For years now, as I followed television and online news, I have seen police officers brutalize individuals. Consistently, I have asked myself: Why do they do this? As a Catholic priest who works at the diocesan seminary training future priests, I wonder: How were these officers trained or formed? 

The Catholic Church certainly has its problems. The history of sexual abuse and its cover-up is a horror in which those charged with caring for people abused them. One avenue of response by the church was to examine and reform the process of formation for those who aspire to the priesthood.

As a sociologist, I know that formation socializes someone into a culture constituted by shared, socially learned behavior. Reforming a formation process requires a serious examination of the culture and its values. What are we forming aspirants to be a part of? Individual and social change goes hand in hand.  Today, it is essential to do this for the institution of policing. Enabling those on the front lines to properly carry out the institutional mission is an essential investment in human resources.

In the church we realized that formation is not only about the acquisition of skills; it is about shaping the human being. In priestly formation, we focus on four dimensions that could also be relevant to the formation of aspiring police officers:

Human Development

Psychological screening assists us in knowing the history and dispositions of the person and one-on-one mentorships support this process of ongoing development. 

We ask: Who is this person? What do they bring from their family and social background? What issues do they need to address? How can we help them to develop as a human being in relationship to others?  

Both priests and police have authority: power legitimately granted by a church or government institution. Good order depends on the appropriate exercise of authority by its officers. For example, if someone comes from a background where others are seen as opposing forces, they are likely to exercise authority in a heavy-handed way. Priests and police officers must have the capacity to know themselves and how they use their power so they can promote the common good.     

Spiritual Development 

Priests are meant to be spiritual servant leaders who represent God. Police are meant to represent their communities. Both need an internal moral compass to do their jobs. The values priests represent are found in scripture, and the values police represent are found in the law. To be effective, both must internalize the values they represent.

In seminaries, classes and one-on-one spiritual direction assists priests to do this. Police departments can draw on classes, as well as mentors and chaplains, to help officers to achieve this development.  

Intellectual Development 

In every profession, there is a body of knowledge that successful practitioners must master.  Seminarians study theology and pastoral ministry for at least four years in order to gain the necessary knowledge. 

Police deal with stressful situations regularly. Like priests, they sometimes need to be short-term social workers, counselors, and relief agents. A curriculum oriented toward force does not give police all the skills that they need. A broad curriculum that includes the cultural and social history of a locale as well as the practical skills to negotiate issues faced on the job is important.

Service 

Priests are meant to be servants of the Gospel and police are meant to be servants of a government of laws. It must be clear that the mission of the police is to protect and serve. When clergy or police form self-serving clubs, they cannot carry out their mission. The sex abuse scandal persisted because of cover-ups by the clergy.  This is the same as the “blue wall of silence.” The training of priests and police must ensure that the mission is clear.  It must provide them with the human, spiritual and intellectual tools they need to effectively carry it out.

Effective reform of both institutions requires the input of many voices and the contribution of many skills. Though the connection may not be obvious, the clergy and the police have many things in common in the service of their communities, and those engaged in the holistic formation of clergy have a useful contribution to make in conversations about the reform of policing for the good of the whole society.  

Anthony J. Pogorelc

Anthony J. Pogorelc is a priest of the Society of St. Sulpice and a sociologist. He is a scholar in residence at St. Mary's University and coordinator of pastoral formation at Assumption Seminary.