When Seminarians Meet Psychologists

“Our Priesthood on the Couch”

An interview of Father Benedict J. Groeschel, CFR (Crisis, October 1999)

Father Benedict J. Groeschel, psychologist and director of the Office for Spiritual Development of the Archdiocese of New York, tells Crisis magazine that he has administered “the standard battery” of psychological tests to almost 1,600 vocational prospects over the past 30 years.

In a cover interview, Father Groeschel defends, in his own words, the careful use of psychological testing to help evaluate who should be admitted to an order or seminary. “Those who entered the seminary before testing began, as I did, will often remember that during the first days or weeks after their arrival it was clear that some people did not fit,” he says. “Often it became apparent only after their arrival that some applicants were acting in a seriously disturbed way or were, at least, ill suited. With the advent of testing, much of this turmoil has dissipated. Many candidates have been spared the pains of being rejected. Having spent thousands of hours doing evaluations, let me tell you that sparing many this disappointment is worth all the effort.”

But Father Groeschel, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, points out the limitations of the evaluative tests, and the special requirements of those administering them: “Psychological tests that evaluate the person from a variety of different perspectives will indicate serious problem areas as a rule. But the usefulness of the testing is entirely dependent on the honesty of the subject and the skill of the person administering and evaluating the results. … For example, on one of the most popular psychological instruments there is an indication for psychopathic personality, really a dishonest person who has been involved in considerable wrongdoing. A rather innocent and naive person who is accustomed to recognizing and confessing his own faults, as one does in an attitude of contrition and penance, is likely to appear on this test to be a psychopath. This is referred to as a false positive. I answered the questions keyed on this test to the psychopathic personality as I think St. Francis would have answered them and he came out a crook. A psychologist who knows his stuff and is willing to take the extra time to evaluate individual responses could easily make such adjustments. This is why I avoid computerized analyses of test results, which are widely used today.”

Both the tester's good faith and his religious credentials are crucial, notes Father Groeschel. “Any psychologist should be able to determine who is mentally ill or on the border, but when it comes to qualities like the ability to live within a community, to live a life of constant availability to others, and to maintain total sexual abstinence — it's obvious that only [someone very experienced in the components of religious vocations] can do this. Or if a psychologist is not experienced, at least one ought to have the intelligence and professional responsibility to ask someone who is.”

Another problem is that psychological tests “are standardized on samples of what are assumed to be normal or average populations. It is obvious in our declining society that norms for moral or ethical behavior are on an alarming downward slide. … This morally dissolute situation gets reflected in the norms so that the religious candidate is far outside the norm, as one might expect,” and thus he appears literally “abnormal.”

Father Groeschel also points out that some have abused results to prevent candidates with unpopular opinions from being accepted. “We all have some pathology. If a student is seen as too conservative or too liberal, he can easily be shipped off to have his head shrunk, to use the consecrated phrase. I have been invited into this kind of operation in the past. I fly from it because I suspect that I have enough time coming to me in Purgatory already. … If you want to do so, you can piously sink anybody's boat with a psychological report. This is unethical and probably an illegal abuse of power.”

Despite the drawbacks, Father Groeschel finds that “When I look back on it all, I feel [that, in administering psychological tests] I made a contribution to the Church, to many individuals, especially those who were spared the pain of failure. [Yet] I would have rejected my own patron saint, Benedict Joseph Labre. He attempted to join the Trappists eleven times and was never able to stay more than six weeks. When I have to turn someone down, I tell them about St. Benedict Joseph and his trust of God. I also remind them that God has another set of psychological norms. They are the Ten Commandments and the Eight Beatitudes, and you can pass them if you trust God and stay on the road that he has prepared for you. It may not be the road to the altar, but it is always the road to Heaven.”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.