New, Stricter Priestly Formation Program Issued for U.S. Catholic Seminaries

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic Online
August 29, 2006

Washington (CNS) A new Program of Priestly Formation has been issued for use in all U.S. Catholic seminaries.

It places more emphasis on the human formation of seminarians, and especially on formation for celibacy, than did the fourth edition of the program, which had been in effect since 1992.

The 98-page revised version of the program, the fifth edition, has been posted on the Web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops,

The Program of Priestly Formation has governed seminary formation in the United States since the bishops issued the first edition in 1971.

The new version, reflecting the bishops' recent response to the scandal of clergy sexual abuse of minors, says explicitly for the first time that no seminary applicant is to be accepted if he has been involved in sexual abuse of minors.

It also incorporates stricter norms, adopted by the bishops in 1999, on evaluating an application for seminary admission from someone who previously left or was dismissed from a seminary or a formation program for religious life.

The bishops adopted the fifth edition of the program by a nearly unanimous vote, 231-3, at their June 2005 meeting in Chicago.

Last November Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, informed Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., USCCB president, that his congregation had studied the new edition and approved it for a period of five years. Bishop Skylstad's decree promulgating the document was dated Aug. 4, the feast of St. John Vianney.

In his letter Cardinal Grocholewski wrote, "The text is most appropriate. Of special benefit, in fact, will be the increased requirements for philosophical studies to a minimum of 30 credits and the lengthening of the pre-theology period to a minimum of two calendar years."

Fifty years ago most priesthood candidates entered the seminary in high school or college and received the philosophical and other academic prerequisites for graduate theological studies in a college seminary setting. In the past two or three decades, however, more and more seminary applicants have come in with college degrees that included little or none of those prerequisites.

As a result, pre-theology programs have become an increasingly important part of the academic programs of seminaries, and in fact many of those had already become two-year programs before the new norms were adopted.

Like the 1992 edition, the new program speaks of four dimensions of formation that seminarians must develop and integrate as they prepare to become priests: intellectual, pastoral, spiritual and human.

Those dimensions of formation were outlined by Pope John Paul II in his 1992 apostolic exhortation, "Pastores Dabo Vobis" ("I Will Give You Shepherds"). Previous editions of the U.S. Program of Priestly Formation discussed the intellectual, pastoral and spiritual development of priesthood candidates but did not specifically address issues of human development.

The fourth edition of the program, adopted only a few months after the papal document, incorporated elements of human development as well, but the fifth edition enters into that area far more deeply. For example, formation for celibacy was treated under spiritual development in previous editions; in the new edition the main treatment of celibacy comes under the heading of human development.

That section focuses especially on the concrete skills, behaviors, attitudes and supports men need in order to form an effective, mature commitment to a chaste life of celibacy.

When the bishops voted on the fifth edition, it was widely known that the Vatican was preparing to issue a statement on the question of whether homosexually oriented applicants should be accepted into the seminary or ordained to the priesthood.

With that in mind, at the Vatican's suggestion the bishops adopted a norm that says, "With regard to the admission of candidates with same-sex experiences and/or inclinations, the guidelines provided by the Holy See must be followed."

Last November the long-expected Vatican document was released. It said bishops "cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called 'gay culture.'"

In addition to norms for seminary admission and seminary formation, the Program of Priestly Formation includes norms for seminary governance, administration and faculty; the role of the bishop in priestly formation; and the relationship of seminary formation to the ongoing formation of priests after ordination.

The new norms spell out more fully the canonical obligations of bishops and seminary personnel to assure that candidates for the priesthood are free of any legal barriers to ordination.

For the first time the norms also make specific reference to conditions for the acceptance of married applicants. In the Latin Church this takes account of cases in which the Vatican has permitted married former non-Catholic ministers who become Catholic to be ordained to the priesthood. In the Eastern Catholic churches it takes account of a partial relaxation of former rules that forbade married priests in areas where the Latin Church is dominant.

"An applicant for the priesthood must testify that he is not married or, if he is married, he has the approval of the Holy See," the new document says. "If an Eastern Catholic candidate is married, a certificate of marriage is required along with the written consent of his wife and the approval of the Apostolic See."


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