Seminaries, Celibacy and Dogma

So Amy Welborn wasn't surprised to see familiar faces while visiting the hot spots with a friend in the late 1970s. It was easy to spot the Catholic University seminarians — with their girlfriends — even though the future priests were not wearing clerical garb.

“It was the spirit of the times,” said Welborn, now a popular Catholic writer and online apologist. “Dating was pretty normal for seminarians and some seminaries did little to discourage it. Some actually encouraged dating because that was supposed to help seminarians get in touch with their sexuality. People thought celibacy would take care of itself and, of course, some people thought the whole celibacy thing would disappear at some point in the future.”

Times change. One thing is certain as teams of Catholic examiners begin a wave of confidential “Apostolic Visitations” at the 229 US seminaries. While rumors swirl about a Vatican crackdown on homosexuality, the insiders who examine seminary life will follow 12 pages of guidelines that repeatedly focus on preparing priests for life without sex.

The celibacy issue is hot, according to the Instrumentum Laboris.

While the document — as posted on the World Wide Web — contains one or two clear references to homosexuality, there are a dozen or more direct or indirect references to mandatory celibacy and its role in the training, or “formation,” of priests. To cite only one sequence, investigators will ask:

How does the formation integrate harmoniously the spiritual dimension with the human one, above all in the area of celibate chastity? How are the seminarians formed to celibate chastity in the areas of friendships, human relationships, human freedom and the formation of the moral conscience? In the judgment of the Visitors, does the seminary provide adequate formation that will enable the seminarians to live celibate chastity? (This question must be answered.)

It has been 19 years since the last systematic study of US seminaries and during that time the number of Catholic priests has continued to fall while the spiritual and financial pain caused by clergy scandals has continued to rise. Bishops have struggled to control the crisis amid evidence that many priests were moved from parish to parish after sexually abusing children and, far more often, teen-aged males.

Traditional Catholics have accused seminaries of ignoring or attacking the faith's ancient doctrines on sexuality. Critics are convinced that during decades in which thousands of men traded clerical collars for wedding rings, networks of gay priests, bishops and professors evolved into a “lavender mafia” that warped the American Church.

Thus, Instrumentum Laboris asks: “Do the seminarians or faculty members have concerns about the moral life of those living in the Institution? (This question must be answered.) Is there evidence of homosexuality in the seminary? (This question must be answered.)”

Nevertheless, it's clear that the Vatican is worried about other doctrinal issues as well. Examiners will ask if seminaries are “free from the influences of New Age and eclectic spirituality” and whether Catholic dogmatic theology — all of it — is being taught in such a way that priests are ready to respond to “contemporary subjectivism and, in particular, to moral relativism.”

Professors will notice this blunt question: “Is there a clear process for removing from the seminary faculty members who dissent from the authoritative teaching of the Church or whose conduct does not provide a good example to future priests?”

Meanwhile, American bishops are bracing for another document about sex and the priesthood — new rules from the Congregation for Catholic Education that are rumored to bar the ordination of all homosexual priests, celibacy or no celibacy.

“A total ban of that sort is unworkable and I think everybody knows it,” said Welborn. What Rome is trying to say is “that a self-identified, politicized, gay man who doesn't believe the teachings of the Church just isn't going to fit in. That kind of man isn't going to be a priest that practicing Catholics can trust.

“But anyone who has been around the modern Roman Catholic Church at all just knows that there is more to these seminary visitations than the homosexuality issue. This is about doctrine.”

Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Atlantic University and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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