Psychology and Healthy Priestly Formation

The sex-abuse scandals of the past decade gave psychologists a black eye, but people involved in screening seminary candidates are re-examining the role of the psychological sciences.

WASHINGTON — Psychologists got a bad rap in the wake of the 2002 U.S. clergy sex-abuse scandal.

That scandal exposed the limitations of therapy to curb criminal behavior and the questionable judgment of therapists who released former predators to return to ministry.

Catholic leaders and seminary administrators confirm that they are now more cautious about employing the expertise of psychologists.

But the Church still depends on the psychological sciences to evaluate candidates for the seminary and screen for potentially serious problems that could lead future priests to harm themselves or others, said Father Shawn McKnight, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.

Father McKnight, who previously served as the director of formation at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, added that two Vatican documents, one by Pope John Paul II, the other issued under Pope Benedict XVI, confirmed a role for psychology in seminarian evaluations and formation.

“The psychological sciences are understood to be an important tool,” Father McKnight said. “But we are still working on the issue of clarity: how, precisely, to utilize this field in the assessment and formation of seminarians.”

He suggested that the findings of the 2010 National Catholic Educational Association report “Psychological Assessment: The Testing and Screening of Candidates for Admission to the Priesthood in the U.S. Catholic Church” underscored the need for even greater “clarity.”

According to “Psychological Assessment,” a survey conducted by the NCEA Seminary Department in Collaboration with the CARA (The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate), Georgetown University:

“Nearly 80% percent of vocation directors and 84% of seminary rectors report that they provide guidelines to psychologists for the psychological evaluation. However, psychologists report that it is not always clear to them what areas they should be testing. ... The study noted that vocation directors could improve the utility of the psychological evaluation by more clearly articulating specific criteria that reflect the ministerial components, living conditions and rectory dynamics required of diocesan priests, such as the celibate lifestyle, emotional and spiritual support systems, capacity to live the permanence of commitment, or for religious priests, to explore the interpersonal and psychological dynamics necessary for living within a religious community with a specific charism.”

Father McKnight added that superiors of religious orders are responsible for their seminarians in the same way that bishops are for theirs.

Clearly, past difficulties have led seminaries to scrutinize the “formation of the formators” and work harder to recruit psychologists who share the Church’s vision of the priesthood and the personal and moral values needed to effectively serve others. Some dioceses still struggle to locate well-qualified therapists and balance the proper role of psychology in individual evaluations. Yet, seminary administrators say their grasp of a still contentious subject has dramatically improved.

‘I Will Give You Shepherds’

“The big development was John Paul’s 1992 document Pastores Dabo Vobis (On the Formation of Priests), which put a great deal of emphasis on human formation,” said Father Benedict O’Cinnsealaigh, formation director at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West in Cincinnati.

Pastores Dabo Vobis indicated four areas of formation: human, spiritual, pastoral and intellectual,” said Father O’Cinnsealaigh. “The Pope affirmed that the Church must make spiritual life and human formation central to seminary formation. He identified a series of human virtues and relational abilities that are required of the priest so that he may be ‘a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of humanity.’”

In 2008, the Congregation for Catholic Education, which has oversight over seminaries, issued “Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood.” The guidelines underscored the Church’s desire “to safeguard the good of her own mission and, at the same time, the good of the candidates.”

They echoed a 2008 Vatican finding in the Congregation for Catholic Education’s “Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy” that “errors in discerning vocations are not rare, and in all too many cases, psychological defects, sometimes of a pathological kind, reveal themselves only after ordination to the priesthood. Detecting defects earlier would help avoid many tragic experiences.”

Among the key attributes of a future priest are a “positive and stable sense of one’s masculine identity and the capacity to form relations in a mature way” and “the capacity of the candidate to integrate his sexuality in accordance with the Christian vision, including in consideration of the obligation of celibacy,” say the 2008 guidelines.

The document also repeated Rome’s concern that psychologists employed by seminaries fully grasp and respect the priestly vocation. That requirement has led seminary administrators to reassess past missteps and redouble their efforts to hire reliable experts.

