William Van OrnumJune 23, 2010

Psychological Testing has always intrigued me, so much so that conducting assessments and teaching graduate courses led to a six-year project with two colleagues and the publication of “Psychological Testing Across the Lifespan” by Prentice-Hall. Despite my enthusiasm, there must always be caution surrounding the use of psychological tests. These tools do not make decisions, they are but one of many factors that should be used in making decisions in most situations. Their accuracy is expressed in terms of probabilities, not certainties. Information obtained is exceedingly private and its extraction can be intrusive and even painful.

Paul Vitello raises interesting questions about pyschological testing in his recent New York Times article, “Prospective Catholic Priests Face Sexuality Hurdles.” While much of the article focuses on the possibility that men who are viewed by the “tests” as expressing  homosexuality not be admitted to the seminary, my focus today is to compare the process as described by Vitello with the Congregation for Catholic Education’s “Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood,” the 2008 document presenting the church’s philosophy and approaches to assessing who possesses the qualities to enter into and remain in the seminary, and its implementation by the more than 200 dioceses in the United States.

The Guidelines place full responsibility for this decision on the “formator” and the diocesan bishop. The assessment and decision process is separate from psychological testing and the documents cautions very strongly that psychological testing is an adjunct and not essential process that is to be used only “in exceptional cases that present particular difficulties (si causus ferat).” Only “in some cases, recourse to experts in the psychological sciences can be useful.” In other words, the tests don’t make decisions, the church does.

Any time that psychological or medical tests are used, decision-makers must take into account false positives and false negatives. A false positive on a test suggests a person has a problem or condition but in reality does not possess this (i.e., pregnancy test is positive but in reality there is not pregnancy; psychological test suggests personality qualities interfering with the priesthood when in reality person could be a fine priest). A false negative says that the person is fine but in reality they possess the problem quality being measured (i.e., psychological test suggests person is fine but person has lied about acts of pedophilia in the past).

For some purposes, employers would rather weed out many persons who could do a good job in a position rather than accept a single person who could cause trouble. Administrators of nuclear power plans, for example, face this decision; many people who could make excellent nuclear operators are not given the chance because of a “possibility” of high anger, impulsivity or paranoid-like thinking suggested on a psychological screening test. I have not seen anyone, even the American Civil Liberties Union, protest this unfairness against particular persons in view of the greater good of society.

Paul Vitello spoke with several people in the church about seminarian selection and his article left the strong impression that the psychological tests are being used to “screen out” p[ropsoective candidates rather than a tool being used only “in exceptional circumstances,” as required by the Vatican Guidelines. It is difficult to know what is really going on because “many church officials have been reluctant to discuss the screening process, and its details differ from diocese to diocese.”

How do other professions guard the integrity and psychological health of those working in their field--occupations such as school teachers, psychologists, social workers, pediatricians, day care workers, or school bus drivers? I have never heard of any of these professions requiring psychological testing as a pre-requisite for admission to the field. Many people (including myself) would bristle even at this suggestion, for it would mean that far too many people would not be allowed to follow their life’s dream, their guaranteed (at least traditionally so in America) right of the pursuit of happiness. There are other ways to guard against improprieties.

For example, these other professions rely on intense internship supervision. Practitioners must account for their work by obtaining a license, undergoing peer supervision and supplying the proper paperwork if they have regular contact with children. In some fields, such as mental health, professionals undergo regular supervision long into their career. I have not noticed a similar transparency of work supervision in the priesthood.

So here are the questions we face: are psychological tests being inappropriately used with all candidates to the seminary, contradicting Vatican Guidelines that they only be used in exceptional cases? Are we losing men who would become good priests? Is the priesthood becoming a calling no healthy young man would want to pursue (nor would any parent encourage) because of the extremely intrusive admission process?

