Paul Vitz is the senior scholar at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences and professor emeritus of psychology at New York University. He is also an adjunct professor at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Washington.
His interests include how the religious relates to psychology, and he has published Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, Faith of the Fatherless: the Psychology of Atheism and Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious.
Vitz recently spoke in the Washington, D.C. area at a seminar about seminary formation. The seminar was organized by the Institute for the Psychological Sciences.
How much has psycho-spiritual formation changed?
Two things are happening. The way in which psychology has been used in the past has been reliably harmful because of the biases of those using psychology, particularly with respect to sexual issues. The psychologists often used to push a secular and liberal agenda as well as a secularized and liberalized way of approaching character and personality issues.
Traditional Catholic attitudes often were codified as immature or rigid. Candidates for seminary who had orthodox beliefs were excluded, while those who had non-traditional attitudes would be accepted and encouraged.
When did change begin to occur?
Recently there has been change because psychology itself has improved and is less hostile to religion. The very negative consequence of the abuse scandal made it clear that we were far too tolerant of the secular understanding of sexuality.
Contemporary psychology is less confident of the triumph of the secular ideal and liberal ideal. That whole view of the ’60s and ’70s has gone into decline. The misuse of the psychological sciences was part of the zeitgeist of the ’60s and ’70s. IPS is trying to provide a sound psychology that can be useful to individual patients and Catholic institutions that need this expertise.
What kinds of concerns do seminary directors bring to you now?
There are mostly perennial concerns. But there are also new concerns, such as the effects of broken families on candidates’ potential to serve as priests. The problem of past addiction to pornography. Less frequently, candidates are pressured to become a priest by family members. That kind of problem happens in some closed conservative Catholic families that are withdrawn from the culture, and the candidate is trying to please the mother or the father. In fact, the seminarian must freely choose the priesthood and must be called to priesthood. That call can be hard to discern if the individual is under pressure.
What are some of the perennial issues that continue to concern seminaries screening candidates?
Traditional issues of maturity and freedom. They have to be emotionally mature, and of good character. They should be above average in intelligence and education. They must have the capacity to be a spiritual father for their parishioners, and that is an important role when we have so many kids suffering from the absence of fathers in their lives.
Yet the importance of fathers is often questioned in our culture.
There is a great deal of psychological literature on the importance of fathers, even as many still cling to a fading liberal secular attitude that discounts intact families.
Many American men speak of being under siege, and not knowing what their role should be in a post-feminist world. In universities, the majority of the student body are women now.
The shift of male identity affects the work of seminary formation directors.
Actually, I think many reasonable people are questioning the value and cost of a university education. Does it remain a good investment?
In my judgment, what’s going on in the universities is not that important. Rather, the growing absence of a clear male identity is the bigger problem.
Today, we need an understanding of fatherhood as the capstone of masculine development, just as motherhood is the capstone of feminine development. But the importance of fatherhood is ignored. The culture celebrates the James Bond version of masculinity as sexual and violent, and that approach encourages immaturity. Fathers used to be significant, and now they’ve been knocked out. But the crisis in the culture is the crisis of fathers.
In your experience, are many young men who have been abandoned by their fathers actually choosing the priesthood?
They come from a culture that is marked by this problem. Often seminarians have had good substitute fathers — sometimes priests have become their mentors.
One of your sons entered the seminary after completing military service in Iraq. And the Archdiocese for the Military Services has hired a vocations director who has already encouraged about 30 candidates to enter the seminary. What’s going on in the military services, despite the serious lack of chaplains? What can we learn from this development?
My son was in the Navy for four years, and had one tour in Baghdad as an officer in Navy intelligence. He got his vocation in the crypt church of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. He would go to Mass there. In Iraq, he participated in a discernment group in his unit.
There is something about war that concentrates the mind on important issues — while too many young men in the United States struggle to develop a sense of purpose. Still, active-duty military personnel who answered the call are a small part of the larger group of candidates.
Once, the Church had minor seminaries, and in some parts of the third world, they have continued. In the wake of the clergy abuse scandal, the practice of taking teenage boys out of the cultural mainstream and sequestering them at the minor seminaries was said to encourage sexual immaturity. What is the view of that practice today?
In my understanding, the sex abuse scandal had nothing to do with the minor seminaries. We used to have many of them, with thousands of boys. Historically they produced a lot of priests, and have been part of our program of formation since the early Church.
But in the ’60s, apparently what happened was that the Catholicism of these minor seminaries washed out. The number of candidates declined and almost all of these institutions closed. There has been a renewal of interest in these programs.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.