A Self-Imposed Shortage
The alleged “crisis” in priestly vocations cannot be separated from persistent complaints about the plight of the orthodox seminarian
One enduring subject in the landscape of Catholic America is popularly known as the “vocations crisis.” Many will be familiar with this tale: Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church in the United States has seen fewer and fewer young men devoting themselves to the sacrificial life of the priesthood. Various reasons are given: materialism, practical and philosophical atheism, skepticism, subjectivism, individualism, hedonism, social injustice; parents who don’t want their children to be priests; and the “unrealistic expectation” of lifelong celibacy.
While many of these factors have surely contributed to the dwindling number of Catholic priests in our now overwhelmingly secular society, these explanations may obscure the heart of the alleged vocations crisis. Parents, society, celibacy, and materialism are inconclusive explanations for the declining number of priestly vocations.
In 1995 Archbishop Elden Curtiss—a former seminary rector and vocations director—penned an editorial for Omaha’s diocesan newspaper, offering a refreshingly candid look at the vocations crisis:
It seems to me that the vocation “crisis” is precipitated and continued by people who want to change the Church’s agenda, by people who do not support orthodox candidates loyal to the magisterial teaching of the Pope and bishops, and by people who actually discourage viable candidates from seeking priesthood and vowed religious life as the Church defines these ministries.
Archbishop Curtiss made a second, equally interesting observation in his editorial:
I am personally aware of certain vocations directors, vocations teams, and evaluation boards who turn away candidates who do not support the possibility of ordaining women or who defend the Church’s teaching about artificial birth control, or who exhibit a strong piety toward certain devotions, such as the rosary.
If there is a determined effort to discourage these sorts of candidates from the priesthood, the shortage of priests that results is caused not by a lack of vocations but by deliberate attitudes and policies which effectively thwart true vocations.
Obstacles for the orthodox
The words of Archbishop Curtiss have been confirmed by others time and again. In the course of researching a book that seeks to substantiate the archbishop’s observations, this writer devoted a better part of the Jubilee year to interviewing dozens of seminarians, former seminarians, and recently ordained priests, representing 40 dioceses and 19 seminaries. In the four years before beginning that systematic research, I had spoken informally to numerous friends and acquaintances who had experience in seminaries. Each interviewee described himself as more or less representative of the “orthodox seminarian” to whom Archbishop Curtiss had alluded. These are men who are loyal to the teachings of the Church, look to the Pope as their spiritual father and leader, pray the rosary, and embrace the male, celibate priesthood.
It certainly must be acknowledged at the outset that not every candidate who enters a seminary has a genuine vocation to the priesthood. The seminary is a place designed to help a man to discern this vocation. Many eventually leave their studies because they have determined that a priestly vocation is not theirs. Others are rightly dismissed from the institutions due to irregularities that would indicate a particular man is not suited for the priesthood: sexual perversions, addictions, mental or emotional problems, incompetence, unwillingness to accept Church teaching, or lack of social or personal skills.
Insurmountable evidence, however, reveals that various other obstacles—man-made or “orchestrated,” if you will—undermine authentic priestly vocations, leading to the orthodox seminarian’s early dismissal or his voluntary departure (assuming he is admitted to a seminary program in the first place). Many of these circumstances owe their genesis to the seminary environment itself. So many orthodox seminarians, ex-seminarians and recently ordained priests have such remarkably similar stories to relate, the tales are difficult to dismiss as mere anecdotes.
Based on interviews I have conducted with 75 men and several seminary faculty members thus far, these stories, often accompanied by documented evidence, consistently reveal the same obstacles placed in the path of the orthodox candidate. These most commonly include the application screening process; psychological counseling; faculty members and spiritual directors who focus on detecting signs of orthodoxy among seminarians; a practical moral life of some students and faculty that is not compatible with the Christian standard; acceptance of homosexual practices and ideology; promotion of ideas and teachings which undermine Catholic belief in the most fundamental doctrines of the Church; disregard for proper liturgy and traditional devotions; and spiritual and psychological manipulation and abuse.
