The Society of Saint Pius X is known to have been founded at least in part because a group of priests/seminarians did not like the changes made to seminaries.

In the midst of the council, everything was changing. In a university seminary, minds react quickly, undergo influences, and seek to understand. We participated at the seminary in all the systematic changes of everything — of the common life, of the house rules, of theology, of scholastics. In the midst of this spiritual and intellectual agitation, we needed to be careful, to reflect, to inquire, and to read a lot in order to remain informed.

We painstakingly followed such journals as Nouvelles de Chrétienté, Itinéraires, and La Pensée Catholique to follow the conciliar debates. Without these journals, I do not know if I would be a priest today. Without Archbishop Lefebvre, I certainly would not be. The superiors of the French seminary would not have accepted me. My mind was not open to the proposed novelties.1

The Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest was founded under similar circumstances, as its founder had been approached by men looking for traditional seminary formation.2

And I hear often from conservative and traditional priests how bad seminaries were from the 60s onward. Father Chad Ripperger says in this video that seminaries became lax in their admissions beginning even in the 40s.

What research has been done to show what specific changes occurred in the seminaries and how they came about?

  • Don't have the timeline or specifics, however, heretics such as Rahner, Maritain, de Lubac, von Balthazar, etc. are commonly read in seminaries for a long time now. I mean, after V2 the new theology was implemented in seminaries obviously, what else needs to be said?
    – Glorius
    Commented Aug 21, 2022 at 15:51

2 Answers 2


Most post-Vatican II seminaries started teaching Modernist errors, violating the Oath Against Modernism that Pope St. Pius X required seminary professors to take.

He wrote in his 18 November 1907 Motu Proprio:

If any [priest] be found tainted with modernist errors…let them be absolutely forbidden from teaching anything whatsoever. Also any seminarian in any way even suspected of attachment to these condemned modernist novelties and doctrines, must be refused all access to Holy Orders.

  • -1 sadly. This question is about what specifically changed in seminaries, and only the first clause of your answer touches on it.
    – user54757
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 14:11

What specifically changed about Catholic seminaries in the 20th Century?

The idea that priests should be trained and educated in seminaries is a rather recent development within the Catholic Church. It was instituted by the Council of Trent.

The decree of the Council of Trent

After the Reformation the need of a well-trained clergy was more keenly felt. In the work of the commission appointed by the pope to prepare questions to be discussed in the Council of Trent, ecclesiastical education occupies an important place. When the council convened "to extirpate heresy and reform morals", it decreed in its Fifth Session (June, 1546) that provision should be made in every cathedral for the teaching of grammar and Holy Scripture to clerics and poor scholars. The council was interrupted before the question of clerical training could be formally taken up. Meanwhile, St. Ignatius established at Rome (1553) the Collegium Germanicum for the education of German ecclesiastical students. Cardinal Pole, who had witnessed the foundation of the German College and had been a member of the commission to prepare for the Council of Trent, went to England after the death of Henry VIII to re-establish the Catholic religion. In the regulations which he issued in 1556, the word seminary seems to have been used for the first time in its modern sense, to designate a school exclusively devoted to the training of the clergy. After the council reopened, the Fathers resumed the question of clerical training; and after discussing it for about a month, they adopted the decree on the foundation of ecclesiastical seminaries.

Moral and spiritual training

Unlike most of the professional schools (law, medicine etc.) which give only knowledge, the seminary aims at training the will. Like West Point and the Naval Academy it subjects the student to a system of discipline by which he may gradually acquire habits becoming his profession. In a priest, holiness of life is not less essential than professional science. In order to discharge with success the functions of his ministry, he must be a gentleman, a true Christian, and moreover capable of bearing the special obligations of the priesthood. "In order to restore in the world the reign of Jesus Christ", writes Pius X (5 May, 1904), "nothing is as necessary as the holiness of the clergy." Hence, in his first Encyclical he warns the bishops that their first care, to which every other must yield, ought to be "to form Christ in those who are to form Christ in others" (3 Oct., 1903).

