Why Would a Bishop Refuse to Ordain a Seminarian?

Q:  I was a seminarian for nearly five years, and in fifth year I was suddenly and unexpectedly dismissed as a seminarian by the bishop.  He gave me three reasons for the dismissal, each of which I protested.  For example, the first reason he claimed was that a priest told him that some people said that I was “standoff-ish” during a novena in our cathedral….  The bishop couldn’t or wouldn’t give me any clarification and I was therefore unable to defend myself, except to say that I had never been described in such a way before.  The bishop refused to discuss very positive reports about me….  I felt in the course of our meeting that I could respond to and “fix” the charges being leveled against me, but I had the sense that the bishop did not want me to fix the situation.

I later learned that the seminary authorities were expecting me to stay in seminary and were giving me a positive report.

A number of weeks later, my mother wrote to the bishop about another matter – I was not aware of this until after she sent the letter. My mother was astonished when she received a response from the bishop in which he outlined the reasons why he had dismissed me – information which my mother never requested or mentioned in her letter. In fact, the bishop revealed information to her about my dismissal which I was not even aware of myself! There were also inconsistencies in his response compared to what he had said to me…

I wrote a letter to the bishop after my dismissal in order to express my dismay at the lack of clarity during our meeting, and I also expressed my concern at his imprudence in revealing personal information to my mother. I never received so much as an acknowledgement of this letter.

A couple of months later, the bishop resigned on health grounds.  This has made this situation even more difficult for me – that a bishop can make such a drastic decision, knowing he is about to resign, but yet not be obliged to give any concrete reasons for his decision….

Don’t get me wrong – I am not questioning the bishop’s authority to make a decision about me, but it appears to me that he abused his authority in this case. Nor do I believe that I have a right to be ordained a priest. I am motivated by a strong sense of justice, and I believe strongly that a serious injustice has prevailed here.

Have you any advice regarding how I might proceed with this?  The whole situation has made it difficult for me to move forward in my discernment….  I do not want to jeopardize my chances of being accepted by another bishop, but I would like to know if someone in my position has any sort of recourse. –Nevil

A:  Ordinary Catholics know that throughout the world there is a dire shortage of vocations to the priesthood—but they usually don’t hear about behind-the-scenes stories like Nevil’s, which of course are directly related to the issue.  Let’s look at the relevant canons on the subject, and see what conclusions we might be able to draw about Nevil’s situation.  Since Nevil was studying to become a diocesan priest, we’ll look here at the canons pertaining to the diocesan clergy.  Many other men become priests who are also members of religious institutes, like the Franciscans or Benedictines—see “The Priesthood and the Vow of Poverty” for more on the distinction—and the canons governing their preparation for ordination are slightly different, though fundamentally parallel.

First of all, Nevil is absolutely correct that he has no “right to be ordained a priest.”  As we saw in “Can Homosexual Men be Ordained to the Priesthood?canon 1025.1 tells us that among other things, a candidate for ordination must be considered by his bishop to be beneficial to the ministry of the Church.  If the bishop feels that the candidate is for some reason unfit, the man cannot insist that he be ordained.  Simply claiming that “I am convinced God is calling me to the priesthood” is not enough—as the life of St. Benedict Joseph Labre (to cite only one example) can attest.

Canon 241.1 lays out for us the qualities which a man should have if he is to be accepted into the seminary: his human, moral, spiritual and intellectual gifts, his physical and psychological health, and his right intention should show that he is capable of dedicating himself to sacred ministry for the rest of his life.  This is why some men who express a desire to become priests are rejected at the very beginning of the process: they might be too sickly, or demonstrate a low intellectual ability, or show signs of a personality disorder or other emotional issues.  Their current conduct or past life might give indications of sexual problems, or might even suggest that they’re just looking for job security for life, and don’t really have a vocation at all.  There are any number of red flags that might crop up, indicating that a man is not suitable for the priesthood.

Bear in mind that it’s also possible that an entirely well balanced, intelligent and healthy man can be refused admittance to the seminary, if for whatever reason(s) he just doesn’t seem to be cut out for that sort of life, and his vocation appears to lie elsewhere!  In short, a man could conceivably seek to become a priest for any number of the wrong reasons—and if the bishop can spot them right away, the man’s request will simply be denied up-front, saving both the man and the diocese a lot of time/money and preventing a lot of headaches.

Note that canon 241.1 specifies that this is the bishop’s decision.  Depending on where in the world you happen to live, your diocesan bishop may not do all this work himself, instead relying heavily on other clergy to assist him.  Many dioceses have a vocations director, whose job it is to screen potential candidates on the bishop’s behalf; and the rector of the diocesan seminary could be involved in this preliminary process as well.  But ultimately, the decision to admit (or not admit) a man to the seminary is the bishop’s; and if he wishes, he can overrule his vocations director or anyone else who has been asked to weigh in.