These questions could be addressed if we had data on how many men are applying for admission to the seminary each year. If many or most of these men were receiving psychological testing upfront rather than being assessed by a team in extensive process guided by formators, it would seem that the Vatican Guidelines are not being followed, and that we are indeed losing more than a few good priests. Is this fair and in the best interests of all concerned?

William Van Ornum


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Beth Cioffoletti
11 years 4 months ago
I think that the saddest part of this dilemma is "that far too many people would not be allowed to follow their life’s dream."
It sure calls into question the notion that a vocation to the priesthood is a special calling from God.
we vnornm
11 years 4 months ago
Books have been written about how much tests reveal.
Testing took off in 1915-16 when an individual, lengthy, complex, and in some ways humble approach to assessing "intelligence" was transformed into a 15-minute "quick and dirty" way to find out who out of millions would make good officers. There was no time to do more than this. We won the war. Enough said.
As someone who has assessed at least 1500 people over 25 years, I think that several years in the seminary would be ample time to gain a solid understanding of a candidate.
Yes, my main theme here is that they are probably being used as a quick and dirty way to assess someone, to transfer responsibility to someone else ("oh, but the psychologists said..." Does this line sound familiar?), and to spread the legal responsibility around.
A good book is mentioned in the blog...click the link...if you promise to read it and send me comments, I'll send you a freebie. amdg, bill
we vnornm
11 years 4 months ago
Dear Beth (and others),
When I read the USCCB document on permanent deacons, it appeared that there were many features used to assess deacons "along the way" that aren't being used in the priesthood.
At the same time, I had the impression that the USCCB document was perhaps making the screening process more difficult than the Vatican intended. Again, there may be a CYA process occurring in view of US Church events these past few years.
These are not even opinions of mine, just preliminary speculations, and I'd love to have some feedback from others.
I think there is sold agreement that the diaconate program in the USA has been a wonderful for the U.S. Church, and I think the two documents below are worth reading for many reasons. amdg bill
Brendan McGrath
11 years 4 months ago
I have a good, energetic, talented, bright friend who applied to enter the Jesuits in 2005 (right out of college; we attended Georgetown together) and was rejected - I heard that that year in the Maryland province or something, there were 20-some applicants, and only two were accepted.  I could have the numbers wrong, but I think the general point was that at least for that year, the vast majority of people who applied to the Jesuits in one province or area were turned away.  My friend was very open and honest about everything - he said that his impression was that the various people who interviewed him didn't seem to "get" him, so to speak: i.e., that they didn't seem to understand why a young man coming out of college would want to be a Jesuit; it seemed to them something seen more in the past, whereas these days they were more used to older vocations.  He was turned away because, according to them, he didn't seem capable of real loving relationships, or something like that.  I imagine the psychological tests were somehow involved with that.
I love the Jesuits, and I'm sure (at least I hope) that this isn't the case with all Jesuit provinces, and perhaps that was just an odd few years.  As I've posted before, I hope that I "end up" as a Jesuit some day - it's not what I want right now, but I sort of pray a combination of Thomas Merton's prayer and St. Augustine's prayer: "Lord, make me a Jesuit/priest, but not yet."  ;)  The biggest obstacle for me is actually the obedience vow, the idea of having to be uprooted at any time and sent anywhere.  Also, right now I want to teach Theology in a Catholic high school, and there's no guarantee that I'd be able to do that either immediately or for the long term as a Jesuit.  I'd also have to go away from family and friends for - what is it, 13 years?  Or less now?  As for the prospect of psychological testing being a deterrent, I suppose it is sort of intimidating - I mean, I have various bits of emotional baggage, and... well, in general, I guess I'd be afraid of what a psychological testing panel might think of me.  I don't really fit the norm of a typical, "red-blooded" American male.  (Then again, neither does Christ.  And neither do many of the saints.)
we vnornm
11 years 4 months ago
Dear Brendan,
