Psychology and Formation, a reflection on Vatican Document

psycholgy and formationPsychology and Formation

Reflections in the light of the Vatican Document, “Guidelines for use of psychology in the admission and formation of candidates for the priesthood”

By J.M. Joseph Jeyaseelan, CMF, Claretian Philosophate, Jaffna, Sri Lanka

 The Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education released a document with the above-mentioned title on the 30th of October 2008, signed by its prefect, Zenon Cardinal Grocholewski. I am writing these reflections over three years after its release with the belief that they will be of help to all who are involved in the area of formation—directors, candidates, and others who are in one way or another involved—know the document better and use the Vatican guidelines responsibly.

Structure of the Document

The entire document is short (only 17 numbers) but comprehensive. It has been divided into six major parts as outlined below. I have also provided a brief comment on what each section contains.

I. The Church and the Discernment of a Vocation explains briefly the nature of Christian vocation and the role of the Church in it. It also outlines the various abilities, virtues and dispositions needed for priestly ministry that are to be taken care of in formation.

II. Preparation of Formators presents the need for the preparation of formators. In other words, the question “why a formator needs to be formed” is answered here. It also explains the role and tasks of the formator.

III. Contribution of Psychology to Vocational Discernment and Formation explains at length the use of psychological sciences and experts in the discernment and formation of candidates to the Catholic priesthood.

IV. Request for Specialist Evaluations and Respect for the Candidate’s Privacy enumerates the right the Church holds and exercises—through the bishops and competent superiors—in assessing and admitting only suitable candidates for the priesthood. Psychological expertise can be sought for in this. But there are ways and means to do it and certain procedures to be followed. Certain conditions are to be met, and certain ethical aspects are to be attended to.

V. The Relationship between Those Responsible for Formation and the Expert enunciates the relationship between the psychological expert and the team of formators in charge of the candidate in point. It explains also the specific role of the spiritual director as a distinct actor in formation.

VI. Persons Dismissed From, or Who Have Freely Left, Seminaries or Houses of Formation explains the procedures to be followed in cases of admission of individuals who have either left or were dismissed from some other seminary or house of formation. In case the said candidate has undergone psychological consultation previously there are certain norms to be followed by the new superiors in accessing the results from the expert who handled the case in point.

 Directions and Deliberations from the Document for Formation

My intention is to specify and propose certain issues that are of utmost importance in the area of the admission and formation of candidates to the priesthood in light of the 2008 Vatican document from the Congregation in charge of Catholic Education (henceforth referred to as “document”). In fact, I have no intention of reproducing the document, nor am I going to quote from it exhaustively. I am going to highlight some practical issues that need to be taken care. In order to do that one or two sentences, or a point or two of the document, will serve as reflection-prompters. I understand my reflections are contestable and open for discussion.

 1. Psychology as a Friendly Science

It is notable that the document recognizes in positive terms the contributions psychological sciences can make in discerning vocations to the priesthood and the formation of candidates to the same. The document is taking a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach to formation, identifying different actors, tools and disciplines, and that is a welcoming move. The need of human formation or in the words of the document “effective integration of the human dimension” in the formation of the individual is stressed.cross1

Giving an important place to the formation of the human dimension of the individuals- in-formation is underlined. Understandably, the task of formation is not only to see—though important—how pious the formandus is or how meticulous is he in following the rules and rubrics of the seminary and liturgy but, first of all, to see how human he is. Without being human one cannot embark on a spiritual journey or claim to be spiritual or holy.

A person who is not mature at the human, emotional and relational levels cannot be a good pastor. The document itself says how the post-Synodal document Pastores dabo vobis (dealing with priestly formation) treats the human dimension as the foundation of all formation before it treats the spiritual dimension (no.2). Formation needs to take care of the total human development of the person without prejudice or detriment to other areas such as the intellectual, pastoral, communitarian and spiritual. Thus a need for integral formation, as opposed to the compartmentalized formation of the good old days, is to be taken seriously.

To see psychology as an aid in the selection, formation and admission of candidates to priesthood is the direction indicated by the document. This will be reassuring and informative for formators (and candidates) who view psychology in a negative light.

Psychology as a scientific study of human behavior, and counseling or psychotherapy as a scientific process of assistance extended by an expert in an individual situation to a needy person, are certainly good tools for integral formation. It is a developing humanistic science, and there is lot of research going on with results coming out about various dimensions of human behavior.

