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Sharing a Spirit of Discernment

by Susan Selner-Wright, Janet Smith, Deborah Savage, Shawn McCauley Welch, and Theresa Farnan  

In the face of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, a group of Catholic women who teach in US seminaries have put what St John Paul II called the “feminine genius” to work in the document, Sharing a Spirit of Discernment, a set of suggestions for changes in seminary policies and formation practices.  We believe our recommendations could help bishops in the ongoing task of making seminaries places where young men can lay the groundwork for lives of service to the Lord and his people, lives of faithful chastity, free from clericalism, and oriented to seeking holiness.

This article is a condensed version of the document submitted to Fr Hans Zollner, SJ, one of those charged with the preparation of the Vatican meeting now underway; the full version, which is available at the links at the end of this article, gives justification for our recommendations, more suggestions, and more details regarding the suggestions. (Numbers in parentheses below refer to paragraphs in the full document).

Evaluation of Seminaries (Part I)

The recommendations call for immediate internal reviews of all seminaries to provide a report of the state of affairs in each seminary regarding any sexual activity by seminarians or that has occurred at the seminary, including the presence of pornography or use of dating apps.  Seminaries also should review files to identify the practices used in the past to address sexual misconduct. (I.1). In addition, seminaries need a system to protect “whistleblowers” and enable reporting of past and present sexual misconduct.  (1.2)

Of great importance are regional gatherings where seminary leaders could share best practices and devise needed new ones for forming seminarians in chaste celibacy and for avoiding clericalism. Another task will be to set up criteria to evaluate whether and how each seminary has implemented best practices. (1.3, 1.4, 1.5)

Seminaries should do longitudinal studies to test the effectiveness of formation practices. Priests should be surveyed at five-year intervals to provide feedback on how effective formation practices were and to make suggestions for improvement. When a priest leaves the priesthood, the seminary should formally document the specifics of the formation program in place during his seminary years and also ascertain the status of the rest of his cohort. Seminarians who decide to leave the seminary should be carefully interviewed before departure about seminary life and seminary culture. Taken together, these measures could reveal problematic patterns and allow for action to improve existing formation practice. (1.6)

Formation in Celibacy (Part II. A)

Sharing a Spirit of Discernment provides a list of practical measures to assist seminarians in achieving the virtue of chaste celibacy, as well as justifications for those measures. Although we summarize some measures below, we strongly recommend reading this section in full.

General Measures:

+ The rector must be explicit with all formation faculty about what kind of sexual disclosures may remain in the internal forum of spiritual direction or confession and what should be directed toward disclosure in the external forum.

+ Seminaries should encourage seminarians to establish support and accountability groups while in seminary, encourage recently ordained priests to continue in these groups, and consider including lay men in them.

+ A propaedeutic spirituality year, regular opportunity for Eucharistic adoration and instruction in the value of saying the rosary, making retreats, devotions and pilgrimages – all of these will help form men in habits and attitudes that sustain chastity.

+ The curriculum should include reflection on the nature of masculinity itself, its complementary relationship to femininity, and the charisms that characterize and distinguish men and women. Such reflection is essential both for promoting chaste celibacy and for avoiding clericalism.

+ Laity, including lay women from the seminary faculty or seminarians’ pastoral assignments, should participate as non-voting members in meetings to evaluate seminarians’ progress in formation.

Practical Techniques

+ Specific “examinations of conscience” should be developed to promote self- awareness pertinent to celibate chastity.

+ Benchmarks for formation in chaste celibacy should be formulated concretely rather than abstractly. For example, the concrete benchmark “knows that he should not spend time alone with females who could be romantic partners” is much more useful than the abstract benchmark “has a good sense of boundary limitations.”

+ Seminarians should learn to recognize when women or men are “pursuing” them, when problematic emotional attachments are developing, and how to extricate themselves from compromising situations.

+ Seminarians should cultivate self-awareness so that they can identify what kinds of entertainment, reading, music, conversations, alcohol use, etc., trigger sexual responses. They should have awareness of what moods or feelings lead them to seek out sexual stimulation, such as feelings of loneliness, fear, fatigue, or inadequacy.

