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How Do You Fix the Seminaries?

How Do You Fix the Seminaries?

(Note: the opinions contained in this piece, except where quoted from source material, are the author’s own.)

Following the abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church, there has been at least some discussion about the possibility of reforming the seminary system. A recent article on the subject by two lay professors, C. Colt Anderson and Christopher M. Belitto, was recently published in Commonweal, and reblogged at the Deacon’s Bench.The article begins by outlining the challenges involved:

Pope Francis has repeatedly targeted clericalism as the great enemy of ordained ministry today. You can easily see the career-climbers he warns about in seminaries. If you want to learn how to work your way into the clerical caste, watch these men. They are learning Italian, wearing cufflinks and cassocks, and don’t at all mind being called “Father,” even though they are still in studies. Along with our colleagues in other formation programs, we have easily singled out seminarians with scarlet fever: while there may be few vocations to the priesthood, there are plenty of ambitious young men aiming for a bishop’s miter.

Clericalism can be thought of as a type of exceptionalism. Seminarians soon learn that the rules and standards, such as mastery of course material, do not really apply to them. As lay faculty members we have both been told, “You don’t vote on our advancement or ordination,” which falls just short of saying “so you don’t matter.” We have had discussions with seminarians who struggle with drinking or drugs and sexual activity that they commit or observe around them. Some are sexually harassed in the seminary, a problem that the case of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has brought to much needed attention. There are few consequences for any of this.

Seminarians know that, given the shortage of priests in the United States, it won’t be long after they’re ordained that they’ll be pastors with a parish of their own. We often heard conversations in the lunchroom that indicated as much: “When I’m pastor, I’m going to put my place on the map.” We heard very little talk of service or shared leadership, collegial relations with parish councils, or facilitating the talents of parishioners. 


Anderson and Belitto go on to propose several solutions to this challenge, including requiring classrooms to be co-ed (thus extending the benefits of formal theological education to women religious as well as laity); removing seminaries from the direct control of bishops; taking into account the “the professional opinions of religious sisters and lay professors, professionals, and supervisors,” as well as laity in seminarians’ sending dioceses when making decisions about whether a student should continue in the formation process; and finally,

[involving] John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic exhortation on seminary formation, Pastores dabo vobis, which presents high standards in terms of admissions, behavior, and academics. Consider, however, that the current edition of the American bishops’ Program for Priestly Formation still states only that the admissions process “ought” to give sufficient attention to the emotional health of the applicants, that candidates “should” give evidence of having interiorized their seminary formation as evidenced by their ability to work with women and men, that seminarians “should not” be excused from pursuing accredited degrees, and that seminarians “should not” be advanced if they lack positive qualities for formation. Since bishops can and do offer dispensations from anything that is not mandatory, we maintain that those “oughts” and “shoulds” need to be turned to “musts”—and then firmly patrolled.


The changes Anderson and Belitto call for should be familiar to Episcopalians as a matter of practice. Title III of the Canons makes very clear that no ordination can proceed without sufficient input from laypeople, though how this rule gets applied varies from diocese to diocese. While a formal seminary education is not strictly required for those seeking ordination to the priesthood, “reading for orders” (vs. attending seminary) is fairly rare in this day and age, and even then candidates must both have graduated from college and demonstrate competency in the theological disciplines outlined in Canon III.8.5. However, that does not mean that there aren’t Episcopal seminarians who have the same “career-climbing” tendency as some of their Roman Catholic brothers. Some do move through school in similar ways, and can often be heard talking about everything they will do when they get to their first parish assignments. Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, cautioned against such tendencies in The Gospel and the Catholic Church.

There is the peril of a self-consciousness that dwells upon “our privileges” rather than upon the Glory of God in Christ; of a partisanship that exaggerates particular experiences or aspects of truth; of an intellectualism that misses the meaning of the redemptive act; and (the most subtle because the most devout error) of a “spirituality” that rejoices in conscious union with Christ here and now and ignores the importance, for belief and conduct, of the historical coming of Jesus in the flesh and the historical society that links them to that coming. The peril, in short, is for the devout Churchman to turn his religion into a “glory unto me,” “glory to this movement,” “glory to the Church” religion instead of a “glory to God” religion.

(Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009; originally published by Longmans, Green and Co., 1936), 48.)


I do wonder if the perceived increase in “career-climber” tendencies has something to do with what we’re experiencing in the wider culture now, especially in light of the discussions of (predominantly white) male privilege, #MeToo and #ChurchToo. It may well be that we’re simply more aware of it than we ever have been before. It may also have something to do with the overall perception that those currently in their 20s and early 30s are somehow far more selfish than older generations. I also wonder how the Episcopal Church might continue to promote healthy conversation around these issues among clergy and laity alike. Just as it is with our Roman brothers and sisters, it will also require leaders of all stripes to take some real risks to help overcome the challenges inherent with working only for “glory unto me.”




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JoS. S Laughon

A return to the Scriptures would be a good start.

Jon White

That’s a nice throwaway line, but I’m not sure how what you actually mean in this context? At least half of my coursework in seminary was study of scripture and all the others referenced back to it. Seminary courses are steeped in scripture. Whatever might ail seminary education, a lack of engagement with scripture is not one of them.

JoS. S Laughon

I’m not sure I understand what you mean by an accusation of deploying a “throwaway line” but the article lays out how Anglican seminaries can be a hotbed of abuse, pride and etc…Surely Scripture has something to say on these. Returning ad fontes to these sources of moral absolute truth is clearly the solution whenever face entrenched sin and injustice.

Jon White

My apologies if you perceived my comment as an accusation. I’m really asking what does “return to the scriptures” actually mean. As I’ve noted, seminaries are already ddeply enmeshed with scripture. In what manner do you propose to effect this “return?” What policy are you proposing?

JoS. S Laughon

I am not sure the rot in Christian institutions is merely an issue of reordering a few cirricula, but rather a moral reformation, which is of course impossible without the Word.

Kurt Hill

During my lifetime, I have served on several committees which have helped to determine vocational recommendations for people seeking Holy Orders, both men and women. In some respects, we probably do a better job than some of our Roman or Eastern sisters and brothers who are more encumbered with bureaucracy…We are not perfect, either…I think that seminaries should train clergy for multiple cures, or for part-time or “tent-making” deacons and priests…Perhaps then we can save more small rural parishes from closure…

John Rabb

This is an interesting commentary, and as a seminary trustee I read with great interest. My own understanding ,which is nearly 40 year of work with the ordination process, is that it is not the “career climbers” we need to be concerned over; frankly I find far too few. It is the necessity of having the skills of leadership which when matched with the best practices and sound theology produce individuals willing to both challenge and serve the church. Frankly ambition is not a sin in and of itself, and it is not a virtue to have this false humility of “I only want to be a servant of the people.” When we combine solid theology with deep and true piety we will have the leaders we need. Let’s start taking seriously that we need theologically grounded theologians who understand the power of servant leadership. I am very tired of the constant sounds of “clericalism” when I find too few of our clergy leaders willing to stand up for the Gospel and inspire communities of faith to do

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