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Logo of linacreThe Linacre Quarterly
 
Linacre Q. 2016 May; 83(2): 217–222.
PMCID: PMC5102210

Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in Seminary Admissions

Reviewed by Peter C. Kleponiscorresponding author

Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in Seminary Admissions
By  United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations .  Washington, D.C.:  USCCB,  2015.  11 pp.

This year the Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) published the booklet, Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in Seminary Admissions (2015) [Guidelines]. The purpose of the booklet is to support the implementation of the directives in the Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood (2008) and the Program for Priestly Formation, 5th ed. (2006). It is meant to be used by bishops, major superiors, and seminary rectors when developing policies on the use of psychological evaluations in seminary admission.

As a mental health professional I welcome these guidelines. Over my eighteen years of practice, I have seen some excellent evaluation reports and I have seen very poor ones. Providing guidelines can help standardize the evaluation process thus ensuring more effective evaluations. I have also seen evaluation reports used improperly. This has resulted in healthy men being denied access to priestly formation while unhealthy men are admitted. This has led to many problems in the priesthood.

The Purpose and Value of Psychological Evaluations

Psychological evaluations offer a greater understanding of the developmental, psychological and other factors that can strengthen or hinder an individual's vocational discernment. They can help in predicting whether a candidate can live a healthy life as a priest and be effective in ministry.

Such evaluations can screen for issues that can seriously impede a candidate's ability to pursue priestly formation, such as severe psychiatric disorders. This can help screen out those who would not succeed in formation and/or priestly life. They can also identify areas of personal growth that, although would not disqualify a man from formation, would need to be addressed and resolved prior to entering formation or to being ordained. Furthermore, evaluations can help identify various intellectual, character and/or spiritual strengths of a candidate, which is good for formators to know. They can help the candidate capitalize on those strengths throughout formation process.

Suggested Components for the Psychological Assessment and Report

“Psychological assessment seeks to understand the intellectual, emotional, and psychological functioning of the applicant through the use of psychometric measures; it is the mental equivalent of a physical examination” (p. 2).

In this section, seven guidelines provide suggestions on what should be included in a psychological assessment and report. I have listed below observations and recommendations for four of the seven guidelines.

Guideline 2: “Psychosocial and Psychosexual Interview (an interview that generally covers ‘birth to present’ of the applicant)” (p. 3).

  • In conducting the clinical and psychosocial interviews, it's important for evaluators to focus on relationship attachments particularly with parents and same-sex peers. A candidate with healthy secure attachments is able to form healthy relationships, which foster healthy intimacy while respecting proper boundaries. Those with insecure attachments are more at risk for committing boundary violations.
  • As part of obtaining a full sexual history, the psychosexual interview should explore the candidate's use of Internet pornography. This is an epidemic in our culture and seminarians are not immune (Kleponis 2014). Many seminary rectors have commented to me how many seminarians they know are addicted. While this may not disqualify a man from priestly formation, I believe he should attain a healthy level of sobriety and recovery (at least twelve months) before entering formation.
  • The psychosexual interview should assess for any struggle with same-sex attractions. If unaddressed such struggles could cause many problems in seminary and priestly life. Despite what the media has reported and what the public may believe, the priests who committed sexual abuse of minors were not pedophiles. Pedophiles generally target prepubescent children. Only 22 percent of victims were prepubescent. The vast majority of victims were adolescents. Thus, the perpetrator priests were homosexual men (Bono 2003).

Guideline 3: “Intelligence Assessment (the applicant's current cognitive functioning)” (p. 3).

  • While intelligence testing is considered a standard component of a psychological evaluation, in this case it may not be necessary. This is because most candidates are already college graduates. Some even have graduate degrees. To earn such degrees would automatically require at least an above average intellect. Even young men entering college seminary would have to pass the SAT or ACT. Achieving satisfactory scores on such tests would also indicate a level of intelligence that is at least above average. Intelligence testing would only be necessary if the evaluator believed there is a cognitive issue, such as a learning disability that would affect a candidate's ability to handle the intellectual rigors of formation. Other psychological tests would evaluate for emotional functioning.

Guideline 4: “Psychological Testing (structured written, visual, or verbal measures administered to assess the cognitive and emotional functioning of the applicant)” (p. 3).

