“The Problem with Viri Probati…”,

‘The problem with viri probati…’: can we train men to have the skills presbyters need without a lenghty seminary course?

Thomas O’Loughlin

Every few months we hear a discussion of the chronic shortage of presbyters in the many parts of the Catholic world today. Then someone suggests the ordination of suitable married men. Then, after discussion, a really solidly based argument – not based on dubious notions of ritual purity – is presented: how could they learn all that a presbyter needs to know?  No – that problem is too big to be overcome; and so it is best to shelve that whole idea. TINO –‘There is not alternative’ to the status quo.

Even those bishops who are prepared to grant that it would be pastorally beneficial to change the Latin church’s discipline of presbyteral celibacy through ordaining ‘up-right married men’ (viri probati), seem stunned into silence by ‘the insuperable problem’ of training such men.
Viri probati might solve a practical shortage, but could they be trained?
The Catholic priest, so the argument goes, is a highly trained professional – and well matched to the laity’s needs. How could one have an equivalent without taking the vir probatus apart from family and work for six or seven years of formation? Another view is that prior to the Tridentine seminary we had a poorly educated clergy, this led to abuses, and, eventually, the Reformation. So, by contrast, a long ‘formation’ ensures avoiding abuses,  ecclesial contentment, and orthodoxy. And, thirdly, the re-emergence of permanent deacons has often been unsuccessful, and this is usually seen as resulting from poor training: presbyters would pose even greater problems.


Reality Check

One assumption in these arguments is that the 6/7 year seminary model is not only fit for purpose, but is a measure for all other ministerial training. Does our experience bear this out?
First, in every diocese there is a de facto admission that the seminary is not the be-all-and-end-all as they struggle to provide on-going formation to priests and are only too aware that the demands of preaching and presiding call for skills never imagined in a world of ‘getting Mass’ and ‘Father knows best.’
Any group of Catholics will bear this out: the role of preacher / teacher is seen as one where many clergy fail. Coupled with this is the demand to provide ministry in complex situations that cannot be foreseen in seminary: skilling needs to be on-going.
Second, in any practical situation the amount of training that can be given before actual engagement is very limited. You only know what you need to know after you are on the job. Seminaries seek to address this with pastoral experiences, but many priests only find out that they should have studied more Old Testament, for instance, when it comes home to them that people hear these readings, ask questions, and they have not ‘bothered’ with what then seemed irrelevant. This is exacerbated in that seminarians are ordination-focused viewing their training (particularly ‘academic’ learning) as just the obstacle course prior to success. As I have often heard: ‘when you have a stole on you, none of this will matter!’
Thirdly, while there has been thinking about seminaries since Vatican II, the traditional length of training was determined simply by the need to keep young men in college until ordination age; while the ‘philosophy’ course used to be seen as a broad intellectual training (it used to include ‘natural philosophy’: i.e. ‘science’) rather than its present focus on ‘philosophy’ as an adjunct to ‘theology.’ The seminary, moreover,  emerged within the Renaissance model of the mind as an empty vessel to be filled: control the inputs, and one might produce the perfect actor – an idea seen in the name ‘seminarium’; but reality is, as we continue to learn painfully, a little more complex!
Lastly, given that entry to a seminary involves willingness to become a celibate presbyter, the seminary has a limited range of candidates vis-à-vis all the other ministerial demands. If they would take on ‘the demands of the priesthood,’ then intellectual curiosity, ability to learn, and willingness to engage in professional training often had to take second place.

Seminaries are not an ideal, but one solution, in one situation, producing very mixed results.


An educated clergy

Seminaries are excellent for forming a group with a clear corporate sense and esprit de corps: a clergy.  It has often been noted that while universities speak of ‘education’ (focusing on developing the individual’s talent), seminaries, along with military academies, speak of ‘formation’: learning to think with the group, act together, and became familiar with the group’s standard procedures and goals. There is a direct link between seminaries and clericalism – and, as such, we have been badly served by the current system. Indeed, seminaries allow students to imagine that serving the group to which they belong, the clergy, to be equivalent to serving the Church.

Faced with constant references to ‘seminary experience’ or ‘deep formation’ that one hears as objections to the viri probati solution, one wonders if there is not some deep seated fear that such non-seminary training might undermine the ‘club experience’ of the clerical world. The refusal to admit just how poorly formed so many clergy have been – and how professionally underskilled – within the much-vaunted seminary system seems to have a certainty in the face of the evidence that makes one suspect that it is a smokescreen from a deeper, perhaps unconscious, attachment to ‘the corps’ that pushes the notion of the minister (one who is there to serve his sisters and brothers) into the background?


Experiential learning

One of the quiet educational revolutions of the past fifty years has been our growing understanding of how adults learn: androgogy as distinct from paedagogy. With this has come a range of teaching techniques that are appropriate for those who have learned how to learn, learn within the context of their lives, and learn because they know why they want to learn. To engage in a learning experience with adults, aged 30+, is  very different to lecturing young people whose brains (up to roughly age 25) are still developing and for whom ‘life’ is still a future adventure. The volunteer adult learner knows how he learns, owns the learning, and is aware that learning does not stop when the course is completed.

