Admissions

Admissions

Developing policies regarding HIV testing for applicants

By Jon Fuller S.J., MD

In recent years the number of known instances of HIV-infected religious and clergy has grown. In response many dioceses and religious orders have grappled with the question of whether to institute HIV antibody tests for those who request admission to the order or seminary.

Three basic approaches to policy on such testing are in use today: l) screen all applicants and exclude those who are HIV positive; 2) use HIV antibody status as one item of information about an applicant; 3) do not test for or take HIV antibody status into account when considering an applicant.

If a policy to screen for HIV antibodies is in place, it is usually employed at the time of admission to the seminary or order. Occasionally, individuals are retested at additional stages in the formation process, e.g., before deaconate or priestly ordination, or before admission to advanced studies.

Public policy approaches to HIV antibody testing

Antibody testing in the context of admission to seminaries or religious orders raises in a quite specialized context a variety of questions which have already been given considerable attention in the public forum.

Because a positive HIV antibody test result has potentially devastating psychological implications as well as the potential to result in many forms of discrimination, public policy has consistently supported HIV antibody testing only when voluntary consent is first given. However, exceptions to this general principle have been made in certain circumstances, as for example when emergency medical providers experience an occupational exposure and the HIV-status of the fluid source is unknown. Federal and some state prisoners have also been subjected to HIV testing without consent.

The only occupation from which H1V-positive personnel are barred is active duty status in the U.S. military (where concern for battlefield transfusion safety provides a rationale). Also, State Department employees being posted to certain foreign destinations are regularly tested for HIV infection (reportedly due to concerns about the non-availability of sophisticated medical services in some locations).

Apart from these exceptions, HIV antibody testing cannot be used by a municipality, school or employer as a means to discriminate against students, employees, prospective employees, or other individuals. 1 In addition, there are no occupations which exclude HIV-positive individuals (although HIV-positive surgeons who perform invasive procedures are counseled to work with local experts to maintain the highest safeguards.)

The U.S. bishops have concurred with this trend in public policy which opposes any discriminatory use of antibody testing or the loss of employment because of HIV infection alone. In “The Many Faces of AIDS,” the Administrative Board of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) wrote in 1987:

We oppose the use of HIV-antibody testing for strictly discriminatory purposes ... There may be sound public health reasons for recommending the use of the HIV-antibody test in certain situations, either because some persons have a heightened risk of becoming infected or because precautions may have to be taken by others (e.g., prospective spouses, hospital staffs) if the tests are positive. Nevertheless, we agree with many public health authorities who question the appropriateness and effectiveness of more sweeping proposals such as widespread mandatory testing.

It is critical that persons with AIDS continue to be employed as long as it is appropriate. The Catholic Church in the United States accepts its responsibility to give good example in this matter.2

In 1989, the full membership of the NCCB commented on HIV-related discrimination in their letter, “Called to Compassion and Responsibility”:

A growing body of legislation considers the individual with HIV a handicapped or disabled person. In 1978, in a statement on the handicapped, we said: “Defense of the right to life ... implies the defense of other rights which enable the handicapped individual to achieve the fullest measure of personal development of which he or she is capable” (“Pastoral Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops on Handicapped People,” November 15, 1978, No. 10).3

Arguments in favor of HIV testing in orders and dioceses

When moving from a consideration of antibody testing in society to the specific question at hand, one can appreciate that the process of applying for admission to an order or diocese has no precise parallel in society. For example, an order (and to a lesser extent a diocese) becomes ultimately responsible for the health care and living costs of its members for life, while this would not generally be true for a business or the government (with the possible exception of continued contribution to insurance premiums after an employee terminates.)

Economic Concerns

Given this potential for a life-long relationship with the order or diocese, those responsible for the group’s financial health might well be concerned about the impact of caring for a potential member who may develop serious HIV-related disease. Indeed, estimates in different parts of the country for the cost of providing medical care to one person with AIDS from the time of diagnosis until death have ranged from $23,000 to $168,000.4, 5 While this magnitude of expense is not exceptional for a serious illness, religious groups do not generally anticipate such outlays for their younger members. For this reason, some argue that it is quite reasonable and even necessary for religious groups to be cautious stewards of their finite resources by using HIV antibody testing to eliminate those applicants who might develop costly illness.

Apostolic availability

An additional argument in favor of HIV testing of applicants is based on the lengthy period of preparation before a candidate is fully trained and available for the group’s work. Since orders and dioceses expect that their candidates will (with reasonable predictability) be able to healthily sustain themselves during the rigors of both formation and later apostolic work, and since chronic disease or life-threatening illness would prejudice this capacity, apostolic groups have traditionally attended to health considerations in evaluating the aptness of a candidate for the group’s ministerial life. Since HIV disease could make it impossible to engage in apostolic activity, a legitimate interest in the group’s apostolic viability argues in favor of HIV testing of candidates.

In support of this position, canon law notes that questions about physical qualities and health are appropriate when selecting candidates for major orders:

After all circumstances have been taken into account in the prudent judgment of the proper bishop or the competent major superior, only those should be promoted to orders who have an integral faith ... and other physical and psychological qualities which are appropriate to the order to be received (Canon 1029 [Requisites for Orders]).

As regards the inquiry concerning the qualities required of an ordinand, the following prescriptions are to be observed: 1) a testimonial is to be furnished by the rector of the seminary or the house of formation concerning the qualities required for the reception of orders; that is, the candidate’s correct doctrine, genuine piety, good morals and his suitability for exercising the ministry; and, after a duly executed inquiry, the state of his physical and psychological health (Canon 1051 [Pre-ordination inquiries]).6

Objections to testing

In contrast to these arguments in favor of HIV antibody testing of candidates for reasons of economics and apostolic availability, several concerns have been raised about policies in favor of screening candidates.

Exclusion as a “medical condition” must be carefully considered

What are the general criteria for excludable medical conditions? Although the notion of screening for serious medical illness in applicants is inherently logical and is given support in canon law, the definition of precisely what constitutes an excluded condition is unclear. There does not appear to be a commonly accepted definition of the characteristics of a medical condition which would make it exclusionary, nor a readily available list of those conditions which should currently be grounds for nonacceptance.

In addition, some conditions previously disallowed may be considered in a different light due to advances in available therapy. For example, epilepsy and tuberculosis are often discussed as conditions that previously led to automatic exclusion, but the availability of excellent treatments for both would make such a conclusion illogical today.

It is unclear how reasonable it is to identify HIV infection as an excluded medical condition if there are not previously developed general criteria for those types of conditions for which candidates should be screened. A group which may exclude HIV infected candidates might at the same time admit candidates who are diabetic, advanced in age, heavy smokers, morbidly obese, aggressive type-A personalities, or who have a family history of premature cardiac disease or cancer. These conditions also represent significant economic and availability risks to a group but are not generally considered to be cause for exclusion. If the possibility for disease developing in an HIV-infected individual is automatic grounds for non-consideration, should these other conditions not also exclude candidates by the same logic?