It appears that many of those in positions of authority at our seminaries are singularly motivated by a desire to redefine Catholic theology, the priesthood, and Church ministry according to their own “progressive” model. That model includes women priests, lay-run parishes, secularized worship, and a “soft” approach to Church doctrine; in other words, an emasculated, politically correct Church.
This “determined effort” (in the words of Archbishop Curtiss) to discourage priestly vocations among orthodox Catholics often involves a very similar pattern: the same characters, the same manipulative techniques, and the same injustices. Yet few bishops and priests have shown any willingness to heed the many complaints they have received about the process of priestly formation.
The disaffected orthodox seminarian is rarely supported in his grievances; he is often labeled as a troublemaker or a reactionary zealot, unfit for the priesthood. Once dismissed from one seminary he is blackballed from others, effectively lumped in with those who are potential sex offenders. Thus, once dismissed, it is difficult (though not always impossible) to be accepted into another seminary, diocese, or religious order.
The network of seminary rectors, psychologists, and priest-makers is a small and tight one. Communications are rapid and effective in purging the orthodox man from the seminary system. When the orthodox seminarian applies to transfer to another diocese, he is invariably asked whether he has ever been in seminary before. If the answer is affirmative, a call is immediately placed to the previous seminary, and a negative evaluation (from rector, psychologist, or spiritual director) is received. This applies not only to the seminarian who was formally expelled, but also to the one who left on his own initiative out of frustration or disgust.
The fact is that, for better or worse, a handful of people have extraordinary power to make or break many, many priestly vocations.
The gatekeeper phenomenon
For some men, the road to ordination is cut short before it really begins. Even before a young man is ready to apply to a seminary, there are numerous forces that work against any possible priestly vocation he may be discerning. The feminization of the liturgy, poor catechesis, the example set by unmanly priests, and the many sexual scandals involving the clergy are four main deterrents for the discerning young man.
Once the young man has discerned that he would like to test his vocation in seminary, he applies to a diocese or religious order, naturally expecting that the institution will support his interest in the priesthood—especially in light of the ballyhooed “priest shortage.” Many dioceses and religious orders, however, set up obstacles—although they may not acknowledge them as such—that deter the orthodox applicant from continuing to follow his call to the priesthood.
For instance, applicants must often pass a litmus test on the subject of “what the Church should be.” Often this means that the applicant must not let on that he accepts Church teaching on issues of authority and sexual morality, lest he be discarded as “rigid” or “dysfunctional.” One of the most critical questions posed to potential seminarians, as Archbishop Curtiss indicated, is whether or not the applicant approves of priestly ordination for women. This question puts the orthodox seminarian in a difficult position. If he reveals that he agrees with the magisterium that the Church does not have the ability to ordain women, he is liable to be dismissed from further consideration. If he lies and says he is “open” to the idea, then he is no better than… well, a liar.
Although often it is the diocesan Vocations Director (usually a priest) who conducts the initial interview, it is also common that an assistant, usually a woman religious, serves as the inquisitor. One scenario—which would seem incredible, except that I heard similar stories from numerous seminarians—is that during an interview with the nun in the vocations office, the phone rings or there is a knock at the door. Sister answers and begins to engage in an animated conversation, in the course of which she states enthusiastically that she fully expects to be ordained to the priesthood in a matter of years, or otherwise makes it clear that she is a proponent of women’s ordination. I personally have heard this sort of account (from various corners of the nation, and with a little variation in details) too many times to believe that the nuns were carrying on authentic conversations. This was a type of staged intimidation, which applicants to the more liberal dioceses were forced endure if they hoped to proceed to the priesthood. The nun was obviously trying to gauge the applicant’s reaction. Many would-be seminarians elected to say, “No thanks,” and end the process right there at the beginning, believing that the nun’s actions were a reflection of the reigning attitudes in the diocese they were seeking to serve.
Other inquisitors are not quite so dramatic in their questioning techniques, yet the results are essentially the same. It is a psychological game that often proves discouraging to vocations. And that is exactly the point.
