Thomas Reese: The Catholic Church’s US Seminaries Need Reform

New priests lie facedown on the floor during an ordination ceremony presided over by Pope Francis, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, on April 22, 2018. (Tony Gentile/Pool Photo via AP)

No one has a greater impact on a Catholic parish than its pastor, which is why diocesan seminaries are key to the future of the church in America. Diocesan seminaries evaluate and then form those men who want to be parish priests. Sadly, in recent decades, too many of the priests coming out of these seminaries have been trained to be authoritarians with few pastoral skills.

Some of them come to seminary with an authoritarian mindset, but faculty at today’s seminaries often do little to change that. Some faculty members even foster it, teaching their students that they have all the answers and that their job is to kick the laity into shape. In these cases, seminarians are not taught to listen, to delegate, to work with committees or to empower the laity, especially women.

This is not true of all seminaries and seminarians. Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary has improved under the leadership of Cardinal Blase Cupich. Some are mixed bags. Others are disaster areas.

In the worst programs, students are told not to ask questions but to consult “The Catechism of the Catholic Church,” the book-length presentation of the teachings of the church prepared under the papacy of John Paul II. The documents of the Second Vatican Council are either downplayed or interpreted through a conservative lens. In too many places by too many faculty, moral theology is presented in a legalistic framework in which everything is black or white.

This has been going on in American seminaries since at least the mid-1990s, after conservative bishops had consolidated their control of seminaries. The result is that many parishioners are unhappywith their pastors.

Photo courtesy of Gregory Dean via

Seminaries were one of the great reforms that came out of the Council of Trent, the long meeting of the church in the mid-1500s spurred by the Protestant Reformation. Until that time, many clergymen were ignorant and sometimes even illiterate. Trent insisted that the clergy be educated and urged bishops to set up seminaries to prepare men for the priesthood.

Seminaries also were a way of segregating seminarians from the world in order to protect and foster their vocations. Seminaries were often built in the countryside, where the seminarians could be easily protected from temptation. If they don’t interact with women, they will not fall in love and leave.

Today, American seminaries are usually in cities and connected to universities, but the mentality of keeping seminarians separate remains. Their classes are often separate from other students.

In the worse cases, the local bishop intentionally staffs the seminary with graduates from the most right-wing schools. Under the papacy of John Paul II, seminary professors were screened to remove theologians who questioned church teaching, especially in the area of birth control, sexual ethics or ministry.

In the past 20 years, priests who were nostalgic about the pre-Vatican II church and liturgy were welcomed on seminary faculties.

It is tempting to suggest blowing up the seminaries, hiring lay professors and integrating their students into Catholic universities. If seminarians cannot function on a university campus, they will not be able to function in a parish.

If that is all it took, reforming our seminaries would be easy.

In fact, the number of lay people on seminary faculties has increased in recent years, but their presence has not necessarily helped, since bishops have been able to find conservative laity, both men and women, to support their traditionalist agenda.

And who would choose the universities to which seminaries move? The same bishops who are controlling seminaries today.

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Source: Religion News Service