Recently, on America magazine’s website, I posted a response to the letters to the editor, online comments, and critical blogs that defended certain aspects of a particular clerical lifestyle. One of the things I mentioned was that while a lot of the loudest public voices had reacted defensively to my October column in America, I received dozens of private messages from lay women and men, priests, seminarians, diocesan employees, and others whose personal experiences resonated with the piece. This week Professor Pat McNamara wrote an essay about his personal experience of the culture of clericalism at a major US seminary, which has circulated privately on Facebook and elsewhere. After reading his reflection, I asked Prof. McNamara if he would be willing to share this as a guest post on my blog. He graciously agreed to share it more widely. I believe this reflection offers another important perspective that has not yet been made as public as the defensive voices. I also know, from personal correspondence and discussion with other seminary professors (both lay and ordained), that Prof. McNamara’s experience is, unfortunately, not an anomaly but an all-too familiar reality. I am grateful to him for speaking up about this complicated and unsettling topic.

Reflections of a Seminary Educator 
By Pat McNamara

Fr. Dan Horan’s recent piece in America magazine, “Lead Us Not into Clericalism” (October 21, 2013), is still generating controversy. While it’s got some people on the defensive, usually those who’ve long deemed themselves “John Paul II priests,” it’s got many more (lay and clergy) saying “amen.” Father Dan writes about a growing phenomenon of what he calls the “unapproachable or pretentious character of so many of the newly ordained”:

They appear to be more concerned about titles, clerical attire, fancy vestments, distance between themselves and their parishioners, and they focus more on what makes them distinctive than on their vocation to wash the feet of others (Jn 13:14–17), to lead with humility and to show the compassionate face of God to all.

Noting Pope Francis’s comments about clericalism, Father Dan writes that the pontiff’s words are a call for clergy “to remember that their baptism is what matters most.” Sadly, for many, it’s not, and judging from the quality of the men getting ordained today, it’s only going to get worse, not better.

For two years, I served on the faculty of a major seminary, where I got to see clericalism both in its early and its full-blown stages of development. To the students I was clearly an anomaly, if not an oddity. They always addressed me politely as “Doctor,” but there was an underlying element of condescension, as if I were the seminary’s lay mascot. “Oh, you’re so good, Doctor,” one twenty-five year old cooingly said to me. (I half expected him to pat me on the head and send me on my way!)

As a married layperson, I was something of an anomaly on the faculty. In many ways, I felt like an ecclesiastical version of “The Help,” and often was made to feel like an intruder. One priest on the faculty refused to acknowledge me, let alone talk to me, and would sneeringly groan and glare upon passing me in the hallway. My relationship with the clergy was always very formal. Not once in two years did a priest say to me, “Hi, I’m Mike,” or “I’m Bill.” It was always “Father,” even in private. Correct ecclesiastical protocol was truly observed at all times. I was clearly unwelcome in the faculty lounge or dining room.

As far as the seminarians go, cassocks and capes, birettas, collars up to their earlobes, round Roman hats were the norm. It was like every day was a clerical version of Halloween. When they left the grounds, which they rarely did, some students adopted fedoras and double-breasted suits as if to emphasize their antiquarianism. A few even smoked pipes or expensive English cigarettes, with silver cases to prove it. (Many had a expressed preference for rare Scotches.) All this was done, clearly, to emphasize their uniqueness. (One seminarian had a picture of himself on Facebook with cloak and walking stick.) Truth be told, while the faculty may have done little to encourage all this, they also did little to discourage it.

From what I could see, these men had little interaction with laypeople people of any kind outside the seminary, except to teach catechism or visit a nursing home once in a while. (Working in shelter homes or soup kitchens were neither an option nor an interest.) During the time of Hurricane Sandy, the seminarians stayed comfortably ensconced on the seminary grounds, which the facilities management staff cleaned up. The reason, I was told, was that there was no gas for the cars (although the seminary grounds have their own gas station).

Frankly, it was pretty weird, and truth be told, more than a little unhealthy.

This particular seminary, which once produced some of the country’s finest theologians and biblical scholars, is not today what you would call a hotbed of intellectual fervor. When I asked students what books they were reading, the answer was that most of them simply didn’t read. (That phenomenon, of course, is not exclusive to seminarians, as any professional educator will attest.) Those who did prided themselves on ornate leather breviaries, handsomely bound and archaic devotional works (usually from Tan Books).