Thank you for your poignant comments. It is just a speculation, a hunch on my part-but I suspect that what you write about has been/is occurring in more than a few other situations.
As a teacher/clinical supervisor who likes to follow up on those who progress into my field, I am humbled by my own lack of ability (and the lack of ability in others) in predicting career trajectories.
I truly hope there are Jesuit talent scouts reading your comments!
best, bill
Kate Smith
11 years 4 months ago
I think the probem is the church has proven it fails at alternatives to testing, like supervision (which you offer as an alternative).
I have an easy time proving this, though it's been all over the news with other people's equally outrageous stories.
In 2003, I was found credible by the Missouri Jesuit provincial, and he ordered the Jesuit abuser to resign his teaching position and banned him from public ministry and teaching, and signed a legal contract about it, requiring supervision.
In 2006, the VERY NEXT Jesuit provincial totally ignored the legal contract - which, as I said, required supervision - and allowed the Jesuit abuser to preside at mass, engage in public ministry and teach again.
In 2009, after I discovered this and told the Jesuits they breached the agreement, the Jesuit provincial was still ignoring the agreement and was going to let the Jesuit abuser teach at Fordham.   The Jesuit president of Fordham had to stop it himself and told the Jesuit provincial the Jesuit abuser was banned from Fordham.
And all during this time what did Fr. Nicolas do?  He is the supervisor of the wayward Jesuit provincial.  Fr. Nicolas did NOTHING about it.
Recently I filed a formal misconduct complaint about the Missouri Jesuit provincial, and submitted it to Fr. Nicolas, and what did he do?   Ignore me.
My bishop told me to contact the papal nuncio, because some of the Jesuit abuser's recent actions were in Europe.   What did the papal nuncio do?  Ignore me.
I think the bishops know this about themselves and the Roman Catholic church.   There is NO supervision of Catholic priests.   Supervision of Catholic priests simply does not exist.
I can understand why psychological testing has grown in importance, though I certainly agree that it can be misused.
I also want to point out that women and men being denied the opportunity to become priests is nothing new in this church either.
we vnornm
11 years 4 months ago
Am extremely sad situation you write about, and I'm sure there are others like it.
But when you say "the Church has proven it fails at alternatives to supervision, like testing", I start to worry about overgeneralizing.
Do you think that NONE of the 200+ dioceses supervise well, that NONE of the superiors or bishops supervise well? I can't go that far and my own perception is that there are many priests and bishops in the Church with great integrity.
I'm generalizing from my own experience, which may be indeed more limited and less accurate than yours. But I'm seeing things differently.
I hope the situation isn't as dire as your experience suggests; if so, I might have to consider joining my very good friends in the Lutheran Church, although they have been going through some struggles of their own.
This past decade in the Church...sad, sad, sad...but, at least to me, there are many signs of hope and resilience. thanks for writing, amdg, bill
11 years 4 months ago
I think you nailed it, Bill, with your CYA theme.  It seems to be an institutional reaction when threatened  by the outside to fortify the embattlements.  Using psych testing is one way to skirt institutional responsibility.  What a shame for it to be happening in our church when the need for priests is so great and some candidates are not even haaving a chance to follow what they feel is their vocation.  Seminary life and supervision should be able to weed out the undesirables.  At least give candidates a chance!
Some yrs ago, at Child Protective Services, after a particulary egregious case hit the papers, a local psychologist approached county admin with a proposal to test applicants for social work positions.  I was on the advisory panel that discussed the proposal and advised the admin to reject it.  There was no support for the reasons you gave, Bill.  The agency had already set up an excellent training program for new hires and there was a period of probation and supervision when  a person could be terminated.  To their credit, admin rejected the proposal even though it must have been tempting to have a way to pass the buck.
we vnornm
11 years 4 months ago
What a great way for a psychologist to make money! :-) :-) :-)
C.S. Lewis said that the two most awesome and important things we meet on Earth are the Eucharist and each Human Person, because in both instances we are touching immortality.
How treacherous it is to mess with, coerce, or limit the quest of a human soul on Earth...for whatever reason...especially when there are different solutions for problems.
