January 29, 2020 by
In March/April of 2019, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) administered a survey to seminarians concerning the sex abuse scandals. Fifteen questions were asked wherein inquiries were made to the seminarians about whether or not they’ve seen or heard of sexual abuse in their seminaries. The results of the survey were published in September, 2019.
The last question in this survey asked “in your view, what are the most important steps, policies, or reforms that Catholic seminaries and houses of formation should take or implement to make seminary training safe and free from sexual harassment, abuse, and misconduct?” Seminarians were invited to “answer in as much depth as you wish.” The following essay is a response written and submitted by one participant in the survey. He has asked to remain anonymous in order to protect his vocation. The text has been slightly edited since its submission in order to provide some clarity and further information.
I think that this survey is one step in addressing a problem. Respectfully, it does not go far enough. The problem within seminary formation programs is not just with sexual abuse and/or harassment. Such things are a symptom of a much larger systemic problem. I am speaking of formators’ authority and control over seminarians who are expected to obey them.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has had to contend with many powerful and influential forces both from within as well as from without. I cannot say that all of the reforms of the Council concerning priestly formation have been implemented well. Confusion has reigned over the last several decades within priestly formation. Some programs are better than others but not all are equal in understanding, vision and implementation. One of the problems within formation programs is the relationship between authority, control and obedience.
Prior to Vatican II, there was a type of obedience that was expected of men who presented themselves for formation. Formators were, generally speaking, good at their duty and were upstanding men. The norms of the Church were followed (again, generally speaking) and there was an order to things that was respected and upheld. Since the Council, however, that obedience has been turned on its head owing to the various theological and ideological trends that arose in the Council’s wake.
For example, one area of formation that has suffered is human formation. Whereas Pius XII (in Sedes Sapientiae III) clarified that human formation was quite important, the “sanctification of the supernatural soul holds first place in the whole program of formation.” Now, however, much is made of human formation, not so much sanctification, and there are varying interpretations of what the “human” in “human formation” means. Sometimes, it refers to an authentic issue that needs to be addressed. Other times, it could be said to a seminarian because the formator is projecting his own issues upon the seminarian.
Formators engaging in such projection is an issue unto itself. Sometimes, the seminarian is completely unaware that it is being done. Others who do know what is going on can fall into one of two categories: 1) those who defend themselves, and 2) those who do not defend themselves.
If the seminarian falls into the first category, he is labeled “rigid” or “not docile.” Formators tend to be territorial and will not take lightly a challenge. The seminarian is made to be the “problem.” Sometimes, there is a form of psychological abuse that is used here. Labels like the aforementioned will be recorded in the seminarian’s file and that file is used as a psychological weapon, i.e. “you don’t want this in ‘your file’” or “this will go in ‘your file.’” “Your file” is here understood as a monolithic reality that will either canonize or demonize the seminarian.
This activity can be very damaging to a seminarian. The formation system is particularly dependent upon “word of mouth” from formators and one particularly damning comment (just or not) can hound a seminarian for his entire formation path, or even later. God help any manly seminarian who either questions or speaks against the emasculation. They are told that such is a “formation issue” which must be dealt with promptly. Counseling may even be recommended. Against such things, a seminarian has little to no defense. Their goal is to become a priest of Jesus Christ and this is jeopardized if he defends himself.
Being characterized as the “problem” can be devastating to the psychological well-being of the seminarian. He might begin to doubt his perception of reality: “Maybe I have a blind spot and did something wrong that I didn’t see?” Certainly, there are genuine times when a blind spot reveals itself in a seminarian’s formation. I am speaking, though, of when the system is abused by narcissistic, gas-lighting formators whose observations are not rooted in reality. In such instances, they act out, more often than not, from a sense of feeling threatened in some way.
Now, for seminarians who do not defend themselves, they are not much better off than those who defend themselves. They survived the initial matter, but at what cost? The cost is their manhood as they’ve been emasculated, schooled in the art of self-preservation. Men in formation are expected to obey blithely their formators, even if said men know better. What happens, then, when this obedience is towards something questionable? Two examples come to mind.
