Psychology and Its Proper Place in Selection and Formation of Priests

Gladys Sweeney, Dean of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences

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ROME, MARCH 10, 2002 ( John Paul II said on Feb. 4 that the selection and formation of candidates for the priesthood, a critical issue at this time, can receive a valid contribution from psychology (see ZENIT documents).

In order to understand better what the Holy Father proposed, ZENIT interviewed Gladys A. Sweeney, dean of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences [], an educational institution located in Arlington, Virginia, dedicated to the development and promotion of approaches to psychology based on the Catholic vision of the human person.

ZENIT: In his address to the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, the Pope proposed, in particular, the contribution of experts in psychology to guide the selection of young men who wish to enter the seminary to become priests. What contribution can psychology make in this area?

Sweeney: This is an area in which psychology can give an indispensable service. The use of psychological instruments and diagnostic interviews enable one to determine if there are obstacles of a psychic, emotional or organic nature that impede the postulant from freely making a vocational decision.

The vocational decision should be a free decision based on love. Occasionally, postulants think they have a vocation, but the motivation might come from an unconscious desire to avoid marriage, for example, or to flee from interpersonal relations. Psychology helps to clarify these obstacles, doing a great service not only to the Church but also to the postulant.

Q: Does psychology´s contribution in the road to preparation for the priesthood end here? Can it be useful for the formation of seminarians?

Sweeney: The value of psychology is not just limited to the selection of seminarians. Priestly formation and that of consecrated life is long and calls for a level of very intense introspection and self-examination.

During this formative period, phenomena of a psychological nature can manifest themselves, such as anguishes, anxieties, moments of depression, which are not clarified with spiritual direction. They can be the result of intensified self-knowledge, and they might need the help of psychological sciences. In these cases, consultation with a psychologist might even save a vocation.

Q: The Pope requests that the psychologists who advise seminaries have “good scientific qualifications” and “a sound understanding of the Christian vision of life.” What does he mean? Is he referring to a current of psychology?

Sweeney: The psychologist with good qualifications means that he has a thorough understanding of the latest scientific advances of the science and, of course, this is very important. However, they must have a clear understanding of the integral vision of the human being, as the supernatural aspect of a vocation.

Considering the previous example, it is possible that these periods of anxiety or depression do not reflect psychological dysfunction, but they can be a manifestation of a transitory period of the spiritual life, such as, for example, a “dark night of the soul.” In this case, once it passes, the person is at a more developed level of the spiritual life.

If a psychologist is consulted who does not understand the supernatural aspect of a vocation, and he treats it as a dysfunction, more harm is done, by impeding a person´s spiritual growth. And if, in fact, it is a psychological problem, it is an error to treat it as a spiritual problem. This is why psychologists, well formed intellectually and spiritually, can give a great service to seminaries, not only in the process of selection, but also in priestly formation.

Q: Don´t you think that there is a risk in this case of confusing psychology with spirituality or moral life? How can this danger be avoided?

Sweeney: An integral vision of the person includes all aspects: psychological, spiritual and moral. People with psychological problems tend to make decisions imprudently, contrary to human nature, and at times immoral.

Sometimes there is a master of this type of decisions. In this case, psychological sciences must intervene. The objective is that they free the will, so that the person can see the situations objectively, discern the course of action prudently, and act morally and virtuously. Psychology would be at the service of truth and, like John the Baptist, must help “to make straight the way of the Lord.”

There must be no confusion. Psychology frees the person so that the latter will choose the good.

This vision of psychology at the service of the truth about the human being and about vocations will depend on a well-oriented education for the psychologists of the future. It must be a psychology that is not reductionist, relativist, or that ignores the transcendence of the human being.

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