best, bill
Kate Smith
11 years 4 months ago
I was not trying to suggest every leader is the same:  for example, the Jesuit president of Fordham acted swiftly to prevent the abuser from returning, and when the story was in the news he apologized for the abuser's earlier teaching at Fordham.   And my bishop acted with integrity too, when he immediately told me to contact the papal nuncio (who ignored me).   I certainly agree with you that there are people with integrity in leadership positions.
But I do believe that supervision is mostly non-existent.   And if psychological testing is increasing in importance, I bet some of it is because there are concerns about no  supervision later.
A Lutheran pastor told me that at least half his congregation is former Catholics, and added that's only what he knows about.  Could be more.
we vnornm
11 years 4 months ago
Three cheers for Fordham!
Oh, those Lutherans....luring Catholics away since the 1500s. They must be doing alot that's right!
11 years 4 months ago
The tests are written with a certain premise and given with a certain premise?   I mean, are the tests  written to discover gayness?    Have those giving the tests   taken a leap and decided that being gay = an inability to be a good priest (or even worse, that being gay = the possibility of being a pedophile)?      I think you're right and that practicums and internships are a better way to see if someone could be a good priest.
Kate Smith
11 years 4 months ago
By the way, to highlight what I said about supervision problems....
The Jesuit provincial who allowed an abuser to return to ministry and failed to properly supervise him, and then lied about it....  THAT Jesuit provincial was named to lead a Jesuit high school in Denver, Arrupe High, a school for disadvantaged young people.   He starts July 1.   So, sometime after July 1, I am heading out to Denver to make sure the parents of students there know that their school president thinks it's fine for KNOWN abusers to work with young people.
If he apologizes and admits his mistakes, I won't have to do that.   But he hasn't.
I feel strongly about this, so three cheers for me too!  We lay people have responsibilities in this church too.
we vnornm
11 years 4 months ago
Perhaps I can explain a little more.
I don't know of any tests that measure gayness (homosexuality).
A frequently used test for seminary selection can definitely be helpful in those "rare" or "extraordinary" cases the Vatican talks about in that it can pick up dangerous delusions, possible psychotic problems that might be hidden from even the best observers, or high levels of unacknowledged depression or bipolar disorder. I think most would agree that serious problems like this need to be addressed, but also keeping in mind that treatment might greatly help in managing these problems.
There is another part of this test that attempts to measure "gender role." A person scoring high on this scale might do so because of interpersonal sensitivity, a dislike a sports, or an interest in the arts. I suspect that this is one area where someone could be "flagged' as having a problem, or "possible" homosexuality.
Another part of the test measures something like "response to authority, anger, respect for rules" and a high score here can be a flag. Yet many persons who score high here are also innovators, persons who respond to different drummers, and those who stand up for what is right.
The developers of the test have gone to great pains to note that any "flags" like this need to be investigated by a direct interview, yet I know a sentence like "the test suggests with high probability that Mr. X is confused about sexual identity and possibly harbors anger toward authority figures" would be within the realm of proper test interpretation-yet, some good future priests would be rejected if someone chose to use that sentence and highlight it.
So those who make decisions about the course of the future of another person's life must be very, very careful and the Vatican Guidelines are very cognizant of this.
Hope this helps. It's a tricky subject. best, bill
11 years 4 months ago
Oh, I see.  I was thinking the tests were specifically created to respond to that  Vatican document, "Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders".  But they've been in place all along and are more general in scope?
we vnornm
11 years 4 months ago
Another good question. Yes, some of the tests go back over sixty years and are used for many purposes.
Another of the "tests" used by some is to ask the candidate to draw "anatomically correct figures". There are also highly specific and detailed questions about sexuality.
I haven't seen a general discussion of this in the profession, and that wold be helpful.
amdg, bill
Kate Smith
11 years 4 months ago
One more thing I was thinking about with the supervision problem.
