Seminaries get it right

Time flies. As everyone has, Catholics alive in the 1970s forget. Younger American Catholics obviously have no memory whatsoever of those turbulent days in the Church. For anyone who remembers the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, one fact stands quite boldly in their recollections: the wholesale resignation of priests from the active priesthood.

The numbers were staggering. A bishop, recently retired, told me he checked the files in his own diocese. In one decade, 30 percent of the priests resigned.

Pope Paul VI, who served the Church at the time, took this approach: Realizing that no one could force, or want, a priest to remain in the priesthood against his will, the pope decided to use the authority provided him by Church law to dispense priests who asked to leave active priestly service while remaining good Catholics.

The pope did require, however, that applicants give their reasons. Explanations for seeking dispensations are not designed to be an ecclesiastical third degree or a way to heighten stacks of documents on desks in Rome. Rather, it all partly serves to give papal offices a good idea of what is happening in the Catholic world and of what Catholics think.

Many thousands of applications for dispensation from priestly obligations stated that celibacy was the issue. Furthermore, very many said that seminary formation had not prepared them at all to live adult lives without being married.

This complaint rang true when I heard it. Priestly celibacy was a given in my days in the seminary. It rarely if ever was mentioned. To put everything in context, I studied a generation or more after the Second World War, but the war had left deep impressions on the culture. Our parents and professors had made numerous, severe sacrifices, many involving marriage if they were spouses. In the war years, millions made the best of being married celibates, living with loneliness and without intimacy.

Church authorities in Rome and in this country knew something had to be done lest future young men would be ordained and then discover that they had no inkling of what celibacy meant.

So seminaries began to engage professional psychological personnel not to treat seminarians for emotional illnesses — indeed few seminaries, if any, even admitted students diagnosed with emotional problems — but instead to assist students in looking deeply into their own minds and hearts to decide if they could freely and knowingly accept celibacy.

This acceptance of professional psychology and psychiatry in itself represented something new. For many years, mental health care had a bad name in Catholic circles. The pioneer, Austrian physician Sigmund Freud, was not a believer. Catholic scholars often said the practice of mental health diagnosis and treatment inspired by Freud denied altogether the basic Christian assumption of free will. In other words, instincts force a person into this or that action, rather than assuming that by voluntarily sinning a person chooses to reject God.

Everything has changed. American seminaries’ programs now routinely involve professional psychologists and psychiatrists, and it has been so for many years — well before the clergy sex abuse scandal erupted more than 10 years ago.

Probably for this reason, along with other new, more effective policies in seminaries, almost never does a report of a priest’s sexual abuse of a youth today involve a priest trained in the last 20 or 30 years, nor do that many priests more recently in seminaries resign from active priestly ministry.

Bottom line: Modern seminary formation is working.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.