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 CNS Special report:
 Coverage of John Jay report, National Review Board study.

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Transmitted 03/12/2004 11:21 AM ET

Celibacy formation a major part of seminary programs today

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In recent years there has been significant improvement in celibacy formation throughout U.S. Catholic seminaries, said Franciscan Sister Katarina Schuth, one of the country's leading experts in seminary research.

In telephone interviews with Catholic News Service, she and others said celibacy formation programs are more comprehensive and thoroughgoing today than in the past.

One of the major recent influences on those programs was Pope John Paul II's 1992 document on priestly formation, "Pastores Dabo Vobis" ("I Will Give You Shepherds").

The pope called for much more attention to the role of human formation, a factor integrating the intellectual, spiritual and pastoral formation that formed the core focus of seminary formation efforts before 1992. Human formation includes development of emotional, psychosexual and social maturity.

CNS spoke with several seminary experts in the days before and after the Feb. 27 issuance of a major report on the causes and context of the U.S. crisis in clergy sexual abuse of minors.

The report was prepared by the bishops' all-lay National Review Board, formed in 2002 to monitor the bishops' compliance with their new "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" and to help the bishops with independent assessments of the nature and scope and causes and context of the crisis.

The board sharply criticized seminary formation of the 1940s and '50s as too rigid and closed, with celibacy formation largely limited to spiritual and intellectual instruction and little attention given to the human dimensions of psychosexual development.

It said as seminaries changed in the '60s and '70s, "psychological and sexual issues were more freely aired," but "the rigid moral absolutism that had guided clergy and laity alike was giving way to moral relativism." A pendulum swing from rigidity to permissiveness about moral and spiritual discipline in those years "contributed to the current crisis," it said.

The board said that according to many of the bishops, priests and experts they interviewed, "these historical problems largely have been dealt with (in recent years) but much room for improvement remains."

Sister Schuth, who is a professor of the social scientific study of religion at St. Paul Seminary/St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn., completed a comprehensive study of U.S. Catholic theological seminaries in 1989 and a follow-up study 10 years later.

She told CNS, "Between the time I did the first study and the second study, the emphasis on education for celibacy really increased greatly."

"Toward the end of the '80s, into the '90s, some of the allegations (of clergy sexual abuse) began to appear, and I think out of that seminaries really took seriously their responsibility to form men appropriately -- all kinds of issues around boundaries and behaviors, as well as the interior spiritual disposition," she said. "Most seminaries had very decent, substantial programs in place by the end of the '90s."

She said that when the abuse scandal broke out in Boston in January 2002, she wrote to the country's theological seminaries asking for descriptions of their current celibacy formation programs.

She said most responses were several pages long and a number of seminaries have extensive treatment of celibacy formation as a section of their published student handbook.

"Several seminaries sent a single page back, rather than a booklet or 10 pages of 'here's what we do.' A number of those seminaries subsequently invited me to give workshops on how to develop their programs," she said. "I think almost all now have a fairly decent program in place."

She said the articulation of what goes into demonstrating a seminarian's preparation to live a mature celibate commitment is much deeper than it used to be. She said it addresses such issues as "generosity toward others, a willingness to talk with adults, with peers, attitude toward children."

At St. Paul Seminary where she teaches, she said, besides their individual spiritual formation the students participate in a two-hour program every Wednesday devoted to formation issues, where "celibacy probably takes close to half" the program, including discussion of boundary issues, openness to others, healthy friendships, sexuality and human intimacy needs.

At the academic level, sexuality and celibacy are addressed in moral theology and pastoral courses, she said. She added that another major component is pastoral practice, where field supervisors observe how seminarians behave and interact with pastors, co-workers, parishioners, children and women.

More rigorous psychological screening of candidates is another big factor in the approach seminaries take today, she said.

Msgr. Jeremiah McCarthy, former rector of St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, Calif., and now director of accreditation and institutional evaluation of the Association of Theological Schools, said seminary training before the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s took place in "practically a monastic environment" with "little or no pastoral training or field education."

He said the U.S. bishops' current Program of Priestly Formation, setting the framework all seminaries must follow, was completed in the fall of 1992 and incorporated the pope's document on the subject issued earlier that year.

"One of the key themes that the pope emphasized was the importance of human formation ... the relational, interpersonal capacities that a candidate needs to have in order to be an effective priest," he said. "That's an important emphasis because it supports the integral, holistic vision of training for priesthood that is in the Program of Priestly Formation."

He said that program since 1992 has called on seminaries to integrate the development and ongoing evaluation of human formation in relation to each of the other main areas of formation -- the academic or intellectual, the spiritual and the pastoral.

In evaluating a seminarian's "readiness to embrace celibate lifelong chastity," he said, faculty members will review such things as his ability "to relate celibacy to issues such as prayer, exercise, simplicity of life, friendship, obedience, an ability to maintain respect for personal and social boundaries. ... Those are important external indicators that someone is integrating and putting things together in the right way in order to be an effective, happy and healthy celibate."

"Most of the seminaries have handbooks that lay out these expectations for students," he added. "The spiritual direction and formation program has been enhanced with these emphases on human formation, so that all of the responsibility does not lie on the spiritual director. It's an activity of the entire faculty as a formation team."

Efforts to help seminarians develop a capacity for chaste celibate living were not absent in seminaries before, but they "have become more intentional, more clear, with clearer outcomes and expectations" in recent years, Msgr. McCarthy said.

Father Edward J. Burns, a former seminary rector and now director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Priestly Formation, said another sign of the heightened attention to celibacy formation in recent years has been the growth of professional development programs for seminary formation personnel in that area.

He cited three such programs for formation personnel as examples -- those run by St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., and the Creighton Institute for Spiritual Formation at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.

From his own experiences as part of teams visiting seminaries to review their performance, he said, he believes the U.S. seminaries today "are really great places of formation."

When the U.S. bishops adopted their child protection charter in 2002, one of the charter's elements was a commitment to collaborate in a visitation of each seminary, under Vatican oversight, focusing on the quality of its program of "human formation for celibate chastity."

Father Burns said the bishops are currently awaiting Rome's decision on the content and conduct of those visitations, but he believes they will be modeled after the apostolic visitations of U.S. seminaries conducted in the 1980s and the voluntary visitations that have continued since then.

END

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