Seminarians are to learn the sacerdotal virtues first of all by the example of their teachers. Hence the sovereign pontiffs and various councils frequently insist on the qualifications of those who are chosen to train priests. They should be "conspicuous for ability, learning, piety, seriousness of life. They should devote their life to study, bear cheerfully the burden of seminary rule and of a busy life; by word and example teach the students the observance of seminary discipline, humility, unworldliness, love of work and retirement, and fidelity to prayer" (Council of Baltimore, no. 159). Another powerful means of training seminarians in Christian virtue is the seminary discipline. The student is separated from the world and subjected to a rule of life which, leaving nothing to caprice, determines what he has to do at every moment of the day. Classes, studies, exercises of piety follow one another at regular intervals, and punctual attendance is expected of all. Fidelity to seminary rules, extending over several years, prompted by a sense of duty, and inspired by the love of God, cannot fail to produce habits of regularity, self-control, and self-sacrifice.

So what actually changed in Catholic seminaries in the 20th century?

It almost seems everything.

To start off with, discipline in the seminaries went into decline. The level of academic formation was lowered. Even the cassock went out the window!

Having been in a Catholic seminary in the 1970s, I noticed some of these first hand.

Prior to Vatican II, seminarians were generally clothed in cassocks. It made a point, in the mind of the Catholic seminarian student that he was being formed for a life of dedication to God throughout his lifetime. Only very traditional seminaries continue with this practice.

I can recall o few of the older priests where I live still complaining about how the Roman house cassocks disappeared in the the 1960s. Seminary students today will wear almost anything else except a cassocks. In the seminary I was in, it underwent several disciplinary (clothing attire) changes over the years.

The following is of interest for the Roman house cassocks:

Currently in Rome the normal black priest's cassock (or soutane) is the seminarian's most formal outfit. Whilst it is everyday dress for some of the congretations, in general the diocesan seminaries in Rome reserve the cassock for altar service or attendance at certain lituriges and for formal occasions. Depending on the stage of formation and the custom of the particular seminary the every-day dress of the seminarian is either the Roman collar or lay-clothes. The Roman diocesan regulations specify that clerical dress is only required of seminarians after they have gone through the ceremony of 'Admisssion to Candidacy' which normally occurs a few months before dicaconate ordination. An exception to this is the practise of the North American College which insists that all its seminarians go through 'Admission to Candidacy' before they arrive in Rome to begin their theological studies. This, it seems, is a throwback to the now-defunct Italian practice of performing 'Admission to Candidacy' early in seminary formation becuase this exempted Italian seminarians from compulsory military service. However, until the 1970s, the cassock was not the formal wear of the seminarian, but his everyday uniform and unlike today, most of the older Roman Colleges had their own distinctive style of cassock. Now, alas, it seems that only the Scottish, the students at Propaganda Fide and (on special ceremonial occasions) Americans retain the older dress. Consulting the 1900 Handbook to Christian and Ecclesiatical Rome by Tuker and Malleson and an old edition of Georgina Masson's classic Companion Guide to Rome we find the following descriptions of the seminarian dress of yore:

  • Seminary of the Diocese of Rome Purple Cassock and soprana with pendant strings and no sash.

  • Pontificio Provincale Pio Black cassock, violet sash, a full cloak.

  • Vatican Seminary Dark purple cassock with cromson bindings and buttons, one crimson string decorated with the papal arms, buckle shoes.

  • Capranica College Black cassock, black soprana of shiny cloth, stings, no sash, shoes with silver buckles.

  • Propaganda Fide Black double breasted cassock, red pipings and buttons, scarlet sash and strings.

  • Germanic College Scarlet Cassock, black sash, scarlet soprana with pendant strings (Masson notes that they had the nickname 'gamberi cotti' or 'boiled lobsters' and that their distinctive dress was imposed due to their reputation for uproarious behaviour).

