Quality of priestly candidates questioned - Catholic Courier

Quality of priestly candidates questioned

In his “Beliefs” column in The New York Times (9/24/05), Peter Steinfels takes a broader look at the current Vatican-run investigation of U.S. seminaries. While the focus of almost every commentary has been on the issue of homosexuality, Steinfels is also concerned with the quality of education that future priests receive and the profiles of candidates, gay and heterosexual alike, that seminaries attract and admit.

He points out that the official Vatican guidelines for the teams of “apostolic visitors” consist of 96 questions to be posed to faculty, seminarians and some alumni. “The thrust of these questions,” Steinfels notes, “is to assure that future priests are fully prepared to live celibate lives, as well as morally disciplined and prayerful ones, and that they are thoroughly committed to church teachings, especially as laid out in recent official documents from the pope and Vatican offices.”

However, what properly concerns Peter Steinfels — and should be a matter of concern for all Catholics — is that there are no explicit questions about the seminarians’ “capacities for initiative, creativity or imagination and consultative leadership … .”

“There is,” he points out, “no explicit question about concern for social justice … . By comparison, there are numerous questions about recitation of the rosary, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, devotion to Mary and the saints and many other ‘exercises of piety’.”

There is a single question whether seminarians are being taught “a proper understanding of the role of women in ecclesial life” and another on “the proper models of clergy-lay cooperation.” But the very next question “makes clear that what is ‘proper’ is to be found in statements by Pope John Paul II and his Vatican officials.”

Of the 96 questions, Steinfels continues, only two address the intellectual potential of future priests. “This minimal attention to intellectual capacity is noteworthy in view of the opinions of faculty teams from 20 Catholic seminaries who met yearly from 1995 to 2001… .

“Because solid statistics are not available — interesting in itself — these faculty teams could only pool their opinions on how qualified current seminarians were intellectually.” Their findings are reported in Educating Leaders for Ministry by Victor Klimoski, Kevin O’Neil and Katarina Schuth (Liturgical Press, 2005).

The authors of this study estimate that only 10 percent of seminarians are “highly qualified” for their educational work. Just over half are “adequately qualified.” One-third to 40 percent suffer from poor educational backgrounds, learning disabilities, lack of facility with English or unfamiliarity with American culture (a reflection of the fact that increasing numbers of seminarians are from other countries) and atrophied study skills (in the case of another growing number of older seminarians). The authors characterize such deficiencies, with obvious understatement, as “special challenges for faculty.”

But even the good news about the 10 percent of “highly qualified” seminarians is cancelled out by another finding that “regardless of native abilities and educational experiences,” many students resist “the learning enterprise” because it threatens their “preconceived ideas about theology.” Steinfels asks (tongue-in-cheek?) why this situation is not addressed in the Vatican guidelines.

What kind of situation would society face, he asks, if only 10 percent of those studying for medical, law or engineering degrees were intellectually “highly qualified”? Or that 40 percent of such candidates labored under significant learning disabilities that pose “special challenges for faculty”? Or that many students displayed an “unwillingness … to engage in the learning enterprise” that they were undergoing?

Only one question in the Vatican guidelines concerns the evangelization of culture, so important to the late pope. Steinfels asks if today’s seminarians follow current events, read serious fiction, show an appreciation for the arts or display an interest in contemporary science. He notes that the one question about culture is followed by a defensive question about the combatting of the evils of modern culture — its subjectivism and moral relativism.

Peter Steinfels wonders what all this means for future generations of Catholic priests. And that is where he concludes his column — whether for reasons of space, or perhaps to make a rhetorical point.

I should like to carry that point one step further. It was not an oversight that certain types of questions are missing from the guidelines. They are missing because they are not deemed important. On the contrary, candidates who are intellectually curious, independent-minded and open to modern culture are not completely welcome in the priesthood because they cannot be trusted to be absolutely and uncritically loyal to every Vatican decree.

The preferred candidate excels at private devotion but displays less interest and fewer skills in collaborative ministry, especially with women. And his “preconceived ideas about theology” are considered a perfect fit for the priesthood.

The anti-gay element is only part of the problem.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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