Because teaching adults is a distinct activity, we have evolved the knowhow to do this without long periods of institutional residence – just observe the success of variations on the UK’s ‘Open University’ around the world. Adults may not absorb ‘formation’, but that may result simply in they being less recognisable as clergy rather than deficient as ministers.

‘I am among you as one who ministers’ (Lk 22:27) needs to be our guide rather than a vision of a sacerdotal professional possessing sacral powers. If an aspect of the probatio of these married men is that they have learned to learn, and know that learning is a life-long challenge, then the biggest hurdle in their training is already overcome.
Such men may be less biddable as clerics within church-structures, but may be more flexible as focal-points among the People of God as we make our pilgrim way to unknown futures. We do not know if the Catholic Church will finally grasp this problem – in the aftermath of this Coronavirus crisis many new pastoral strategies will have to be explored but we know that only months ago after the Amazon Synod there was a retreat from the obvious – and opt for viri probati, but we already have the knowhow to skill such men for service.



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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    “The traditional length of training was determined simply by the need to keep young men in college until ordination age.”

    This is something I never thought of, one of many startling insights in Tom’s essay.

  2. John Dwyer Kirwin says:

    Tom O’Loughlin has offered on the mark insights re the role of minister vs.cleric. The latter is over, it is not answering current needs. One wonders if any needs other than their own were ever answered?

    It’s servant ministers, female,male,single,married, gay or straight, that we have always needed, when it comes to Jesus’ call to ‘follow me.’ If degrees, courses, licenses help us, fine; too often they have hindered. It’s about service to the least.

    ‘ Vir probatus’ brings my Dad to mind. Thrown out of a Catholic school in second grade, he went on to seven more years of formal public education, and thereafter educated himself; was a lifelong and faithful Catholic and with our Mother (without any years of Catholic Ed) raised four of us and taught by their lived example. I believe I learned more theology at the dining room table than in all my 20 years of Catholic education.

    In all fairness I have to say it was again, the lived examples of the Sisters of Mercy, the Brothers of Holy Cross, and the Monks of St Benedict, in the first 16 years that added to the table lessons. The final four got me a few clerical privileges and not much else.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    “Tom O’Loughlin has offered on the mark insights re the role of minister vs.cleric. The latter is over, it is not answering current needs. One wonders if any needs other than their own were ever answered?”

    That’s another devastating insight. Reading church history the cast of characters is overwhelmingly clerical, and the issues that obsess them could well be just clerical fads of no interest or use to ordinary folk. Something similar could be said of courts and aristocracy — and bureaucracies of all stripes.

  4. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Thanks to Tom O’Loughlin for explaining so simply the inertia of the ICBC when it comes to proposing solutions to the ‘priest shortage’.

    As an historical theologian he will know also how the long history of Christendom came to obscure what was central to Jesus’s own priestly witness: his challenge to the spiritual abusiveness of the ‘church’ of his own time.

    The Gospel is explicit: there would have been no crucifixion, no Eucharist, had Jesus not protested the tendency of the religious establishment of his own time to make their system profitable to themselves at the expense of those who did not have the wherewithal to conform.

    Yet the ‘formation’ of the priests and bishops of the Catholic church positively prevented them from fulfilling this central aspect of what it was to be ‘in persona Christi’ – on behalf of the clerical church’s own victims in OUR time.

    This is central to the loss of moral prestige that Catholic clergy have thereby suffered. The ‘remnant’ that the clerical system now rests upon stands largely apart from those who did indeed ‘render justice’ to the victims of spiritual injustice in our time – so many of whom have become completely alienated from it. And there has not been even an attempt to measure the scope and scale of that alienation.

    Quite apart from the issue of skills and training and competence there is the issue of integrity – and the clerical institution has not even squarely faced intellectually the problem of all institutions when it comes to integrity. To be formed by an institution is to be trained not for integrity but for compliance with that institution.

    ‘Taking up one’s cross’ as Jesus did may well be a challenge to stand entirely alone if need be. There is no door narrower than that – but that is surely what it truly means to be ‘in persona Christi’. Could they ever teach that in seminary?

    This goes to the heart of the issue of faith formation of the merely baptised also. Who can doubt that those currently risking their lives in the service of the elderly in care homes in Ireland are fulfilling a Christian priestly vocation? How many of them will ever have been told as much by priests formed in seminaries? In over seven decades of Mass going I personally have never heard a diocesan cleric express the slightest understanding of, or interest in, the common priesthood of all of the baptised. No wonder the word ‘priest’ is itself now mysterious and contentious.

  5. Paddy Ferry says:

    Sean, you are so correct in emphasising the importance of integrity. It is crucial for all of us but in this instance we are discussing our Catholic clergy.

    In his modern masterpiece on the priesthood, “The Changing Face of the Priesthood”, Fr. Donald Cozzens devotes all of chap.2 to the importance of integrity, “Guarding One’s Integrity”.
    He quotes Raymond Hedin , “Married to the Church” –“priests whose compromised integrity sustains an immature pseudo-obedience tend to ask, “What can the priesthood do for me?”, the banner cry of clericalism”

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