Priests have each other's backs.   It's a club.   That is why the very next Jesuit provincial forgot about me and their legal agreement, and only cared about his man.  Bishops engage in the same behavior, but kick out abusers.
That is why the next provincial, #3, the current guy, continued the lie that nothing wrong happened  - even with church bulletins verifying the Jesuit abuser presided at mass and photographs showing the Jesuit abuser teaching at Georgetown.
That is why Jesuit superior general Adoflo Nicolas completely ignores misconduct complaints about the lack of supervision of abusers.  It's his man.
But what I was thinking about tonight is this fact:  the Missouri Jesuit, Phil Steele, who investigated back in 2003 when the province found me credible is on the board of Arrupe High School in Denver, where the ex-provincial, Tim McMahon, who breached the agreement was hired.  So, even the Jesuit who was there when I was found credible thinks it's okay to hire a Jesuit who lets a known abuser back in ministry and work with young people.   I think this should be publcized too, how Jesuits do this.
That is why there is often no effective supervision in the Catholic church.   It is a clerical club.    Jesuits are not holding themselves accountable or taking responsibility because this behavior is instinctive.
In this kind of environment and culture, I can see how testing gains backing.  It's hard to find alternatives.
Jim McCrea
11 years 4 months ago
Could part/some of the problem be the father/son relationship between bishops and the priests in their dioceses?  This seems to be an artificial relationship at best and might just be designed to keep grown men in a perpetual state of deference to "Daddy."
Not very healthy in my book.
Francis Perry Azah
11 years 4 months ago
The seminary formation is a process which takes into consideration so many factors including (and not limited to) the spiritual, moral, emotional, physical and psychological well-being of the candidate for the priesthood. The “formators”, also human beings are limited in their judgment with regards to the holistic assessment and formation of the candidate. Psychological testing for me is a good tool to be used but ultimately the seminarian/candidate need to open himself and be “normal” (that is, not be a hypocrite). All the various scientific assessments of a particular seminarian can achieve a good result if the desired goal is in focus.
In the write-up Bill pointed out that: “Other professions rely on intense internship supervision. Practitioners must account for their work by obtaining a license, undergoing peer supervision and supplying the proper paperwork if they have regular contact with children. In some fields, such as mental health, professionals undergo regular supervision long into their career. I have not noticed a similar transparency of work supervision in the priesthood.” I think this notion vary from diocese (religious congregation) to the other. This is because as part of the formation in most seminaries all over the world, there are pastoral programs for all candidates under the supervision pastors and “others” in special ministries across the life-span. In some cases the program is run trough out the formation period but in other cases it is run intensively for one year. What I believe should be done is to intensify the program in order for it to yield the desired results as is done in other professions.
we vnornm
11 years 4 months ago
I seem to recall a quote from St. Augustine, "I am your bishop, I am your brother" and I recall that Cardinal Bernardin in Chicago used that phrase in referring to himself as "your brother, Joseph." Brotherhood or mentorship offers a guiding and caring relationship which is less likely to lead to infantilizing. thanks for writing, bill
we vnornm
11 years 4 months ago
Father Perry,
Thanks for pointing out how the formation process varies all over the world. It is all too easy to generalize about "the Church" when in reality there are so many unique qualities about every priest, parish, and bishop and I find I have done a bit too much generalizing, as you point out.
Openness is extremely important in the candidate. If a candidate suspects that things he says or thinks about can be expressed as "probable negatives" to be used against him (as can occur in psychological testing) the goal of openness can become elusive.
You mention "intensifying" programs, a theme of what I'm suggesting....I wonder if or how much money is required...we are in cash-strapped times...so this is yet another factor. amdg, bill
11 years 4 months ago
