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Close the seminaries: healing comes first

by William Cleary

A new idea is hard to find in our desperate attempt these days to heal the catastrophic problems in the American Catholic Church, especially the deep disgrace underlined by the new grand jury report in Philadelphia -- of the bishops' toleration of misbehaving priests and of priestly child abuse on a massive scale.

Leaders seem to think the problem is homosexuality and have launched a seminary purge. Out with gays! The more convincing cause of the problem seems to be celibacy itself and the odd atmosphere it creates.

The new idea is simply to close the roughly 230 U.S. seminaries. Think about it: doesn't it make sense?

Why close the seminaries? #1: because they are no longer needed. We have hundreds of Catholic colleges and universities where future priests can be educated. Other changes would have to precede. Religious leaders would have to be elected reluctant or not from the ranks of the laity, then sent for study. Celibacy could not be required, of course, but neither would marriage. All honest souls would we welcomed, once elected, to Church leadership, gay or straight, male or female.

Why close the seminaries? #2: because they are too expensive. Besides their enormous budgets, the $1 billion in damages awarded to injured children thus far came straight out of the seminary atmosphere. Read the Philadelphia grand jury report after their three year study. The celibacy requirement skews the seminary atmosphere away from ordinary life toward illusory and superstitious thinking. The rest follows.

Why close the seminaries? #3: because they are too easily dominated by hierarchical thought control. Creative thinking in church leadership thus becomes impossible, yet the Holy Spirit is constantly inspiring and guiding people and communities toward wise choices. Freedom of thought is a necessity if we are to be guided by God.

Why close the seminaries? #4: it would be good for women, half the Church. Celibate male seminaries do not welcome women's thinking, and thus the church cannot use 50% of the energy and ideas available from the Holy Spirit. Other religious bodies have gradually adopted this non-sexist policy, and it is working for them. It can work for Catholics too.

Why close the seminaries? #5: it would finally make Catholic children safe from the dangers we have endured from the present system. No other way will guarantee this objective. The injuries to the innocent have been grotesque and diabolical: everything has to be done to prevent its continuation. St. Paul pointed the way 2000 years ago: get leaders from people already successful in family life, he said (1 Tim. 3:2). Let's do it.

Why close the seminaries? #6: it is the only way to start the long process of finally stepping out of the Middle Ages, away from big hats and lofty titles, and into modern times. As knights and kings are replaced by more enlightened political inventions, the church must at long last follow suit. In one sense the seminaries are busy closing themselves. They now contain only about half the numbers they had 25 years ago.

A recent New York Times editorial by Peter Steinfels describes a book by Klimosky, O'Neil and Schuth entitled Educating Leaders For Ministry published by Liturgical Press this year. Only 10 percent of seminarians, it was estimated in the book, were "highly qualified" for their educational work. Somewhat more than 50 percent were "adequately qualified." One-third to 40 percent suffered from poor educational backgrounds, learning disabilities, or lack of facility in English. Those deficiencies, it was reported, created "special challenges for faculty." Another point: even among the few academically gifted, as well as among all the others, the faculty teams in this book reported seminarians that, "regardless of native abilities and educational experiences" resist "the learning enterprise" because it threatens their "preconceived ideas about theology."

Then the Steinfels editorial asks: shouldn't such impressions, which are in fact more widely shared among Catholic seminary educators than anything having to do with homosexuality, loom large in a review of the seminaries? What if it were reported, it goes on, that only 10 percent of those studying for medical degrees were academically or intellectually "highly qualified"? Or that 40 percent of those accepted for law school or for graduate engineering degrees labored under one or more learning difficulties such as to create "special challenges for faculty," and "resist the learning enterprise"?

One last point: the coming inquisition against gay seminarians will not work. Religion can be as primary as sunlight: it can help create and enlighten a whole world. But religion can also turn sour and pull down the sun, darken everything, destroy life. Suicide bombers follow such a religion. This kind of evil turn is threatening our Catholic Church. In the coming new decree, so-called "homosexual" men are to be weeded out of the U.S. seminaries. Columnist and former priest James Carroll predicts in a recent Boston Globe that the purge will force many seminarians to quit. "When the grand inquisitors arrive at seminaries, candidates for the priesthood who have any self-respect will simply walk away," he wrote.

Is it time to think about simply walking away from them all? I think.



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