Of course once a man enters the seminary, there’s plenty of additional opportunity for the staff to see whether he appears to be well suited to the priesthood or not.  As canon 250 asserts, the philosophical and theological training of seminarians is to take “at least six full years.”  It frequently happens that a prospective seminarian may have initially seemed like a promising candidate, but as the months/years progress, it can become increasingly clear that for whatever reason(s), a particular seminarian just isn’t a good fit.  At the same time, the seminarians are doing a lot of discerning of their own, and often conclude after spending several semesters studying for the priesthood that this isn’t what they’re meant to do with their lives after all.  Heaven only knows how many good, sound Catholic men around the world have “tried their vocation” in the seminary, only to realize that their true calling in life was altogether different—and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

This process of discernment can often last several years, but as both seminary staff and seminarians know full well, any and all uncertainty is supposed to be cleared up before the seminarian is ordained to the diaconate.  This is because, as we saw in “What Can (And Can’t) a Deacon Do?” deacons are clerics (cf. c. 1009).  Once a man has validly been ordained a cleric, there is no undoing his ordination (c. 290; see also “Can a Priest Have His Ordination Annulled?” and “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?”)—and he thereby acquires for the rest of his life certain rights which the diocesan bishop cannot disregard, even if the man is later found for some reason to be unsuitable for priestly ministry (cf. c. 281, and see “What Do You Do With the Deacon Who Refuses to be Ordained a Priest?” for more on this).

Canon 1029 tells us that only those men are to be promoted to holy orders whom the bishop determines to have sound faith, be moved by the right intention, have the required knowledge, possess a good reputation, be endowed with sound morals and proven virtues, and have all the other physical and mental qualities appropriate for a priest.  Note that once again, when it comes to diocesan seminarians, the final determination as to their ordination is made by the bishop himself, although naturally the staff of the seminary will make their own recommendations, based on their direct contact with the candidate during his years of study and formation.  Normally, the bishop hasn’t had extensive day-to-day dealings with his seminarians; in contrast, the clergy who operate the seminary have, so their opinions naturally carry weight!  But at the end of the day the bishop can choose to overrule them, if he himself reaches a conclusion different from theirs.

It’s worth pointing out at this point that while the final decision is the bishop’s, that does not mean he can approve or disapprove a candidate’s ordination for reasons which are purely arbitrary.  If a man has fulfilled all the seminary requirements and demonstrated that he possesses all the qualities found in the abovementioned canon 1029, and the diocese is indeed in need or priests … why wouldn’t a bishop agree to ordain him?  It can and certainly does happen that a man who is an otherwise excellent candidate for holy orders nevertheless has a personality type which happens to rub his bishop the wrong way; but as is the case in any line of work which involves working with other people, one has to distinguish between others’ qualifications for the job, and their subjective likeability.  A bishop should be looking for men who are cut out for the lifelong ministry of a priest—not for men who will be his close personal friends.  This is why “I just don’t like him!” is no justification for refusing to ordain a seminarian who otherwise fits the bill.  And when a bishop determines that a seminarian is not suitable to be ordained to minister in his diocese, he logically ought to be able to articulate why that is.

This brings us to Nevil’s question.  It’s important to remember that there are two sides to every story, and in this case we have only one side of it; but if we accept that the objective facts which Nevil provides are accurate, we can draw some general conclusions about his situation and the way it has been handled.

First of all, Nevil says that he had been in the seminary “for nearly five years,” and there were “very positive reports” about him.  He notes that “seminary authorities were expecting [him] to stay in seminary and were giving [him] a positive report.”  Assuming that all of this is true, it doesn’t sound like Nevil had a track-record of significant problems or had raised any alarm-bells in the minds of those preparing him for the priesthood.  “Nearly five years” is a long time, and so one would think that if Nevil’s seminary professors and other “seminary authorities” had concerns about him, these would probably have already been raised by then.

Secondly, Nevil’s bishop doesn’t seem to have been able to articulate concrete reasons why Nevil should not be ordained.  True, we were not present at their discussion and thus don’t know everything that transpired there; but if it is indeed accurate that the bishop’s objections were along the lines of “you were standoff-ish during a novena at the cathedral,” then they appear to have been remarkably trivial.  (Other objections which the bishop made have been omitted here for the sake of brevity, but they were very similar in nature.) For the record, it’s fairly common to encounter seminarians who are trying to figure out the right mix of formality and charity to employ when dealing with others.  They know that when they become priests, there will understandably be some degree of social distance between them and the laity—and they want to strike the right tone, being friendly and sociable without doing/saying anything improper in the process.  This can be especially tricky for some seminarians who aren’t entirely sure how to speak to pretty young women in particular, and who struggle to find a good balance between common courtesy and priestly propriety—sometimes accidentally causing those pretty young women to feel that they’re being treated with contempt!  It could be that Nevil’s purported “standoff-ish” behavior on one occasion was along these lines, in which case it is hardly a cause for dismissal.  On the contrary, it might have been an excellent opportunity for the bishop to have a kind talk with his future priest and suggest ways that his behavior could be different/better—as any loving father would do.  Remember, a man’s years in the seminary are not only focused on his academic training, as important as that is; they also involve his formation for the priesthood, both spiritual and social.

