Jeremiah 6:16

Thus saith the Lord: Stand ye on the ways, and see and ask for the old paths which is the good way, and walk ye in it: and you shall find refreshment for your souls.


The Forgotten Vice in Seminary Formation

This is a post courtesy of the late Fr. Todd Reitmeyer (1969-2006)

We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
C. S. Lewis - The Abolition of Man

This is an article that I wrote during my years of seminary formation but I was advised to wait to have it published until after my priestly ordination. It deals with a touchy subject, that will offend many involved in the work of seminary formation, but with the current atmosphere of scandals and talk of a more thorough screening process for seminarians, I believe it is a topic that must be dealt with. Sioux Falls is a rural farming diocese that is having great success in vocations with both numbers and quality and one of the consistent complaints or difficulties our new seminarians have had in adjusting to seminary life is the issue of effeminacy. The fact of the matter is they are not used to and are uncomfortable living in an environment that is often effeminate. Recently one of our seminarians from a farm family was embarrassed to say that he would not want his brother to visit his dorm because of the way the men acted on his floor. While not, perhaps, stating it in the most precise manner it was understood by all when he said that many seminarians on his floor, “acted like a bunch of women.”

Saint Thomas includes effeminacy under the vices opposed to perseverance. It is from the Latin Mollities, which literally means “softness.” Mollities is the verb used in 1 Corinthians 6:9 which deals with the sexual sin of sodomy. It involves being inordinately passive or receptive. It may be true that some cultural prejudices are being revealed here with this comparison because a vice is a vice, whether it is found in a man or a woman, but it is also true that some vices are more perverse or disordered when found specifically in men or women.

What Saint Thomas means by persevering is when “a man does not forsake a good on account of long endurance or difficulties and toils.” An “effeminate man is one who withdraws from good on account of sorrows caused by lack of pleasures, yielding as it were to a weak motion.” Thomas states that this effeminacy is caused in two ways. First, by custom, where a man is accustomed to enjoy pleasures and it is, therefore, more difficult for him to endure the lack of them. Second, by natural disposition, less persevering through frailty of temperament, and this is where Thomas compares men with women and also mentions the homosexual act of sodomy and the receiver in this act as being effeminate or like a woman. The vice of delicacy for Thomas considers those who cannot endure toils or anything that diminishes pleasure, and thus delicacy is a kind of effeminacy. Thomas quotes from Deuteronomy 28:56, “The tender and delicate woman, that could not go upon the ground, nor set down her foot for softness.” In priestly or seminary life we are not called to such softness, and these issues must be addressed in formation.

Imelda Marcos’ collection of shoes displays a type of softness, but if Ferdinand had a similar problem, it would be much more perverse or pronounced because he is a man. Effeminacy is more pronounced in a man than a woman because women are more susceptible to this vice. Just as the vice of drunkenness is more pronounced or perverse when found in a woman than a man.

I have five sisters, and all are feminine, but I would describe none of them as effeminate or soft. They are women; yet, they do not exhibit this particular vice. So, it must be understood, I am not putting down women or speaking on homosexuality, (though effeminacy is often a sign of this sexual disorder) but rather on acting in an inappropriate manner that is often prevalent in seminaries.

Saint Thomas also speaks on modesty concerning the outward movements of the body. Here, he quotes Saint Ambrose in stating that, “Beauty of conduct consists in becoming behavior towards others, according to their sex and person.” Thomas states that, “Outward movements are a sign of the inward disposition” and quotes Ecclesiastics 19:29-30, “You can tell a person by his appearance . . . the way a person dresses, the way he laughs, the way he walks, tell you what he is.” Saint Ambrose adds that, “The habit of mind is seen in the gesture of the body,” and that “the body’s movement is an index of the soul.” Ambrose goes on to say, “Let nature guide the movement: if nature fail in any respect, surely effort will supply the defect.” This effort is lacking in almost all seminary formation. Such things should be noticed and discussed by seminary faculty in both external and internal formation, as they can often be signs of deeper issues.

Saint Thomas, moreover, asserts the truth that it is often from our outward movements that other men form their judgment about us. Thomas encourages us to study our outward movements so that if they are inordinate in any way, they may be corrected. Such things need to be addressed in formation because they have a definite effect on our ability to be and bring Christ to others. Does the seminary deal with a seminarian that sways when he walks, who has limp wrists, who acts like a drama queen or who lisps? It must. This not about a witch hunt but being honest enough to admit that such external behavior affects our ability to share Christ. I knew a seminarian that spoke in a very effeminate manner, and to his credit he recognized this impediment to his future preaching the Gospel, and on his own sought help from a speech instructor. The seminary did not see this glaring problem and did not move this man to get assistance. That is the problem.