HIV infection does not presume that disease is present

While canon law allows for exclusion of candidates who are not in good health, it is quite possible to be HIV-infected and in an excellent state of health, with no diminishment of function or evidence of immune compromise.

It has been argued that “health” as defined by the canons can be interpreted both as an absence of illness and as the capacity to carry out the demands of everyday life and work.7 Since some individuals with HIV infection may never develop disease, and since many will be able to live fully productive lives for 8-10 years or more after infection, it is conceivable that excluding candidates who are merely HIV positive is not justified by canons which refer to a candidate’s current state of health. This argument suggests that exclusion would have to be based on more than HIV seropositivity alone, i.e., a more extensive medical evaluation would have to be done to ascertain the presence of illness or immune compromise.

While the U.S. Bishops have commented (in a footnote) that “it may be appropriate for seminaries and religious communities to screen for the HIV antibody,” they have also expressed the opinion that HIV positivity in itself should not be grounds for exclusion:

The point here is not to automatically exclude a candidate who is HIV positive; but rather to discern carefully this person’s present health situation as well future health prospects; and thus to make an overall moral assessment of an individual’s capacity to carry out ministerial responsibilities. 8

Canon law's regard for individual privacy

Consideration has been given to whether canon law allows for the invasion of privacy necessary to ascertain HIV antibody status of candidates. Since according to canon 220 “No one is permitted to damage unlawfully the good reputation which another person enjoys nor to violate the right of another person to protect his or her own privacy.”9 The question has been raised whether the possible violation of confidentiality that could accompany routine HIV antibody testing should preclude its use.

In one view, it is argued that ascertaining a candidate’s HIV antibody status is an appropriate exercise of the bishop’s authority to evaluate candidates, and should be carried out with attention to maintaining confidentiality of all records:

The diocesan requirement in question (to test candidates for HIV antibodies) is a legitimate one. The bishop, charged with obligations regarding seminary admissions and promotion to orders, can decide to require testing for this admittedly serious disease. The diocesan policy, however, should insure that the results of any testing are kept confidential and are shared only with those charged with ultimate responsibility for seminary admissions and then only with the explicit written consent of the candidate.10

However, from another perspective, the potential impact of testing and the difficulties inherent in maintaining absolute confidentiality argue against a policy of screening for HIV.

(Because testing) opens a wide window of vulnerability—psychological, social, economic—for an individual against which the seminary and diocese can guarantee only limited protection ... the need for a seminary to screen out HIV infected persons is not compelling enough to outweigh the established right of a person to protection against potentially damaging intrusion of privacy.11

The church has criticized others who exclude the HIV-infected

Since both public health and church authorities have criticized mandatory testing of civilian populations, some have wondered whether the church or its organizations do not become subject to a charge of hypocrisy if they would test when others should not.

From a global perspective, an analogous question can be raised. Given the inexorable spread of HIV infection, especially in developing countries, would it be desirable or even possible to “keep HIV away” from orders and dioceses in these areas? Could such an intentionally screened clerical or religious group effectively witness to populations where 20 percent to 60 percent of adults are HIV-infected?

Rejecting seropositive candidates overemphasizes "performance"

Some view it as ironic that corporations are not allowed to screen their employees for HIV infection, but the church’s orders and dioceses—established on principles which reject a utilitarian analysis of human worth—are sometimes doing so. Excluding those candidates who for health reasons might contribute for a shorter time to the group’s apostolic endeavors can appear to place a greater reliance on one’s capacity to perform work than on the genuine call of an individual to the life and mission of an order or diocese.

Some would further argue that given the global extent and unprecedented impact of the AIDS epidemic on the human community, it is certainly plausible that God could call to religious or priestly life some infected with HIV. In the same manner that vowed life witnesses to a profound confidence in God’s providence, it is possible that the HIV/AIDS pandemic challenges the church to bear witness to the Gospel’s inclusivity in the context of a globe struggling against a widespread infectious agent.

It has also been the experience of many religious groups that individuals with particular disabilities (e.g., deafness and blindness) can also have vocations to religious life or priesthood, and frequently possess the capacity to perform ministry with selected populations in ways that are not possible for non-disabled individuals. Religious orders with HIV-positive members have witnessed this particular ministry ad extra, as well as to members of their own communities.

The HIV test should not be used as a surrogate test

Some have raised a concern that HIV antibody testing, ostensibly to exclude a serious medical condition, might actually be intended as a surrogate means to test for homosexuality or past history of injection drug use. Since there is no necessary connection between HIV infection and homosexuality or drug use, using the HIV antibody test in an attempt to identify either of these personal characteristics would be both inaccurate and unjust.

Does testing candidates for HIV affect the group that is testing?

In an important review of the foregoing questions, moral theologian James Keenan raises a novel issue with respect to HIV testing of candidates in an article in Review for Religious: What is the impact of this action on the testing group? Exploring the concept of maintaining purity within religious organizations, he suggests the possibility that HIV testing may be considered not so much to exclude disabling illness as to insure the relative “purity” of the group by excluding potentially devastating conditions. He also questions what the limits of such an approach might be as he anticipates the next generation of genetic tests, based on the human genome project, that will have the capacity to identify individuals with an increased propensity to develop a broad array of diseases.12

Adopting a testing policy

The foregoing discussion of antibody testing of candidates for religious orders and dioceses reveals the number and complexity of issues involved. While cogent arguments can be made in favor of antibody testing for reasons of economics and apostolic availability, a number of counter-arguments raise serious objections to a pro-testing approach, especially if the policy excludes on the basis of HIV seropositivity alone.

Given this situation, what is the appropriate position to take, and how does a group go about developing its policy?

The process in which different groups have engaged in developing testing policies appears to vary greatly. In some, policies have been developed after a wide consultation with members over months or even years. In others, the policies of another group have been used “as is” or after minor adaptations. Occasionally, a decision to screen applicants for HIV is made without having a clear understanding of the meaning of being HIV-infected, or without a plan of action in the event that an HIV positive applicant is encountered.

While it can certainly be invaluable to review testing policies developed by other groups, the complexity of the issues involved suggests that there is no substitute for each group’s engaging in a prayerful and thoughtful discernment process on the question. Simply adopting another organization’s approach prevents the organization from reflecting on the challenges to which it must respond from its own perspective, and also bypasses an opportunity for critical reflection on the group’s general criteria for admission and on its unique mission and ministry in the church.