Nobody ever mentioned reading the Bible, either Old or New Testaments. (On one quiz, a faculty member asked his class of fifteen to list the Ten Commandments. Half of them got it right.) Nobody ever mentioned reading the documents of Vatican II, although a few did have nice copies of the Catechism of the Council of Trent. To the best of my knowledge, no course of any kind was offered on Vatican II.

Nor was anything offered on the theology of the laity, or the lay vocation. (Lay students taking courses at night are banned from the seminary building proper, and have little if any interaction with the seminarians.) One would think that this might help, given the fact that these are a priest’s main clientele. Yet for four years, these men spend the majority of their time on the grounds of a seminary, with little pastoral practice, except for a few weeks in the summer. (Some dioceses used to have a pastoral year, but have now done away with this. Why is not exactly clear.)

If priests are supposed to exercise leadership roles in the Church, the unspoken truth is that pitifully few of our future clergy have any kind of leadership skills. (There are some rare exceptions, usually men who spent some time in the business world or the military. But these are all too rare.) Many are only comfortable with children and/or old ladies, in other words “the churched,” not with their own peers or the “unchurched,”whom they simply write off. I suspect that many would be clinically diagnosed as introverts, while many others, to put it plainly, are just lacking in social skills.

Many of these same young men will soon be proclaiming from the pulpits the “New Evangelization,” a catchphrase invented by the late John Paul II, a man many of them idolize. But how are they going to share the Good News when they’re afraid to stretch themselves out to others, when they can’t talk to any not completely on the same wave-length? The days of standing on your ecclesiastical office are long gone. What about reaching out to people where they’re at, with compassionate solidarity and without fear of personal rejection. No wonder so many churches today are little more than a sea of white hair!

If nothing else, Pope Francis has reminded us that it’s possible to be more Catholic than Christian, and that we need to reverse that trend. Otherwise, we’re left with a Catholic version of fundamentalism that focuses on one’s own personal piety and ignores one’s apostolic obligations to love fearlessly, boldly and without exception. At its core, Christianity is a religion of action. As a Jesuit friend of mine put it, “It’s one thing to talk about social justice. It’s another thing to get off your ass and do something about it.”

In other words, what you have been given, you’re supposed to pay forward; or, as Jesus put it, “Love one another as I have loved you.” The nature of God is love, and the nature of love is to give itself freely. After all, what good is it if you only love the people who love you? Yet for many, that is the nature of clerical life today.

Seminaries need to have more of a sense of that apostolic urgency, to remind their students that they’re not there for their own personal piety, that they’re ordained to be servants, not Civil War reenactors. Bishops and seminary administrators need to face this problem more directly. Otherwise, the phenomenon of clericalism is only going to get worse. The time for circling wagons is over.

Pat McNamara earned a Ph.D. in Church History from the Catholic University of America. He is the author of three books on American Catholic History and currently teaches at St. Francis College (NY). He is the author of “McNamara’s Blog” on Patheos.

Photo: via Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary


  1. Dan and Pat,
    This follow up to your original article is a sad description of what could be the future of the church in the US. I thought it was unique to our diocese (Arlington). It demonstrates, in my opinion the difference in those how were educated and ordained with the spirit of Vatican II and the documents produced at the urging and spirit of Pope John XXIII. It is the difference between turning the altar facing the people emphasizing the imminence of God with us. The seminarians Pat talks about would, it seems, rather celebrate the Eucharist with their backs to the people remaining aloof and transcendent. It is the difference between a John XXIII priest and a Pope John Paul priest. Pope Francis should require the Vatican II documents required study as a condition of ordination.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.
    Pax et Bonum,