We have to remember that in his instructions on entering the priesthood Pope Benedict XVI specifically said that any potential seminarian must NOT have had any kind of sexual experience in the prior three years and must not have been involved in the ''gay culture.'' (In his instructions the word ''homosexual'' was used over 90 times but the word ''gay'' was used only twice in the context of ''gay culture'' which had been placed in quotation marks.)  There is a difference between being homosexual and being gay.  Not all homosexuals are gay.  Gay implies that the person has a healthy, mature sexuality.  The church has no problem with homosexuals as long as they believe and accept the church teaching that their sexuality is ''morally disordered'' or ''intrinsically evil'' but if you have a healthy gay sexual identity, you need not apply.
we vnornm
11 years 4 months ago
Dear Gene,
Thanks for writing on this topic, which certainly stirs up alot of passionate debate from a variety of perspectives.
I've also seen "gay" as referring to a person who is homosexual who is very involved in the political movement involving equal rights for homosexuals, marriage, and political issues.
Let's hope good Pope Benedict can get some well-deserved rest at Castel Gandolfo this summer, he has certainly earned it.
have a good summer, bill
Michael Maiale
11 years 4 months ago
Unfortunately, supervisions sometimes isn't enough.  Abusers seem to have a knack for convincing everyone they're the best people in the world.
I don't really trust psychology, but I'm not sure that "supervision" is an adequate solution, either.
we vnornm
11 years 4 months ago
Dear Mr. Maiale:
It certainly is a difficult quandry that we have to deal with, an as you point out-a number of abusers are highly charismatic. I worry that the pool of potential future priests keeps shrinking and getting smaller. thanks very much for writing. bill van ornum
David Nickol
11 years 4 months ago
I am unsure of just how much a good battery of psychological tests is capable of revealing about a person. Could psychological tests ferret out something that someone could hide (or that would not come to light) in several years in the seminary? My guess is that psychological tests serve as a "quick and dirty" way to assess someone's personality traits when there is no time to get to know them from extended social interaction. If that is correct, it would seem to me they are practically unnecessary, since there is plenty of time to assess someone who will be in the seminary for several years before he will be ordained. 
But I confess I don't know what psychological tests are capable of uncovering. I have never heard of someone visiting a therapist for the first time and being sent for psychological testing so the therapist would know what to treat. 
Brian O'Neill
8 years 3 months ago
At the risk of teaching grandmother how to suck eggs, there are broadly speaking two sorts of psychological 'tests' for understanding personality that are in broad use: questionnaires requiring true/false or agree/disagree responses to each of many statements; and projection tests of which the Rorschach inkblots is probably the most widely known. Each approach requires extensive psychological training and experience by practitioners who are qualified and on an appropriate professional register. In skilled hands personality testing can provide useful adjunct information to inform, complement and triangulate with other methods used in an assessment process, such as in-depth interview and biographical history. (Note: There are many dubious self-assessment questionnaires available commercially that should be avoided.) It is in the interpretation, reporting and discussion of the findings from such instruments with the formator and bishop that a good psychologist will prove his/her worth. As with any assessment whose outcome will affect a person's future, personality 'tests' are prone to bias; that is, candidates, whether consciously or unconsciously, may be predisposed to give answers they feel are desirable or will create a good impression, e.g of being more emotionally stable or agreeable than they would normally be. An important part of the psychologist's skill is to identify and make an informed judgement of such response biases. A point worth making: avoiding a 'wrong' selection decision is as much in the interest of the candidate as the Church, and this is one of the key selling points for all aspects of an assessment, tests included. In industry this sort of testing is often used as part of the extensive assessment of candidates for senior management positions where, clearly much hangs on a successful selection. However, as is the case with candidates for the priesthood, psychological assessment reports are but one element in the final selection decision. A final thought: although the Vatican Guidelines do not prescribe testing for mental aptitudes (e.g. critical thinking, general reasoning) I would have thought that some such aptitudes would be essential for a seminarian, and a forteriori for priest in today's complex world. These are more easily, reliably and validly measured by means of well-established tests.

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