03Aug The problems with seminaries

Tony Flannery writing in the Irish Independent

The current dispute over certain alleged ‘goings on’ in the national seminary in Maynooth raises serious questions for and about the Church, questions that will not be resolved by simply changing personnel, or by adjusting the type of spiritual or theological formation being taught there. These questions are not peculiar to Maynooth, but are common to seminaries in Europe, North America and other places.

Reading the reflections of people who have worked in seminaries in the last twenty years or so, it appears that applicants for admission to seminaries came largely from one or other of two categories of young men. Many are of homosexual orientation, or are young and confused or uncertain about their sexuality. This is due in part to the enormous change that has taken place in society’s view of sexuality, and consequently much less value being put on a life of celibacy. Church teaching and attitudes have also become much more positive in this area. The modern young heterosexual male is much less inclined to sacrifice marriage, sexuality and intimacy than previous generations. There is absolutely no reason why a gay man should not be a priest, but if a particular profession is attracting a far higher percentage than is present in the general population then questions need to be asked about the nature of the profession.

The second significant group applying for entry to seminaries comes from a small section of young men who are very traditional in their faith, who are looking for certainties and who seem to hanker back to the church of the early part of the last century. These create a big challenge for the seminary system. If a young man’s inclination is to dress in traditional garb, to hold rigid theological positions with black and white answers to every question, and to be more happy in the church building that among the people, it is obvious that there is going to be a chasm between him and the people. I have seen many examples of the difficulties created by this type of situation in my travels over the past few years.

A fairly acerbic friend of mine, living in Rome, and disturbed by the sight of seminarians and young priests there, sent me this description of one man she met on the street.

‘The young man appeared exclusive and superior, in a designer suit, perfumed, coiffed and with designer sunglasses. He was like a model or a high-level diplomat. He appeared to me to be very full of himself, part of a separate caste’.

Many visitors to Rome, especially to the Vatican, may have seen similar sights.

So the question for seminaries is: what type of priest is needed in today’s world, and what type of spiritual and theological formation should they be given? Is it possible that the seminary is not the place for priestly formation? Diarmaid Martin, speaking on the radio, suggested that it is not, that those who wish to be priests should be assigned to a parish on an apprenticeship basis with built-in periods for theological study? I think that is an excellent idea. But there are no simple answers, and the job of a seminary professor or spiritual guide to students is not an easy one.

I believe that the present malaise has much deeper roots. The solution would have to involve a radical revision of our understanding of ministry and the requirements necessary to become a priest. So, rather than just tinkering around with Maynooth, the Irish church needs to initiate a process of discussion at all levels to discern what type of ministry is best suited for the Church of the future. We need to take a hard look at clericalism, that culture that exists within the priesthood, and has been regularly highlighted by Pope Francis as a cancer within the church. I believe that the negative influence of clericalism will never be eradicated while priesthood is confined to male celibates. So the question of women in ministry has to be faced and openly discussed. We need to look in an open and imaginative way at our parish structure, to see how best the faith can be nourished and promoted within this basic unit. It would be absolutely essential that this discussion would take place first and foremost at parish/pastoral council level, because I believe that our laity are more farsighted in their thinking than our clerical leaders. And lastly we need courage. The problems in seminaries is only one part of a much greater malaise in the church. Trying to re-create the past is not the answer. Significant change is needed. After a period of discussion at all levels, and when clear direction emerges, the leaders of the Irish church will need to face down those in the Vatican who are trying to hold back the necessary developments. Various forms of listening exercises have taken place in some dioceses, but little has happened as a result through the absence of this final, essential step.

Tony Flannery.

8 Responses

  1. Joe O'Leary

    Very sensible and reasoned. The priesthood attracts gays predominantly, and once out of the pious cocoon of the seminary their gay identity is likely to become more profiled. The Vatican thought the solution would be to root out anyone of homosexual orientation at entry level, but that idea remains a dead letter. A more obvious solution, if we want a sexually balanced presbyterate, is to ordain women and married men. It is quite ridiculous to see prelates dancing like kippers on a griddle over the possible proclivities of their dwindling number of seminarians, and it is even more ridiculous to see them swayed by anonymous “allegations.” This is especially chilling since it tells priests that their bishops are likely to believe the worst about them on the basis of anonymous delations. In general, my impression is that the very flimsy allegations about Maynooth tell us more about those who formulate them than about anything else.

  2. Joe Meagher

    I found it very difficult to follow the Tony’s opinions and logic, so please allow me to summarise my understanding of the article and please correct me if I’m wrong. I’ve included my own opinion within square brackets;

    Disputes concerning the operation of Catholic Seminaries will not be solved only by new personnel or new theological formation.

