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Transmitted 03/12/2004 11:55 AM ET

Focus on celibacy grew in U.S. bishops' priestly formation norms

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- One way to look at the growing attention to celibacy formation in American Catholic seminaries over the past 30 years is to look at the successive editions of the U.S. bishops' Program of Priestly Formation, the official, Vatican-approved norms that govern U.S. seminaries.

The program was developed in response to the Second Vatican Council's call for seminary reform, as spelled out after the council in a 1970 instruction by the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican agency that oversees the world's seminaries. That document laid out general norms for priestly formation worldwide and called on bishops' conferences to implement those norms with national programs.

In the first edition of the program in 1971, the section on theological seminaries devoted three paragraphs to celibacy as one of the "virtues of service" which seminarians were expected to develop before ordination. It focused mainly on the theological understanding of celibacy and the importance of prayer and a strong spiritual life for living it.

While the program represents the minimum standards required in a seminary, not the full range of what it can do, the relatively narrow focus on celibacy in terms of spirituality and theology in the 1971 document suggests that these were the main concerns of actual seminary programs and of those who ran them at that time.

The second edition in 1976 expanded the treatment of celibacy to four slightly longer paragraphs. It added material on the need for "a serene attitude with regard to sex" and the role of discipline, good habits and good relationships in reaching "a state of maturity" in celibate living.

In the third edition in 1981, the space given to celibate chastity was more than doubled, to two full pages. This version added detailed attention to necessary elements of education in sexuality and signs to look for in evaluating a seminarian's emotional and psychosexual maturity. It said seminary faculty must approach formation for celibacy more comprehensively and not expect that it will be "satisfactorily dealt with" just in spiritual direction, confession and part of an academic course in theology.

Since progress from one edition to the next in such documents by the bishops often reflects practical experience in the field, the expanded treatment of specific elements of formation and evaluation suggests that between 1976 and 1981 seminaries were finding a need to spell out their celibacy formation programs more fully, and those that did so successfully were being looked to as models for the rest.

The fourth edition, issued in 1992, expanded on the need for comprehensive formation for celibacy. It emphasized a need to integrate celibacy formation with "psychosexual, social and spiritual development" and with the seminarian's spiritual, academic and pastoral formation for the priesthood.

It specified structures of ongoing celibacy formation, including "rector's conferences, workshops, special programs and courses" in addition to spiritual direction, the traditional mainstay of celibacy formation.

That edition, for the first time, said each seminary "must have written guidelines for admission, evaluation and community life that spell out its expectations in regard to those attitudes, behaviors and levels of psychosexual maturity which indicate a right mentality, proper motivation and a commitment to celibate chastity."

"These guidelines," it added, "should also specify unacceptable attitudes and behaviors that militate against such a commitment."

Besides the growing experience with more detailed, comprehensive formation programs in seminaries, the 1992 edition also reflected many insights of "Pastores Dabo Vobis" ("I Will Give You Shepherds"), a document on seminary formation issued earlier that year by Pope John Paul II.

One of the major insights of the papal document was an emphasis on "human formation" -- social, psychological, psychosexual, emotional, relational development -- as an integrating factor for the traditional spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation needed in preparing seminarians for the priesthood.

The bishops' Committee on Priestly Formation is currently drafting a fifth edition of the program and plans to present it to the bishops for approval later this year.

Three convergent factors suggest that the fifth edition will have an even stronger, more comprehensive treatment of formation for celibacy:

-- In implementing the more detailed policies and practices called for by the 1992 program, seminaries have gained deeper experience in celibacy formation and more understanding of what is required, an understanding certain to be reflected in the next edition even if nothing else had intervened.

-- The scandal of clergy sexual abuse of minors and the frequent discussion of weak celibacy formation in the past as a factor will spur a more rigorous look at what should be required in every seminary in this area.

-- Plans for an apostolic visitation of all U.S. seminaries within the next few years, with a special focus on their celibacy formation programs, will reinforce the desire to have a more comprehensive program fully in place before the visitations occur.


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