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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.
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.
“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).
Guideline 3: “Intelligence Assessment (the applicant's current cognitive functioning)” (p. 3).
Guideline 4: “Psychological Testing (structured written, visual, or verbal measures administered to assess the cognitive and emotional functioning of the applicant)” (p. 3).
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).
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.
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.
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:
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:
These documents will give the evaluator a clearer understanding of the priesthood and the qualities needed for successful ministry.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.