It is suggested, then, that each organization invest in the process of working through these questions in its own circumstances. After consulting with experts and other groups in similar circumstances, the members can fashion their response based on an understanding of the relevant scientific and ethical data applied in the context of the group’s unique characteristics which include its finances, history, personnel and charism.

Recommendations

If a policy to employ antibody testing is made, the following recommendations are offered:

If some candidates are to be tested, all should be tested. Although a group might want to selectively test those applicants who report what it considers to be past “high risk” activity for HIV exposure (e. g., homosexual intercourse, blood transfusion, intravenous drug use), if knowledge regarding HIV status is the goal of testing, justice suggests that the same criterion be applied to all.

If candidates are to be screened for HIV antibodies, the test result could be considered as a significant part of that candidate’s overall profile without necessarily precluding consideration for entrance. Orders and dioceses have historically admitted candidates with certain medical problems, believing that even persons with health risks can have vocations. To accept an HIV-positive applicant would clearly involve accepting the probability of increased medical liability. On the other hand, a positive HIV test is not absolutely predictive that AIDS will develop. For those found to be antibody positive, a more detailed clinical evaluation by an experienced physician could be obtained in order to more accurately locate the individual along the continuum of the natural history of HIV infection.

If there is a positive HIV test, the final decision regarding the particular candidate’s admission should not be made without consultation with a physician expert in this field and, if feasible, with the candidate’s primary-care physician, and only after taking into account all components of the candidate’s application.13

If an order or diocese is instrumental in a candidate's being tested, and if the test becomes grounds for the candidate's exclusion, the group must consider sharing some responsibility for the eventual impact of that test result on the individual's life. Groups that require antibody tests of candidates must insure that the candidate is aware of all possible implications of learning that one is HIV-antibody positive before testing occurs (e.g., its potential impact upon housing, employment, and both life and health insurability). The group should also consider its responsibility to assist the individual in adapting to the news of being seropositive, including helping to bear the costs of counseling if this is necessary.

If HIV seropositivity is automatic grounds for exclusion, HIV testing should be done early in the application process. It would seem only fair to applicants that the group’s testing policy be made clear from the outset, and that HIV testing be done as the first step (or as a very early step) in the application process if its results are determinative. If being antibody positive is an exclusion criterion, there is no need to put individuals through other parts of the application procedure only to tell them later that they would never have been considered had their antibody status been known initially.

If an order/diocese requires HIV antibody testing of candidates, it is responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of all results reported to it. Local law may require that the applicant designate in writing the individual(s) to whom test results will be released. Disclosure of test results to other individuals or failure to protect against inadvertent release of such information to other individuals or agencies could open individuals, groups, or both to lawsuits. Agencies have been successfully sued for loss of confidentiality when the results of HIV antibody tests have been divulged without explicit written consent.

Policies regarding precisely which individuals will learn HIV test results, who will be responsible for maintaining confidentiality, where records will be stored, and how long test results will be kept for both rejected and retained candidates should all be determined before testing begins, and this information should be available to applicants. The results of prior HIV antibody tests which are freely offered by a candidate must be treated with the same strict confidentiality.

Conclusion

A pro-active stance which anticipates and prepares for the possibility of HIV-infected members through ongoing educational programs and policy development has a greater potential for defusing potential crises and guaranteeing well thought-out policies than is a reactive and crisis-oriented mode. Those in authority will be well served to avail themselves of qualified consultants, to move carefully but deliberately in developing policy, and to be mindful of the need to frequently review and revise all related policies and procedures.


1. Gostin, L.A. “The AIDS litigation project, a national review of court and human rights commission decisions, Part II: Discrimination,” JAMA 1990; 17:482- 489.

2. Administrative Board of the United States Catholic Conference, “The Many Faces of AIDS: A Gospel Response,” Origins 1987; 17:482-489.

3. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Called to Compassion and Responsibility: A Response to the HIV/AIDS Crisis.” Origins, 1989;19:421-436.

4. Hellinger, F.J., “Forecasting the medical care costs of HIV in the United States from 1993 through 1996.” IXth International Conference on AIDS, Berlin, Germany, June 6-11, 1993 (Abstract PO-D28-4223).

5. Bloom, D.E., Carliner, G., “The economics of AIDS in the United States,” Science, 1988; 604-610.

6. Coriden, J.A., Green T.J., and Heintschel, D.E. (editors). The Code of Canon Law: A text and Commentary. Paulist Press, New York, 1985, p. 725.

7. Anderson, J.D., “Legal considerations in developing testing policy,” presented at the second national conference, HIV/ AIDS: Its Impact on Clergy and Religious, sponsored by the National Catholic AIDS Network, St. Louis, Missouri, March 14-17, 1992.

8. National Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Called to Compassion and Responsibility,” Footnote 45.

9. Coriden, p. 725.

10. Gibbons, R., “Admission to the seminary and HIV testing,” Roman replies and CLSA advisory opinions 1991, Canon Law Society of America, p. 76-77.

11. Calvo, R.R., “Admission to the seminary and HIV testing,” Roman replies and CLSA advisory opinions 1991, Canon Law Society of America, p. 72-75.

12. Keenan, J.F., “HIV testing of seminary and religious order candidates,” Review for Religious, 1996 (55):297-314.

13. Gibbons, p. 76-77.

Jon Fuller, SJ, MD, is a member of the California Province of the Society of Jesus. He is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, a member of the staff of the Boston Medical Center Adult AIDS program, and was the founding president of the National Catholic AIDS Network (NCAN). This article is excerpted from Father Fuller’s address to NCAN on June 9, 2000.

 



How communities are using admissions boards

By Carol Schuck Scheiber, c

The matter of whether to allow someone to join your religious community is delicate. The stakes are high because the very course of a person’s life is at hand, and so is the vitality and health of the larger community. Plenty of confidential information must be considered, and one’s intuitive sense of the person seeking admission has to count for something as well.

It’s no wonder that such a highly charged decision is not made by one person alone. The reality is most communities use a team approach in deciding who joins and who does not. Not all communities necessarily call their teams an “admissions board,” but the end result is the same: more than one or two people shape the decision. This article is based on reports from seven vocation ministers (four men and three women) about how their community makes admission decisions.

Of course, before anyone or any group makes a decision about who may enter, a person seeking admission has a whole screening process to get through first. In most congregations, the vocation director determines whether a person even gets to the point of being formally considered. At any point in the discernment process the vocation director can end the process based on early evidence that a person lacks the criteria the community has established. Most communities have clear, written criteria for admittance.

