Catholic Seminary Evaluations: Time to Reboot?

Such assessments need to be solidly grounded in authentic theological perspectives, experts stress.

Pope Francis delivers his closing address for the Vatican abuse summit on Feb. 24, when he issued a call for every seminarian to undergo a psychological evaluation.
Pope Francis delivers his closing address for the Vatican abuse summit on Feb. 24, when he issued a call for every seminarian to undergo a psychological evaluation. (photo: Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)

NEW YORK — When Pope Francis concluded the Vatican’s clergy abuse summit with a call for every seminarian to undergo a psychological evaluation, the recommendation was mostly shrugged off in the United States, where Catholic dioceses already require recruits to the priesthood to submit to a battery of tests and interviews that probe potential mental-health issues and typically assess sexual orientation and behavior.

But the Pope’s remarks have also prompted some U.S. Catholic psychologists who conduct these assessments to raise questions about the lack of uniformity and uneven quality of such evaluations.

They noted that some reports are written by non-Catholic professionals with no special knowledge of Church teaching, and they contended that some assessors ignored a candidate’s troubling sexual issues.

“A positive proactive step is that the screenings are being done,” said Tim Lock, a third order Franciscan and licensed psychologist who conducts seminary evaluations and serves on the faculty of Divine Mercy University, a Catholic psychology graduate program in Arlington, Virginia. “One problem we see is that there are no ‘best practices.’ There are individual people doing evaluations.”

Over the past decade, the Vatican has issued instructions that call for seminaries to deploy well-formed Catholic professionals to conduct the assessments, but Lock finds that many psychologists who perform this work “don’t meet that criteria.” They may have strong professional qualifications, he said, but they don’t understand the practice of chastity or why the Church views specific sexual behavior as morally wrong and even dangerous.

And when an applicant discloses serious issues, like sexual addiction or same-sex attraction, “the evaluator may not even include that in the evaluation,” he said.

Shannon Mullen, a forensic psychologist based in southern Georgia who has performed screenings and risk assessments of seminary candidates for a number of dioceses, echoed Lock’s concerns.

“It is rare to have black-and-white rules” for seminary evaluations, or even for how dioceses should act on issues flagged in reports, said Mullen, who is a member of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association, which is helping 14 dioceses standardize seminary evaluations by providing their psychologists with a list of required tests and a report template.

“Formal USCCB guidelines recommend that candidates for the seminary be chaste for at least two years before entering the seminary,” she added.

However, applicants who violate these guidelines may still be admitted to some seminaries.

“Why is the standard of [sexual] continence for two years before entrance not uniformly applied?” Mullen asked.


Evaluation Guidelines

When the 2002 clergy abuse crisis first sent shockwaves across the Church, dioceses began to focus on improving evaluation of seminary applicants, in the hope that would-be sexual predators, among others, could be identified and prevented from entering the priesthood.

Yet dioceses struggled to find qualified psychologists who were also committed Catholics. And they had trouble communicating their needs to the mental-health community.

In 2008, the Congregation for Catholic Education sought to address these hurdles, issuing guidelines for the use of psychology in the admission and formation of candidates for the priesthood. The instruction endorsed the value of confidential, well-executed screenings conducted by Catholic professionals who shared the Church’s anthropological vision of the human person and the meaning and purpose of human sexuality.

Assessments should be designed to identify serious problems that would disqualify a candidate from entering the seminary, the Vatican document advised. But the reports should also provide information that can aid priestly formation, helping men overcome unresolved “psychological wounds” that blocked their moral and spiritual progress.

In 2015, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published “Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in Seminary Admissions,” which listed the key components of the screening process, from an in-depth interview that traced the candidate’s entire personal history, including sexual experiences and practices, to a lengthy battery of tests that measured intelligence, personality, primary relationships, mental health and psychosexual development.

Like the 2008 Vatican instruction, the USCCB guidelines strongly emphasized the importance of grounding seminary evaluations in a “Catholic understanding of the human person.”

“Within this context,” the guidelines stated, “it is especially helpful were the professional to be familiar with the Catholic teaching on the nature of the priesthood and have a clear understanding of what chaste celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom means. Without these understandings, the clinician may limit the scope of the interviews and may not be able to provide relevant feedback or appropriate recommendations about the test data obtained.”


