Our Priesthood on the Couch

Fr. Benedict Groeschel  speaks to Crisis about Psychological Testing, Religious candidates, and What Psychology Means to Religious Vocation

Since the early 1960s almost all candidates applying to enter religious life or the priesthood have been required to undergo psychological screening. Further evaluation has sometimes been required if questions are raised about a person’s fitness. Some have claimed that psychological evaluations have been used against them when the real problem is serious ideological and theological differences with the powers that be. Horror stories are not uncommon. Candidates who are at odds with the faculty over theological issues have been subjected to testing and had the results used against them with no appeal. Crisis has asked the well-known priest and psychologist Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, what he thinks about the process of vocational testing as it exists presently.

This interview is the sixth installment of Crisis magazine’s ongoing Seminary Project. We began examining the state of America’s seminaries by featuring Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland (October 1997). Other articles explored the state of seminary curriculum requirements in Latin, patristics, and philosophy (November and December 1998), as well as in moral theology (Feb. 1999). In our last installment, we spoke with Bishop Allen Vigneron, rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, about the next generation of seminarians (May 1999). Future authors will explore curricular issues, from the teaching of biblical interpretation to liturgical practices.

CRISIS: Fr. Benedict, how much have you been involved in the process of psychological assessment and the screening of candidates entering religious life or the priesthood?

FR. BENEDICT: I’ve been submerged. In the past 30 years I’ve administered the standard battery of psychological tests and evaluated almost 1,600 vocational prospects, including many who are now diocesan priests or members of religious orders ranging from members of missionary institutes to Carthusian hermits. I may even be on the short list of the world’s record for having given the most psychologicals.

Along with screening those seeking admission, have you tested people who are already in the seminary or religious life and have been referred because they’re having difficulties?

Yes, but rarely and with some reluctance. I think psychological testing can be justified when candidates are not well known to the superiors admitting them. But, in general, I am reluctant to do an evaluation later on except for those who wish to have assistance in understanding themselves. This evaluation serves a different purpose. It’s a clinical instrument and should be used to assist someone in making a better adjustment and not used for evaluation. I think that those in charge generally should make evaluations on external behavior of the individual already in the community rather than on a psychological assessment.

You sound like you approve of psychological screening of candidates. Doesn’t this interfere with the process of grace? Doesn’t it play God?

Anyone who has dealt with a severely disturbed priest or other religious knows that such a person can do a good deal of harm. It is the responsibility of diocesan bishops and major religious superiors to admit only candidates who are able to function well and in a responsible manner. This is one of the essential signs of a vocation. For centuries this evaluation was based primarily on the external behavior of an individual—such things as prayerfulness, patience, ability to relate to others, tolerance, and diligence. The norms varied a bit with a specific vocation. Someone who might make a good Trappist would not make a good foreign missionary, and vice versa. With the coming of personality testing, the possibility of determining certain traits, especially pathological ones, before admitting a candidate seemed to be attractive. If one could use appropriate testing to determine reasonably that an individual is not suited for a particular vocation—or for religious life at all—that individual may avoid much suffering while the institute or diocese saves considerable expense and complications for the other candidates entering at the same time. 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. 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.

So psychological testing procedures really are useful tools.

Yes, but any tool is only as good as the manner in which you use it. The instruments we use for psychological evaluation are complex and were never designed specifically to evaluate religious candidates. Most of the evaluation procedures have been designed for clinical diagnosis of persons with apparent psychological dysfunction. There are other instruments that appraise vocational interests or ability. These would be used to refer people to occupations like typist or musician rather than a religious vocation. There are also self-evaluation reports— like the ever popular Myers-Briggs—which are neither clinical nor vocational, but sometimes give individuals insights into their own functioning apart from their negative qualities. People with semi-Pelagian attitudes—the partial or general denial of the effects of Orginal Sin—love to talk endlessly about the Myers-Briggs, because it doesn’t tell much about one’s negative traits.

Most of the instruments used for evaluation of religious candidates—if not all of them—are constructed with the assumption that we all have negative elements in our personality functioning. The goal of the test is to see if we fit into the normal range and do not have symptoms of serious pathology like schizophrenia or paranoia. Since I’ve been reading the great psychologist St. Augustine all of my life, you don’t have to convince me that we all are a bit of a mess as a result of the effects of Original Sin—that mysterious and universal ailment. The Pelagian assumption that we are all actually sane people exempt from the effects of Original Sin gives rise to the observation of many older religious that they never would have been admitted today if they had to take a psychological test. I assure them that I never tested a totally well-balanced and integrated person yet. If I did I would never let him enter the Franciscans, for fear that he would die of loneliness. I’d send him to the Jesuits, not that they’re all in much better shape than the friars, but one perfectly sane fellow might help their national health index.

So you think a psychological test can determine a vocation?

I had the benefit of excellent, world-class teachers in this area at Columbia University and New York Psychiatric Institute. They warned me almost immediately that no test could determine a religious vocation.