  • Greek College Blue cassock, red sash and pipings, blue soprana with strings - out of doors: a black soprana with wide sleeves English College Black cassock and soprana, black strings and no sash.

  • Scots College Purple cassock with crimson sash, buttons and pipings. Black soprana with pendant strings.

  • Irish College Black cassock with red piping, no sash, black soprana and strings French College The first college to abandon collegiate dress for the priest's cassock, no sash.

  • Lombard College Black cassock, violet sash, soprana and strings.

  • Seminary of SS. Peter and Paul Priest's dress with a black sash.

  • Belgian College Priest's dress with a black sash edged with red.

  • North American College Double-breasted black cassock, blue pipings and buttons, crimson sash, pendant strings.

South American College Black cassock with blue edgings, blue sash, black soprana and strings Maronite College Black cassock, soprana and strings.

  • Bohemian College Black cassock, maroon sash edged with yellow.

  • Armenian College Black cassock with red pipings, out of doors: black coat with wide sleeves.

  • College of St Boniface Black cassock with yellow pipings, black soprana with black pendant srings lined with red.

  • Polish College Black cassock and soprana with green sash.

  • Spanish College Black cassock with blue sash, round black cape with vertical blue pipings.

  • Candadian College Priest's dress and no sash.

  • Ruthenian College Blue cassock, soprana with strings, orange sash.

Scots College

Scots College Cassocks

House Cassocks of the Seminaries in Rome

Three major problems in seminaries emerged in Catholic seminaries during the 20th century: Discipline, the intellectual formation and the spiritual formation of seminary students!

All three are necessary to provide well balanced priestly formation.

A seminary is a place that must foster holiness within the priesthood as well as having priests that are academically and spiritually solid.

Seminaries are not the place for Halloween parties on October 31st. And yes it does happen, but I will not mention those seminaries in question.

Students should not be going out to pizza parlours and drinking beer on weekends.

Standards on dress codes are divergent between seminaries and houses of formation. No cassocks in some seminaries, except when serving Mass.

I have seen all the above.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many mission oriented seminaries imparted into their students the desire to maintain an intimate spiritual life, united to Our Lord through the sacraments and personal devotions. They trained students to always be ready to be martyred for the faith. Priests that went to the African missions during the time of St. Theresa of the Little Flower had a life expectancy of three (3) years, so students took their seminary formation seriously.

Seminaries have become so lack in the spiritual formation over the coarse of the 20th century that Rome issued a document on the formation of priestly students. The Second Vatican Council approved the document by 2,318 to 3! Some of the point that Optatam Totius were almost completely looked over. One in particular has caught the eye of some. The year of spirituality is to be implemented before academic training towards the priesthood should be done.

Some think that the Traditional Mass should be somehow suppressed, but the Seminary of Wigratzbad (Germany) has install such a program into the seminary formation of their students. See here for example. Although, studies properly speaking are not done during the year of spirituality, the seminary will allow the study of Latin as it is intimately linked to their spirituality. Now, other seminaries of the Ordinary Rite are starting to do the same. That is a huge statement in itself.

  1. In order that the spiritual training rest upon a more solid basis and that the students embrace their vocation with a fully deliberate choice, it will be the prerogative of the bishops to establish a fitting period of time for a more intense introduction to the spiritual life. It will also be their charge to determine the opportuneness of providing for a certain interruption in the studies or of establishing a suitable introduction to pastoral work, in order that they may more satisfactorily test the fitness of candidates for the priesthood. In accordance with the conditions of individual regions it will also be the bishops' responsibility to make a decision about extending the age beyond that demanded at present by common law for the reception of sacred orders, and of deliberating whether it be opportune to rule that students, at the end of their course in theology, exercise the order of deacon for a fitting period of time before being promoted to the priesthood. - Optatam Totius

Why did this take so long to come to the forefront. Seminaries had stopped short to preparing students internally and spiritually to become priests that imitate Jesus completely and are ready to sacrifice themselves for their flock. Thus academics is not the whole issue here.

