Psychology and Seminarians

Interview With Psychologist Frank Moncher

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By Karna Swanson

ARLINGTON, Virginia, NOV. 11, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Although the use of psychology in seminaries is not new, a recent document on the topic could help to clarify both its role and usefulness in houses of formation, says psychologist Frank Moncher.

Moncher, who received his doctorate from the University of South Carolina, is an associate professor and director of the doctoral program at the Arlington-based Institute for the Psychological Sciences. He also oversees assessment of candidates for religious life for the Alpha Omega Clinic in the D.C. area.

In this interview with ZENIT, Moncher discusses the document released Oct. 30 by the Congregation for Catholic Education: "Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood."

Q: Is the use of psychology in the preparation of candidates for the priesthood new? What has been the role of psychology in seminaries up to now?

Moncher: Psychologists have been asked to consult regarding the readiness of candidates for the priesthood for several decades, though different dioceses and religious orders have varied in their frequency and approach to using this assistance.

Some have instituted policies whereby all candidates are routinely evaluated prior to admission to seminary/formation, while others only request evaluations of those about whom they have significant concerns, and still others refer after the candidate has been living with the community for some time.

This spectrum defines the two primary roles that I most commonly find myself in as a psychologist. The first role is providing a psychological evaluation as one of the many inputs that a vocation’s committee might consider in reviewing whether to admit an applicant. The second role is to provide, based on the evaluation, recommendations for how to best guide or form the person, as well as other interventions and at times follow-up therapy with the person in question, either while in seminary/formation, or as a preparation for admission.

My approach and hope in working with seminary candidates is to emphasize how this psychological evaluation process can be beneficial to them personally in their growth and development, and not simply as a process for disqualifying people from pursuing their vocation.

Q: The text stipulates limits on the use of interviews and tests by experts to only very necessary cases. How common are these situations? Could you explain the special role and place of the expert in psychology in these situations?

Moncher: In my experience, a relatively small percentage of applicants would seem to meet the criteria of a “very necessary case,” which I understand to denote persons who may be psychologically unable or immature to a degree that impedes pursuit of a vocation to the priesthood. In these situations, the psychologist is tasked with documenting and at times diagnosing the particular anomaly that precludes the candidate from pursuing formation at the present time. I believe the psychologist, grounded in a Christian anthropology and understanding of the human person, should also provide specific feedback as to the possible treatment course that might prepare the person to heal, and possibly flourish as a priest in the future.

In addition, I found this stated limit an interesting aspect of the document. As I mentioned earlier, it is common practice in some dioceses and orders to have all candidates evaluated, which would seem outside of this norm. However, this tendency may reflect the desire of some dioceses and orders to have the input through the lens of professional psychology, in order to better understand their candidates and provide optimal formation, rather than the role of determining fitness for pursuit of the vocation itself, that is, the aforementioned “necessary cases.”

Q: The text also talks about spiritual direction, and clarifies that treatment by an expert would in no way replace spiritual direction. Is that a danger? What steps can be taken to make sure that the spiritual aspect of formation doesn't take a back seat to the more human aspects?

Moncher: The model of integrative psychology in which I have been formed is very clear about the distinct and separate roles of spiritual direction and psychotherapy.

In brief, the role of psychotherapy is to free a person from any privations or pathology that might encumber the exercise of their will. In other words, the psychologist's work is about clearing the path so that a person can pursue their desires in life most ardently.

This is then where spiritual direction proceeds, to guide the discernment of the person so that they pursue true goods and holiness. Nevertheless, as the document states in paragraph 4, formators are responsible for natural level aspects as well as spiritual aspects of a candidate’s development, so coordination between psychologists and formators can be helpful.

Further, in the real world, spiritual direction and psychotherapy naturally occur simultaneously or even in the opposite sequence. In situations where a psychologist and spiritual director are working as a team, in my experience, it is not difficult to keep the roles clear with regular communication.

I should mention, however, that there is some danger for psychologists who are formed in a different psychological and/or faith tradition. I am aware of some who explicitly state that their model is to blend therapy and direction in the same process, not distinguishing the two, which I feel risks less than optimal progress in both areas.

Q: In the section on formation, the document talks about a wider use of psychology in the seminaries apart from disorders or defects. It says psychology can be used to help the candidate move toward the moral virtues and give him a deeper knowledge of his personality. In what ways could this be carried out?