For prospective members who emerge from an initial screening, there are reams of information to collect and many steps to take for a formal application. Here are some of the typical elements in an application:

  • Visits to local communities
  • Attendance at a vocation retreat
  • Interviews with members of the community, including vocation and formation personnel
  • Autobiography
  • Application form
  • Health and dental exams
  • Psychological testing
  • Certificates of baptism and confirmation
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Academic transcripts
  • Reports or recommendations from the interviewers

Once the steps have been taken and the materials collected, the community must decide whether to accept the person into their formation program. Following are some ways various communities structure their approach to decision-making.

Team input; provincial decides

The provincial is the sole decision-maker in this scenario, but he or she has plenty of recommendations to consider in making a judgment. Sometimes an admissions board exists to make a recommendation but not a final decision. In one community, the advisory board is composed of:

  • vocation director
  • senior community member appointed by the council and provincial
  • pre-novitiate formation director
  • novice director

Another community’s advisory board includes:

  • vocation director
  • provincial
  • novice director
  • a brother
  • community member who is a psychologist.

Another streamlined admissions board simply consists of two councilors who give their input to a provincial who decides alone.

Team decision-making

Roughly the same people are involved in team decision-making structures. The difference is that the weight of the final decision is not on the shoulders of the congregational leader alone; the team decides together. It might be a small team. One vocation director says that she and her prioress assembled all the materials on an applicant, discussed her, and decided together. Another community allows the president and two vice presidents to make the decision.

It might be a larger team. One community used to involve the following:

  • vocation director,
  • two members,
  • the congregational leader.

A men’s community has an admission board made up of:

  • the postulancy director,
  • two members,
  • and an outsider who happens to be a woman religious.

(The feminine perspective is sought in another men’s community by having a woman religious interview applicants.)

Advantages and disadvantages

Time and again, the vocation ministers contacted for this article said that the advantage of an admissions board is greater objectivity and broader perspective. “All individuals carry their own biases,” wrote one vocation director. To have one person decide without any recommendation from others can lead to problems and bad decisions.”

Another vocation minister put it this way: “Receiving others’ reactions, comments, and intuition from having spent time with the individual assists in the decision making process.”

Oversight for the vocation minister is another advantage. “A board can help to assure that all the proper paper work and needed material was collected by the vocation director. It can make sure he’s doing his job!”

Only one vocation minister mentioned disadvantages to an admissions board. In his community, having to convene six people for an advisory board means that the timing of the application takes on an artificially critical importance. A person has to be accepted by the late spring meeting, or he won’t enter the formation program which starts in the fall, and he’ll have to until the next fall.

Certainly the existence of an admissions board means that the process cannot be as fast and efficient as it would be with a single decision-maker. It takes time to convene people. It takes time for them to discuss their perspectives. It takes time for them to agree on a course of action. However, it seems that most communities are willing to forego speed and efficiency in favor of what they see as higher quality decisions and a superior process.

The ethics of admissions boards

Father Ray Carey

What are some considerations in choosing people for admissions boards?

My concern is that too often folks are named to admissions boards as a political decision, an attempt to mollify one set of constituents over another. I think that in an ideal world, an admissions board should include:

  1. People who are competent at interviewing, and who have a clear, behaviorally anchored sense of the criteria for which an assessment is undertaken. Unless there is a clear sense of "who are we looking for?" it doesn't much matter who is on the board.
  2. The board ought to be representative of or reflective of the multifaceted ecclesiologies in the constituency. Unless the board fairly represents the community for which the admissions decisions are taken, there will not be much credibility accorded it. Without credibility, the board's work is impossible.
  3. I think whenever possible the board should be comprised of both genders, again assuming competencies are present.
  4. I think as well there should be a limited term of service on the board, and that membership should change on a rotating basis (to keep some continuity).

What information about applicants should board members see?

I think they should have access to whatever information is salient to the decision at hand. As well, they should take care that each interviewer has a roughly assigned area for assessment (e.g., ministry or academics or spiritual readiness for formation or history of relationships or readiness for celibacy) so that not every member is asking sensitive questions about sexual history or family of origin, for example. They should take special efforts to protect the candidates' ethical right to minimal intrusion. At the same time, the board should be seen as the moral extension of the vocation director (who in turn shares the moral authority of the provincial), and therefore board members have a right to know what they legitimately need to know. Additionally, the board should be bound by the same confidentiality requirements as the vocation director.

 

Carol Schuck Scheiber is editor of HORIZON. She also edits the newsletter, NRVC News and VISION Vocation Discernment Handbook. She has 16 years’ experience in communications with an emphasis in Catholic topics, social justice and nonprofits. She lives in Toledo with her husband and three children.

 



Moving from inquirer to applicant

What needs to happen to help an individual move through the information-gathering time of vocation discernment to a time of greater discernment and, finally, to the moment of actually entering a formation program? This, it seems, is the million dollar question. How do we help individuals move from a time of inquiry to a readiness to apply for membership? How do we help these individuals to see that the call to religious life either is or is not their calling? And, if it is their calling, how do we help them to move along in their discernment, consider a variety of congregations, and, ultimately, make a choice—a decision? I’m afraid none of us has a fail-proof formula for this. My years in vocation ministry and my conversations with former discerners have taught me a few things, however, about the million-dollar question, and I hope to share them here.

Set up a response system

First, it is important to examine the process we have in place for responding to an inquirer. What do we send in the mail? A brochure, a video, a DVD? Do we send an e-mail or a letter? Is it a form letter or personalized? As I have talked with people who are in the exploration phase, I have discovered that more and more of them are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information they receive from all of our communities. How can we include a personal touch, allowing the person to ask questions about religious life in general and about our communities in particular? We must get information into the hands of inquirers and yet also suggest tools to help them sort through it all.

This time of initial exploration serves also as an initial time for us as vocation ministers to screen potential candidates. Does this person seem to fit us? Or should I direct her or him somewhere else? Are there impediments to proceeding which need to be addressed, such as having children or not being Catholic? If no obstacles are obvious and the person seems to be interested in our community, what can we do to stay in contact with this individual and to offer our assistance to him or her during continued discernment?

It’s important to look for ways to connect…making phone calls, sending e-mails, visiting. A meeting in person can be a very important tool to move someone into more serious discernment or to help move them in a different direction. Always we need to remember to hold these individuals lightly, to encourage them to check out other communities, to read, to view websites, to visit other places, and, most importantly, to be in spiritual direction.

If someone has been discerning awhile or moves beyond the initial stages of discernment, then we can ask what that person needs to help make a good decision. Does she or he need to visit one of our mission houses? Would ministering with community members be of help? Would it be helpful to talk with another member of the community as a mentor?

