Cloistered education for priests of tomorrow is unwise


Detaching seminarians from the mainstream student experience is a retrograde step, writes NOEL WHELAN

SOME YEARS ago, when discussing the issue of whether the newly reconfigured Police Service of Northern Ireland should have a new police college, the then senator Maurice Hayes, a former member of the Patten commission, voiced his own reservations about the concept of a free-standing police training institution. His argument was persuasive. He expressed a concern that creating separate educational institutions and, in particular, separate residential education institutions for police men and women, was unhealthy because it meant that in their key formative years they became detached from the mainstream student experience and potentially from the general community within which they would ultimately have to live and work.

Some argued that learning and living together, and separate from others, was essential to common formation, but Hayes argued it also gave rise to a sense of detachment from and, at times, a sense of superiority over other young workers and professionals.

At its worst, this separate formation could give rise to an overly intense camaraderie which could lead young recruits to confuse their sense of duty to the wider population. Others go so far as to suggest that it can engender an instinct to defend, even when indefensible, the actions of colleagues or of the force they were joining.

I was reminded this week of Hayes’s remarks when reading about how St Patrick’s College in Maynooth is taking steps to more clearly separate the seminary environment from the wider university environment. It is a move towards further enforced separation between the Catholic priesthood and society generally and is therefore a step in the wrong direction.

Non-clerics of both genders who studied at Maynooth in the post-Vatican II years speak affectionately of the role which seminarians, then a critical mass, used to play in college life.

In those days the seminarians argued, debated, larked about, partied, got involved in emotional entanglements and attended to their studies as hard and as often as the non-seminarians at Maynooth did.

In recent years, of course, the number of seminarians has dwindled because of the fall in vocations.

The seminary is also less prominent on campus because the general student population has exploded at Maynooth, as elsewhere. Seminarians, however, had continued to attend common classes, share many of the same common rooms and eat in the same dining halls as other students.

Now, however, the Irish Catholicnewspaper tells us that separation doors have recently been installed on the main cloister to partition the seminarians’ living quarters from the rest of the campus and that only members of the seminary community have keys to these doors. A separate entrance has also been constructed at the back of the seminary building itself. There are even proposals now to construct a separate dining hall for seminarians.

Curiously, these changes are said to arise at the suggestion of the apostolic visitation and as part of its attempts to reform training for priests in the Irish church. Almost two years ago Pope Benedict announced that an apostolic visitation would be undertaken of certain dioceses in Ireland, to the Irish church seminaries and to some religious congregations.

The task of investigating the state of the Irish seminaries, including St Patrick’s in Maynooth, was given to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. His inquiries at Maynooth included the conducting of one-to-one interviews with the seminarians, with priests who had been ordained at Maynooth and with staff members of the seminary. The outcomes of the apostolic visitation have not been made public.

Media reports suggest, however, that Archbishop Dolan and his colleagues reported the outcome of their inquiries to the appropriate departments of the Roman Curia some time before June last year.

Irish bishops are not in a position to comment on what was in those reports from the apostolic visitations but the Irish Catholicsuggests that Archbishop Dolan expressed a wish that a distinctive community be created in which the seminarians could be differentiated from other students on campus.

Given their dwindling numbers, the institutionally protective mindset which contributed to the errors made in handling allegations of clerical child abuse and the need for a revitalised church to integrate more into the community, one would have thought the apostolic visitation should be encouraging greater integration of their seminarians into college life rather than less.

The church is not the only organisation which should be integrating its education into mainstream third-level campuses. The freeze on recruitment has left the recently expanded Garda training college campus in Templemore almost vacant. Financial pressures and competition law concerns have put the future of separate education institutions for the legal professions in doubt. These difficulties should be seen as an opportunity.

Most of the education of doctors – apart from necessary hospital-based course work – has long been carried out in medical schools anchored in the main universities. More recently, the education of nurses, once done on the wards and in adjoining nurses’ residential halls, has been transferred to universities and upgraded in the process.

Even primary school teaching, which was once based in designated institutions where trainee teachers lived, is now more diverse. Many primary school teachers get all their education in universities and indeed an increasing number of them acquire their professional education online.

If professional education in a university setting works for doctors, nurses and teachers, then there is no reason why it should not work as well for barristers, solicitors or gardaí.

The standing of many once overly revered professions or careers has taken a hit in recent decades. That is a healthy thing. Respect from the community they serve is something they should earn rather than something to which they are entitled. Learning and living in the real world, at least in their student days, can only be a positive thing for people.