Moncher: This comment may reflect some recent developments in the field of psychology where there is an increasing focus on what secular psychologists call “Positive Psychology.” The basic premise is that while historically psychology has been focused on pathology and the treatment of disorder, the methods and theories can also help one grow toward a more flourishing life. Unfortunately, some of the theorists doing this work are not grounded in the history or philosophical aspects of virtue theory, and their conclusions are at times not consistent with a Catholic view of the human person.

However, some work is being done to bring Christian Virtue theory into therapeutic work to foster optimal growth and development. When a person better understands their natural personality inclinations, they can more prudently approach their relationships, challenges, and struggles so that they are not fighting the natural gifts God has given them, but instead are able to approach things most effectively given their temperament and personality.

Further, the psychological evaluation conducted prior to admission may be utilized to help those who are emotionally mature and capable of living religious life. For example, the document notes (paragraph 5) that, in particular, psychologists can support the development and excellence of relational qualities, which are so vital to flourishing in a vocation to the priesthood, and later suggests that psychology can assist in helping overcome any natural resistances that might occur during formation (paragraph 9).

Similarly, I have been asked to provide recommendations to spiritual directors and seminary formators about candidate’s interpersonal and emotional strengths and weaknesses, so that through the course of formation they can be assisted in growing as human persons as well as in their spiritual life.

Q: It says that there are several psychological "defects" or "impediments" that would disqualify individuals from the priesthood. Can most of these be overcome? What are some defects that are treatable? What are some that would be insurmountable?

Moncher: Although it is not spelled out, the disqualifying defects I imagine would fall into what I would group into three major categories of psychological disorder, as it is currently defined in the profession: (1) “Cognitive Disorders,” for example, mental retardation or severe learning disabilities that would prevent a person from learning the necessary philosophy and theology; (2) “Major Mental Illnesses,” such as schizophrenia, and some forms of severe mood disorders (e.g., treatment-resistant major depression or bipolar illness); and (3) “Personality Disorders,” which are enduring patterns of inner experiences and behaviors that deviate from expectations of the culture. These manifest in extreme difficulties in one's identity and psycho-sexual development (e.g., pedophilia), thinking (e.g., rigidity), emotions (or affectivity), relationships (distance or dependency), or behavior (often impulse control problems).

For persons with problems characterized by any of these three categories, intervention is often geared more toward managing the symptoms and improving coping, rather than the expectation of a complete overcoming of the problem. Therefore in these situations pursuit of a vocation to the priesthood is generally imprudent.

However, any number of other psychological problems, while possibly temporarily inhibiting of successful functioning in formation for the priesthood, with appropriate intervention and the person's ongoing maturation, may not present permanent disqualifications. These might include minor variants of disorders mentioned in the three categories above (e.g., dyslexia, transient situation-specific depression), as well as addictions (drug, alcohol, sex), obsessive-compulsive problems (e.g., scrupulosity), difficult family backgrounds (abuse, divorce).

While each of these problems may require intensive and at times long-term treatment, depending upon their severity, research has suggested that people can heal considerably from these types of difficulties and become adequately free to commit to a religious vocation.

Q: What effect do you think this document will have in seminaries?

Moncher: One aspect of the document that may require some further explanation occurs in paragraph 8 where it says “If it should be ascertained that the candidate needs therapy, this therapy should be carried out before he is admitted to the seminary or house of formation” (ital. mine); this would be a shift in practice for some who have historically allowed admission coincident with the therapy being provided.

I suspect that this may be an issue of severity of impairment: Those with potentially “disqualifying” defects or impediments ought to focus on healing and growth prior to the rigors of formation, while those with important but not disqualifying weaknesses might better address those concerns in the context of a supportive seminary or formation community.

Finally, although I have not worked in a seminary setting, I would hope that the impact of the document will be to moderate practices for those who function at the extremes in their understanding of psychology.

For those who eschew psychological science as a potential contributor, I hope that they will be willing to give another look at what it has to offer them in fulfilling their mission of forming priests; specifically, they should be aware of the efforts that are ongoing in the United States and elsewhere to develop psychology that is consistent with the teachings of the magisterium of the Church.

On the other hand, for those seminaries that have placed psychologists in roles inappropriate to their profession (e.g., providing spiritual guidance, having undue say in the discernment of a person’s vocation), the document might clarify how to most properly interface with the psychological profession for the good of the seminary and seminarians.

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Vatican document: www.zenit.org/article-24170?l=english

Institute for the Psychological Sciences: www.ipsciences.edu