The long-awaited apostolic visitation of American seminaries is now underway, and that’s very good news. It’s no secret that priestly formation in the United States suffered in the 1960s and 1970s, when fidelity to authentic Catholicism often took a backseat to the social and theological fads of the age.
While things are clearly better now, there’s still much work to be done. Despite the fascinations of the secular media, this will involve more than just dealing with homosexuality in the seminaries. The fact is, most seminaries have rid themselves of the pervasive gay subculture that dominated the institutions a couple decades ago. There are exceptions, however, and the visitations should be able to identify and address those.
For our day, the more urgent crisis in American seminaries is that of fidelity to the historic Faith. Sexual exploration is on the wane; dissent is not. While the new seminarians are themselves overwhelmingly orthodox, too many of their professors still cling to the free-wheeling theology of Revs. Richard McBrien and Charles Curran. They may not ultimately convert the strong-willed young men they teach, but they do waste their charges’ time. The years spent in seminary are vital—not just doctrinally and morally, but also pastorally and personally. The period of formation is intended to shape those very things: to take a man and make him new. Classes, accountability groups, and spiritual directors who fail to do that fail their entire purpose. There is no place for them any longer.
Of course, the old guard won’t give up without a fight. Already they’re launching preemptive attacks in the media, calling the visitation a “witch-hunt” or an “inquisition,” or some equally frightening variation on the theme.
But what’s wrong with a good inquisition now and then? While critics hope to tarnish the seminary investigation with images of torture chambers and forced confessions, no sober observer can take such over-the-top buffoonery seriously. Every successful group or organization initiates a regular self-evaluation; that’s one of the main reasons why they’re successful. Leave it to the sluggardly middle management to complain about it.
It’s a sweet irony that so many of those stomping their feet at the apostolic visitation are the same ones who tirelessly (tiresomely?) call for Church accountability. Well, here it is, folks: We’ve all witnessed the tragic fruit of ill-formed priests, so the Church is holding the seminaries accountable.
Of course, that’s not the kind of accountability dissenters are looking for. Take James Carroll, for example. In his October 3, 2005, Boston Globe column, “A Catholic Moment of Truth,” he writes:
With boards of Vatican-appointed investigators poised to swoop down on American schools in which new priests are trained, interrogations of candidates and loyalty tests for teachers already betray a nostalgia for the bygone era of thought-control and snitching…. Instead of asking hard questions about the root causes of the priestly sex abuse scandal—facing problems of the clerical culture itself, including celibacy, authoritarianism, discrimination against women, the immaturity of church teachings on sexuality—Rome is preparing to scapegoat homosexuals.
Of course! Clericalism, mandatory celibacy, the impossibility of women’s ordination, and prohibitions against contraception and homosexual acts—that’s why those priests abused children.
There’s truth in the worn saying: When all you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail. Unfortunately, Mr. Carroll’s hammer of dissent has been part of the problem all along.