    [Agreed. However if a fundamentally new educational initiative is to be successfully introduced, a new structure must be implemented with dedicated personnel to lead the initiative. For an entrenched, legacy organisation the likelihood is that new personnel are required. Obviously, in a seminary, theological formation must be part of the equation.]

    Instead, a new understanding of Priestly Ministry is required;
    1. Process of discussion

    [Talk is good! Particularly when it’s focussed on clear, end-goals.]

    2. Parish, laity-led

    [By in large, parishes in Ireland are completely dead/dying. Any parish gathering, these-days, would only be attended by a handful of people, average age ~65. Outcomes would be biased.]

    3. Majority rules

    [Obviously fundamental Truths (Scripture, Apostolic Tradition) about Priestly ministry cannot be over-ruled].

    4. Ignore the Vatican

    [Sweeping statement. Is the Vatican purely an evil influence, when it comes to priestly formation? I’d be inclined to listen to the “Vatican” and discern a way forward which is in-keeping with aforementioned fundamental truths.]

    5. Apprenticeships are an excellent idea

    [Agreed. But, an apprenticeship is only as good as the Apprentice’s Master. Perfect practice makes perfect.]

    6. Remove cancer of clericalism, especially via non-celibates, male and female.

    [Agreed that ‘careerism’ in the Catholic Church is a cancer; all ordained are called to serve God and others, not themselves. I don’t believe that the lack of celibate or non-celibate female priests is a cancer in the Catholic Church; again, I’d be guided by Scripture and Apostolic Tradition on this point.]

    7. There must be no re-creation of the past.

    [Agreed. Self-evident; I don’t know of anyone in the Catholic Church that is attempting to ‘re-create’ the past. Looking to the past, particularly the mistakes of the past, can give great insight in how to approach the future.]

    Seminary students are now divided in two main groups
    1. Homosexuals, since sexuality desires must be fulfilled and celibacy has no value to ‘society’.

    [If Catholic Seminaries are primarily populated by homosexuals this is indicative of a crisis of masculinity within the Catholic Church.]

    2. Retro-Roman, ‘Black & White’ Men, happier with buildings than people, full of pride.

    [Quite sweeping, insulting and lacking charity. Being educated in Rome isn’t, in itself, a bad, corrupting influence. Don’t judge a book by its cover; judge by actions. Every priest should be retro-focussed; by approximately 2,016 years. Obviously any priest that is focussed on buildings is destined for a career in architecture or property-sales. Good priests, irrespective of their uniform and perfume, are totally focussed on self-sacrifice and salvation of souls.]

  3. Seamus Ahearne

    Was I mistaken when I thought I heard this morning on Radio (‘What it says in the papers.’) the word ‘cemeteries’ used instead of ‘seminaries’ ? It conjured up some strange images. Seamus Ahearne

  4. Joe O'Leary

    I think it is a mistake to demonize Grindr as we demonized dance halls in the past. Pretty much every young gay man in London has this app, which is just background noise like Facebook or Twitter. Grindr excludes porn and it has been a lifeline forr isolated in some countries.

  5. Joe O'Leary

    Maynoooth and the bishops responded with dignity to this fake scandal. The sort of hysteria, both homophobic and “orthodoxy”-obsessed, that lies behind it is well represented here: http://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/scandal-at-maynooth-seminary Should we give aid and comfort to such mendacious hate-mongers?

  6. Ned Quinn

    Tony Flannery on national radio: “most of the bishops in Ireland were appointed because of their lack of leadership qualities.” How will they respond? Who will step up to the plate and prove him wrong?

  7. Joe Meagher

    Tony Flannery on national radio: “most of the bishops in Ireland were appointed because of their lack of leadership qualities.” How will they respond? Who will step up to the plate and prove him wrong?

    [Haven’t they all responded, at this stage? Whether you agree or disagree with him, Bishop Diarmuid Martin has shown impressive and brave leadership on this issue. Up until this point he has shown very little leadership. Hopefully this is a portent of better things to come for Catholicism in Ireland.]

  8. Joe O'Leary

    The trouble with conducting a seminary life under constant surveillance by anonymous vigilantes and threats of lawsuits for any perceived missteps is that it is going to lead to an intense bureaucratization of church life, as is already happening. Universities are not plagued and paralyzed by constant controversies about bureaucratic matters, at the expense of any real education (and of course education is a concern not raised at all in the current brouhaha about alleged unorthodoxy and uncelibate behavior in Maynooth). Here is one of many examples of the sort of culture the church too will be plagued with: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/08/should-professor-lose-his-job-over-refusing-put-learning-outcome-his-course-syllabus

    Kudos to Jerry Buttimer on his remarks.


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