Seminary Perspectives

Seminary administrators contacted by the Register acknowledged that Church directives are brushed off by some vocation directors, but they defended their own efforts to identify, maintain and update best practices for evaluating applicants.

“When we look for a psychologist to conduct assessments, our No. 1 requirement is: Does this person share our Christian anthropological vision of the human person, especially a Catholic understanding of sexuality, the reality of sinfulness, and the nature of one’s eternal vocation — union with God?” Father Thomas Berg, vice rector and director of seminary admission for St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, New York, told the Register.

Over the years, Father Berg has also learned to carefully scrutinize reports to assess the quality of the product. The psychologist’s interview with the applicant, he stressed, must “go deep and get at issues of psychosexual development and sexual history in detail.”

But he did not deny that admissions programs can fall short. In some cases, the standards for admission simply aren’t clear, and that weakness affects the quality and scope of evaluations.

The widespread use of pornography, he said, has created “tension between the ideal” of two years of chaste living before entering the seminary and “the reality on the ground.” Likewise, Vatican guidelines that bar men with established homosexual inclinations from entering the seminary are followed in some dioceses but ignored in others.

Along with screening out unsuitable candidates, evaluative reports are being used to help some men after they enter the seminary and support others as they work on emotional, moral or spiritual issues in pre-seminary programs, another seminary official told the Register.

“The question we want to ask is: ‘Does this man have the capacity to enter into seminary formation at this time?’” Christina Lynch, the director of psychological services for St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, told the Register.

She clarified that the reports are used to guide a seminarian’s ongoing formation — what she calls “growth counseling.” And at St. John Vianney, the evaluation is repeated in the second year of theology to make sure new issues haven’t cropped up.


Preventing Sexual Misconduct

In 2016, the Congregation for the Clergy released its instruction “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation,” which urged seminary administrators to be vigilant about the safety of minors and make sure that applicants and students “have not been involved in any way with any crime or problematic behavior in this area.”

The document also reaffirmed the Vatican’s earlier ban on seminary candidates with strong homosexual inclinations, “or support the so-called ‘gay culture,’” communicated in a 2005 instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Now, in the wake of the Theodore McCarrick scandal and a flood of revelations about abuses at seminaries across the globe, the campaign to remove likely predators before they strike has gained fresh urgency.

Shannon Mullen, who has expertise in criminal sexual activity, told the Register that seminaries are trying to understand how they should respond to a candidate’s prior sexual history.

“We now have clarity about how to address allegations involving children, but less clarity regarding someone dealing with a pornography addition or misconduct involving adults,” she said.

Richard Fitzgibbons, a Pennsylvania psychiatrist who has worked with priests and previously served as a consultor for the Congregation for the Clergy, told the Register that seminaries should be concerned about flagging homosexual candidates.

He noted a recent study that appeared to show a strong correlation between the surge in clergy sexual-abuse cases and an attendant increase in the number of priests with same-sex attraction.

In a January 2019 article for the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Fitzgibbons recommended several tests that he said could help assessors flag potentially serious problems, from same-sex attraction to “narcissistic personality traits” that could lead “people to believe that they are entitled to use others as sexual objects.”


‘Chastity Problem’

These developments reveal that at least some seminaries are exercising great care as they continue to adjust their framework of evaluation and update assessments midway through the process of priestly formation.

One issue frequently in play is pornography addiction.

Pornography “is changing how we relate to each other and how we define sexuality,” said Mullen, who cited research showing how the images viewed by a single individual can begin with “normal” sexual behavior and then gradual shift to the depiction of “deviant” and even illegal behavior.

Mullen stressed that seminary evaluations must be comprehensive and screen for a broad range of potential problems, not only homosexual behavior.

“What we can say now, after the ‘summer of sorrow,’ is that there is a homosexual behavior problem within the clergy,” she concluded. “But it doesn’t explain the entirety of the abuse crisis.

“We have a chastity problem, and we need to look at sexual behavior at all levels.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.