Some seminaries over time even stopped teaching Latin and Greek, which are the instruments of understanding Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church in their proper languages! The list can go on and on!!!

A Brief History of Priestly Formation

19th Century

In the period after the French Revolution that saw the growth of seminaries in the America, criticism of seminary formation was not lacking. The third council of Baltimore (1884) took up the topic of seminaries and issued some directives which may be of interest to our readers today:

  • the need for thorough education in English;

  • enough Greek to read the New Testament in that language;

  • the advantage of summer vacations for making contact with the world;

  • seminary professorships to be entrusted to men who were ready to sacrifice their selves to that end;

  • a conservative and apologetic approach to the teaching of Scripture, dogma and church history.

In the wake of this council more attention was given by some prelates to the intellectual formation of seminarians. The more influential among the prelates, such as James Cardinal Gibbons and Archbishop John Ireland, advocated a broad open-mindedness and a greater solidity in intellectual formation. Cardinal Gibbons especially supported a priesthood sustained by men “educated at home, breathing the spirit of the country, growing with its growth and in harmony with its civil and political institutions” (Ellis 98). Along with Cardinal Gibbons, who wrote The Ambassador of Christ (a critique on clerical formation of the day), Fr. John Talbot Smith also tackled this topic in his volume Our Seminaries: An Essay on Clerical Training (1896). Fr. John Hogan, a contemporary of Smith, already foresaw the need for ongoing formation: “In reality, there is room even in the busy existence of a priest for much more serious study than is commonly thought” (Ellis 100-101).

An important development on the American scene at this time was the formation of the Educational Conference of Seminary Faculties inaugurated in May of 1898. Later this organization would amalgamate with The Association of Catholic Colleges and the delegates of elementary schools to form The Catholic Education Association. The rapidly increasing Catholic population in the States throughout the 19th century was due in large part, as we have said before, to immigration. Following in the footsteps of the new immigrants were religious orders with interests in serving their fellow countrymen. For example, six German Redemptorists arrived in New York in 1832. In 1846, eighteen men were clothed with the Benedictine habit by Fr. Boniface Wimmer, establishing what would become St. Vincent’s Abbey, Pennsylvania. Other Benedictine foundations followed: St. Meinrad’s, Indiana, in 1854; St. John’s, Minnesota in 1856; St. Benedict’s, Kansas, in 1857; and Mount Angel, Oregon in 1882. It was from Mount Angel Abbey that the six pioneer monks set out in 1939 to found Westminster Abbey in the Vancouver Archdiocese and to conduct the Seminary of Christ the King.

The 20th Century

At the turn of the 20th century it was well recognized that American seminaries had failed to produce scholars in ecclesiastical disciplines of the calibre found in secular universities. Three factors were proposed as the cause:

  • academic formation in seminaries was being treated as a pro forma process through which one was obliged to pass;

  • there was a lack of incentive on the part of ecclesiastical superiors to place a high premium on the outstanding achievement of their men in the seminary;

  • religious superiors feared and discouraged intellectual endeavours which would expose the faith of their subjects to danger.

The papal encyclical of St. Pius X, Pascendi dominici gregis (1907), also put a damper on the intellectual forwardness of some Catholic scholars.

On the eve of Vatican II

To recapture the tenor of seminary life on the eve of Vatican Council II, we could cite Ellis’ suggestions for improvement in priestly formation. He was writing during the Council but before the decrees on the Training of Priests and the Life and Ministry of Priests had been promulgated (Ellis 173-184). In the first place, it seems that there was a greater need to find a balance between the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of formation. The spiritual tended to be fostered at the expense of the intellectual. While a seminary does not exist to produce scholars, nonetheless the intellectual life is second only to the spiritual life. A second point for improvement concerned the isolation of the seminarian from the experience of the pastoral life. While it was necessary for the seminarian to have time to assimilate his formation within the confines of the seminary, yet it was equally important that he have sufficient exposure to the pastoral life which would be the locus of his future ministry. Ellis’ last comment concerns a problem which is still relevant today! The liturgical life of a priest should become apparent in his homily. Homilies, he opined, should manifest the priest’s mastery of the spiritual life but at the same time show his clear perception of the people’s pastoral needs.