 2. Psychology as a Mere Aid

The mere mention of the word “psychology” or “counseling” evokes fear and negative reaction in several Religious (men and women, at least in the Asian context of my country), within and outside the formation process. I have seen this reaction in quite a large number of seminarians (and junior nuns). The reason could be that they have had the “bad” experience of the overuse or misuse of psychology by formators in assessing their vocation/behavior/motivation. They may have been forced to undergo counseling with the formator himself/herself assuming the role of the counselor, but poorly equipped with necessary expertise, and without much regard for the procedures and ethical demands of the profession of counseling. Or they were made to write, draw, dramatize and so on to a disproportionate extent, leading to interpretations of behaviors that proved disturbing.

This is not to say that all formators are poorly equipped with psychological tools, and doing harm. But there may be some who misuse or overuse psychology in formation. The document consistently identifies psychology as an aid, a help, a tool in formation. And it is true. Psychology is one among the many humanistic and other sciences. Besides, in the current holistic approach to formation and human development, psychology is only one tool in an ocean of tools and techniques available for formation.

Formation is a vast and complex area and there are number of individuals, disciplines and tools at the service of formation. Thus, viewing formation primarily as a psychological process is wrong. The document says it clearly: “…. the vocation to the priesthood and its discernment lie outside the strict competence of psychology” (no.5). Psychology is not a redeemer but a tool, an aid. Above all else it is God’s grace that heals and redeems! What the document recommends is responsible, proportionate and ethical use of psychology and only if necessary with the consent of the formandi. The document consistently uses expressions such as “useful,” “a help,” “of assistance,” “of extra help,” “in some cases” when referring to psychology.

3. Formator Is Not a Counselor

The document clearly distinguishes the different roles to be played by a formator, a spiritual director and a psychological expert in the formative process. No. 6 of the document says: “It is useful for the rector and other formators to be able to count on the cooperation of experts in the psychological sciences. Such experts (who) cannot be part of the formation team…”

Furthermore, the document (no. 5) prohibits the formator from using specialist psychological or psychotherapeutic techniques with the formndi. Thu thus formators have to distinguish more clearly between the respective roles the formator, psychologist or spiritual director must play.

Understanding and performing duties proper to each one can avoid the danger of psychologizing spiritual issues and spiritualizing psychological issues (though there may be a correlation) and thus undermining the formation process. The document nowhere says that the formator can be the formandus’ counselor simultaneously. Even though the document recommends psychological preparation of formators, it does not authorize him to play the role of the expert with his formandi.

 4. Counseling is a Choice not a Compulsion

“I was asked to meet a counselor. But I don’t want to.” Comments of this nature we hear sometimes by those who are in formation (once again I am talking about the Sri Lankan situation). We have come across instances where counseling is imposed on the formandi by the formator. Sometimes it is done in very subtle ways. The one-on-one meeting of the formator and the formandus can be manipulated by the formator and a counseling session can ensue without the formandus seeking it or giving his consent. According to internationally adopted ethical guidelines, counseling cannot be imposed by the formator on a formandus without the latter’s consent.

Counseling is best when it is sought by a person who thinks and feels he needs special help. But there is the possibility that counseling can be proposed by formators or the spiritual director. However the important thing here is that the one in point has to agree to it. Nothing solid can be done without that consent. The document lays it down in clear words: “If the candidate, faced with a motivated request by the formators, should refuse to undergo a psychological consultation, the formators will not force his will in any way.” It may be a very delicate situation. The ideal thing would be that there is an atmosphere of trust and humility in which the formators and the candidate discern further with the grace of God in order to see what other possible alternative is available.

Furthermore, sending a person for psychological consultation is to be a collective decision of the rector and the team of formators (see no. 5). A formator cannot decide alone on this. Furthermore, counseling cannot take place without certain ethical decisions and principles. The American Counseling Association (ACA) has its Ethical Standards Casebook which presents issues, case studies and guidelines on ethical decision making in the area of counseling. Dealing with all that is not possible here, but we can consider some ethical issues in keeping with the mood of the Vatican document:

   The candidate’s psychological consultation can only proceed with his previous, explicit, informed and free consent.

   The decision to make a psychological consultation should not do harm to the candidate’s right to a good reputation and to defend his own privacy.

   The motivations and ways with which the formators present their suggestion to the candidate about the need for a consultation should be marked by openness and transparency.

