Scandal Renews Resistance to Psychology: Jesuit Defends Assessment in Spiritual Direction. (Church in Crisis)

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002 | Go to article overview

Scandal Renews Resistance to Psychology: Jesuit Defends Assessment in Spiritual Direction. (Church in Crisis)


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


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 bete-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. …

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