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New Vatican document weighs use, limits of psychology in seminaries October 30, 2008

The Vatican has issued instructions on the use of psychology to help assess candidates for the priesthood, emphasizing that psychological analysis is no substitute for sound spiritual formation.

The Vatican policy document, which had been expected for several months, explained that psychological testing and treatment can be helpful both in evaluating candidates for the priesthood and in helping some seminarians to overcome problems that might cause them difficulties. The 15-page document outlining the use of psychology in seminaries was introduced at an October 30 press conference chaired by Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, the prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, which prepared the guidelines.

Cardinal Grocholewski observed that the Code of Canon Law requires bishops to assure themselves that every candidate for ordination to the priesthood has the proper character and formation to serve in ministry. The Polish cardinal pointed out that the new Vatican document cites this canonical provision three times, driving home the message that the bishop "must have moral certainty that the candidate's suitability, 'has been positively established' and that, in the case of a substantiated doubt, cannot proceed to ordination." Psychological testing can help the bishop to gain that certainty, by exposing any character flaws or emotional weaknesses the candidate might have.

Such screening is particularly important, the document argues, at a time when the pressures of a materialistic secular society can exert enormous influence on young men before they embark on priestly training, "creating, in some cases, wounds that are still unhealed or particular difficulties that could condition their ability to progress" in priestly formation. Screening is important not only for admission to the seminaries, but also during the course of formation, since some problems may manifest themselves later in the process, the Vatican notes.

The Vatican document carefully sets limits on the use of psychology in the seminaries, however. The Congregation for Catholic Education emphasizes that spiritual formation should always take primacy of place in the efforts of seminary administrators. The document stipulates that "spiritual direction can in no way be substituted by forms of analysis or psychological assistance, and that the spiritual life, of itself, favors growth in the human virtues if no blocks of a psychological nature exist."

Cardinal Grocholewski went on to say that seminarians should undergo psychological treatment only if a particular need becomes evident-- as he put it, "si casus ferat, meaning in exceptional cases that present particular difficulties." Even in those cases, the psychological treatment must be subordinate to the spiritual formation, and the Vatican specifically cautions that "psychologists cannot be part of the formation team."

The document also affirms that no one-- not even religious superiors-- should have access to the details of a seminarian's psychological profile without his explicit consent, freely given. By the same token psychologists who treat seminarians are barred from discussing their cases with any third party except when explicit consent is given.