As we look at moving people from inquirers to applicants, though, it seems that just talking about programs isn’t enough. If it were, then there could be a systematic way of moving people. “Mary” has been in discernment with us for one year; therefore she can enter next year. If only it were so easy! While much of what we do in vocation ministry can gain insights from the world of sales and recruitment, this is the point at which that can’t happen anymore. This is not about closing a sale! It’s not always easy to step back at such times. The pressures on those of us serving in vocation ministry are great. We all want and need new members. Our community members may frequently ask us who’s joining or why more individuals aren’t entering. Within ourselves, even, we may feel such a push and wonder if we’re truly doing a good job if we don’t meet some expected “quota” of new members. But, this is about discernment and about God’s call for an individual. The Spirit is at work, and we need to allow room for the Spirit to work while doing our part to help nudge and guide.

Inviting as Jesus did

So, perhaps we need to look to the model of invitation that Jesus used. In the pastoral plan that emerged from the 2002 North American Congress on Vocations, we find this model delineated into five parts: to sow, to accompany, to educate, to form, and to discern or choose.1

When we look at the Gospels, we see that “Jesus sows the good seed of vocation in each human heart.” We, too, are called to sow abundantly. Timing is crucial. While people may not act on their vocations until they are young adults, the first inclination can usually be traced back to childhood or adolescence. What are the key moments when we can plant the seed? How can we sow in a more prolific way?

Second, “as with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus draws near to us, walks beside us, and accompanies us on our journey of faith.” How are we called to accompany others? How do we allow the Spirit to guide this accompaniment? Often the simple sharing of our personal stories gives a concrete example of vocation and God’s call. Can we share the struggles along the way as part of our stories, not glossing over them, yet not focusing totally on the negative aspects of our journeys?

The third step is that “Jesus educates us, drawing out those truths about ourselves that we ourselves did not yet know.” Drawing out someone’s truth is the root of the word, “to educate.” How can we help inquirers see the link between increased self-knowledge and the revelation of God’s call in their lives? How can we assist them to see and accept their strengths, weaknesses and fears? How can we help them through this process so that they can be ready to embrace their true selves, and, therefore, their true callings? In addition, how can we help inquirers to develop their relationship with God so that they encounter a real and heartfelt presence of God, of Jesus? Perhaps we can assist them with prayer, helping them to be in the silence and assisting them in examining their lives in the context of prayer.

The fourth step is that “Jesus forms us along the way, teaching us to recognize him as we reflect on our experience with him on the road.” In the Emmaus story, the disciples’ eyes were opened. Can we be attuned to such “peak,” eye-opening moments for those who have contacted us? Can we notice and help the individuals to discover the truth God is seeking to reveal to them? We must risk noticing these moments as times when we can call a person to make a choice, to commit. Further, we must challenge discerners to act on the gift they have received without being pushy or overbearing.

The final moment as we look at Jesus’ example is that, “in the light of what has been revealed in this discernment, Jesus calls to an explicit and effective choice and sends us on a mission.” How do we help inquirers see that they need to choose… that, at some point, they need to get off the fence. We know there are perpetual discerners. How can we move them? What do they need to make a choice and go with it? Our job is to show discerners that they do have the skills and abilities to make a good choice. We can assure them that choosing to enter community or seminary is not the end of the process but rather the beginning. While it needs to be a serious decision, it’s not a commitment for life right away. We can show them and share with them our own commitments, our own choices in life and be an example for them as they strive to make good choices in their lives.

This leads to the question of how do we, who are religious and priests, witness to the vocation of our lives? What do people see when they observe us? Do they see people who are too busy, frazzled, or overworked? What does that say to them? How would that attract them to inquire into this vocation for themselves?

Or do they see peaceful, joyful, and fulfilled individuals? We do not need to be false and put on a face that’s not true, but we do need to ask ourselves what would encourage someone to join us in our vocation if they do not see us as living a basically joy-filled existence. Young people know that all marriages are not bliss and that not every day of any life, including religious life, is forever happy. But if they only see us as tired, frustrated, and perhaps even angry, why would they want to be like us?

New membership can come down to our being visible so young people know what we do and why and how we do our ministries. But, more importantly, do young adults know who we are, what makes us tick, and, most importantly, what makes us commit our lives?

Since I couldn’t come up with the million-dollar answer to the question of how to move inquirers to applicants, I decided that perhaps it would be most helpful to hear the stories of some women and men who recently made that move. I wanted to learn what helped or hindered them.

When asked what helped them to move from a time of inquiry to application for membership, one person reported that visiting the community and feeling a sense of being “at home” was key. She felt welcomed, yet not pressured to decide to enter. Rather she felt she could allow God to lead the process. She said that she also felt free to ask questions and that no question was too silly to ask.

Another person said that being immersed in the sisters’ lives for a week was very important. It allowed her to see sisters in their “real” life, where she observed that they were down to earth. She also reported that she was encouraged to visit other places and that this gave her a sense of freedom in her choice. She found it important to be able to talk with others who were also discerning. In addition, it was helpful to be connected with sisters other than the “dreaded” vocation director in order to ask questions! Another woman mentioned that meeting with the prioress during weekend visits was helpful. She appreciated the freedom to talk about fears, trepidations, challenges and hopes, and to be who she was while being challenged to grow.

Others commented that discernment took lots of prayer! And that the offer of a retreat at a seminary seemed non-threatening and didn’t require much commitment. One person said that the support of his family was key and that learning about the process to become a priest helped demystify it. This man also found written discernment questions to be of great help. A woman mentioned that when she visited a community she felt genuinely cared for.

Another woman said that the patience of the vocation director was important, as was the community’s efforts to keep in touch. She also found helpful the offer to have a sister visit her when that sister was traveling. In fact, it was this visit that gave her the incentive to make a trip to visit the community.

Another man, a third year seminarian now, said that it was helpful for him to encounter seminarians and also to go to the seminary to visit, to see the environment within which he might be. He also said that he needed some space, some quiet time to be away from the routines of life in order to reflect and think, so he made some retreats. He found it helpful to be separated from concerns, responsibilities and distractions.

One woman said that the sisters’ interest in meeting her without making her feel “sucked in” as the community’s only hope of survival was very important. She said that she felt a freedom to come because she felt free to go. She said that meeting some other vocation directors and finding them “desperate” was a turn off. Such experiences made her want to run quickly in the other direction!

Another woman said that it was helpful to interact with sisters of a variety of ages. She also said it is helpful for the vocation director to not be overly excited when someone moves into a deeper discernment. … too much excitement can feel like control and pressure. Another woman told me that having our video to show her family and friends was very helpful, as was bringing her family to visit the community. One woman mentioned the help of participating in normal conversations at the dinner table, interacting with a variety of ages, the personal touches in the mail we sent, and our Web site with its daily photo blog.

