 50 to 60 seminarians a year into the priesthood. Compare that with 40 candidates at all levels at

Maryknoll now, plus a handful from a Capuchin order in nearby Garrison, New York. The Capuchins, who used to train at Maryknoll, will now commute to Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

“The problem with Maryknoll is that it has totally lost its sense of priestly purpose,” says a priest close to Cardinal O’Connor, who delivered the Vatican message to Maryknoll. “Maryknoll had become totally secular. Of course its enrollments were down: Who wants to attend a seminary where people aren’t interested in any transcendent notion of God?”

An older priest within Maryknoll, who has grown dissatisfied with what the group has now become, admits that Maryknoll is just looking for what he calls a “face saving excuse” for the embarrassing verdict from Rome. “Maryknoll raises all its money from little old ladies who think we are doing the Lord’s work,” the Maryknoll priest says. “They don’t realize what is happening here. But this comes at a terrible time. Everybody knows that the Pope is a Catholic. If Rome tells us to close shop, and that gets out, it’s going to cause a tremendous stir. It could really hurt fundraising. That’s why everyone at the top here is trying to do a little revisionism, to come up with an explanation that diminishes the bad publicity.”

Maryknoll’s embarrassing shutdown didn’t come about overnight; it was the result of an ongoing investigation into the character of American seminaries. For several years now, Bishop John Marshall of Burlington, Vermont, has been investigating the goings-on at so-called “free standing” seminaries at the request of the Pope. On October 5, 1986, Cardinal Baum issued a report which ostensibly found no serious problem with the seminaries, but delicately raised problems that needed to be addressed.

A Washington, D.C. source familiar with the Marshall investigation says, “You had to read between the lines to understand what was going on in the Baum letter. What Baum listed as ‘areas for further improvement’ were, in fact, festering problems, catastrophes, that called for urgent and immediate attention. I don’t know why Rome is always so equivocal and euphemistic in its public documents. But you can be sure that there was a second, more candid report that reached the eyes of the Pope. That is what lies behind the Maryknoll action, and action soon to be taken elsewhere.”

Since 1982 five-member committees under Bishop Marshall’s direction have toured various seminaries, examining whether their curriculum is consonant with church teaching and the requirements clearly spelled out in canon law. “Of all the seminaries,” says a priest who participated in these tours, “Maryknoll was the absolute worst. You’re going to see changes happening at other places as a result of what we found. But with Maryknoll the problems were so drastic that we had to raise the question of whether reform was even possible.” Nevertheless, sources say, the Vatican leniently gave Maryknoll a year to clean up its act. Maryknoll showed no interest, so when the term expired Cardinal Baum decided that enough was enough. “It’s funny how Rome has this reputation for draconian verdicts,” says a monsignor involved in the seminary investigation. “But in fact, Rome bends over backwards to allow people to shape up. Rome moves incredibly slowly, even indecisively. Even now, if Maryknoll begged for an extension and promised to change its ways I bet they would be let off.”

How exactly are seminaries like Maryknoll evaluated? Interviews with clergy who take part in these “visitations,” as they are politely called, yield a pretty good picture. First, the Marshall group looks to see that basic academic requirements are fulfilled. For example, the 1983 Code of Canon Law requires two years of philosophy, followed by four years of theology. “The model of theology is faith seeking understanding,” explains William May, professor of moral theology at Catholic University. “Philosophy is good for that.” Right now Maryknoll seminarians take only three years of theology and no philosophy. Maryknoll has a six year program, like other seminaries, but the first year is spent on “orientation” and the fourth and fifth on politicized missions overseas.

According to the Reverend Gerard McCrane, vice president of Maryknoll’s theology school, “students are expected to have their philosophy before they come here.” Maryknoll has never taught philosophy at its seminary and never will, he says. Of course, effective September, it won’t have a seminary at which to teach philosophy or anything else.

A second accusation against Maryknoll is said by some to be the fact that its seminarians live in close proximity to a co-ed missioner’s college. The Maryknoll priest says he doesn’t know of cases of sexual relations, “but the men and women dined together and there was little distinction made between the missioners and seminarians by the residents.” Although unlikely, the Vatican may have concluded that this was poor preparation for life in a celibate clergy.

“I’m familiar with that accusation,” says McCrane, who points out that seminarians have their own wing and eat with the missioners only on Sundays. “It wasn’t a problem for the Vatican visitors once they saw how it really was,” he insists.

But the real problem with Maryknoll, one only hinted at by these specific charges, is that its seminary falls radically short of the preparation for the priesthood that this Pope and his top aides regard as basic and minimal. “Church teaching is not suggestive, it’s normative,” according to a participant in the Maryknoll review. The Marshall group found, and Rome concurred, that Maryknoll failed on a number of counts, he said. In particular:

  • Maryknoll always opted for the leftist course in both theology and politics.
  • The traditional purpose of Maryknoll, to teach the faith evangelically, has become subordinated to Marxist polemics.
  • Basic requirements in theological and liturgical formulation are ignored or downplayed.
  • The “theology of the priesthood,” which includes a theological understanding of what a priest should be (including why priests should be male), is virtually ignored.
  • Maryknoll overdoses on liberation theology, with the result that moral theology suffers.
  • Mary knoll has little or no sense of the transcendent, reducing Catholicism to a this-worldly crusade to improve the lot of the poor by mobilizing hatred against the rich.

“There are a lot of little things that give Maryknoll away,” a priest close to Bishop Marshall says. “For example, look at the list of speakers invited there. Do they talk about Christ, or do they talk about Castro?” This was intended as a rhetorical question.

“Another thing: look at personal and community life at the seminary. If you want to say the rosary, do people think you’re psychologically screwed up? You may think I’m joking, but I have found that to be the case at a number of places.”

Further: “Is Mass required or recommended? How is sexual ethics taught? These are very revealing indices, and we have learned to be alert to them. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out what’s really going on at a place, even if we’re there only a few days or a week.” As if to confirm the priest’s statement, Maryknoll has just sent out a mailing advertising a parade of church leftists—with no critics or counterweights—to speak at a major conference on liberation theology. “Marxism has become the true orthodoxy at Maryknoll,” says the Maryknoll priest with a hint of deep sadness, and fatigue.

With the closing of the Maryknoll seminary, a chapter in American church history may be coming to an end. Very few people outside the inner circle of the church know of this situation as yet, but those who do are generally satisfied. “Among orthodox Catholics, among those who love the church, you aren’t going to see a lot of tears over this,” remarks a seminary professor in New York. “You may have a memorial Mass in Managua.”


  • Charlotte Low

    At the time this article was published, Charlotte Low was a senior editor of Insight magazine.

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