Nevil indirectly raises a good point, when he says that “the bishop wouldn’t give [him] any clarification” and that he wanted to “fix it.”  The bishop should be able to tell him pretty concretely what the problem(s) is/are, enabling both sides to determine whether they are remediable or not: is the bishop dismissing Nevil because of fundamental, overarching issues with his personality, his skill-set, his intellectual capacity—in short, things which Nevil can’t necessarily correct?  If so, and if Nevil just isn’t a suitable candidate for the priesthood in an overall sort of way, then why did it take “nearly five years” for the bishop to figure that out—and why haven’t any seminary authorities noticed this before?

Or is the bishop refusing to ordain Nevil because of relatively smaller defects in his conduct involving his interactions with others—things which can conceivably be “fixed” if Nevil is willing to make the effort and is given appropriate direction?  Once again, we don’t know every word that the bishop spoke to Nevil, and there may be more to the story than he is telling us.  But on the surface, given the objective facts of the situation, it seems that the bishop had no solid grounds for dismissing Nevil from the seminary, which explains why Nevil tells us that he “was therefore unable to defend [himself].”

The subsequent events which Nevil describes are illuminating.  His mother wrote a letter to the bishop on an altogether different subject, and in his response the bishop told her why he had dismissed her son from the seminary.  It should go without saying that even though the bishop’s discussions with Nevil didn’t actually take place in the confessional, they were highly confidential—and thus it is utterly unconscionable that the bishop would talk about them with a third party (much less put his words in writing!).  Even if Nevil’s mother had specifically solicited the information—which she apparently hadn’t—it is only common sense that the bishop would politely decline to discuss the matter with her.  At this point it would be entirely understandable if Nevil felt the bishop had some sort of irrational vendetta against him, especially since he reports that the bishop said things to his mother which he hadn’t even told Nevil himself!  Canon 220 tells us that no one (and that includes bishops) is permitted to illegitimately harm the good reputation of another, something which is simply a matter of justice and of charity … but it would appear that Nevil’s bishop never got the memo.

This bewildering mess might all be explained by what happened soon after, when Nevil’s bishop resigned for health reasons, and apparently the Pope accepted his resignation.  This could indeed be nothing more than a coincidence; but it’s more likely that the bishop was already in significantly ill health when he dismissed Nevil from the seminary—and of course it’s entirely possible that there’s a direct connection between the two.  One can only wonder whether the bishop’s illness had directly impaired his mental faculties, or perhaps he was taking some sort of medication that affected his cognitive abilities … in which case Nevil could obviously make a strong case that he was unjustly dismissed by someone who at that time was physically incapable of making such a decision.

So now what?  If indeed Nevil’s dismissal from the seminary was unjustified, then his bishop rode off into the sunset with complete impunity after doing serious damage, both to Nevil personally and to the diocese for which he was responsible.  (We looked at a comparable, though more black-and-white situation in “Invalid Baptisms and Unaccountable Clergy.”)  Everyone should be in agreement that identifiably unsuitable candidates for the priesthood should never be ordained—but at the same time, seminarians are not puppets on a string, who give five years of their lives to study and then get dumped with no concrete explanation.  Rest assured that other seminarians, and men who are considering the priesthood in Nevil’s diocese, will think twice about pursuing ordination in a diocese where something like this can happen.

Speaking of which, Nevil can get in touch with other bishops in his nation (or even outside of it, if he feels God might be calling him to do that), and ask them to accept him as a seminarian in their own diocese.  He will have to explain what happened here, as diplomatically as possible; canon 241.3 requires this.  The fact that the seminary authorities view Nevil positively, and evidently had nothing to do with his dismissal, should weigh heavily in his favor.

Similarly, if a new bishop is named promptly to replace the one who has just resigned, Nevil can approach him, apprise him of what happened, and ask him to consider reinstating him in the seminary.  As we’ve already seen above, this is ultimately the diocesan bishop’s decision, and so a current bishop is in no way bound to accept his predecessor’s ruling in such a matter.

Another possibility, if Nevil thinks that God might be leading him in this direction, is to consider the religious life.  It could be that Nevil will be welcomed into a clerical religious institute, and who knows, he may find that this is actually the life God intended for him all along!  Once again, Nevil will have to tell the religious superiors the whole story of what happened, as per canon 241.3, and the religious superiors are free to accept him if they see fit.

The Catholic Church in Nevil’s country desperately needs vocations, and if this is par for the course then it’s no wonder there’s a clergy-shortage!  The tragic fact is that, as author Michael Rose outlined in his by-now classic book Goodbye, Good Men, the shortage of priests in many places has been caused (or at least exacerbated) by irresponsible bishops and seminary staff driving good candidates away.  Let’s all say a prayer for Nevil, and for all other sincere men who feel God is calling them to the priesthood—that they will succeed in becoming priests if that is truly what God wants.

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Peter Stephen Fra Angelico diaconate deacon seminary seminarian

Fra Angelico, “St. Peter Consecrates St. Stephen a Deacon,” 1447-1449,
Cappella Niccolina, Vatican City

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