When we are at the altar or preaching the Gospel, we are Jesus Christ and must do our best to image him to our people. Anything we do that takes people’s attention away from this reality must be addressed. Over dramatic movements, purposeful lisps, swaying, in short, effeminate behavior removes attention from Christ and His word and puts it on the priest. This is not just distracting to other men but I know my sisters will roll their eyes when the Liberace-like priest celebrates himself while celebrating the Mass.

Thomas also speaks on modesty of outward apparel. Moderation, of course, is the rule, and here he warns that the lack of moderation may arise from an inordinate attachment to clothes, with the result being that a man sometimes takes too much pleasure in them. G. K. Chesterton in describing a friend as a man’s man said it best when he stated, “He was not in any case a dandy; but insofar as he did dress well, he was totally indifferent to how other men who were his friends might dress, which is another mark of purely masculine companionship.” The three guiding virtues in dress are humility, contentment and simplicity. Here one must always consider the appropriateness of a situation and the personal motivation behind wearing certain apparel. This is not a new problem as Saint John Chrysostom addressed it in the 4th c. in his writing on The Learning of Temperance, which speaks of the folly of over-adorning oneself with jewels. He states that, “I, for my part, expect that in the process of time the young men among us will wear even women’s shoes and not be ashamed. And what is more grievous; men’s fathers seeing these things are not much displeased, but do even account it an indifferent manner. Do you want me to add what is still more grievous; that these things are done even when there are many poor?”. . . “What can be worse than this unseemliness, this absurdity? For, this marks a soul, in the first place effeminate, then unfeeling cruel, then curious and idly busy.” Chrysostom goes on to say, “You may indeed laugh at hearing this, but I am inclined to weep for these men’s madness and their earnest care about these matters, for in truth they would rather stain their body with mud than those pieces of leather.”

Now, I would hope that no one in seminary formation is going around in women’s shoes, but the general point is to watch our attachment to such things. Is it in line with being a man? With being a priest of Jesus Christ? I remember in my first year of seminary how I was shocked when I came across a first year priest in the seminary who was wearing a gold ankle bracelet and matching gold earring. These are not proper adornments for a priest or a seminarian, and this should be seen as a formation issue.

In the book, The Church Impotent, Leon Poodles asks why men in the Christian West are so little interested in religion and that men who are interested often do not follow the general pattern of masculinity. Father Tom Forrest, a priest active in international evangelization, points out that only 25% of the participants in Catholic gatherings he has attended are men. The fact is that women dominate daily Masses, church staff and volunteers, and church groups. Why are we not attracting men when the Orthodox seem to have a balance, and Islam and Judaism have predominately male membership? The author goes on to state that something seems to be creating a barrier between western Christianity and men.

Poodles observes, “Because Christianity is now seen as a part of the sphere of life proper to women rather to men, it sometimes attracts men whose masculinity is somewhat doubtful. By this I do not mean homosexuals, although a certain type of homosexual is included. Rather, religion is seen as a safe field, a refuge from the challenges of life, and therefore attracts men who are fearful of making the break with the secure world dominated by women. These are men who have problems following the path of masculinity.”

I am not a psychologist and I cannot speak on some over-attachment to the feminine, but there is a truth that masculinity as a needed virtue in the seminary is something that is generally ignored in formation. This may be one of the problems with why the church has a difficult time attracting men to Mass and serving the church.

What is it that draws soft or effeminate men to the seminary and why is this not dealt with in formation? Poodles offers the prior explanation for the former question but the latter can only be understood if it is admitted that there are many bishops, faculty and priests who suffer under this vice and are therefore unwilling or unable to recognize it or address it. All seminaries are not equal, some relish in their softness others have select faculty that will privately admit to the problem but for fear of offending colleagues and bishops refuse to speak out on it. In my years of seminary formation the most controversial conference was given by my own Bishop Robert Carlson on the vice of effeminacy. Some faculty and students were offended, the truth always stings, and felt my bishop either somehow lacked compassion or was mean spirited in discussing such an issue. This must end and as with all problems its solution begins only with admitting its existence and reality that many seminaries breed an effeminate culture.

