In face of the sex abuse scandals in the Church, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix issued a column this month asking the question: “What went wrong in priestly formation?”
Bishop Thomas Olmsted highlighted in his Feb. 17 column at The Catholic Sun three factors that contributed to the clerical sexual abuse scandal: the sexual revolution, weak seminaries, and clericalism.
He said the sexual revolution, which in the 1960s challenged the ethics of sexual behaviors in the West, had sought to promote a false idea of “free love.” With the surge of an overly sexualized culture, he said, the movement created long-lasting problems.
“This revolution promised ‘free love,’ happiness and liberation from purported encumbrances of religion and tradition, particularly the Commandments,” he said.
“Sadly, the over-focus on sexual pleasure, the reducing and labeling of persons to their attractions (LGBTQ, etc.) and the viewing of persons as objects for pleasure have led to unprecedented numbers of infidelity, divorce, loneliness and abuse in the greater culture.”
He said the crisis was worsened by inadequate responses from the Church, citing silence and “harsh moralizing.” This only strangled the message of God’s love and distorted a full understanding of the human person, he said.
However, the bishop said there were also appropriate responses, including St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body. He said this answer promoted a greater comprehension of true love alongside responsibility.
“Related to the general confusion about human love caused by the sexual revolution, we also suffered from an insufficient understanding of priestly celibacy,” Bishop Olmsted noted, adding that Pope Francis has affirmed the value of celibacy for the priesthood.
“Indeed, in a world that believes that sexual pleasures must have free reign, even at the cost of innocent unborn children, there is need for those men and women who proclaim by their lives that ultimate love and fulfillment come from God and that self-mastery is certainly possible with God’s grace. Chaste celibacy, received as a gift of God and formed through spiritual and human direction, is a needed response to a false idea of 'free love.'”
Amid the confusion caused by the sexual revolution “Church leaders faild to adequately screen applicants” to seminary, he said. “It was often assumed that the human and the spiritual qualities of the man were present and sufficient. This was a poor assumption, and it led to too little consideration of a man’s human virtues and of his relationship with Jesus Christ. As a result, some candidates unfit for ministry were accepted.”
Dissent from orthodoxy was present in many seminaries in the 1970s and '80s, he said, especially regarding sexual ethics.
“For example, the masculine spousal dimension in which a priest is called to love as Christ loved His Bride the Church (Cf. Eph 5) was not taught much at all. As a result, the priesthood was too frequently seen, not as a life of masculine love, but merely pertaining to certain ministerial functions. It was erroneously thought among some that the nature of the priesthood itself would change.”
Bishop Olmsted added that “some seminaries became places with not only men who lacked a true calling from Jesus to the priesthood but even where a homosexual subculture sprang up.”
“It is difficult to deny this problem considering the high percentage of abuse cases that occurred between men and post-pubescent boys.”
“On several occasions, our Holy Father has stated that clericalism played a part in the current scandals as priests and bishops sought to cover up abuses,” the bishop noted. He added that “disproportionate esteem for priests by the faithful, at times, was (and still can be) problematic.”
He said the priest, like any man, is a sinner in need of redemption, but the state is one of service.
“One should enter the priesthood through a calling from Jesus to share in His mission. That mission is to proclaim Christ Crucified and Risen from the dead,” he recalled.
“Especially in this country, Church leaders have been slow to embrace this mission and settled for simply maintaining her membership rather than boldly evangelizing the culture.”
The bishop noted that “instead of being Catholic out of conviction and a deep relationship with Jesus, the faith has become for too many something merely cultural,” and he recalled Archbishop José Gomez' statement that Christ “did not come to suffer and die so that He could make ‘cultural Catholics'”.
“Cultural Catholicism”, Bishop Olmsted said, “lacks true conviction to follow Jesus when His teachings differ from ways of the culture.”
He said that many of the concerns in priestly formation “are now being addressed well,” and recalled that St. John Paul II was “convinced that the answer to these scandals is great fidelity.”
“Like other times of storms in the Church, Jesus continues to renew His Mystical Body through holiness,” Bishop Olmsted concluded. “You and I are called to be saints.”