Psychological testing and evaluation could determine fairly accurately who should not try to follow such a vocation—for instance, those suffering from chronic mental illness or psychosis should not. Others who are not actually mentally ill but struggle with a wide variety of serious symptoms, ranging from severe obsessive-compulsive traits to active psychosexual dysfunctions of many kinds, should not attempt a religious vocation. 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. A psychological test is like an X-ray: completely useless if you can’t read it well.

Since psychological tests are not designed for religious candidates, are there problems using these tests?

Yes, there are, but these are not insurmountable if the psychologist knows how to evaluate testing results from a person with strong religious values. For example, on one of the most popular psychological instruments there is an indication for psychopathic personality, really a very dishonest person who has been involved in considerable wrongdoing. A rather innocent and naïve 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. I put computerized diagnosis in the same category as frozen TV dinners: They all must be thawed and taken piece by piece.

Who evaluates the ability of the psychologist to provide testing for religious candidates?

The unfortunate answer is—nobody. Like many other aspects of contemporary psychology and education as well as religious life itself, the whole thing is a bit of a mess. However, I think there may be a bit more common sense operating in psychological testing than, say, in religious education. But to expect a psychologist with little or no knowledge of a religious vocation to be able to evaluate candidates who fall into gray areas is dangerous. It is even worse to obtain the services of a psychologist who is hostile to religious life or the Catholic Church in general. 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 an experienced professional 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. Usually this is not done, and this is how psychological evaluation has developed a bad reputation.

Can psychological tests be improved so that religious candidates are more accurately evaluated?

There are constant, ongoing attempts to improve psychological assessment, but these usually do not help the evaluators of religious candidates. Most tests, except projectives like the famous Rorshach inkblot test, 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. For example, when the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory first came out 50 years ago, the sexual mores of this country somewhat reflected Christian morality. But we are now immersed in a situation like St. Augustine’s description of Carthage: “a boiling cauldron of illicit lust.” This morally dissolute situation gets reflected in the norms so that the religious candidate is far outside the norm, as one might expect. It used to be normal to go to church on Sunday. Now it’s a deviation from the norm. This kind of thing crops up more and more in testing and it requires greater experience on the part of the evaluator and a critical ability to reappraise the results. I am often amused to ask how St. Francis would have done. Or more to the point, how would St. Edith Stein or even Karol Wojtyla have done? This is the real test.

This brings us back to the question: Can these tests be abused to reject candidates for ideological reasons?

Any instrument can be abused. A hammer can be used to fix a broken door or to crack somebody’s skull. There is an abuse in psychological testing that I refer to as “Operation Gulag Archipelago.” 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. I decided 30 years ago that if I erred I would err on the side of leniency. I would much prefer to realize later that I gave someone a chance who could not measure up than to keep someone out who might have had a real vocation. When it comes to the complex world of psychological assessment, I would rather err on the side of leniency than “play God.” 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. I must confess to being shocked by the unethical disclosure of psychological data, the arbitrary evaluation of personality traits, and the rather stupid use of testing results from years before to make decisions in the here and now.

Is that why you hear complaints of apparently well-functioning people who say that they were rejected because of psychological evaluations?

That is a tragic situation. No one is going to take a negative psychological evaluation well. Unfortunately, a person who has been legitimately and even very wisely rejected from the seminary is going to feel wronged and misunderstood even when the evaluator was faced with indisputable evidence that the person should not be admitted. I once tested a man with a very serious sexual addiction, which was apparently under control at that time. He wrote directly to the pope to complain.

Is there any way to resolve the question? Can you evaluate a person apart from their theological or ideological convictions and still do your job as a psychologist when you’re determining religious vocations?

I have tried to face this question as fairly as I can. First of all, I approach the evaluation from a strictly psychological point of view as objectively as I can. Then, if I have questions about a person’s theology—say, their orthodoxy or lack of it—I put these questions in a separate memorandum. Some extreme ideological positions on the very far left or the very far right, so to speak, are usually linked to negative psychological traits quite apart from any convictions. People with extreme positions tend to be rigid, argumentative, and often have huge reservoirs of repressed rage that make them difficult to relate to. An ex-member of the Communist party and convert to the Church recalled the spectacular storms of interpersonal hostility and conflict which he encountered. Dostoyevsky’s very interesting character, Ivan Karamazov, an anarchist, loved everyone in the world but hated any particular person he knew for just a single day.

Having done all this testing for so many years, do you think it’s worthwhile?

If I calculate on a 40-hour work-week, I have spent over two years of professional time just doing testing. I use a slightly less complicated standard form since I rarely use an IQ test and I write the report without an autobiography because the clients can best write their own. I also compose my reports in English, not in jargon. When I look back on it all, I feel I made a contribution to the Church, to many individuals, especially those who were spared the pain of failure. God calls all to holiness, but not all to a religious vocation. 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.


  • Rev. Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R.

    Rev. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, is a popular writer, speaker, retreat director, and EWTN personality. He is also a cofounder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Currently, Father Benedict is director of the Office for Spiritual Development for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, associate director of Trinity Retreat, and executive director of The St. Francis House.

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