+ Seminarians should learn about the risks of pastoral counseling situations, where intimacy can develop that may lead to dependency and even a sense of being in love. Pastoral counseling should be done in a room with a window  or with the door open.

Formation to Avoid Clericalism (Part II. B)

Clericalism is the sense that being a priest entitles one to a certain respect above that given to others, respect not just for the office but for the person of the priest and all his decisions and actions. It is the belief that because of a priest’s ordination, education, and sacrifices, he deserves special deference, even obedience. Laity can be at fault for nurturing clericalism, by fawning over and pampering their priests and bishops in the belief that because priests have renounced spouse, family, and career, they deserve to be compensated with nice residences, cars, and vacations.

To combat clericalism, seminarians should

+ Regularly engage in Eucharistic adoration for it helps a person grow in virtue, especially humility – the sense that one belongs to God and is here to serve God through serving one’s fellow man.

+ Be encouraged to pray the litany of humility and study the lives of priest-saints who led humble and modest lives.

+ Be made conscious of the “power differential” between priests and laity and reflect on their responsibility to guard against using that differential to pressure laity to take on unsuitable tasks or even to engage in immoral behavior.

+ Learn not only appropriate docility but also fatherly courage, since the priest’s call is to be an effective spiritual father, not a docile member of the presbyterate.  Within the seminary regular listening sessions should be held to allow seminarians to register their difficulties with practices of the seminary. Administrators should be receptive to such feedback and model for the seminarians how to take criticism well and how to make appropriate adjustments.

+ Be instructed on the importance of simplicity of life. They should be warned about fostering friendships with the wealthy for the “perks” they receive.

+ Get to know the dynamics of a strong Catholic family, perhaps especially those in families who care for children or other relatives with special needs.  Observing a strong Catholic father and discussing with him the challenges of fatherhood should help a seminarian develop his own sense of fatherhood.

+Experience the presence of confident, virtuous, and spiritually mature women in seminaries, as this is useful for discouraging clericalism and correcting “machismo” or misogynistic attitudes in seminarians, which exacerbate tendencies toward clericalism.

Bishops and Seminaries (Part III. A)

Bishops and leaders of seminaries should remember that their roles are complementary and maintain appropriate respect for the integrity of each role. While the bishop’s role is to make final decisions regarding a man’s ordination to the priesthood, bishops must take due cognizance of the assessments offered by the seminary rector, formators, faculty, and staff.

Seminary Rectors (Part III. B)

Invaluable in seminary formation is a rector with the characteristics required for the position: fidelity to the teachings of the Church; an earnest desire to form others for the priesthood; freedom from ambition for the episcopacy and from clericalism; experience as a pastor; respect for the mission of the laity; a healthy regard for women’s gifts and roles in the Church;  integrity and the ability to disagree respectfully with his own bishop and with sponsoring bishops; the virtue of prudence and the habit of “fatherliness.”  We recommend that rectors:

+ ensure that seminarians are not exposed to any cleric of whatever rank, active or retired, who has a history of credible allegations of sexual misconduct of any kind;

+ observe established norms regarding men who have been dismissed from formation;

+ refuse to admit any seminarian dismissed from another seminary for reasons which indicate unfitness for life as a pastor of souls.

Like so many of our fellow Catholics, we are heartbroken by the current crisis in our beloved Church. We recognise that it is not a crisis of “process and procedures” but stems from a lack of holiness that manifests itself in clericalism and sexual misconduct. Nevertheless we must strengthen procedures and policies in seminaries to ensure that seminarians are never subjected to sexual abuse or harassment. We offer these recommendations as a step toward the reform and healing of our wounded Church. [“Sharing a Spirit of Discernment can be found in full here or at]

Dr Susan Selner-Wright teaches as St John Vianney Seminary in Denver; Dr Janet Smith teaches at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit; Dr Deborah Savage teaches at St Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St Paul, Minnesota; Dr Shawn McCauley Welch teaches at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St Louis; and Dr Theresa Farnan teaches at St Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh.