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Dialogue Mass - CXXXII

Vatican II & Priestly Formation

Dr. Carol Byrne, Great Britain
The matter of the last article brings us to a reflection on what has brought about the sea-change in the ministerial priesthood in the first place, which has been a reality of ecclesiastical life since Vatican II. An obvious place to start our investigation would be the kind of formation given to those training for the priesthood in accordance with the guidelines of the Council document Optatam totius.

sulpice seminary

A female instructs relaxed seminarians at Saint Sulpice in Issy-les-Moulineaux seminary, France

We must keep in mind that the document offered only general guidelines. As part of the drive to decentralize the government of the Church in the interests of Collegiality, the task of implementing the guidelines was left to the individual Bishops who were expected to adapt their programmes of priestly formation to suit the different circumstances of life in their Dioceses.

The salient feature of Optatam totius is its desire to jettison the “rigidity” of former patterns of training based on the command-and-obey rule of past centuries. Instead, its emphasis was on a revolutionary liberty from restrictions imposed by authority structures, coupled with a fatal openness to the world and its influences. With regard to the reform of seminaries, this means that the teaching staff and students must open themselves to the influence of the modern world, and model their thoughts and behavior on the pattern of contemporary life.

Let us keep in mind that the publication of Optatam totius (and that of its parent document Gaudium et spes) coincided with and reflected the rebellious mood of the 1960s, with the result that they fanned the flames of revolution in the Church.

If any proof were needed of the disastrous effects of this anti-rigidity policy, we can take as an example the controversy that transpired in the 1960s between Card. James McIntyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles, and the priests of the Congregation of the Mission – the Vincentian Fathers – who were teaching at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California.

The history of the tensions that arose between the Cardinal and the “new breed” of seminarians at St. John’s has been well documented. One historian noted:

St. John s Seminary Camarillo

An aerial view of St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, California - closed in 2002, reopened in 2006; below, its rector Marco Durazo, a convicted predator priest

Marcos Dreazo

“He intensely loved the Church that existed prior to the Council and he could see little need for change.”1

Records show that Card. McIntyre was troubled by the Vatican II changes in the liturgy and in the concept of obedience to ecclesiastical authority, and that he resisted these changes with his customary “rigidity.”2 The price he paid for his principled stand was a sustained barrage of vilification by American liberal Catholics.

The prolific writer of Californian history, Kevin Starr, accurately described him as “the scapegoat for those pushing the ecclesial revolutions, so frequently self-destructive, of the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council.”3

And there are many other examples of the ill treatment suffered by McIntyre for his resistance to the Vatican II reforms. (In particular we must note the public defamation of the Cardinal by the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, for his longstanding “non-co-operation” and opposition to her involvement in radical political issues).4

Within five years after the Council ended, a Professor at St. John’s Seminary (later its President), Fr. Stafford Poole, C.M., could remark with accuracy in 1969:

“The American seminary has experienced a revolution. Anyone who compares the status of the average seminary in this country, whether it be diocesan or religious, with what it was 10 years ago has to be struck by the almost total reversal of policies and approaches that has taken place.

"And what is all the more remarkable is that most of these changes have taken place in the past five years. A decade ago it would have been normal to find the seminary in an isolated location, with heavy emphasis on rules and silence, with a quasi-monastic programme of spiritual exercises, and with detailed and lengthy regulations governing such weighty matters as visiting rooms after night prayers, and with student mail censored.”5

Card. McIntyre

Card. McIntyre defended traditional seminaries

This, we now know, is also an accurate description of the transformation in post-Vatican II seminaries on an international scale. For the American scene, a detailed study of this phenomenon, confirming Fr. Poole’s analysis, was published 20 years later.6

It is true that the ‘60s were characterized by student rebellion in all secular academic institutions; but, within the Church, the actual catalyst for revolution was provided by the Council’s documents themselves.

Optatam totius
in particular encouraged the relaxation of rules and restrictions imposed by the pre-Conciliar seminary regime in order to allow for greater autonomy in the personal life of the individual seminarian concerning freedom of movement, subjects of study, choice of company etc. Both Optatam totius and Gaudium et spes can be said to have opened the door to radical activists and ushered them straight into the seminary classrooms, allowing them to spread their ideologies and false philosophies.

It is only to be expected that after Vatican II, as Fr. Poole stated, “There followed a period of experimentation and then turmoil.” He went on to show the outcome of the new Conciliar policy:

“Experimentation with a few specified structures opened the way for questioning all of them. The old order came under attack as students demanded more openness, more consultation, and the abolition of whatever they considered to be “irrelevant” to their needs and those of their time.”7

Fr. Poole noted that “enrollments fell dramatically, and many seminaries had to be closed.” This included St. John’s Seminary when the axe fell in 2002.

huntington seminary closes

Seminary in Huntington, Long Island, closed in 2011

A further point to consider about the intentions of the conservative Fathers at the Council is that whoever among them failed to implement the thrust of Optatam totius towards openness to worldly values were subjected to savage reprisals. This took the form of campaigns of vilification conducted not by the media, but mainly by diocesan priests against their own Bishops.

It is pertinent to note that, while some stood firm against the hail of arrows directed against them, most conservative Bishops decided it would be easier to compromise and eventually to succumb to ideological pressure to update the seminaries as demanded by the revolutionaries. These two reactions to Vatican II were highlighted in a historical work that contrasted the respective policies of two conservative Archbishops of Los Angeles, Card. McIntyre (who stood firm in his traditional principles) and his successor, Card. McGucken (who first tried to appease his opponents and then completely lost control of the situation).8

In spite of the undeniable evidence of the failure of the Council’s reform of the seminaries to attract and foster enough vocations to the priesthood, Fr. Poole insisted, however, that there should be no return to the policies of the Tridentine seminary, which had set the norm for priestly training in the Church. What did he have against the Tridentine seminaries?

An unmerited criticism

His vehement denunciation reveals the commonly expressed criticism of the progressivists:

“The Catholic Reformation put a conservative, authoritarian and legalistic stamp on the face of Catholicism; and the condemnation of Modernism brought in its wake suppression and the stunting of intellectual growth.”9

In other words, both he and they were opposed to the preservation of Tradition, the power exercised by the former structures of authority and the enforcement of disciplinary laws under the ultimate control of the Pope.

Contest for control of seminaries

Fr. Poole

Progressivist Fr. Poole wrote spitefully against
the prestigious traditions of seminaries

The battle over who controls the seminaries was fought during the Council, and ended with a victory for the progressivists. Fr. Poole echoed the reformers opinion when he stated:

“Only if the Bishops take the lead will seminary renewal be a true success, for only they can supply the needed direction and apply the admirable spirit of Vatican II to this particular area of the Church’s life.”10

The Council handed control of the seminaries to the Episcopal Conferences “so that the general rules may be adapted to the special circumstances of time and place.” (Optatam totius § 1) But the direction that the Bishops gave was not a glorious success, as Fr. Poole was later forced to admit. After Rome lost its central control over priestly formation, and the Bishops collegially succumbed to the dictates of the zeitgeist, all that happened was that anarchy reigned supreme in the seminaries.

Dead metaphors

The excuse given by Fr. Poole for jettisoning pre-Conciliar seminaries was that, in his view, they were examples of the Church’s “most static and ossified institutions,”11 and were no longer able to keep up with the times. The metaphor of ossification was a common trope among progressivists who saw the inflexibility of the Church’s laws as an obstacle to their revolutionary plans for change. They still use it to convey their sense of frustration with the former seminary regime that was characterized by hard and fast rules, strict rubrics and fixed formulas.

In addition to calling traditional Catholics dinosaurs, some reformers use the word fossilization to denigrate the Catholic Tradition that was known and experienced before Vatican II. But here two different realities are being confused: fossilization is not the same as the stability and permanence of a tradition that lives on unchanged over centuries of the Church’s existence.

It is a living tradition and has the same spiritual value for traditional Catholics today as it had to their ancestors throughout the whole the History of the Church. And to prove its worth, seminaries based on the old “rigid” system of discipline and traditional liturgy never fail to attract plentiful vocations, while the reformed ones have been toppling one after the other in many parts of the world, forced to close through lack of enrolment.


  1. Jeffrey M. Burns, “Postconciliar Church as Unfamiliar Sky: The Episcopal Styles of Cardinal James F. McIntyre and Archbishop Joseph T. McGucken,’ in U.S. Catholic Historian, vol. 17, n. 4, Catholic University of America Press, 1999, p. 64.
  2. John Donovan, “The 1960s Los Angeles Seminary Crisis,” in The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 102, n. 1, Winter 2016, p. 78.
  3. Kevin Starr, “True Grit” (a review of His Eminence of Los Angeles by Msgr. Francis J. Weber, 1997), Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 22, 1997, p. 3.
  4. Dorothy Day, “The Case of Cardinal McIntyre,” in Catholic Worker, July-August 1964, p. 1. In this article she stated that McIntyre’s censure and prohibition “has increased the separation of clergy and laity, and has built up a wall of bitterness.” She also reported that a priest from Los Angeles (Fr. William DuBay) “wrote a letter to the Holy Father, asking for the removal of Card. McIntyre from the work of the Diocese,” and that the letter was widely published. But she did not defend the Cardinal against DuBay’s allegation of “conducting a vicious campaign of intimidation against priests, nuns and lay Catholics” supporting the Civil Rights Movement. For an earlier example of her public opposition to McIntyre in support of a politically radical priest, Fr. Hans Reinhold, see Carol Byrne, The Catholic Worker Movement: A Critical Analysis, Authorhouse, 2010, p. 245.
  5. Stafford Poole C.M., “Requiem for Seminaries?” in American Ecclesiastical Review, 1969, vol. 161, Issue 4, p. 245.
  6. Joseph White, The Diocesan Seminary in the United States: A History from the 1780s to the Present, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989.
  7. S. Poole, “Ad Cleri Disciplinam: The Vincentian Seminary Apostolate in the United States,” in John Rybolt C.M., The American Vincentians: A Popular History of the Congregation of the Mission in the United States 1815-1987, New York: Vincentian Digital Books 18, 1988, p. 151.
  8. Jeffrey M. Burns, op. cit., pp. 64-82.
  9. S. Poole, “Renewal in the Seminary,” in The Furrow, vol. 16, n. 11, November 1965, p. 668.
  10. Ibid.
  11. S. Poole, Seminary in Crisis, New York: Herder and Herder, 1965, p. 55.

Posted November 20, 2023


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