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Is it time to re-think seminaries?

  • 23 September 2021
The Catholic Church in Australia has reached a critical point in its journey where a total re-generation of the church is required. The findings of the sexual abuse of children in the Church has been the main catalyst, documented in the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The Final Report identified clericalism as a significant contributor to abuse across religious institutions Australia-wide. Clericalism is rooted in a theological belief that the clergy are different to the laity, having undergone an ‘ontological change’ at ordination (a change to the very nature of their being on receiving Holy Orders) and feeds the notion that the clergy may not be challenged. And according to the report, the culture of clericalism is on the rise in seminaries in Australia.

According to the report, ‘Clericalism is the idealisation of the priesthood, and by extension, the idealisation of the Catholic Church. Clericalism is linked to a sense of entitlement, superiority and exclusion, and abuse of power.’ A person suffering from clericalism sees himself as special, superior to others and worthy of greater respect. This could lead to arrogance and the belittling of others. Lay people can also be guilty of clericalism if they support this attitude. 

The initial training of pastors (I prefer to use the term ‘pastor’ over ‘priest’ to emphasise the pastoral nature of this role) occurs in segregated ‘clericalist’ environments, which according to the report, are likely to have a detrimental effect on psychosexual maturity of candidates and in turn ‘increased the risk of child sexual abuse.’

It’s no wonder then that amongst key recommendations from the Royal Commission, specifically mentioned was the issue of training of diocesan priests in seminaries as needing reform. According to the final report, ‘all Catholic religious institutes in Australia should review and revise their particular norms and guideline documents relating to the formation of priests.’  

'We need seminaries to be places that train new generations of clergy to be servant leaders who can pastor — not rule over — the faithful.'

It’s critical that the Plenary Council address issues of clericalism during pastoral formation. Thankfully church leadership is, to an extent, in agreement on the need for reform. Speaking of the cultural and structural changes the Plenary Council might spark in the church, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference Archbishop Mark Coleridge, said ‘this is no time for the Church to be putting up