First, there is a case of a seminarian who witnessed pornography on a priest-formator’s computer. The incident was quickly covered up, denied even, and the seminarian was sent to counseling. He actually obeyed. The local Ordinary of the seminary was “indirectly” informed of the pornography by another priest. That matter was presented in hypothetical terms: “if X happened, how should it be handled?” Doing this afforded plausible deniability to the Ordinary.
Second, in ideology, there is a very popular expectation for seminarians to be “pastoral” and able to “reach people where they are at.” These phrases, in and of themselves, do point to some authentic realities within priestly ministry. The problem is when an imbalance is created by a one-sided emphasis upon them. There is more that is left unsaid, such as their relation to truth, beauty, goodness and how to lead the people (that seminarians desire to serve) to these transcendentals.
Needless to say, seminary formators hold all the keys—they have all the power and control—and can make life a living nightmare for a seminarian. Some formators may make it their goal to “break” a seminarian, i.e. remove any and all undesirable tendencies/attitudes deemed unfit for priestly ministry. This is good with respect to uprooting vice, but what about a seminarian dealing with a narcissistic, gas-lighting formator?
The effort to “break” a seminarian manifests itself differently, but a popular method has been the “pastoral year.” During this year, a seminarian is sent to a location believed to be the best arena for his “breaking” to take place. If the reason for the “breaking” concerns “orthodoxy,” for example, the seminarian is typically sent to a more “liberal” parish where one of two things will happen. He will either 1) be scandalized into discerning out of the seminary, or 2) somehow survive and demonstrate docility to his formators.
A gas-lighting narcissistic formator can leave an impression on those under his guidance that in order to be a good priest, one must maintain the status quo.
This thought is impressed by blind obedience and power-posturing through various means such as sarcasm, emotional abuse and/or sexual abuse. This, then, can lead the seminarian to see that he must not only go along to get along, but that he must also compromise his masculinity, faith and ideals in a self-destructive way so that he can get ordained and further his career within the presbyterate.
For example, there was seminarian A who was accused of assaulting another seminarian (B). The accusation was false and another seminarian (C) had direct knowledge that it was false. When seminarian C went to the formation authorities, he was told in so many words that if he wanted to have a career, he’d keep his mouth shut. This seminarian was ordained a few years later and is now pursuing a doctorate within the context of a fairly posh assignment within his Diocese.
Such compromises lead not only to a clericalist view of self and the Church, but also to a lack of the virtue of integrity by which one humbly seeks to live out the faith that one professes with one’s lips through one’s way of life. The undermining of the virtue of integrity then leads to the scandal that we see before us in our current age through figures such as the former Cardinal McCarrick and others. It becomes the primary roadblock to evangelizing souls at the parish level.
Some seminarians put up with such nonsense from formators in the thought that “I’ll just keep my mouth shut until the alb and stole hang loose.” Such thinking, however, shows the danger of this personal abuse because the seminarian seeks to please those in authority and has no supernatural faith and no relationship with Christ. Pope Francis himself encourages seminarians to speak up. Otherwise, then, a culture of enablement is created by which homosexuality within the priesthood and priestly sexual abuse, among other things, can then thrive.
By remaining silent, therefore, is the seminarian being formed in virtue and to be an effective preacher unto the salvation of souls? Is he truly growing in his baptismal and priestly identity as an Alter Christus? No, he has become skilled in the worldly art of self-preservation, not in the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Such a man of self-preservation will care more for the opinions of the people and will bow to them than to the Lord of Heaven and earth, the Just Judge.
Most seminarians simply desire to trust their formators because these seminarians cannot imagine the alternative. I know this because I have witnessed such people. They are unwilling to see the unpleasant side to the reality facing us today. For my part, trust is earned because of what I know as well as have seen, witnessed and experienced. I have been privileged to know some very holy people. I have also known some very evil ones.
I am convinced that when one has saints as formators, then one’s priestly formation will take on that character. If, however, the seminarian has narcissists and gas-lighters for formators, then I shudder against the monstrosities that shall arise.
This is deep and penetrating analysis by the seminarian.
There is currently a mighty crisis in RC seminaries.
There is the issue of thoroughly unsuitable formators.
And there is the issue of thoroughly unsuitable seminarians.
The system is profoundly broken.
And people, especially good and genuine seminarians, are being seduced, traumatised and destroyed.
The good seminarians leave.
The compromised ones thrive and become problem priests.
Promiscuous homosexuality is at the very core.