Religion Today

By Rachel Zoll
Associated Press, carried in Myrtle Beach Sun [United States]
September 29, 2005

On the recruitment poster, a young Roman Catholic priest in full cassock stands before a black backdrop gripping a cross in one hand and a rosary in the other. A halo of light surrounds him, but his expression is far from angelic. He stares grimly at the ground, his eyes obscured by dark sunglasses.

The poster is a takeoff on ads for the movie "The Matrix" and was developed by a youth minister in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to send a message about enrolling in seminary: Priests, like the Keanu Reeves character in the film, fight for good in a tough world.

Yet, over the last three years of the clergy sex abuse crisis, priests have come to be identified by some in the public with the dark side of human behavior. U.S. bishops have responded by transforming their child protection policies and removing accused clergy from church work.

Now what church leaders hope is another key step in their long march toward healing is getting underway: Vatican-directed evaluators have started visiting all 229 American seminaries, looking for lapses in teaching about celibacy that contributed to the scandal.

Already the effort has caused a stir in the church with revelations that the document from the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education directing evaluators calls on them to look for "evidence of homosexuality" in seminaries. Meanwhile, the same Vatican office is expected to soon release a document signaling that gays are not welcome in seminaries.

That's triggered a heated debate over whether celibate, gay priests can or should serve the church and created more controversy at a time when the seminary visits are highlighting a question that has puzzled Catholic researchers for decades: How can the Church revive what looks like a dying profession?

"I'm continually amazed in these times when you're faced with the situation of the church in the United States and the problems the church has encountered in the last few years, that there are young men who are willing to step forward and respond to the Lord's call," said Monsignor Robert Coleman, rector of the Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. "God-willing, more will continue to respond to the call."

The statistics are sobering: Since 1965, the number of annual ordinations has dropped by more than half to 454 this year. Enrollment in graduate-level seminaries has dropped from 8,325 to 3,308 in the same period. Thousands more parishes are without a resident priest and the average age of Catholic clergy is climbing.

The priesthood is also experiencing what researchers call an orthodoxy gap. Younger priests tend to be more traditional, viewing themselves as higher in holiness than the laity and as upholders of the faith, rather than as servants working to benefit broader society, according to Dean Hoge of the Catholic University of America, who has studied priests for three decades.

This same gulf exists in some seminaries between liberal-leaning faculty and their conservative students. Among the questions evaluators will ask during their seminary visits is whether faculty members accept Catholic teaching and whether the school has a process for removing those who don't.

"There is the concern that in some seminaries and houses of formation that a certain laxity about sexual morality has distorted the perspective of would be priests, who get the impression that the church is not entirely serious about its moral theology," said the Rev. Richard Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of the conservative journal First Things.

Yet, many Catholics say that complaint is outdated.

Since clergy abuse cases first gained national attention in the 1980s, seminaries have reinvigorated their celibacy training programs, these thinkers said. Sister Katarina Schuth of Minnesota's University of St. Thomas, who has studied seminaries for more than two decades, said that when the scandal erupted again in 2002, she asked rectors to send her descriptions of their programs and received "stacks of material" indicating "very thorough teaching all around."

"My sense is that all seminaries really have worked on further development for celibacy formation, and I think the whole clergy sexual abuse experience has pushed this," said the Rev. Thomas Krenik, who taught for 10 years in St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota and wrote the guidebook "Formation for Priestly Celibacy."

The crisis also refocused attention on gay priests, since a study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found most abuse victims since 1950 were adolescent boys. Experts on sex offenders said homosexuals are no more likely than heterosexuals to molest young people, but that did not stifle questions about homosexual seminarians. Some Catholic researchers said "gay subcultures" in seminaries were alienating heterosexuals, prompting them to drop out.

In a 2001 priest survey Hoge and another researcher conducted, 15 percent of respondents said there was "clearly" a gay subculture in the seminaries they attended, while 26 percent answered that such a subculture "probably" existed in the schools. Estimates of the number of gays in seminaries and the priesthood range from 25 percent to 50 percent.

It is unclear what action if any the Vatican will take after evaluators finish their inspections over the next year. But gay priests say it is naive to think that seminaries will suddenly fill up if homosexuals are banished. Hoge has reached a similar conclusion. He said his research has found that the "single biggest deterrent" to recruitment is mandatory celibacy.

"If celibacy were optional for diocesan priests, there would be an estimated fourfold increase in seminarians," he told a Boston College conference on the priesthood this past June, "and the priest shortage would be over."


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