  • The Guidelines do not indicate which tests should be administered to candidates; however, I believe it would be helpful to list some commonly used tests, such as the MMPI-2, MCMI-III, BDI, BAI, BGCS, and NPI. This would provide consistency and standardization for evaluations. I have read evaluation reports where the candidate was administered as many as fifteen tests and other reports where only one test was used. It is important to know what kinds of tests should be used and for what purposes.

Guideline 7: “Oral Feedback Session (a meeting of the psychologist with the applicant and some admission person to discuss the results of the psychological evaluation)” (p. 3).

  • This is very important for the applicant as well as the formators. It can help formators be clear on any issue that the candidate needs to work on for successful formation. If it is determined that the candidate should not be accepted to formation, it can still be helpful for him to understand what issues he should work on for a happy and successful life.

Impediments to Formation

The Guidelines provide a brief list of human qualities and traits that contradict an authentic vocation to the priesthood. It is important for psychologists to understand this so that they can conduct an effective evaluation. Thirteen traits are mentioned, such as “areas of serious emotional vulnerability” and “developmental disorders that may lead to behaviors incompatible with…healthy, priestly relationships and ministry.” Of particular note are numbers 1, 6, 7, and 9.

  • 6.  “Inability to be formed (blocks to growth and conversion); rigidity or inflexibility that precludes openness to guidance and influence” (p. 3).
    • One must be careful with this guideline. While there are those who are rigid and inflexible, this diagnosis has been used in the past to prevent healthy men from pursuing a priestly vocation. Some evaluators and formators have interpreted faithfulness to Church teaching as being rigid and inflexible. Faithfulness to the magisterium does not mean a man cannot be properly formed for the priesthood.
  • 6.  “Relationships with self or others that are so damaged or shame-based that the person cannot relate or assume healthy leadership” (p. 4).
    • This is often found in men who have been sexually abused as minors.
  • 7.  “Significant trouble with addictive disorders or habits” (p. 4).
    • This guideline should focus on sexual addiction, particularly pornography addiction. This is an epidemic in America (Kleponis 2014). Many men are addicted even before they enter seminary. Because of their shame, they may not admit to it. Psychologists should specifically evaluate for this with every candidate. In addition to clinical interviews, one effective tool to evaluate for pornography addiction is the Internet Sex Screening Test (ISST).
  • 9.  “Psycho-sexual disorders” (p. 4).
    • Guidelines 8 and 9 should focus particularly on same-sex attractions. Despite what the media has reported and what the public may believe, the sex abuse crisis in the Church was not primarily caused by pedophiles. Most victims were not prepubescent children. They were young teenagers. Thus the real issue is homosexuality (Bono 2003). While politically incorrect to address such an issue in today's culture, it is important to address it to ensure that a candidate is able to live a healthy, chaste, celibate life.

While some of these qualities and traits could easily disqualify a candidate from formation, others may not. For example, a man with learning disabilities might still be a good candidate for priesthood if he addresses them and is able to acquire effective compensatory skills. An effective evaluator should be able to sort through any problem issues to determine which ones would disqualify a man for priesthood and which ones would not.

In addition to identifying the traits not desired for healthy priesthood, a section could be added outlining the traits psychologists should be looking for in a healthy candidate. These would include certain intellectual, emotional and spiritual qualities that would help them become healthy and effective priests.

Desired Qualities of the Psychological Professional

Not just anyone can perform an effective evaluation for candidates to seminary. The evaluator should be properly educated, supervised, trained, experienced and competent in conducting evaluations. Fortunately, the Guidelines addresses this and describe the qualities an evaluator should have.

An evaluator should be familiar with the Catholic tradition and ecclesiastical culture. He should understand priestly ministry and the seminary formation process. The evaluator should understand the Catholic view of the human person as a:

  1. “Transcendent being, created in the image of God
  2. Who is a unity of body and soul, rational, real, and relational
  3. Whose flourishing will be realized in a life of committed self-giving through the priesthood
  4. Whose happiness cannot be reduced to the mere satisfaction of needs.” (p. 6)

He needs to have an understanding and respect for chaste celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. He should also recognize that applicants for priesthood come from many cultures and ethnicities. This should be taken into account when selecting tests and interpreting test data.

