The first national survey of Roman Catholic seminarians in Canada has found that they are more emotionally mature than their peers, that three-quarters identify themselves as heterosexual, and that they are very much more theologically conservative than seminarians of ten or twenty years ago.

Martin Rovers, who teaches at the Pastoral Institute of St. Paul University in Ottawa, sent questionnaires to all 455 Canadian seminarians, diocesan and members of religious orders, both French and English speaking. Two hundred and three students responded, a response rate that Rovers describes as “very good when one considers the very personal nature of the questionnaire.” Results were compared to earlier studies of North American seminarians and, in the case of some questions, to surveys of university students and other groups.

Authority, Intimacy, and Maturity
Part of the study was designed to measure emotional maturity. Rovers defines maturity as a pattern of abilities including the ability to:

  • order and direct one’s own thoughts and opinions;
  • choose to express or not to express one’s thoughts and opinions, regardless of social pressure;
  • make personal judgments and respect them;
  • take responsibility for the totality of one’s experience of life;
  • initiate or receive intimacy voluntarily, in conjunction with the ability to set clear boundaries for the self at will;
  • experience and relate to all other persons without exception as peers in the experience of being human.

The Personal Authority in the Family System Questionnaire, designed by J. H. Bray and D. M. Harvey for college students and borrowed by Rovers for this study, ranks answers on several scales, including intergenerational and peer intimacy and individuation—the ability to relate to others and to act independently. Seminarians scored higher on every scale than did university students asked the same questions. That finding might have to do with the age of seminarians, who are on average eleven years older than the university students, and have a greater depth of life experience. Nevertheless, Rovers points out, “The good news is that the widespread criticism of unhealthy seminarians is proved not true.”

The Conservative Shift
The most startling data from the study has to do with the theological conservatism of the new generation of seminarians, especially as compared with North American seminarians of ten and twenty-five years ago. For example, in a 1970 study, nine out of ten seminarians agreed with the statement, “Faith is primarily an encounter with God in Jesus Christ, rather than an assent to a coherent set of defined truths.” In Rovers’s study, one in ten agreed. In a reversal of findings from ten years ago, younger students are now more conservative than older ones.

The Theological Attitudes Scale Rovers used contained two types of statements, “traditional” and “modern” theological assertions. Rovers’s subjects were somewhat more inclined to agree with traditional statements than were students in past studies, but they were substantially less likely to agree with modern statements. In Rovers’s words, they are, “only somewhat more traditional and a whole lot less modern than their counterparts of the past.”

Some of the response might have to do with the “modern” items not feeling quite so modern as they did twenty-five years ago. Many seminarians in this study added notes to their responses about how the statements seemed too black and white. Rovers wonders whether a new scale might be needed.

Demographics and Next Steps 
Rovers’s study also collected demographic information that should be helpful to those responsible for forming priests. Some is fairly mundane—information about family size, income level, and ethnicity. The trend toward older seminarians continues: the average age is now thirty-one and a half. When asked about sexual orientation, 74.5 percent of the seminarians identified themselves as heterosexual, 12.5 percent as homosexual, and 6.5 percent each as bisexual or unsure.

Seminarians report that their families were very close (73 percent), and that their parents really love one another (81 percent). On the other hand, almost one in four have an alcoholic father, and almost one in three experienced family violence. When asked to cite the single most influential factor in their desire to enter the priesthood, almost half listed an inner call. About 15 percent noted a priest’s example, another 15 percent a desire to help others.

Rovers suggests several helpful studies that could grow from this one. He would like to see a longitudinal study using the personal authority scale. He wonders whether more direct attention to intimacy and family of origin issues during formation would make for more mature priests.

As for the usefulness of the current round of research, Rovers makes several suggestions. He notes the complexities of seminarians’ lives, and suggests that those responsible for formation need more psychological training and that they make counseling more a part of students’ discernment process. He also notes that the finding that seminarians are more conservative than the people they are called to serve will need some special attention. Finally, Rovers points out that as seminarians become more ethnically diverse, cultural factors need to be taken into account by those who train them.

Who’s in the Seminary? Roman Catholic Seminarians Today, by Martin Rovers (1996: Novalis, 49 Front St. East, 2nd Floor, Toronto, Ontario M5E 1B3).

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