In similar instances applicants are asked how they might respond to a hypothetical pastoral situation. For instance: If you were assigned to a parish in which the pastor was contravening Church law in the administration of his parish, what would you do? Or, if a man confessed to you that he and his wife have been using artificial contraception, but that they will continue to do so, would you give him absolution? Another popular hypothesis is framed this way: What would you do if you were celebrating Mass at your new parish and a laywoman came up to concelebrate with you before the Eucharistic prayer?
Aside from the peculiarity of the questioning, such probing again puts the orthodox applicant at risk. How can he respond honestly without offending a vocations director who obviously wants to establish the applicant’s “flexibility” or “open-mindedness” at the expense of Church teaching and discipline?
But this initial interview is only the beginning of a battery of evaluations and tests that are designed to weed out applicants who will not be suitable for a particular formation program. In many cases this process is an honest one. Proper screening of applicants for the priesthood is obviously of grave importance to the local Church. Unfortunately, this process is too often abused, and those who are sent away are those faithful to the teachings of the Church—especially those who properly accept the traditional role of the priest, including the commitment to lifelong celibacy. This is what I call the “gatekeeper phenomenon.”
At the same time, despite the rigorous scrutiny applicants must pass through in order to enroll in a seminary program, all too many sexual deviates easily advance. There is no need to rehash the evidence on this issue in these pages. But one wonders: if the screening process is not catching the deviates, is the process really designed to weed them out, or is it designed merely to prune the orthodox from the seminary vine?
The psychological evaluation that is mandatory for each seminarian is also worthy of mention. A psychologist—who may not be Catholic or even Christian—probes the sexual and emotional history of a young man, often getting into a line of questioning that seems a tad perverted from the perspective of the average young man. It is not uncommon, for instance, for the psychologist to inquire about the applicant’s beliefs on issues of homosexuality. Whereas one might understand this line of questioning if it were undertaken with an eye to root out those inclined to homosexuality or those who are involved in the gay lifestyle, the intent is more often a search to discover if the applicant is prepared to accept the practice of homosexuality. If the psychologist is not looking for an approbation of immoral acts, he at least would like to discover that the applicant is “open” in this regard.
And what happens if the young man is not ready to accept homosexuality? The orthodox applicant may well state Church teaching on homosexuality, saying that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and contrary to the natural law. But if he does, the psychologist is liable to report that the applicant has an “unhealthy sexuality,” is “sexually immature,” or has “sexual hang-ups.” The applicant who is “open-minded,” on the other hand, is deemed healthy and mature, with an “integrated sexuality.”
The gay subculture
If the applicant is accepted into a seminary program, he is liable to encounter homosexual issues many more times throughout his seminary career, sometimes in very direct ways. For years we have been hearing stories about sexual improprieties in our nation’s seminaries, and these stories have effectively deterred many Catholic parents from encouraging a priestly vocation among their sons. The stories have, to be sure, dissuaded many young men from testing their vocations in certain dioceses. One book that is currently popular among priests and religious who have been advocating the elimination of mandatory clerical celibacy acknowledges the “gay subculture” in many of our seminaries. Written by Father Donald B. Cozzens, rector of St. Mary’s Seminary in Cleveland, The Changing Face of the Priesthood warns of a growing public concern that the priesthood is becoming a “gay profession.” The author spends considerable time addressing the issue from his perspective inside the seminary.
Father Cozzens states that “straight men in a predominantly or significantly gay environment commonly experience chronic destabilization, a common symptom of which is self-doubt.” Compounding the challenge of studying, praying, and living alongside gay seminarians, he adds, “are seminary faculties which include a disproportionate number of homosexually oriented persons.” In other words, this gay subculture, comprised of both students and faculty at certain seminaries, deters the healthy heterosexual man from continuing to study and prepare for the priesthood.
This is putting the issue mildly. How can any orthodox seminarian expect to be properly formed and prepared for the Catholic priesthood when he is constantly subjected to attitudes and behavior that are clearly contrary to Church teaching and discipline? How many heterosexual seminarians, whether orthodox or not, have decided to leave the seminary and abandon their vocations because of the gay subculture they were forced to confront— because they had been propositioned, harassed, or even molested? (One East Coast seminary is even nicknamed “The Pink Palace” because of its open acceptance of the gay subculture.)