  2. Boy, this hits the nail on the head. 7 years ago I was on sabbatical in Rome at PNAC. it was a wonderfuyl experience. I met many young men eager to serve God’s people once ordained. But there were a few who had totally bought into the clerical culture. Always in collar or cassock. Chain smokers. Anorexic. Blond-haired vocation poster-children with an attitude of entitlement. Some would endure their teachers at the Pontifical Universities. Do the minimum to pass their classes. Believed that they already had sufficient and superior theological knowledge. [Neo-gnostics?] When they were ordained, they would set things straight! Some secretly stole off into the night to the basement of other seminaries in Rome to clandestinely take lessons on how to celebrate the Tridentine Liturgy, “just is case they would see the day they were waiting for.” [Anthony Newley: Stop the world I want to get off!] Most of the young men I met there were a pleasure to talk with, eat with and be moved by their vocational stories. But a few…wound a bit too tightly! They are accidents waiting to happen who will harm the Church they claim to love, and will keep St. Luke Institute and other treatment centers in business well into the middle of the century. God help the laity they will try to dominate.

  3. The author makes many good points and I am grateful that he shared his experience. However, I do think it is unfortunate that he compared himself to the African American women who worked as maids and servants in the Jim Crow South. Surely, phd holding male professors working voluntarily in all male Catholic seminaries do not suffer an oppression akin to that which black women did.

  4. These priests and seminarians are missing half the picture if they consider themselves John Paul II priests. John Paul II as seminarian, priest, Bishop and Pope was very pastoral and always with the people.

  5. Hard hitting and honest – a wonderful reflection. Paul Hetherington’s poem “Uncle Bible” is worth a read about this very topic.

  6. As a Catholic, I must wonder about the wisdom of this post. The phrase ‘cover your father’s nakedness’ comes to mind. Especially since we’re not talking about priests, we are talking about seminarians – in other words, they are NOT done with formation yet. The problems you see in these men might be worked out – if the faculty mention it. That would have been wiser than writing an essay about it on Facebook and then re-blogging it. If you did point it out to those in charge (Aquinas taught we should only point it out to those in authority to do something about it, not to others), the next step would have been to speak to their superiors (the Rector, then Vicar General, then the Archbishop).

    As a Priest, I’m even more concerned – I feel it is necessary to point out that around 30% (less with my class) of the men who begin the college seminary actually get ordained – I feel like you have the moral obligation to point that fact out. In other words, many of these men who so worry you won’t be ordained.

    As a Traditionally-minded Priest (I celebrate both forms of the Mass) who has doubled the size of his parish in two years, I’m dismayed. I’m a graduate of that seminary you taught at (you don’t mention it, but a quick Google search brings you up as still teaching there). The cassock was forbidden except for Mass until just two years ago. Birettas, capes and round roman hats are also forbidden, so you must be referring to men on their time off. My parish is not far from the Seminary, so I know the students well. When I do see too much style and not enough content, I personally try to speak to the seminarian, and being a ‘traditionalist,’ I seem to have the credentials to do so. I show them the Boy Scouts, Daughters of Mary, Youth Group, Legion of Mary and Charismatic Prayer groups that I have started or have since grown, and try to guide them. I don’t spread the doubt among the faithful by telling them to judge based on age or style, not on work.

    I doubt this comment will be published – it’s not the type of comment that pushes the ‘Spirit of Vatican 2,’ but I hope it is forwarded to you.

    1. Jean-Paul, there are many aspects of your comment that I find problematic, even disturbing.

      First, I’m troubled by the suggestion that a Catholic ought to “cover your father’s nakedness.” How can you suggest this in the wake of the clergy abuse crisis? That sort of logic has only done harm to the church.

      Second, you suggest that once seminarians complete their formation, the clericalism that Prof. McNamara identifies will be “worked out.” This reasoning doesn’t add up to me. Further formation in an environment pervaded by clericalism will not produce clergy who exhibit less clericalism. If these troubling seminarians experience further formation in an environment that openly calls out and contests clericalism, then perhaps it could be “worked out” of these young men.

      Third, you point out that around 30% of seminarians do not complete formation and enter the priesthood. You suggest that the seminarians about whom Prof. McNamara is concerned constitute much of the 70% who are not ordained. Why do you assume that it is the clerical seminarians who leave formation–who never make it ordination? Based on the description Prof. McNamara offers, it seems much more likely that the non-clerical men in formation would depart from an environment that fosters–or even tolerates–this vision of clerical life. Couldn’t it be that the 30% who complete seminary are those who are comfortable enough with clericalism to endure these institutions in the long haul?

