Morals: Formation or Education? Seminarians or Bishops?


John Allen reports on the home front in this week’s NCR: a possible course correction in light of seminary visitations. But if moral theology has somehow been given short shrift, I’m not liking the perspective I read from some folks. Bishop John Nienstedt of New Ulm, being one:

The big question is relativism. Are our seminarians not just formed in the faith, but do they have a sense of confidence in the objective truth of the faith, and are they able to proclaim and defend it?

No, bishop; it’s more than that. Are our seminarians themselves formed morally? We presume that the virtuous and pious men who enter seminary walls are already moral people. Perhaps most are. But are they imparted with an extraordinary, even heroic sense of morality? Something that will be evident in their ministry? Something that will not only shape their life and ministry but preach morality beyond the spoken word?

No, bishop; these seminary visitations were not about the surrounding culture of death outside the wagons. By turning a blind eye to sexual abuse, bishops themselves have invited death into some of the deepest reaches of the Church.

Archbishop Daniel Buechlein misses the boat, too. Allen reported he linked the concern with moral theology to the sexual abuse crisis.

What happened after the Second Vatican Council, in the late 1960s through the early 1980s, is part of why people felt they could cross boundaries on the sexual abuse issue. There was confusion, and a little bit of relativism.

No, bishop; it’s again more than that. Abuse goes back to the days prior to the council. We should take no comfort in the fact that victims still alive reporting crimes are naturally confining their collective testimony to the past forty years. But bishops appointed since the Vatican Council bring with them an admirable sense of loyalty to their clergy. But the relativism charge can be easily laid on the bishops’ heads: when does protection of the innocent trump protection of priests? Too often, it seems. A proper relative judgment is to presume protection of the innocent. And when the innocent have been violated, the presumption is for justice, not a mealy-mouthed compassion for offenders.

“In the places I know, I think this has been attended to,” Buechlein said. “But there may still be some work to do.”

The seminary visitations seem to be productive, feel-good events for everybody in question. Let’s throw a wine and cheese party, why don’t we?

The bishops, as a body, remain on probation as far as their moral stature in the Church is concerned. If any bishop were sincerely critical of lax morality and relativism, perhaps a longer look in the morning mirror would set him straight.

Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin said the visitation should assure Catholics that church leaders are serious about learning the lessons of the sexual abuse crisis. “Seminaries are doing whatever is humanly possible to make sure that there are no pedophiles in our ranks,” he said. “They’re trying to form balanced, healthy, well-prepared men, who are not deviant in a sexual way. That’s the message.”

Fair enough, though the comment that the Church is sending in the troops twenty years later seems apt. Many of us want to be assured the bishops themselves have learned their lessons. We’re not going to get a visitation structure for that, but if the bishops don’t address it collectively as well as in their own dioceses, the elephant memory of the laity will be on this one for decades.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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