One further comment may be added in light of experience since the 1990’s. Given the sex scandals so many priests have been involved in, one must question whether seminary formation in the 1950’s gave sufficient emphasis to the integration of the emotional life with the spiritual life. In other words the need for human formation was addressed rather inadequately.

Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Development Beginning with Vatican II’s foundational documents on the Church (Lumen gentium), on the priesthood (Presbyterorum ordinis) and on seminary formation (Optatam totius), the post-conciliar renewal has been both difficult and rewarding. Bl. Pope Paul VI himself contributed to the renewal of the priesthood with his encyclical on celibacy (Sacerdotalis caelibatus, 1967) at a time when this venerable Latin practice came under severe questioning and attack.

By the 1980’s and 1990’s most conferences of Catholic bishops around the world had produced renewed directives on priestly formation.

The Congregation for Clergy and the Congregation for Catholic Education also issued some important documents. Some dealt with an updating of a particular area of seminary teaching: patristics, philosophy, canon law, homiletics. Others dealt with a particular area of formation: spiritual, liturgical. Still others gave more comprehensive guidelines for the life and ministry of priests. When these are seen together with documents published by the Holy See which have a bearing on the whole Catholic Church, such as the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law, it is evident that priestly formation is undergoing continual renewal in the Church.

Catholic seminaries are still searching for ways to integrate these contributions to priestly formation into their academic and pastoral programs.

The post-conciliar development has striven to understand post-modern demands on priestly life and formation and to bring to these demands the best of the Church’s resources. All four Popes in these last fifty years since the Council have worked vigorously to renew the priestly vocation from within. One cannot but thank God for his tender and unfailing providence for his priests.

St. John Paul II

When St. John Paul II was elected to the papacy he brought with him a comprehensive vision of the renewal of the whole Church. Building upon the work of his predecessor, St. Paul VI, he called successive Synods of Bishops, each treating with important ecclesial vocations in need of post-conciliar renewal. Following up on the 1971 Synods of Bishops on the priesthood, the Holy Father began an annual address to priests each Holy Thursday. In 1990, the 8th Ordinary Synod of Bishops was dedicated to the theme “The Formation of Priests in Circumstances of the Present Day”. St. John Paul II gathered the fruit of synod discussion and his own profound reflections in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Pastores dabo vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds) in 1992. For the last twenty years and more, this has been the touchstone for all efforts of Catholic bishops’ conferences to renew the formation of their clergy and seminarians. Pope St. John Paul II gave the formation and the identity of the priest a solid dogmatic foundation. He showed how the priesthood is founded on the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, the person of Jesus Christ and the mystery of the Church, and how formation flows from these principal truths of the faith.

Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has also made a considerable contribution to the priesthood in the areas of liturgy and spirituality. His numerous addresses and exchanges with priests and clergy all over the world have deepened the renewal begun by his immediate predecessors. His deep scriptural and spiritual commentaries on matters concerning the priesthood are destined to become a sure reference point for priestly life in the years ahead.


Our present Holy Father, Francis, has also surprised the Church with his grasp of the obstacles facing priestly holiness, formation, spiritual life and pastoral action. He has sought to renew the Catholic clergy by returning it to the fundamental pastoral charity that springs from a well-grounded life of prayer and adoration as well as a keen openness to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

So what specifically changed about Catholic seminaries in the 20th Century?

Discipline, Spirituality and the Academic formations of seminary students were not where they should have been!

  • Thanks for writing this up. I'm interested in hearing about how exactly these changes came about, and so universally. Was everyone in charge of seminaries so against cassocks, etc.? Did rules on discipline themselves changed or were they simply not enforced?
    – user54757
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 14:18

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