      Finally, regarding your snide concluding remark about Vatican II: You seem to be positioning your comments in opposition to the Council. I don’t see how positioning yourself in opposition to “the Spirit” of one of the church’s ecumenical councils can serve your argument in any way.

      1. Jessica, thanks for your reply. To ‘cover your Father’s nakedness’ is actually applicable here. To denounce evil is necessary and true – that’s what I tried to point out about speaking to those in authority, and even going above them if necessary, that’s why I listed even the Archbishop. But to write about it to people who can do nothing about it? St. Josemaria Escriva says that to speak about a problem to someone who can do nothing about it is almost always just gossip, not a noble act at all.

        A lot of things are ‘worked out’ of men training for the priesthood. At that seminary, for example, in 8 years of formation (some do 12 years), they are judged and voted on EACH YEAR on their human formation (How are they as gentlemen? Socially? Psychologically?), academic formation, spiritual formation, and pastoral formation (How will they relate as priests to the people? How will they get the truths of the faith across in a loving manner?). At least 2 psychological exams are given (usually the MMPI), and regular meetings with professional specialized psychologists. The faculty get a vote – just one no vote, and you have to meet with the faculty member, possibly the rector. The staff are also allowed to give their opinion (maintenance men, kitchen staff, etc). Their summer assignments to parishes also affect them – the pastor, priests and even secretaries are asked their opinion of these men each time.

        Also, your point about the abuse scandals is soberingly true, but we’re not speaking about that. It is in doubt if we’re even speaking about a Mortal Sin in this article. We should be careful about complaining about things we don’t like – there is no excuse we can give to God when he asks why we tore someone down for something that isn’t Mortal Sin – St. Thomas Aquinas has a lot to say about that in the section on Fraternal Correction.

        I apologize for not being clearer when I spoke about the dropout rate – an average of 30% of men GET ORDAINED. The Dropout rate is 70%. To be clear: THE VAST MAJORITY OF MEN WHO ENTER THE SEMINARY WON’T BE ORDAINED. So it is safe to say that any problem (real or perceived), seems to be eliminated. So to comment on ‘the future of the Church’ based on all of them is a bit much, and more to my original point, Jessica: did it help or hurt your faith to read Dr. McNamara’s article? Did it move you closer to God? Inspire you? Or did it plant or grow a seed of dissent, doubt, or judgment.

        Lastly, my snide remark at the end: Vatican 2’s DOCUMENTS did not call for a lot of things that are done. When questioned, people will say, “it wasn’t in the documents, but in the ‘spirit’ of the council that we did this.” My remark was meant to mock that. But I do apologize for the misplaced humor.

        Allow me to be more serious: Pope Emeritus Benedict AND Pope Francis have SPECIFICALLY mentioned the EVIL of the ‘spirit of Vatican 2 (my favorite is Pope Francis’ recent remarks calling it “The fruit of the devil” and when he THANKED a Traditionalist Theologian for correcting him, praised him as the best interpreter of Vatican 2 and condemning the ‘spirit of Vatican 2’).

      2. Jean-Paul, regarding your reply–

        I stand by my assertion that “covering your father’s nakedness” is an inappropriate response to this topic. The topic of clericalism is not a problem that ought to be reserved for only the small number of people who run formation programs, as you imply. Clericalism, while not the gravest of sins, injures the Body of Christ in real ways. It injures the clergy and the laity–all of us. Furthermore, it is not a problem that only a few can actually do something about, as you imply. By raising this discussion in a public forum, as Prof. McNamara and Dan have bravely done, they alert us all of our responsibility to address this problem within our church. Although those running formation programs may have more direct avenues for addressing this problem, all of us must hold them accountable and take responsibility for the ways, subtle and overt, that we might perpetuate this culture.

        I am glad to hear that there are many systems in place to “work out” problems among those in formation for the priesthood, but the question remains: how, after all these stages of evaluation, do so many young priests leave formation with such pronounced clericalism? It seems that these systems, while good for “working out” many things, are insufficient for addressing the clericalism exemplified by many of the newly ordained.

  7. As someone who had Pat as a teacher…he was excellent, thorough and devoted man. Our class loved him, he’s hardly a hippie….which is why I felt emboldened to comment here. I too have felt this, at times, about some (not all) newly ordained.

