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Priestly formation and dealing with scandal Print
Guest column
Fr. Gregory Ihm

What is the Church doing to deal with the scandal of priests and bishops acting against their promise of celibacy and those that have covered up the scandalous actions of those involved?

I've heard people say that if the Church would only allow priests to get married, the temptations would be taken care of and we might get more priests.

This presumes that marriage solves the temptations toward disordered use of sexuality, but we know that families have also experienced many sexual abuses against the vows made at the wedding. Abolishing celibacy is not the answer and in fact, several have commented that celibate priesthood is the answer to today's great sexual scandals in the Church.

Not only does abolishing celibacy not solve the problem, but it also robs the priesthood from one of its most fruitful aspects: celibacy.

Celibacy is what forms a man's heart to being a spiritual father.

The Lord uses the priest's natural desire to create an ability to care for, defend, and nurture life in those he has been called to serve.

Celibacy allows him to offer a father's heart on the altar everyday at Mass, and it in return, forms his heart to love his children really for eternal life.

Please check out this article for a more in-depth understanding of celibacy's role in being the answer to the scandal by forming true spiritual fathers: "Celibacy Is The Answer, Not the Problem" by Fr. Carter Griffin

Confidence in the Church

I was recently talking with a very devout father that loves and respects the priesthood.

He said that when the most recent scandal broke, he questioned if he would ever consider trusting his children serving at Mass or entering the seminary.

On further consideration of the priests that he knows, he finds that those that have been in formation in recent years are holy and healthy by their commitment to their priesthood which includes: life of prayer, seeking of intentional fraternal community, and maintaining a healthy understanding of sexuality.

I mention this story because I think many parents have reasonable hesitation due to the scandal.

The confidence that the Church should take is in the fact that She has done a lot to screen applicants and make sure that they are well disposed to live a life of celibacy.

A few of these things are the lengthy evaluation which includes getting to know the candidates, completing a full psychological evaluation, and other standards that speak to a man's ability to live a healthy, chaste life for a period of time.

Those charged with the formation of men to the priesthood know the candidates better and more deeply than previous decades to aid each individual in establishing a healthy sexuality.

While the Church can never guarantee that her leaders won't break the sacred promise of celibacy, they have done much to guard against it and to prepare men to live it out more healthily.

The seminary is not a place to heal disordered sexuality, but it does help men grow in confidence of who they are as sons loved by God, which in turn strengthens their identity.

It is out of this identity that they are able to serve the Lord faithfully when difficulties arise, and it is in the midst of the regular difficulties that celibacy bears fruit. Jn. 12:24 "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."

The Program For Priestly Formation (PPF), is an excellent guiding document that seminaries have used for many years to structure their formation program.

In 2002, the Vatican evaluated each American seminary to make sure they were following the PPF.

Each seminary can always find areas of growth in the program of priestly formation, but in general, it is and has been very good.

Creating a culture of holiness

The Church still has much to do to respond to the scandal, and I think it lies in creating a culture of holiness in those places that form men prior to their application to the seminary and after their ordination to the priesthood.

Sexual maturity is intimately tied to a healthy and rightly ordered identity, which is mostly formed during teenage and young adult years.

Mothers and fathers presence in their children's lives is profoundly informative by letting them know that they are loved for who they are rather than what they do.

Structure is one of the ways children recognize that they are loved, because it creates an atmosphere for healthy relating with each other.

Giving young people healthy boundaries, consequences, and responsibility is very helpful in teaching them to work through and overcome conflict and tragedy.

Youth need to be taught the true meaning of human sexuality and its purpose because the culture continues to feed them lies that lead to greater confusion and bad habits.

Healthy friendship, which leads to healthy community, is another thing the Church needs to teach and form among young people especially in high school and college ages.

Need for fraternity

After a man is ordained to the priesthood, there is a great need for continued formation and accountability.

Fraternity is an important aspect of this, and it fights against isolation and habits that are contrary to a holy way of life, which often times can lead priests to making selfish choices.

In a culture where offending someone is a capital offense, a healthy and properly ordered fraternal correction is needed.

Healthy fraternal correction can only be done in a community where love of God causes us to give and receive it in charity.

Another area for growth is having good confessors and spiritual directors available to allow priests to continue to seek holiness in earnest long after they have left seminary formation.

In conclusion, the answer to the question, what is the Church doing in answer to the scandal, is that it needs to maintain implementing the PPF effectively.

The Church universally needs to help form the nature of our youth so that they are capable of living a life of chastity because they know their identity as a beloved child of God.

The Church will need to provide for the human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation of her priests through good confessors, spiritual directors, intellectual formation, and a healthy fraternity.


Fr. Gregory Ihm is the director of vocations for the Diocese of Madison.