And what becomes of those seminarians who stay? Seminary life can be made difficult for the “dissenting” seminarian: the one who does not condone sexual deviancy. I have heard many stories of seminarians being propositioned or harassed by fellow students and of faculty members who do not take their protests seriously. Last year, for instance, one seminarian was forced to procure a restraining order against a fellow student when his rector summarily dismissed his complaints that he was being sexually harassed by an “out-of-the-closet” gay classmate. The young man finally left that seminary, while the gay seminarian who had been harassing him advanced in good standing.
Seminarians who accept the Church’s teaching on sexual morality have also been threatened by classmates and faculty who have warned them that if they did not submit to homosexuality—at least to defend the normalcy of homosexual acts, if not actively to take part in them—their priestly careers would be in jeopardy. One seminary professor related to me how she was harassed by both students and fellow faculty members because of her overt acceptance of Church teaching on homosexuality. She became the focus of bitter condemnations even though her courses did not address the topic directly; one faculty colleague actually spat on her.
The orthodox seminarian is presented with another predicament in this regard: If there is something deviant or immoral going on at the seminary and he brings it to the attention of his superiors, he is likely risking expulsion. The members of seminary faculties usually do not appreciate students who go to their superiors with complaints, especially about sexual foibles. One priest remarked of his seminary experience: “Many of my fellow students reminded me of the three monkeys: one with his hands over his eyes; one with his hands over his ears, and the other with his hands over his mouth.” The maxim, “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” seems to be a standard survival tactic in seminaries. That type of formation does not exactly prepare a seminarian to be a bold preacher of the Gospel. Nevertheless, that is the environment in which many priests are being formed today.
Doctrinal and liturgical abuses
Beyond issues of personal immorality, the seminary environment presents a number of other problems for the orthodox seminarian. The most obvious and perhaps the most insidious is heterodoxy. Many faculty members have a terribly difficult time teaching what the Church teaches, and some even find it difficult to hide their disdain for Catholicism.
All too often seminary faculty members assign textbooks written by noted dissenters from Catholic teaching—such as Richard McBrien, Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Küng, or Charles Curran—and parrot the dogmas of Catholic dissent. Those seminary students hear their instructors tell them that the Bible is “culture-bound,” that one religion is as good as the next, that the Pope is not infallible, that the magisterium is abusive, that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is just a pre-Vatican II myth, that Christ was not really divine, that God is feminine, that the Mass is simply a communal meal, that women should be ordained priests in the name of equality, that homosexuality is normal, and that contraception is morally acceptable. This has been standard fare in many courses taught to our future priests over the past three decades or more. One former seminarian remarked on the content of the courses offered at his seminary: “The faculty followed everything from Pascendi Dominici Gregis down to the last detail.” (He was referring to the encyclical in which Pope Pius X catalogued the errors of modernism.)
Yet many of the ideas being taught in seminaries today go well beyond the scope of even these familiar tenets of modernist ideology. Aggressive feminist theories are often put forth by religious sisters on the faculties. The widespread devotion to liberation theology and to various forms of Jungian psychology makes it clear that some of the teachers who are entrusted with the formation of future priests do not support the Catholic priesthood as the Church defines it. In fact, they do not support the Church, her hierarchy, her Eucharist, or her liturgy.
When the orthodox seminarian objects to false teachings, he is mocked and ridiculed for his “old-fashioned” views, called immature or infantile, and singled out for particularly harsh treatment. The desire for a “plurality of opinions”—a goal much espoused in seminaries today—stops short of a willingness to hear out the complaints of orthodox students.
