Last week the Vatican issued a revised version of its “fundamentals of priestly formation”, which guide the training of clergy around the world. The text, known officially as the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, was last updated in 1985 – in the early days of St John Paul II’s pontificate.

Introducing the new document, Cardinal Beniamino Stella noted that “the historical, socio-cultural and ecclesiastical contexts have changed” since the 1980s. That is something of an understatement.

The statistics alone suggest a profound transformation. Between 1980 and 2012, the number of priests worldwide declined by 17 per cent, or 20,547 priests (according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or Cara). In March this year, the Vatican reported that there were 415,792 priests in total, with an increase in diocesan priests in Africa, Asia and Central and South America, and a decrease in North America, Europe and Oceania.

But the differences between the 1980s and today go far beyond data. As Cardinal Stella observed, we have also seen sweeping alterations in “the image or vision of the priest, the spiritual needs of the People of God, the challenges of the new evangelisation, the language of communication, and much else”.

Media reports inevitably focused on the novelties in the updated text. The recommendation that seminarians should be taught about climate change raised eyebrows. The document argues that future priests should be “highly sensitive” to the ecological crisis, but does not suggest this should come at the expense of the essentials of priestly training.

There was also much coverage of the document’s norms on the admission of gay men to seminaries. These are, in fact, nothing new. The text says that men who display “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” are unsuitable for the priesthood – a phrase which, in practice, is interpreted differently across the Catholic world.

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