   The professional opinions expressed by the expert should be, if necessity be, and with the previous written consent of the candidate, accessible only by those responsible for formation. And this information cannot be used to make any other decision other than for discernment of a vocation or the candidate’s formation.

 5. Consultation Only with an Expert

It is quite interesting that the document constantly uses the term “expert” (in psychological sciences) when it refers to persons who can be consulted if necessity be. The term “expert” is used over 20 times while the terms “psychologist” or “consultant” are used once each. The commonly used terms such as “counseling” or “counselor” are never used in the entire document.

Who is an expert? An expert is someone “by virtue of credential, training, education, profession, publication or experience, believed to have special knowledge of a subject beyond that of the average person, sufficient that others may officially (and legally) rely upon the individual’s opinion” (   Applied to the field of psychology it explains everything and needs no comment at all.

Counseling is a serious and delicate discipline. It is a complex, multifaceted profession. Those who are experts in counseling with ability to guide and heal the needy know it not as mere art, but as mastery. Therefore, the person to whom the formandus is sent for consultation and help, in exceptional cases, needs to be selected carefully. And in the case of candidates to priesthood, that person might preferably be a priest-counselor who possesses certain qualities.

The document highlights a few of them (no.6). For one, he is to have “specific competence in the field of vocations, and unite the wisdom of the Spirit to their professional expertise.” In addition, he must have “sound human and spiritual maturity, must be inspired by an anthropology that openly shares the Christian vision about the human person, sexuality, as well as vocation to the priesthood and to celibacy.” An onerous task, isn’t it?! He must be a man of maturity at various levels. Possessing all the expertise in psychology is not enough. But the description of an ideal expert is that he is a person with “integrity.”

Gerard Egan (1975) gives the following description of a psychological helper: “Ideally, he (expert) himself is striving to become Ivey’s ‘intentional person’, Carkhuff’s ‘effectively living person’, Maslow’s ‘self-actualized person’ and Jourard’s ‘transparent person’’’. The idea here is that the counselor is, in the first place, committed to his own growth at various levels—physical, intellectual, social, sexual and emotional. He must model the behavior he hopes to help others to achieve.

Regarding the norms governing the choice of the expert the document says the following: “The candidate will be able freely to approach an expert who is either chosen from among those indicated by the formators, or chosen by the candidate himself and accepted by the formators” (no. 12).

6. Wanted: Totality not Duality

The document says: “Right from the moment when the candidate presents himself for admission to the seminary, the formator needs to be able accurately to comprehend his personality; potentialities; dispositions; and the types of any psychological wounds, evaluating their nature and intensity” (no. 8). Note that the document asks the formator to do an assessment not only of the wounds (negative stuff) but of potentialities too (positive stuff). The document’s direction is to see the formandi and the vocational journey as a whole, in their totality avoiding selective perception that is, seeing only things the formator wants to see (human beings tend to see the negative more, a concept sometimes referred to as “negativity dominance”). This is an advice that needs to be taken very seriously. The document says that “The formator must know how to evaluate the person in his totality, not forgetting the gradual nature of development. He must see the candidate’s strong and weak points…” (no. 4). Singling out one weak issue and proposing counseling on the formandus, without seeing his strengths and promise, is not just and charitable.

When less serious matters in the area of mental health pop up, it is desirable to look at the vocational journey as a whole and integrate the psychological consultation into the regular formative process. Where the reputation and growth of the candidate is concerned, this is more beneficial than isolating him by interrupting his studies/formation for a year or two (as it happens sometimes in my country). The document says: “The assistance offered by the psychological sciences must be integrated within the context of the candidate’s entire formation…. The atmosphere of faith, prayer, meditation on the Word of God, the study of theology and community life – an atmosphere that is essential so that a generous response to the vocation received from God can mature – will allow the candidate to have a correct understanding of what the recourse to psychology means within his vocational journey, and will allow him to integrate it within that same journey” (no. 6).


Most of what is said in the Document is precise and clear. The reflections which emerge from my studies and experience may not be so. I welcome disscussion ( An important point to note may be, in addition to preparing formators, I believe it would be a good idea for bishops and major superiors of Religious institutes to prepare their own consultants. In my view this consultant should not be part of the formation team, but at its service when needed. Such an undertaking on the part of seminaries and Religious congregations may in some way enhance the quality of the ministers they put at the service of the Church.   

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