Liturgical piety is used as another reason for discrimination against the orthodox seminarian. The powers-that-be in many seminaries have been perplexed over the past few years by the increasing demand by students for traditional devotions such as Eucharistic adoration, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, public rosary, and novenas. In response to this resurgence in traditional piety, the orthodox seminarians are often denied the opportunity for Eucharistic adoration, or forbidden to pray the rosary anywhere outside their own rooms. During Mass it is not uncommon for the celebrants, especially those who consider themselves “liturgists,” to take great liberties with the liturgical rubrics. It is common, too, for seminarians to be forbidden to kneel at the proper parts of the Mass, such as during the Eucharistic prayer.
One priest said of his seminary days: “It seems like they wanted to break us of any ‘romantic notions’ we may have had of how Mass ought to be celebrated.” And he observed that this process continued even after his ordination—when, it seems, young orthodox priests were placed in parishes with liberal pastors who still fancied 1970s-style liturgical experimentation.
But liturgical abuses have effects far beyond offending the seminarian’s sensibilities. They speak to the heart of the orthodox man studying for the priesthood. They speak of a crisis of authority and obedience, which all too often leads the seminarian to frustration and even contempt for his superiors. Unfortunately, this gets expressed in ways that are seen as “”rigid” and “uncharitable.”
Playing the game
The orthodox seminarian will naturally object to what he recognizes as false teachings or liturgical abuses, but once he does he has set himself up against the system, and it becomes increasingly difficult for him to advance toward ordination. Some young men are able to make it through the program—although they do not emerge unscathed—by writing on tests and answering in class what the professors want to hear. This tactic, to be sure, does not make for positive formation of courageous priests. First the students receive false teaching and observe illicit practices. Then they fall into the habit of saying what people want to hear, rather than what is true.
The seminarians who learn to “play the game” in this cynical way may actually emerge from the seminary worse equipped for their priestly ministry than their “open-minded” classmates. Although they may consider themselves orthodox, they have been programmed to accept a host of errors—if only by their silence. Nor can they be said to be well formed intellectually, no matter what they did outside the seminary to counteract the steady diet of dissident theology, secular ideology, and liturgical fads during their student career. Even if they do recognize some blatant errors in what they are taught, they may not ever learn the full truth.
Some seminarians are counseled to “play the game” just until they are ordained, so that then they can burst forth to defend the Church, the Pope, and the magisterium. But rarely does this actually happen. Those who are ordained under such circumstances generally continue to “play the game” indefinitely—just as the politician who lies, cheats, and steals in order to gain office does not become an honest man once he takes the oath. After ordination, the young priest worries about getting a desirable parish assignment; years later the veteran priest worries about being given his own parish, being named a monsignor, or even being considered for episcopal appointment. “Playing the game” becomes a way of life, and invariably hinders the priest’s ability to serve the faithful.
But what is the alternative to “playing the game?” When the honest seminarian challenges the professors, the rector, or any of his superiors (however charitably or tactfully he may do so), what can he expect? Often the seminarian is cast by his superiors as “mentally unbalanced.” He may be administered a series of unfamiliar (and scientifically questionable) personality tests, on the basis of which he is diagnosed as “unstable” or even a “risk” candidate for the priesthood. He is then continuously reminded about this diagnosis whenever he does or says anything that is contrary to the positions of his dissident superiors. The orthodox seminarian may even be sent to psychological counseling to work out his problems of “rigidity” or his “authority problems.”
Many young seminarians—if only because of their age—truly are idealistic and immature. So after being told over and over again that they are emotionally unstable, they might begin to believe the diagnosis themselves. In their immature reaction to their problems, they may actually begin to do and say odd things, which are then duly noted in their records as evidence to confirm the original diagnosis. Thus some seminaries not only teach dissident theology, but literally destroy the lives of those seminarians who have sought only to give themselves in service to the Church and to God. The result is that these men not only leave the seminaries, but sometimes they also lose their faith, or have serious residual emotional problems for a lifetime: problems that they did not have before entering the seminary.
A self-imposed crisis
The net effect of discrimination against orthodox vocations to the priesthood is a shortage of priests. So this is essentially a self-imposed crisis.
