For many years now liberal and conservative Catholics have debated the quality of U.S. seminary education, and by extension the quality of the men who have been called to serve them as future priests.

Now, a 20-page summary of a recent Vatican-requested study of 229 college and theology-level seminaries gives a thorough appraisal of both the strengths and weaknesses of the seminary system today, concluding that they are, "in general, healthy."(See story, Page 5.)

It found that since the last major study of U.S. seminaries in the 1980s, there was more stability and many improvements on the campuses. The doctrine of the priesthood was well taught in the majority of diocesan seminaries, it said, and the candidates are generally "full of zeal, pious and faithful to prayer." Moral problems such as homosexual behavior were less in evidence.

Areas of concern include intellectual formation, particularly in the area of moral theology, and seminaries were encouraged to take certain steps to improve spiritual and human formation as well.

Perhaps most striking in the letter was the distinction it made between diocesan seminaries -- generally supervised more closely by bishops -- and houses of formation for religious orders, which were more likely to be chided for laxness and even "widespread" dissent from Church teaching.

The study certainly implies that Rome, the bishops and the religious orders have some big challenges in terms of evaluating their service to the broader Church and improving their priestly formation.

While the report confirms that in most cases seminary institutions are getting on the right track,the some larger problems remain significant.

First, the numbers and quality of candidates is a concern asthe priestly ranks shrink. The study exhorted bishops to be selective in choosing candidates, worrying that the falling number of applicants puts pressure on seminaries to lower standards and accept "obviously unsuitable candidates."

Even the best candidates these days, however, often need remedial education in the faith because of poor catechesis, and the difficulty in finding and retaining good priestly educators is a growing problem. Fewer priests mean fewer qualified and available teachers, which in turn affects seminary formation.

Priestly formation is critical in terms of the commitment to spiritual and ascetic practices and an acceptance of celibate chastity. At the same time, young priests must be well formed to serve a Catholic laity that is much more shaped by the individualist ethos of secular society. Adult faith formation and pastoral ministry must be critical priorities for every pastor, and these priorities are more likely to be effectively addressed if a generous and mature spirit of servant leadership is cultivated early on.

Now that this study has been concluded, we encourage the bishops and the Vatican to conduct a study of young priests after they have been ordained. Questions have been raised about the numbers who walk away from the priesthood in those critical first seven years, including the quality and quantity of mentoring and the risk of burn out from isolation and the premature burdening of young priests with huge pastoral responsibilities.

There are no easy answers here, but what we do know is that all Catholics -- bishops, priests and laity -- must be part of any solution to better encourage, form and sustain vocations.