Investigation of the Character of Priestly Candidates

Investigation of the Character of Candidates for Ordination

 © Copyright 2007, 2009 T. Stanfill Benns 
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Condemned by Pope Hadrian I, 785: “[That] without examination, priests are ordained in order that they may preside,” (DZ 301).

Condemned by the decree Lamentibili, Pope St. Pius X, 1907: “They are to be considered free of blame who consider of no account the reprobations published by the Sacred Congregation of the Index or by other sacred Roman Congregations,” (DZ 2008).

Pope Pius IX, Tuas Libentur, 1863: “It is not sufficient for learned Catholics to accept and revere the aforesaid dogmas of the Church…It is also necessary to subject themselves to the decisions pertaining to doctrine which are issued by the Pontifical Congregations, and also to those forms of doctrine which are held by the common and constant consent of Catholics as theological truths and conclusions, so certain that opinions opposed to these same forms of doctrine, although they cannot be called heretical, nevertheless deserve some other censure.”

From the Sacred Congregation of the Sacraments


M. Cardinal Lega, Dec. 27, 1930

1. “It is of the greatest importance to eliminate from the beginning, even before Tonsure and Minor Orders have been received, all those who are unfit for the office of priesthood or who lack Divine vocation…

2. “Before Tonsure, a petition signed by the candidate for orders together with personal information as to the fitness of the candidate is to be submitted to the Bishop.

3. The Bishop then asks the rector of the seminary to verify the qualifications of the candidate as manifested during his seminary stay.

4. The rector then consults the candidate’s teachers, director, and the alumni prefects to report to him, both in private and in a group, on the qualifications and fitness of the candidate.

5. Based on this the rector then submits his own judgment to the Bishop. The Bishop also orders the pastor of the candidate and his family to make careful inquiries into the student’s signs of a vocation, his virtues and his piety, also habits of life both past and present. Such questions as whether the candidate is fond of strong drink, is charitable and whether he is proper and truthful in speech are put to those in a position to know. The reputation of the candidate’s family, also whether family members have exercised any undue influence on the student, are to be investigated.

6. The Bishop must duly investigate any suspicions that the candidate has inherited some vice or abnormality from his parents, whether physical or psychical.

7. The Bishop shall interview the rector and vice-rector of the candidate’s seminary to determine sincerity of faith.

8. When advisable, other persons of outstanding character, either clerical or lay, who may be able to give special information, should also be interviewed; especially when a slight doubt remains concerning the moral character and canonical fitness of the candidate.

9. The whole frame of mind in particular of each candidate is to be investigated by the candidate’s own bishop who must determine whether the candidate fully understands the nature of the burdens he is assuming and whether they feel themselves able to shoulder all these burdens.

10. If admitted to Tonsure, the documents of these investigations are to be consulted once again when the candidate receives the order of subdeacon. At that time, the entire method, omitting, however, inquiries made to the family, must be updated and repeated before the subdeaconship is conferred.

11. The previous investigations are considered sufficient in receiving the order of Deaconship unless in the meantime some new circumstance or question has arisen to cast doubt on the candidate’s sincerity of purpose or moral fitness. (This Instruction was reviewed by the Cardinals and personally ratified and confirmed by Pope Pius XI.)

From the Sacred Congregation of the Sacraments


Aloysius Cardinal Masella, Dec. 27, 1955

1. “These norms are arranged and harmonized with the prescriptions of the often-referred to Instruction [of Pope Pius XI, summarized in 1-12 above].”

2. “Salutary effects of the Instruction [Pius XI’s] have…been abundantly reaped in the places where its prescriptions have been diligently carried out. Such action was demanded by canonical discipline of the greatest importance, for it was the protection of this discipline the Instruction sought.”

3. “Thus provident care was taken that candidates often were prevented from receiving the priesthood who did not have a divine vocation…or were found by positive proofs to be lacking in canonical fitness for Orders.”

4. “The purpose [of this Instruction] is that the unworthy may in due time, even at the last moment, be absolutely held off from joining the sacred ranks lest dishonor and disgrace touch the Church of God…”

5. For still, priests continue to seek from Rome a declaration of the nullity of their Orders and a release from clerical obligations on the grounds of unfitness for priestly life, not properly detected by their superiors despite these and other directives.

6. “In order to guard as far as possible against any species of [such] complaint whatsoever, this Sacred Dicastery wishes by this letter to warn the most excellent Local Ordinaries that they should more searchingly and carefully examine candidates for Orders as to the possession or lack of canonical fitness.”

