According to the document that was released at the Vatican on October 30, 2008, titled ‘‘Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood,’’ yes, there is. The document appropriately places the practice of psychology in context and views it as part of the whole formation process. This is a positive step for both the Church and for the practice of psychology in its relation to the Catholic Church. 

Psychological assessment has been an integral part of the screening process to determine the psychological health and well-being of men interested in the priesthood. Although a number of standard psychological instruments have been used to investigate the suitability of men for the priesthood, there has been some interest in the applicability of these instruments and how much importance need be placed on the results. 

In the wake of the sex scandal the Church has undergone, there has been a great outcry as to why these perpetrators were not screened properly. Some were older and, because the use of psychology was frowned upon at the time, may not have actually undergone a psychological screening, while others appear to have been able to fake themselves through the testing. 

Yet other people have said that psychology and the seminary culture may have favored a more sexually-diverse mentality that looked upon celibacy with some suspicion because of its traditional theological place. Whatever the reason, it appears psychology was not very helpful when it came to assisting in the screening and formation of psychologically healthy men. 

Perhaps the problem was not psychology itself, but the misunderstanding of priesthood by those who do the screening and testing. Psychologists are trained in the social science of human behavior, not necessarily in the theological nature and appreciation of what priesthood entails. Therefore, much of the testing that is done focuses on certain personality traits as measured by instruments such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) which identifies personality structure and pathology. Projective tests such as the Thematic Apperception Test are also employed for these reasons as well. 

Tests and Interviews 

These are helpful and can describe a great deal about personality, but of course they are not perfect. Generally tests like these are complimented by psychological interviews and delving deeper into behaviors or history the psychologist may want to investigate further. So, for instance, if there is an elevated score on the masculinity-femininity scale of the MMPI indicating a man has a proclivity toward feminine interests, a psychologist may want to see why that is the case. It may or may not be something to be concerned about in regard to vocational pursuits. 

In addition to personality testing, other instruments may be used such as the Holland Inventory that matches personality types with particular job types. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator and other vocational tests are used for similar reasons. What is important to note is that the psychologist is looking at skills, dispositions and talents that are conducive to a particular job. Outside of screening for pathology, the view most psychologists take concerning priesthood is that it is a job with tasks to be accomplished, but this is really only part of what priesthood is about. This is a positive element of screening, but not the whole story. 

Test Development 

Besides not fully understanding priesthood in all its complexity, psychologists also have to consider that the tests they use were not developed on a population as specific as that of men interested in the Catholic priesthood. Based on the fact that many of the tests used were developed with the general population, a man who is deciding to become a Catholic priest may be regarded as “deviant,” particularly in regards to the belief in a call to the life of celibacy. 

There are other factors to consider as well. There has been some difficulty in attempting to explicate in clear, unambiguous terms those indications of success in regard to the functioning as a priest based on criterion variables. Without a clear understanding of these variables, it is difficult even with the most rigorous and reliable tests to determine how well a man will function as a seminarian or priest. It is important to also recall that assessment is not a value-free activity; therefore, a psychologist involved in this type of work must be aware of the values of the institution requesting this type of service in order to limit the existence of any distrust the institution may have of the process. All of this plays a part in the concerns that led the Vatican to provide some guidelines as to where psychology can play a valuable part in the screening and formation of candidates. 

In reading the Vatican document one notes that the Church views psychology as having an instrumental part in the initial screening of candidates for any pathology that would hinder them from developing in priestly virtue. It is clear though, that the simple existence of some pathology does not preclude an individual from continuing in formation. We are all human and, as such, we live in a fallen state. We all struggle with the effects of sin. No man presenting himself for candidacy will be exempt from that. 

What is clear though is that the Vatican wants formators to “know how to evaluate the person in his totality, not forgetting the gradual nature of development. He must see the candidate’s strong and weak points, as well as the level of awareness that the candidate has of his own problems.” It is noted that psychology has a place in this element of formation and can be of assistance to those charged with new priestly candidates. 

In the initial part of discernment, psychologists can help formators with developing an accurate picture of the candidate: his personality, his potentialities and dispositions, as well as any psychological weaknesses that need to be addressed. However, this does not mean that the psychological assessment is the sole deciding factor. Presently, psychology has done a fair job in this area. As long as the tests are considered in context as discussed above, psychology can fairly accurately identify personality flaws. It is in subsequent formation that psychology has had its difficulties. 

Useful Support

In the document we read, “During the period of formation, recourse to experts in psychological sciences can respond to the needs born of any crisis; but it can also be useful in supporting the candidate on his journey toward a more sure possession of the moral virtues. It can furnish the candidate with a deeper knowledge of his personality and contribute to overcoming, or rendering less rigid, his psychic resistances to what his formation is proposing.” 

True, this can be done; as a psychologist I have successfully helped individuals in this way. However, this can be difficult when a psychologist does not fully understand that this man is becoming a priest, which entails a whole new understanding of self. There is in the development of priesthood a kind of birth into a different person. 

Catholic theology has noted this in identifying an ontological change in an individual who is ordained. That change in self occurs as part of formation. A man learns to identify who he is with being priest. So for instance, the ability to be priest involves the ability to show intimacy and affection with others in a non-sexual way. 

A Sacramental Sign 

Celibacy becomes who a priest is. A man must become comfortable in identifying himself as a sacramental sign of Jesus Christ. This implies that psycho-socially he relates to the faithful differently than if he were not an ordained member of the faith community. This new self must be acclimated during the formation process and will bring with it the possibility of a number of psychological crises.
The handling of these crises must be unique and different than when handling these issues with perhaps other people in identity crises. There needs to be sensitivity to the Catholic culture and an understanding of priesthood in the context of this subculture. 

It is important for any psychologist working with men who are candidates for becoming Catholic priests or who are priests to recognize the Catholic cultural ideas of what priesthood means from an identity perspective. In my studies with the psychological elements of discerning the vocation to the Catholic priesthood, I have found there are a number of states men go through in successfully transitioning from being a layperson to a priest. If psychology understands these states and can properly contextualize any issues or developmental blocks toward this end, it can be a powerful friend to formation. If not, it can be like using a hammer to turn a screw. The document from the Vatican warns us that “Inasmuch as it is the fruit of a particular gift of God, the vocation to the priesthood and its discernment lie outside the strict competence of psychology.” 

A Spiritual Element 

The implication is, of course, that we are dealing with more than a process of cognitive reasoning in deciding to be a Catholic priest; there is a spiritual element as well. Yet, again as stated in the document, “It [psychology] can allow a more sure evaluation of the candidate’s psychic state; it can help evaluate his human dispositions for responding to the divine call; and it can provide some extra assistance for the candidate’s human growth.” 

Like all things, Catholic grace builds upon nature. Psychology deals with the natural elements of being human, and spiritual direction and theology deal with the supernatural aspects of discernment. Finding the proper context for each is essential, and the Vatican has done a great service to both psychology and priestly formation by finding the proper place for both. Let’s hope that those charged with formation programs attend to these guidelines and make them practical elements of their formation programs. TP 

DR. HANKLE, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology for Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., and has worked in pastoral ministry and pastoral counseling for 12 years. He has a doctorate in psychology from Capella University, and a master’s degree in systematic theology from St. Vincent Seminary.