Are We Losing Good Priests Because of Psychological Testing?
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