    I’m also like Fr. Jean-Paul, a fairly traditional priest. I’ve been a pastor for four years of a very large parish (3,000 people a weekend), I wear my cassock almost everyday on campus, and have a normal functioning human relationships with the people of my parish.

    I think that this is a difficult problem to solve, some of these guys, who I know, will take correction from me because of “my trad cred” not unlike Fr. JP. Sadly, there are also forces (one in particular) which are aiming to take these guys out totally, which permits them to use the excuse that they’re being persecuted simply for being “orthodox.” It’s too bad because legitimate critique is necessary with some.

    Being an awesome, vibrant, and traditional priest is great! Trust me. But acting like one is still in Brideshead Revisited is another. Lets pray for each other. And BTW- I told the “cape and walking stick” dude that he looks like a freakin’ wierdo on Facebook.

  8. Speaking as a seminarian in Texas, and meeting men in formation from all around the world, I have no idea how this article reflects a general trend in the U.S.

    I must say I am somewhat sceptical that it is. Is there any evidence that supports this otherwise?

  9. Professor McNamara makes some sound points, although I wouldn’t associate myself with the entirety of his critique. Given the ontological nature of the priesthood, it must be said that priests simply are different. The problem, I would suggest, is a failure to really grasp what this ‘otherness’ entails. It is simply to unite oneself more closely to the sacrificial victimhood of the crucified Savior. And this is, as our Holy Father cleverly points out, a promotion: “[Jesus] was promoted to the Cross, He was promoted to humiliation. That is true promotion, that which makes us seem more like Jesus!”

  10. I have seen a young priest I know become gradually more distant as he progressed through seminary. Now he is all smiles, when he greets parishioners, but the smiles don’t reach his eyes. So sad.

  11. Again i ask, why is clericalism bad? A priest is a cleric, he is suppose to act like one. since when is the word clericalism a negative. I am sorry i suppose that 2,000 years of church institutions had it all wrong before the second vatican council, i’m sorry maybe all the great saints and priest that where in formation in the history of the church where too “cleric” for our taste. I’m sorry, St. John Vianney seem like he had it all wrong… (if you haven’t notice i am being sarcastic). Yes, i read the blog and there are some pointers that i have seen personally of seminarians but instead of bad mouthing them in the internet, i have myself corrected them and so have many priest that i know. Let’s remember they are not perfect and considering the age they are when they attend seminary, some are acting like regular teenagers and young adults, give them time to mature.

    1. Jennifer, I appreciate your willingness to voice your opinion, but you seem to misunderstand the distinction between being a “cleric” (no one disputes the neutrality of that) and “clericalism” — here’s an analog: the difference between “race” and “racism,” surely you understand the difference.

  12. I am appalled at what can only be a culture of young men enacting a romantic vision of priesthood rather than the office of pastor with all that it reqires. I worry for both the parishes they will be assigned to, and for the seminarians themselves–for they are not being prepared in any way for their mission.
    How on earth would a seminary fail to offer and require courses in areas relevant to active ministry? To nurture a spirituality that will enable them to both nurture the fiath of others and withstand the storms of pastoral ministry? To understand both Sacred Scripture and the life of the Church today. The blame here is not just (or primarily) on the seminarians, but on those who are supposed to form them as priests. WHAT ARE THEY THINKING?

  13. Reading this article, I must say that it sounds like Dr. McNamara misunderstands many things about seminaries, formation, priests and seminarians. I am an alumnus of this seminary and while nothing is perfect, I know that I received a good foundation from which to begin priestly ministry. There is a such thing as a healthy clerical culture because priests are set apart from the laity by virtue of the sacrament of holy orders. That does not mean a condescending attitude toward the laity, but it does mean a unique sense of identity must be learned if one is to be a successful priest. People want Father not Mike or Bill.

    I think it’s sad that former students of Dr. McNamara are reading this and seeing the false image he is painting of them. I know this place and rare scotches and pipes do not fill the seminarians’ day. These young men are generously following the Lord and trying to do his will. The priesthood is not an easy path and these men are trying to take it up. It hard enough to take up this way of life without heaping on more contempt on them. These young men are good and they give me hope for the future. Pray for them, don’t tare them down. That’s the devils work.

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