When asked what hindered them, the replies were as follows: my own fears of whether I could be a good sister, brother, priest. Several mentioned that their families were a hindrance, at least at first. Also, overly eager vocation directors who didn’t want to let go were a major hindrance. One mentioned that it was difficult when she visited a community and could only meet the older sisters--at times she felt that she might be the sole provider for these sisters, and that was scary. At the same time, peers in the community were not the only deciding factor. Other hindrances included hearing sisters complain about other sisters, and misperceptions on the discerner’s part about the life of a priest or religious. A seminarian stated that he was hindered at first by looking at seminary not as continual discernment but as entry into the priesthood. He believed he had to be 100 percent sure before he started seminary.

Another man mentioned the nagging questions in his mind: What if I decide to leave? Would I be okay? Would I be able to start over? This same man said letting go of his current support system was a challenge.

Regarding what could have been more helpful in the process or transition, a suggestion was made that new members check in with the vocation director once a month for awhile after entering the community. This would allow entrants to check whether what they experience is a normal part of the transition. Another suggested that entrants better understand life after the initial year or two. A priest recommended a pastoral year as a time to live and see the life of a parish priest prior to ordination.

On a practical note, one woman said that when communicating initially with so many communities, it would be most helpful to identify a name and e-mail with a community and location. (This involves using an e-mail “signature” so that your name, community and address appear at the bottom of each e-mail. The “help” section of your e-mail software should explain how to do this.) One cannot assume that the individual will remember which vocation director goes with which community. A seminarian suggested presenting more information in non-threatening ways. And a newer member to religious life suggested having family members visit the community prior to entrance.

These are the gleanings from a variety of individuals either in formation or recently ordained. Perhaps their words and experiences can help as we accompany those in discernment, as we try to help them move along in their decision-making.

There is no one answer to the question of how to move someone in this process. Sometimes the approach needs to be gentle and caring. At other times, we might need to be more forceful—kicking someone off the fence or at least nudging the person to move independently. Perhaps what is most needed on our part is patience, prayer and perseverance. The task of helping someone discern requires prayer and discernment on our parts. How can we be like Jesus as we invite men and women to follow this way of life? Most importantly, I believe, is that we not act desperate or clingy or hold people with tightly clenched hands. We have to always remember that discernment isn’t about trying to convince a person to join one congregation over another or telling a person which orders to visit and which ones not to visit. Also, we, as vocation ministers, are not in control of a person’s calling, and we need to walk that fine line that exists between inviting and harassing an individual who is discerning. We need to act with faith, to encourage, to hold lightly, and to allow individuals to hear and respond to God's call, whatever that may be. In the end, it's really up to the Spirit, and then it’s up to us to listen, to discern, to act—all under the guidance of that same Spirit.

1. Conversion, Discernment, Mission: Fostering a Vocation Culture in North America. Pastoral Plan of the Third Continental Congress on Vocations to Ordained Ministry and Consecrated Life in North America. Ottawa, Ontario: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Anita Louise Lowe, OSB has served in vocation ministry for her community, the Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, IN, since 1997. She has been a member of the NRVC board since 2001 and currently serves on the leadership team of the board.



Developing admissions policies regarding HIV

By John Fuller S.J., M.D.

During the first two decades of the U.S. AIDS epidemic numerous news reports, essays and even biographies of affected individuals brought considerable public attention to HIV infection among clergy and religious. This led religious orders and dioceses to engage in research, discernment and eventual policy development regarding HIV testing of applicants. Although no systematically-collected statistics on the number of HIV-infected clergy and religious are available, experience suggests that new AIDS diagnoses in this group are considerably fewer than a decade ago. However, individuals already known to be infected do occasionally apply to seminaries, and questions about accepting such candidates—and about universal screening of all candidates—remain active issues for vocation and formation directors.

HIV testing of candidates is a complex topic for many reasons. These range from understanding how new treatments have changed the prognosis of being HIVinfected, to appreciating the implications of testing from the perspectives of justice and canon law. This article attempts to provide a broad overview of these topics for those responsible for developing and carrying out HIV-related admissions policies.

Three basic approaches to policy on HIV testing are in use today: l) screen all applicants for HIV infection and exclude those who are HIV-positive; 2) screen all applicants, but use HIV-antibody status as only one of many important pieces of information; and 3) do not test for nor take known HIV-antibody status into account when considering an applicant.

If screening for HIV infection takes place, it is usually done at the time of admission to a seminary or religious order. Occasionally individuals are retested at later stages in the formation process, e.g., before deaconate or priestly ordination, or before admission to advanced studies.

 

FACT AND FICTION ABOUT HIV-AIDS

Myth: HIV infection is easy to transmit. Outside of health care settings, consensual behavior such as sexual intercourse or sharing of drug injection equipment is necessary to transmit HIV infection. The virus is not easily transmitted through such behaviors as coughing, sneezing, kissing, shaking hands, sharing food utensils or sharing common facilities such as bathrooms, dining rooms or water fountains.

Myth: HIV drugs eliminate the virus from the body. Although HIV medications can suppress the level of the virus to below detectable limits in the bloodstream, no treatments currently available eradicate HIV completely from the body.

Myth: All persons living with HIV infection will have a shortened lifespan. Not all persons who become HIV-infected develop AIDS. Even for persons who have an AIDS diagnosis, the use of anti-HIV drugs can lead to reconstitution of the immune system, the resolution of symptoms, and the capacity to live a normal life span without significant disability.

Truth: HIV drugs can cause changes in body shape. Some drugs are capable of causing a condition called “lipodystrophy,” which can be manifested as loss of subcutaneous fat in the face and limbs and/or increases in fat in the neck and abdomen. Some of these drugs can also lead to increases in the levels of fat in the bloodstream (such as LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, both of which are risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease). —Jon Fuller, SJ, M.D

 

Public policy approaches to testing

HIV testing in the context of admission to seminaries or religious orders raises in a specialized context a variety of questions which have already been given considerable attention in civil society. Because a positive HIV test can have potentially devastating psychological implications, and can also result in many forms of de facto (if illegal) discrimination (in housing, employment, and insurability), public policy has in general permitted HIV testing only when voluntary consent has been obtained. Exceptions to this general principle do exist. For example, in some localities emergency personnel (“first responders”) who sustain a potential occupational exposure to HIV can request HIV testing of a source patient without consent; federal and some state prisoners have been tested for HIV without consent; applicants to Job Corps (a federal job training program) are routinely HIV-tested; military personal are routinely screened for HIV infection, and HIV-positive persons are barred from combat duty (where concern for battlefield transfusion safety provides a rationale). State Department employees being posted to certain foreign destinations are also regularly HIV-tested (reportedly due to concerns about the non-availability of sophisticated medical services in some locations). Apart from these exceptions, HIV testing cannot be used by a municipality, school or employer as a means of discriminating against students, employees or prospective employees.1 No other occupations are permitted to ask about or routinely exclude HIV-positive individuals (although HIV-positive surgeons who perform invasive procedures are counseled to work with local experts to maintain the highest safeguards for patients).

