e-mail us

Cover story
Church in Crisis

Scandal renews resistance to psychology


The rector of Rome’s prestigious Gregorian University, a Jesuit identified perhaps more than any other figure in the Catholic church with the use of psychology in spiritual formation, has strongly defended the practice in a July 9 interview with NCR.

The comments come during the countdown to a Vatican investigation of American seminaries and religious houses of formation, in which the use and abuse of psychological evaluation is expected to be a major bone of contention.

“If we take secular psychology blindly, it’s inadequate,” said Jesuit Fr. Franco Imoda. “But if we believe [psychology] has nothing to say to us because we already have everything in our hands, we would be seriously mistaken.”

Imoda, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago and is the cofounder of the Gregorian’s 32-year-old Institute for Psychology, is among the consultors for an upcoming document from the Congregation for Catholic Education on psychological testing.

Second only to the question of an alleged “homosexual subculture,” psychology is today a bête-noir for critics of American seminaries.

Catholicism has actually long harbored reservations about the discipline, whose founding figures tended to see religion either as an illusion or a neurosis. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once blasted Sigmund Freud as a purveyor of “materialism, hedonism, infantilism and eroticism,” while G.K. Chesterton mocked psychoanalysis as “confession without absolution.”

Imoda said these critics had a point, but protested too much.

“Obviously we cannot make Freud a Father of the Church for training priests. But the hypothesis that sometimes religion can be a defense against psychological troubles … it’s a good hypothesis,” he said.

This traditional resistance crumbled after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), when psychological tools such as Rorschach tests and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory became standard fare in admissions processes for diocesan seminaries and religious communities.

But in the wake of the American sex abuse scandals, in which bishops often justified reassigning abusers on the grounds that it was what their psychologists advised, the debate is back.

One catalyst has been the much-discussed book Goodbye, Good Men, by Michael Rose, who argues that the priest shortage in the United States has been artificially exacerbated by liberal vocations directors and seminary formation teams hostile to conservative candidates. The primary tool used to screen out conservatives, according to Rose, is psychological evaluations labeling them “rigid” and “intolerant.” Meanwhile morally lax candidates, including future abusers, got clean bills of health.

Imoda, who has spent portions of each summer in the United States for 35 years, said that while such abuse may occur, it is not widespread.

“If these instruments are being used to exclude people simply for being traditional, it’s wrong,” Imoda said. “But they don’t have to be used that way. They can also be used to exclude somebody from the left who is immature.”

More to the point, Imoda told NCR during an hour-long session in his Rome office, it’s a mistake to think you can bypass psychology in vocations work and skip directly to the spiritual level.

“When you do spiritual direction, when you do training, you do some psychological work,” Imoda said. “You cannot perform a spiritual intervention completely separated from the psychological or human aspect.”

The aim, therefore, must be a critical sifting to see which elements of secular psychology fit.

“I believe,” Imoda said, “that institutions sometimes fail to see issues that the psychological evaluation may reveal.”

How does it work?

Imoda’s institute has performed over 7,000 psychological evaluations, often at the service of candidates for the priesthood or their dioceses or communities. The process normally takes about two weeks, and includes two or three extensive personal interviews, use of personal inventories such as the Minnesota Multiphasic, and “projective techniques” such as the Rorschach and sentence completion exercises. If a community or diocese requests, the institute will also administer an intelligence test. At the end, the individual is given a comprehensive overview of the findings.

What does he look for in a healthy candidate?

“In the cognitive area, balanced judgment,” Imoda said. “Also flexibility, the capacity to distinguish the essential from the accidental.”

This can be especially challenging for religious people, Imoda said.

“Sometimes so-called ‘orthodox’ Catholics are not capable of seeing that Jesus Christ, the Trinity, even the infallibility of the pope are one thing, while every document that comes out from the Vatican is another. So, can they distinguish?”

This tolerance for ambiguity, Imoda stressed, must be rooted in deep fidelity.

“My second level would be freedom, the capacity and the actuality of commitment to objective values,” Imoda said. “Obedience is a difficult thing from the point of view of maturity. It is not just acquiescence. Sometimes you are a fighter when you obey, but you obey.”

Finally, Imoda outlined several key emotional indicators.

“I look for joy, peace, serenity in the person’s life. In spiritual terms we would say, consolation. This is a key measure of maturity. The opposite is depression, anxiety, restlessness.”

In practical terms, of course, the American debate is not just over what to look for in a candidate -- few would argue that a future pastor should not be chronically depressed or angry -- but who gets to make the call.

For example: Does someone performing psychological assessment for seminaries need to be Catholic, or at least Christian? Some ex-seminarians tell horror stories about atheistic psychiatrists who suggested they were mentally disturbed for believing in the devil or praying the rosary.

Imoda said that for the simple purpose of excluding the presence of psychopathology, any trained practitioner could do the job. But as far as evaluating strengths and weaknesses in a person called to vocation, he said, this does require a basic Christian outlook.

Imoda knows that over the past 32 years he has tried to stretch the church in new directions, asking it to reconcile with a system of thought it has long opposed. History suggests that’s never an easy sell.

“When St. Thomas said yes to Aristotle, it wasn’t an unconditional yes,” Imoda said. “He probably respected Aristotle more than anyone else, but he also transformed him. Our insight was, why not do this with some of the sciences? I think Freud said something interesting. Rogers said something interesting, also the behaviorists. We have to exercise great prudence, yes, but we must not exclude them,” Imoda said.

“Any exclusion, I think, is not Christian.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002