7. This instruction is to be read to seminarians each year at the end of their studies. Lectures are to be given on this Instruction in the course of their theology classes. In retreats before receiving Sacred Orders, retreat masters must speak at length on this subject. In their annual report to Rome, Bishops must inform the Apostolic See on their faithful fulfillment of the prescriptions of the Instruction…and Apostolic letters.

8. The Bishop must pass final judgment on the priestly vocation of their candidates, most earnestly examining it along with the canonical fitness of the candidates according to the norms given by approved authors of moral, ascetical and mystical theology. This fitness must be supported by positive proofs, especially concerning the virtue of chastity.

9. No threats of spiritual harm (eternal damnation, long purgatory) should be used against those doubting their own fitness; rather they should be urged to continue if they can, if superiors believe them worthy. But the choice to go or stay must be left to the candidate.

10. Whether a seminarian can persevere in chastity depends on whether he is physically and psychologically normal, and, as a result, is able to respond to the divine grace of vocation with full vigor in both the physical and psychic orders.

11. Very special attention is needed for the student who possibly may be classified as scrupulous, a neurotic, abulic [disorder of the will], hysterical, suffering from some nervous debility or one who is in any way physiologically or psychologically unsound, especially where sexual matters are concerned. A mature Catholic psychiatrist free of any tendencies to modern errors must examine the physical and psychological state of such students and determine whether they are fit to assume the duties of clerical life. Those lacking these necessary qualities, despite other qualities which may even be outstanding, must be counseled to withdraw from the priesthood.

12. Quoting the Instruction above, in 1957 the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities, after reminding Bishops of their solemn duty to exclude unworthy candidates from the seminary, allows Bishops to consider readmitting candidates who have been dismissed, but only after examining the previous investigations of their fitness. Then, after consulting this Congregation and providing further proofs of the candidate’s fitness, the Sacred Congregation ultimately decides if authority should be given to readmit the candidate.

(Canons 992-1001 in the 1917 Code of Canon Law cover prerequisites for ordination, including the necessity of the various examinations. Canon 130 stipulates that following ordination, priests must be examined annually for three years. Pope Pius XII further requires that after ordination, priests should then perfect their academic training in “a wisely gradated and prudently directed program of practical application…a special apprenticeship under the direction of learned and prudent priests who will mold the young by their example,” (“Sedes Sapientiae,” 1956; it should be noted here that this encyclical can easily be seen by its earmarks to issue from the ordinary magisterium and hence is infallible). It also should be mentioned here that when a vacancy occurs in an episcopal see, the bishops gather to recommend priest candidates to the Archbishop. They then discuss the merits of the priests recommended in a meeting and by a secret ballot they indicate whom they consider the most worthy candidates. All this is then forwarded to the Propaganda (a Roman office), which recommends a candidate to the Holy See for confirmation, (see also Cans. 330-331). So even bishops are not exempt from a version of this process.)

In his infallible encyclical on the direction and formation of religious and seminarians, “Sedes Sapientiae,” Pope Pius XII taught: “For it is obvious that those who aspire to exercise the priestly ministry in the state of perfection, and for whose benefit these norms are being laid down, must possess every quality necessary to constitute this many-sided vocation, religious, priestly and apostolic.” Before Pope Pius XII’s encyclical was ever issued, Rev. Charles Augustine, O.S.B. tells us under Can. 154 that “One is fit if he lacks none of the qualifications prescribed by law,” (“A Commentary on Canon Law”). In the cases at hand, how many of the above precautions have been observed?

1. It appears that many who considered themselves candidates for ordination did not understand the meaning of the term vocation, (calling of men already proven qualified by the valid and licit diocesan bishop to the priesthood) hierarchy, (defined by Pope Pius XII as validly and licitly ordained and consecrated priests, bishops and the Pope) or Church (the hierarchy, lesser clergy, religious and the laity, but primarily the hierarchy) in the same sense as that intended by the Church. This invalidates the calling of these men to the priesthood. Does Pope Pius XII’s infallible decree on interregnums invalidate their ordinations? Effectively, yes (see no. 11 below).

2. No determination of whether a true vocation existed was ever made by the valid and licit Bishop of these candidates’ domiciles.

3. None of the investigations necessary to enter the seminary were ever undertaken by legitimate authority, including the one required before tonsure, those required from the pastor and parents, and those required before conferral of subdeaconship.

4. No testing of the candidate’s progress or supervised development of the virtues ever took place under qualified confessors unquestionably in possession of jurisdiction.