The U.S. bishops have concurred with this trend in public policy which opposes any discriminatory use of HIV testing, or the loss of employment because of being HIV-infected. In The Many Faces of AIDS, the Administrative Board of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) wrote in 1987: “We oppose the use of HIV-antibody testing for strictly discriminatory purposes…. There may be sound public health reasons for recommending the use of the HIV-antibody test in certain situations, either because some persons have a heightened risk of becoming infected or because precautions may have to be taken by others (e.g., prospective spouses, hospital staffs) if the tests are positive. Nevertheless we agree with many public health authorities who question the appropriateness and effectiveness of more sweeping proposals such as widespread mandatory testing. It is critical that persons with AIDS continue to be employed as long as it is appropriate. The Catholic Church in the United States accepts its responsibility to give good example in this matter.”2

In 1989 the full membership of the NCCB commented on HIV-related discrimination in their letter, Called to Compassion and Responsibility: “A growing body of legislation considers the individual with HIV a handicapped or disabled person. In 1978, in a statement on the handicapped, we said: ‘Defense of the right to life ... implies the defense of other rights which enable the handicapped individual to achieve the fullest measure of personal development of which he or she is capable’” (Pastoral Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops on Handicapped People, November 15, 1978, No. 10). 3

Arguments in favor of HIV testing

When moving from a consideration of antibody testing in civil society to the question at hand, one can appreciate that the process of applying for admission to a religious order or diocese has no precise parallel in the public sector. For example religious orders (and to a lesser extent dioceses) become responsible for the health care and living costs of their members for life, while this would not generally be true for the government or a business.

HIV-related costs are burdensome. Given the potential for a life-long relationship with the order or diocese, those responsible for the group’s financial health might well be concerned about the potential impact of caring for an HIV-infected member. Published estimates during the 1980’s and 1990’s for the cost of providing medical care to one person with AIDS from the time of diagnosis until death ranged from $23,000 to $168,000, with much of this outlay representing the cost of hospitalization.4, 5 While it is true that hospitalizations are much less frequently needed today because of the success of current therapies, anti-HIV medications (needed for patients with evidence of significant damage to the immune system) can cost in the range of $10,000 to $25,000 annually.6 While this magnitude of expense is not exceptional for a serious illness, religious groups do not generally anticipate such outlays for their younger members. For this reason, some argue that it is quite reasonable and even necessary for religious groups to be cautious stewards of their finite resources by using HIV testing to eliminate those applicants who might develop costly illness or require long-term use of expensive medications to prevent such illness.

Can the candidate take part in the apostolate? A second argument frequently proposed in favor of HIV testing of applicants relates to the sometimes lengthy period of preparation needed to fully train a candidate for the group’s work. Since religious orders and dioceses expect that their candidates will (with reasonable predictability) be able to healthily sustain themselves during the rigors both of formation and of later apostolic work, and since chronic disease or life-threatening illness could prejudice this capacity, apostolic groups have traditionally paid attention to health considerations in evaluating the aptness of a candidate for the group’s ministerial life. Since HIV disease could make it impossible to engage in apostolic activity, a legitimate interest in the group’s apostolic viability argues in favor of HIV testing of candidates. In support of this position, canon law notes that questions about physical qualities and health are appropriate when selecting candidates for major orders: “After all circumstances have been taken into account in the prudent judgment of the proper bishop or the competent major superior, only those should be promoted to orders who have an integral faith . . . and other physical and psychological qualities which are appropriate to the order to be received” (Canon 1029, Requisites for Orders). Canon law also states: “As regards the inquiry concerning the qualities required of an ordinand, the following prescriptions are to be observed: 1) a testimonial is to be furnished by the rector of the seminary or the house of formation concerning the qualities required for the reception of orders; that is, the candidate’s correct doctrine, genuine piety, good morals and his suitability for exercising the ministry; and, after a duly executed inquiry, the state of his physical and psychological health” (Canon 1051, Pre-ordination Inquiries). 7

 

BASIC MEDICAL FACTS ABOUT HIV/AIDS

The HIV epidemic has been recognized since 1981, when unusual tumors and infections were identified among patients in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. In 1983 the epidemic was recognized as being caused by a virus which initially spread to the human population from chimpanzees. The virus is known as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). Adults can become infected with HIV during sexual intercourse, from sharing injection equipment during intravenous drug use, from transfusions (if blood is not tested for HIV), and rarely from occupational exposure (such as needle-stick injuries in medical contexts). HIV-infected pregnant women can pass the virus on to their children during intrauterine development, at the time of delivery or during breastfeeding.

Adults recently infected with HIV may experience the “acute HIV syndrome” consisting of symptoms such as fever, rash, sore throat, and swollen lymph nodes. These characteristically occur within a few weeks after HIV infection and may last for a few days to a few weeks. Subsequently the individual enters into a period of having no symptoms at all, a phase which may last for many years. During this time the person neither feels nor looks ill, and apart from HIV testing, there is no way to know that this person is HIV-infected and is capable of passing on the virus.

The fundamental problem caused by HIV infection is that it attacks CD4 cells (also known as T cells or helper cells). These cells are a critical component of the human immune system, and orchestrate the response of the immune system to infections. In most HIV-infected persons, the CD4 count gradually decreases, making the immune system vulnerable to numerous conditions known as “opportunistic” diseases (so named because they only occur in the context of immune compromise.) These may include numerous infections, tumors, neurologic disease or “AIDS wasting syndrome,” a gastrointestinal condition manifested as fevers, wasting and diarrhea.

Within six weeks to six months after becoming HIV-infected, antibodies against the virus are produced by the immune system and can be detected in the blood; these are the basis of the HIV test. Since these antibodies are present in blood serum, those who are HIV-positive are also known as being “seropositive.” A diagnosis of AIDS (as compared with only being HIV-positive) occurs when someone who is HIV-infected develops one of the clinical conditions noted in the preceding paragraph, or develops a CD4 count less than 200. A diagnosis of AIDS represents significant disease or immune compromise as the result of HIV infection. Although the majority of untreated, HIV-infected persons will eventually develop an AIDS diagnosis, a small number of persons have immune systems which are able to fight the virus even without the benefit of drugs.

Since 1996 the simultaneous use of three drugs against HIV (a combination or "cocktail" known as HAART: Highly Active AntiRetroviral Therapy) has revolutionized the care of HIV-infected persons. HAART is capable of suppressing the level of HIV in the bloodstream to below detectable levels, and is also capable of reconstituting the immune system (as manifested by a normalization of CD4 counts and resolution of opportunistic diseases). HIV-infected persons are generally started on these drugs many years into the average course of HIV infection, if and when the viral load or CD4 count indicate it. Persons who meet criteria for initiation of anti-HIV therapy and who are started on these medications may live for a normal lifespan if they are able to normalize the CD4 count and suppress the virus completely. However, if persons taking these drugs are not vigilant about missing doses, HIV may develop resistance to these medications, leading to difficulties in maintaining complete viral suppression and in restoring immune function.

