The Catholic Church needs to overhaul its seminaries


Although clergy sexual abuse scandals aren’t new, the ones that have rocked the Catholic Church this summer revolved around a group seldom focused on before: seminarians.

The sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians, and the response of seminary leaders, have been at the center of the case of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose removal from ministry in June began months of focus on abuse.

Many Catholics share a heightened, even unprecedented, level of concern for the well-being of Catholic seminarians.

They rightly wonder, as well, whether our seminaries can not only screen out potential sexual predators, but also rise to the challenge of preparing for life and ministry men who are emotionally mature, and psychologically and sexually healthy.

This requires training for contemporary American society.

The convergence of these concerns invites a long-needed conversation about reform in American seminaries.

Many of us who have labored in seminary formation for years consider 2018 a watershed moment, in fact, to insist on long-overdue adjustments and enhancements to seminary training.

In retrospect, many of our institutions have too often failed miserably in preparing men for ministry, and many still fall far short of the goal of forming happy, healthy, holy priests.

The church urgently needs new approaches to preparing men for priestly ministry given today’s sexualized, secularized culture and the personal challenges facing seminarians.

Young men who feel called to priesthood, although well intentioned, often have enormous gaps in their prior formation and upbringing.

Many lack interpersonal communication skills.

Many need basic formation in Catholic teaching. Not infrequently, they need counseling to discover and deal with trauma: “father wounds,” bullying, parental divorce, porn addiction and even sexual abuse. Added to that, they must acquire qualities and pastoral skills before ordination.

Bishops, rectors and seminary formation personnel can too easily believe that the way we’re doing formation today is just fine. But if we’re honest, we know that in many cases it’s not.

Of the approximately 450 men ordained to the Catholic priesthood every year, a small percentage will abandon the ministry within the first few years.

Many others will struggle mightily with challenges for which their seminary formation failed to prepare them.

Typically, our seminaries work like this: Upon a chassis of a heavily academic four-year program, we superimpose elements of human, spiritual and pastoral preparation for ministry.

In addition, seminary life too often unfolds in the confines of old, cavernous, institutional buildings.

Such parameters easily foster isolation, and work at cross purposes to an experience of genuine fraternity and the kind of deep-down formation our men require.

This model of seminary is today highly inadequate, and it’s time for bishops to think far outside such boxes.

So what needs to change? Continue reading

  • Rev. Thomas Berg is professor of moral theology, vice rector and director of admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. He is the author of “Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics.”
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