When Father O’Cinnsealaigh arrived at Mount St. Mary’s of the West 11 years ago, the seminary already had begun to implement the guidelines on formation. But a number of priests recalled a post-conciliar formation approach — strongly influenced by the looser, secular currents of the ’60s and ’70s — that adopted an overly naive view of sin and human frailty.

Preparing Psychologists

“Some priests recalled a lack of direction. There were no moral absolutes. Everyone had to find their own ‘truth’ authentic for them,” he noted. Asked how the seminary once identified solid psychologists for candidate evaluations, he responded ruefully, “trial and error.”

This month, Father O’Cinnsealaigh was in Washington to take part in a seminar sponsored by the Institute for Psychological Sciences (IPS), which prepares future therapists to integrate their study of psychological sciences with the Church’s vision of the human person.

“IPS has a strong commitment to psychology and spirituality in an integrated way, rather than as entirely separate fields. John Paul II says that Catholic spirituality is ‘incarnational,’ so the natural is raised up by the supernatural,” he noted.

Professional institutes like IPS are generating a growing pool of reliable experts. The therapeutic model for these licensed psychologists includes a deep awareness of the contemporary cultural framework that has shaped young men considering the priesthood.

“Psychology plays a role in seminary formation in different areas: individual evaluations for candidates and, when necessary, working collaboratively with spiritual directors throughout the process of formation. Our doctorate in clinical psychology prepares experts to address these issues from an integrated perspective," said Gladys Sweeney, academic dean of the IPS, which has been “influenced by John Paul II’s personalistic approach emphasizing the complementarity of faith and reason.”

The Church’s holistic vision of the human person and its salient critique of the cultural environment that shapes future priests were both included in the IPS seminar.

Addressing the Cultural Crisis

Father Benedict Groeschel, who is on the faculty at IPS, explained during one seminar presentation that “seminarians live in a world that is very secularized and sexualized.”

Paul Vitz, a senior scholar at IPS and professor emeritus of psychology at New York University, said in another talk, “There is a crisis in society that is a crisis of the family, and that is really a crisis of fathers who have abandoned their role.”

Vitz made the connection between the cultural crisis of fathers and the Church’s own vocations crisis. He called on his audience to remember that they are spiritual fathers who must not “abandon” their flock, especially in times of crisis. “You will be the substitute father and you won’t even know it half the time,” he said.

The seminar drew seminary administrators from as far away as Cameroon and the Philippines. A number of those present acknowledged that zealous new recruits often look askance at the use of psychology in their formation.

But Carlos Suarez, a seminarian at the Archdiocese of Boston’s St. John’s Seminary, believes the Church’s new approach is working.

“Our seminary formation program was put in place by Dominican Father John Farren. The example of spiritual fatherhood he offered was wholesome in the truest sense of the word: He cared for us,” recalled Suarez. He applauded St. John’s culture of transparency and open discussion on tough issues.

Recently, two priests from the Boston Archdiocese were caught in “compromising situations,” said Suarez. “Bishop-elect Arthur Kennedy sat us down with the faculty and our brother seminarians. The media stories hit us like a bulldozer. What we heard in the discussion was: ‘Have hope and stay close to the Lord.’

“And that’s how I’m dealing with it.”

Father John Farren, who was appointed rector of St. John’s in 2003, after Boston’s clergy abuse scandal forced the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law and prompted intense scrutiny of the archdiocese’s program of seminary formation, believes the Church has learned some key lessons.

“Problems occurred in seminaries when the view of some psychologists became broadly accepted; this defined ‘success’ as a person’s being able to live comfortably with any affliction he might have. That approach doesn’t remedy the problem at its root, but it influenced psychological evaluations and ultimately affected the whole seminary environment,” recalled Father Farren, who left St. John’s in 2007. He added that “weak moral theology” exacerbated the issue. At the end of his first year as rector, seven faculty members left St. John’s.

Asked if U.S. seminaries have effectively overcome this reliance on poor psychological conceptions and weak moral theology, Father Farren noted that “the issue is still out there, but it can’t raise its head as it once did, chasing solid seminarians out. The tide has changed.”

Joan Frawley Desmond

writes from Washington.

Vocations Voucher

Father Brett Brannen, vice rector of Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., is the author of To Save a Thousand Souls: A Guide for Discerning a Vocation to Diocesan Priesthood.