5. It is not known whether any other issues which needed to be addressed ever arose among these candidates, but the times and human nature being what it is, it can be safely conjectured that they did arise.

6. No one is able to estimate or render an educated opinion as to whether the virtue of chastity was preserved in these seminaries. As the Instruction above states, the ability to preserve chastity depends on soundness of body and mind.

7. The presiding bishop’s interviews concerning sincerity of faith, if conducted, cannot be considered reliable.

8. No valid and licit spiritual guidance, formation or direction was ever received, when of all the requirements, this is considered the most important.

9. No assessment of psychological/physical fitness was ever made.

10. Likewise there could be no reliable follow up on assessments that were never made, if these were necessary, as suggested in the 1955 Instruction.

11. (Can. 2314 §1, n. 3 Revs. Woywod-Smith comment: “Infamy of law is a permanent impediment [to the reception of Holy Orders] unless a dispensation from the Holy See is obtained.” How many “priest candidates” were “not rightly ordained” in violation of this law? Canon 983 is the general law; Can. 984 no. 5 is infamy of law. This law disqualifies those who incur infamy of law from becoming priests unless they receive a papal dispensation. This is confirmed by Can. 2314 § no. 3, the canon on heresy, apostasy and schism: “(3) If they have joined a non-Catholic sect or have publicly adhered to it, they incur infamy ipso facto.” Without this dispensation, Pope Pius XII declares, these ordinations are “null and void” during an interregnum. Any attempted or presumed act during an interregnum that usurps papal jurisdiction is null and void, by infallible papal decree! Could the Roman Pontiff actually do this? He has all power to bind and loose and in this case he is binding the hands of all who would usurp papal jurisdiction. Did he intend to do this? “Vacantis Apostolica Sedis” forbids the cardinals to exercise pontifical jurisdiction or issue dispensations from the law during an interregnum and also orders them to prevent any others from infringing on such jurisdiction. These dispensations from permanent impediments were specially reserved to the Roman Pontiff for serious reasons. Permission to proceed in such matters cannot be presumed.

12. It must be noted that these candidates did believe they were attending a true seminary, but were taught in many instances by those who had not even been properly trained themselves. Can 1365 prescribes two years of philosophy and other allied courses and at least four years of dogmatic and moral theology, because these courses must also embrace the study of Sacred Scripture, church history, canon law, the liturgy, sacred eloquence, ecclesiastical chant and pastoral theology. Pastoral theology teaches priests to “apply in the care of souls the theology they have learned by exercises in the pastoral problems of the guidance of souls and the application of the ever-changing conditions of modern life and society,” (Instruction of Pope Pius XI, 1922). Of all the theologies, this has been the most neglected because it requires recourse to the experience and practice of others. Perhaps truly qualified priests and bishops, under the direction of a true pope, could shorten the seminary time in our circumstances to allow a few priest to function; perhaps the best qualified among the candidates. But no purported “Traditionalist” or “Conclavist” seminary today could hope to do so, since this would require the special permission of a future pope. As Pope Pius XII taught, when acting on any presumption of a dispensation from the laws of the Church during an interregnum, the act automatically becomes null and void.

Commenting further on Can. 976, Woywod-Smith write: “The Code again insists that the course of theology at least may not be made privately, but in the seminary…Can. 972 gave the same rule and stated that theologians must live in the seminary during the course of theology. In particular cases and for a grave reason, the Ordinary may allow a student to live outside the seminary, but that clause of Can 972 refers only to boarding outside the seminary, not to the pursuit of theological studies, which must be made in a school of theology and may not be made privately.” So private study of these subjects does not suffice. It appears, then, that in allowing Giovanni Montini to pursue his studies at home solely with the aid of tutors, religious superiors during the reign of Pope Benedict XV received an ill-advised dispensation, were following a very liberal interpretation of the law or were disobeying Canon Law and the exhortations of previous Popes. It is no wonder that having begun his career outside the law he would end it in the same fashion. This case should be a warning to all about the seriousness of this matter.

If the Church’s laws concerning admission to Holy Orders and pastoral offices seem strict, we must remember what Our Lady of La Salette said. (Whether the actual secret is included in the papal condemnation of the commentary is irrelevant; we can see that this secret has passed the true test required by every prophecy: it has since taken place.) Even in the 1800s, vengeance was hanging over the heads of the clergy. And Our Lady warned that even in those times, no one was worthy to offer the Holy Sacrifice. Bad priests were the Church’s ruin and holy priests will be Her only salvation. As St. Thomas of Aquinas and other theologians have said, better a few holy priests than many mediocre ones.

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