More and more frequently, we hear reports by bishops warning of the coming crunch in priestly personnel within their dioceses. The problem, they say, is that in the coming years there just will not be enough priests to serve the existing parishes. In November of last year, Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn issued a pastoral letter addressing this issue. Proclaiming the priest shortage in his diocese “urgent and serious,” he called for an increased emphasis on the parish “cluster” system through which neighboring churches could share resources and personnel—including a pastor.
Citing a problem with “burnout” and health problems among his overworked priests, Bishop James A. Griffin of Columbus, Ohio, issued guidelines last September to cope with the shortage of priests in his diocese. He reluctantly acknowledged that in the near future there may be no Mass on Sunday in a given parish. His guidelines address ways in which laity should respond to situations in which no priest is available, including celebrating Sunday and holy day liturgies without a priest.
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, Bishop Robert Banks projects that in five years only 20 to 25 of his 198 parishes will be “independent”—that is, having a pastor who is not shared with other parishes. These independent parishes are expected to have no fewer than 4,000 households each. Already 102 parishes share pastors and in some places a priest is responsible for as many as six parishes. Mark Mogilka, the chairman of Green Bay’s diocesan planning committee, described the situation to the Green Bay Press-Gazette as a “paradigm shift in terms of what is leadership in the Catholic Church.” Not surprisingly, the committee is focusing on forming “lay ministry teams” to replace priests.
The Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, which recently completed a similar task-force evaluation, produced a plan in which deacons, nuns, and lay people will function as the heads of parishes. These “heads” will contract with priests for their sacramental services. Thus priests will normally serve various parishes run by non-priests. In initial proposals published in the diocesan paper Crossroads the ordination of women and married men was considered.
While many American bishops have appointed task forces and planning commissions to study the projected shortage of priests, their proposed solutions invariably center around reducing the number of parishes served, rather than increasing the number of priests. So a great deal of time and energy is being expended on determining how we will get along without priests, rather than increasing the number of men entering into the priestly ministry. The results are closed parishes, parish mergers, and cluster arrangements in which the parishes are run by nuns and lay pastoral associates.
North of the border, Archbishop Marcel Gervais of Ottawa recently told the Ottawa Citizen that he has appointed lay men and women and nuns to officiate at marriages, baptisms, and funerals in his diocese, although these functions are specifically reserved to priests and deacons under the Church’s canon law. His action comes after several years of appointing lay members and religious as “pastoral coordinators” of parishes. Archbishop Gervais touted his decision as “not just solving the problems” arising from a shortage of priests, but as “a new model of Church.”
Indeed, there seems to be a discernible model, toward which many Catholic dissenters are deliberating striving: a lay-run Church with an emasculated priesthood.
In Saginaw, Michigan, under the leadership of Bishop Kenneth Untener (another former seminary rector), parishes are already commonly run by nuns and “lay pastors.” One Michigan priest put it this way: “Bishop Untener doesn’t think he needs priests. One guy comes to consecrate the hosts for a whole month and that’s it for the duties of the priest.” (It is instructive to note that Saginaw, with a Catholic population of 140,000, has averaged only one priestly ordination a year during the past decade.)
By contrast, those dioceses which have consistently promoted orthodoxy both in their parishes and in their seminaries have been affected little, if at all, by any “vocations crisis” or shortage of priests. Nor are the bishops of such dioceses issuing pastoral letters introducing parish “clusters” or giving instructions on how to celebrate the liturgy in the absence of a priest. Dioceses such as Wichita, Lincoln, Arlington, Fargo, and Peoria have consistently been ordaining as many or more men each year than liberal dioceses five to ten times their size.
In the Rockford, Illinois diocese, for instance, Bishop Thomas Doran ordained eight priests last year: the highest number of ordinations there in 41 years. In Virginia, the Diocese of Arlington ordained 55 men to the priesthood in the years 1991-98. And the Diocese of Peoria, with a Catholic population of just 232,000 ordained 72 priests in the years 1991-98: an average of nine each year. In comparison, nearby Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with a Catholic population three times that of Peoria, ordained just two priests in 1998, while Detroit, with a Catholic population of 1.5 million (almost seven times that of Peoria) ordained an average of eight men each year from 1991-98.