In a study by Lewis Terman and Catherine Cox involving a masculinity-femininity test, Catholic seminarians scored at a point far less masculine than any other male group of their age. Right next to them, though, were the Protestant male seminarians, which the authors of the study stated ruled out celibacy or sexual deviance as a cause for connection to this lack of masculinity. This, it also must be pointed out, is not particular to the Catholic faith but to all of the western Christian faiths. In fact, “Some liberal Presbyterian or Methodist congregations are practically bereft of men.”

In a parish, it will be helpful if you can talk on sports to relate to men. If you have an easier time or even prefer interacting with women to the exclusion of men, this will cause problems in your parish and affect your ministry to men. I remember a seminarian from my dorm who, even though he was not athletically gifted, used to go out and practice basketball and softball with one of his classmates. He did this not so much for the exercise, but because he felt it would help him minister to the kids in the grade schools and high schools where he would serve as a priest. This man recognized the importance of sports in our culture and the fact that it could be used to draw the young, especially boys, to the church and to Christ.

The question then is what can be done in helping form and ordain more manly priests? First, seminaries and bishops must recognize effeminacy as a formation issue. In choosing faculty to teach and form our future priests the question must be asked does the candidate exhibit manly or effeminate qualities. Also, bishops need to realize that just because a priest requests an assignment, this does not automatically make him the right man for the job. This is especially true if the priest desires to work in liturgy, campus ministry, teaching or seminary work where a manly model of priesthood is most needed and unfortunately often most missing. Bishops need to take an active role in knowing and forming their priestly candidates. It is, perhaps, not only his most important decision but also the decision he will be held most accountable for. My own bishop is one of the few if not only bishops in our country who has every seminarian live at least a summer in his residence. He knows the men he will ordain. Bishop Carlson recounts a story of a seminarian he inherited who had already been through five years of formation and was extremely effeminate. In working with this seminarian he asked him about his sexual orientation. The seminarian responded he did not know. At that time he was two years away from being ordained and neither the rector nor seminary faculty saw this as a problem. This is the problem.

We need to consider Mt. 19:11-12 when the church discerns whether the seminarian actually has a priestly vocation. “Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they born so; some, because they were made so by others; some because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” This third and last category is the only one true call to celibacy and the priesthood. Hebrews 5:4 reminds us that, “No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” Bishops, rectors and seminary faculty must use these scriptures verses as guides in truly discerning if Jesus Christ is calling this seminarian to the priesthood. The number’s game and pressure to fill parishes cannot be used as the standard in making such decisions. This is one of the reasons why we are in the mess we are today. Certainly it is not always an easy decision but it must always be asked if this seminarian has an alternative motive to the priesthood other than God’s call. Also, necessarily, there must be men who are not blinded by similar vices to be able to see and makes this decision.

We need to take this time of scandal as an opportunity to take a good hard look at how our seminaries and vocation offices are run and staffed. As a seminarian I could not have said such things publicly without jeopardizing the review all seminarians must receive from the faculty staff to move onto ordination. I am now a priest and a vocation director and so, have a duty to raise such concerns in the hope that such things will be addressed in forming priests for the 3rd millennium who most fully image the source of priesthood our Lord Jesus Christ.

As a follow up to this, the following is are excerpts from an article written by a fellow seminarian, regarding the conditions at my former seminary.

-[This seminary] is staffed by good and holy people who genuinely have our best interests at heart. All of the following complaints are solely of a professional nature and are meant in no way as a personal rebuke.

- Amongst the student body, paranoia from being watched and being shut-in with a 120 men who are either like minded or scared to speak appears to have led to: rampant homophobia, lack of compassion for the laity and religious who are struggling with their faith and disobeying the church because of that struggle, lack of compassion for women who often feel ignored because of our patriarchal hierarchy, eagerness to mock cultures and Catholic parishes that do things differently from [this diocese], and an atmosphere of paranoia over committing heresy matched only by the Red Scare. This does not provide me with an open atmosphere to explore my faith and ask questions.

- I would’ve hoped that the majority of students at seminary would be happy people enjoying their seminary experience. This is not generally the case here. The majority of laughs are either at the expense of others or the ridiculousness of seminary policy. These laughs of sick desperation are however a welcome respite from the pervading mood of bitterness and sloth. My favorite quote made by a seminarian in good standing was “I’m tired of watching my vocation die.” All this makes it difficult to maintain an upbeat demeanor and an enthusiastic attitude towards my vocation.

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