In addition to these guidelines, any psychologist who evaluates candidates should familiarize himself with the following documents:

  • Guidelines for the use of psychology in the admission and formation of candidates for the priesthood (2008) by the Congregation for Catholic Education.
  • Program for priestly formation (2006) by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

These documents will give the evaluator a clearer understanding of the priesthood and the qualities needed for successful ministry.

Privacy and Confidentiality

The guidelines lay out some recommendations about the consent of the candidate. As with anyone undergoing a psychological evaluation, the candidate must give explicit, free and informed consent. This is not only a guideline from the Congregation for Catholic Education, it is the law. Mental health professionals who conduct psychological evaluations need to be aware of the legal and ethical requirements as well as church guidelines when conducting evaluations.

The Guidelines make a very important statement in this section about the purpose of the evaluation and the responsibility of the Church: “While the applicant retains the right to privacy, the Church also has the right and responsibility to choose only suitable applicants for admission to seminary. This would seem to require a determination not only of the absence of serious defects but also the presence of positive indicators of the candidate's psychological health” (p. 7).

In other words, it is not simply the presence of good mental health that makes a man eligible for priestly formation, he also needs to have the qualities and traits deemed necessary to live a healthy and happy life as a priest and to be successful in ministry. Candidates need to understand this from the outset. This is part of their informed consent.

The guidelines also bring up the subject of the right to privacy. All applicants also have the right to privacy. Thus they need to know with whom and for what purposes the evaluation report will be shared. They also need to know what will happen to the report should they not be accepted to seminary or if they leave seminary while in formation. Again this is not only a Church guideline, it is the law and an ethical standard. Seminaries and psychologists need to develop policies to address these issues. They need to be careful not to violate any of the Guidelines, civil laws and professional ethical standards.

Role of Psychological Information in Formation

The goal of the psychological evaluation is to help ensure that only the healthiest men become priests. If a man is accepted to seminary, the information from the evaluation would be shared with the seminary rector and appropriate formation faculty. An abbreviated report should be shared with formation personnel that omits the most intimate details of the seminarian. The guidelines list the following ways in which evaluation information can be used:

  1. “To identify the presence of fundamental markers of human maturity;
  2. To highlight strengths and internal resources available for formation work and future pastoral ministry;
  3. To identify vulnerabilities that need to be addressed in the course of formation;
  4. To confront the seminarian with reliable information about himself that he may be tempted to resist;
  5. To note factors that will influence how formation staff can most effectively work with the seminarian and offer the support he needs;
  6. To help integrate the dimensions of seminary formation, especially in reference to human formation, such as the importance of affective maturity for intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral formation.” (p. 9)

In addition to these guidelines, I would recommend that formation team members thoroughly review the evaluation report with the evaluating psychologist so that they understand it correctly. Often I have seen seminarians put through unnecessary stress in formation because formators misunderstood their evaluation report. I have also seen reports used against men whom formators personally did not like and wanted removed from seminary. Seminarians need assurance that their evaluation reports will not be misread and used against them.

Retention of Records

Some seminarians are dismissed early from their formation programs. When this happens one may wonder that happens to their psychological evaluation reports. A seminary rector may decide to retain a copy of an evaluation report should a man wish to return to seminary at a later time. The seminary rector is responsible for safeguarding such reports. No release of information can be made without the consent of the seminarian, with the exception of a court order. All laws regarding privacy and confidentiality must be followed.

In addition to this, I feel an additional guideline should be provided clarifying who owns the final evaluation report and what legal access the candidate/seminarian has to the report. While this is part of the informed consent given by the candidate, I believe it would be prudent to specifically add this to the Guidelines so that formators understand their rights and the rights of the candidate/seminarian.

Conclusion

Overall, the Guidelines is a wonderful document that can clear up a lot of confusion about psychological evaluation reports. Bishops, superiors, vocation directors, and seminary rectors will now know the exact purpose of an evaluation, what an evaluation should contain, who should conduct the evaluation, how the information from the evaluation should be used, and how it should be stored.

It is important to remember that those formators who depend on these evaluations are usually not mental health professionals. Thus it is crucial that they review reports with evaluating psychologists to ensure they fully understand the information presented. This will better help them in forming healthy future priests.

References


Articles from The Linacre Quarterly are provided here courtesy of Taylor & Francis