Archbishop Curtiss’ own Omaha archdiocese, considered one of the most conservative in the Midwest, ordained an average of seven men in the years from 1991-98 for a population of just 215,000 Catholics. Compare that to the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin (with a slightly larger Catholic population), which ordained a total of four men during the entire period of 1991-98.
Other dioceses such as Denver and Atlanta, have turned their vocation programs around by actively supporting orthodox vocations and promoting fidelity to Church teaching, while emphasizing the traditional role of the priest as defined by the Church. Atlanta now has 61 seminarians, up from just nine in 1985. Denver boasted 68 seminarians in 1999, up from 26 in 1991. In addition to the Denver archdiocese’s own current numbers, 20 more young men are studying for the Neocatechumenal Way and nine for other orders. All will serve the Archdiocese of Denver when ordained.
Fortunately, not all seminaries discriminate against orthodox vocations. Some, in fact, could be considered bastions of orthodoxy. Others it must be added, seem to want to move in that direction, although with entrenched ideologues on the faculty, it is a difficult task.
The Archdiocese of Denver has taken a unique approach to the issue of reforming a seminary. Several years ago then-Archbishop Francis Stafford bought St. Thomas Seminary after the Vincentian institution closed due to a dwindling student body. The problems, moral and pedagogical, were well known and documented. Last year Archbishop Charles Chaput, the present ordinary of Denver, re-opened the seminary under a new name and with a new faculty. St. John Vianney Theological Seminary is decidedly rooted in the theology of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Its faculty and students are overtly and joyfully supportive of the Catholic priesthood. Its mission is clearly to form holy and healthy priests for the “new evangelization.” Rather than reading texts penned by dissidents who rose to notoriety in the 1960s, the Vianney curriculum emphasizes the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.
In August of 1998, Saint Gregory the Great College Seminary opened in the Diocese of Lincoln with an enrollment of 24, making it the first free-standing diocesan seminary to be opened in the United States for many decades. This year the 60-student seminary of the US branch of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter moved to the Diocese of Lincoln, which has always been considered one of the most conservative spots in the country. (In 1998, Lincoln boasted an amazing 44 seminarians for a diocese of just 85,000; the comparably sized Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, claimed only seven seminarians that year.)
Grasping the solution?
His analysis may sound simplistic, but Archbishop Curtiss has outlined the solution to the problems that have beset our Catholic seminaries and vocations offices for the past four decades. He first recognizes that “orthodoxy breeds vocations.” Then he candidly suggests that it is time to pay close attention to the dioceses which have been unaffected by the priest shortage or vocations crisis. If we are unwilling to recognize the reasons for their success, he says, “then we allow ourselves to become supporters of a self-fulfilling prophecy about the shortage of vocations.”
The archbishop identifies the successful dioceses and religious orders as those that promote orthodoxy and loyalty to the Church, are unambiguous about the ordained priesthood as the Church defines that ministry, have bishops who are willing and able to confront dissent, and are willing to call forth candidates who share their loyalty to the Pope. “When this formula, based on total fidelity to Church teaching, is followed in dioceses and religious communities,” he writes, “then vocations will increase.”
The orthodox seminarian naturally wants to be supported in his vocation, not coerced into accepting theological opinions that the Church does not accept. He wants to be formed in an environment that does not hold him in contempt for his adherence to Church teaching and does not present obstacles to his growth in personal holiness. He wants to be surrounded by classmates and instructors who share his vision—which is not an idiosyncratic vision but the universal vision of the Church, working in unity for the salvation of souls.
Bishops would do well to take the advice of Archbishop Curtiss and look at successful dioceses and seminary programs to see what they are doing. They would do well to look to the dioceses which are not presently experiencing either a vocations crisis or a priest shortage. Reform of the nation’s seminaries and vocations offices is a key. If that reform is not undertaken, the self-imposed priest shortage will occupy Catholic resources which would be better spent on evangelization, spiritual formation, and performing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
Michael S. Rose is author of Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church.