Persons who are taking HIV therapies do have to contend with potential side effects and toxicities, although more recent drugs attempt to minimize these toxicities. Persons living with HIV infection are able to live in community without endangering others, and if their condition is well controlled, may be capable of fully engaging in a community’s apostolic works. —Jon Fuller, SJ, M.D.

 

Objections to testing

In contrast to these arguments in favor of HIV testing for reasons of economics or apostolic availability, several concerns have been raised against policies that mandate screening.

Exclusion as a “medical condition” must be carefully considered. Although the notion of screening for serious medical illness in applicants is inherently logical and is supported in canon law, the definition of precisely what constitutes an excluded condition is unclear. In my experience of raising this question with those in leadership, there does not appear to be a commonly agreed-on sense of what should make any diagnosis excludable, nor a readily available list (even in a given religious order or diocese) of those conditions which are currently grounds for non-acceptance. In addition, circumstances change over time. Some conditions previously disallowed may be considered in a different light due to subsequent advances in available therapy. For example epilepsy and tuberculosis historically led to automatic exclusion, but the availability of excellent treatments for both make such conclusions illogical today. Similarly since current therapies for HIV infection make a normal lifespan and fully active life quite possible, it is not necessarily true that being HIV-infected would prevent someone from contributing fully to the apostolic life of a religious order or diocese. If a group is considering defining HIV infection as an excludable medical condition, it is suggested that this be done in a manner that establishes consistent criteria for all excludable conditions. This would avoid the inconsistency of refusing HIVinfected persons while admitting candidates with other conditions that could also represent significant economic and availability risks to a group (such as those who have poorly controlled hypertension or diabetes, are heavy smokers, are morbidly obese, etc.).

HIV infection does not presume that disease is present. Canon law does allow for exclusion of candidates who are not in good health, but it is quite possible to be HIV-infected and in an excellent state of health, with no diminishment of function or evidence of immune compromise. It has been argued that “health” as defined by the canons can be interpreted both as an absence of illness and as the capacity to carry out the demands of everyday life and work.8 Since some individuals with HIV infection may never develop AIDS, and since, with currently available treatments, many will be able to live fully productive lives, it is conceivable that excluding candidates who are merely HIV positive is not justifiable by those canons that consider a candidate’s current state of health. This argument suggests that exclusion for reasons of poor health would have to be based on more than one’s simply being HIV-infected, i.e. exclusion would need to be based on a more extensive medical evaluation to ascertain the presence of (or likelihood of developing) illness or serious immune compromise.

While the U.S. bishops have commented that “it may be appropriate for seminaries and religious communities to screen for the HIV antibody,” they have also expressed the opinion that HIV infection in itself should not be grounds for exclusion: “The point here is not to automatically exclude a candidate who is HIV positive,” the bishops state, “but rather to discern carefully this person’s present health situation as well as future health prospects; and thus to make an overall moral assessment of an individual’s capacity to carry out ministerial responsibilities.”9

Canon law gives high regard to individual privacy. Does canon law allow for the invasion of privacy necessary to ascertain the HIV status of candidates? According to canon 220, “No one is permitted to damage unlawfully the good reputation which another person enjoys nor to violate the right of another person to protect his or her own privacy.”10 In this light, it has been questioned whether the possible violation of confidentiality that could accompany routine HIV testing should preclude its use. In one view ascertaining a candidate’s HIV status is seen as an appropriate exercise of the bishop’s or community’s authority to evaluate candidates, and testing should be carried out with particular attention to confidentiality of all records: “The diocesan requirement in question (to test candidates for HIV antibodies) is a legitimate one. The bishop, charged with obligations regarding seminary admissions and promotion to orders, can decide to require testing for this admittedly serious disease. The diocesan policy, however, should insure that the results of any testing are kept confidential and are shared only with those charged with ultimate responsibility for seminary admissions and then only with the explicit written consent of the candidate.”11

However, in another view, the potential impact of HIV testing, and the difficulties inherent in maintaining absolute confidentiality of test results, argue against a policy of screening for HIV. One observer writes, “(Because testing) opens a wide window of vulnerability— psychological, social, economic—for an individual against which the seminary and diocese can guarantee only limited protection . . . the need for a seminary to screen out HIV infected persons is not compelling enough to outweigh the established right of a person to protection against potentially damaging intrusion of privacy.”12

The church has criticized others who exclude the HIV-infected. Since both public health and national church authorities have criticized mandatory testing of civilian populations, some have wondered whether the church or its organizations are hypocritical if they test while teaching that others should not. From a global perspective, an analogous question can be raised. Given the inexorable spread of HIV infection, especially in developing countries, would it be desirable or even possible to “keep HIV away” from orders and dioceses in these areas? Could such an intentionally screened clerical or religious group effectively witness to populations where up to 20 or even 35 percent of adults are HIV-infected?

Rejecting seropositive candidates overemphasizes performance. Some view it as ironic that corporations are not allowed to screen their employees for HIV infection, but the church’s orders and dioceses— established on principles that reject a utilitarian analysis of human worth—are sometimes doing so. Excluding candidates who, for health reasons, might contribute for a shorter time to the group’s apostolic endeavors can appear to place a greater reliance on an individual’s capacity to perform work than on a recognition of the genuine call of an individual to the life and mission of the order or diocese. Some would further argue that given the global extent and unprecedented impact of the AIDS epidemic on the human community, it is certainly plausible that God could call to religious or priestly life some persons infected with HIV. In the same manner that vowed life witnesses to a profound confidence in God’s providence, is it possible that the HIV/AIDS pandemic challenges the church to bear witness to the Gospel’s inclusivity in the context of a global struggle with this widespread infectious agent? It is worth noting here that many religious groups have experienced that individuals with particular disabilities (e.g., deafness, blindness or other physical handicaps) can also have vocations to religious life or priesthood, and frequently possess the capacity to perform ministry with selected populations in ways that are not possible for non-disabled individuals. Religious orders with HIV-positive members have witnessed this particular ministry ad extra, as well as to members of their own communities.

The HIV test should not be used as a surrogate test. Some have raised a concern that HIV antibody testing, ostensibly to exclude a serious medical condition, might actually be used as a surrogate means to test for past homosexual activity, or for past history of injection drug use. Since there is no necessary connection between HIV infection and homosexuality or drug use, using the HIV antibody test in an attempt to identify either of these personal characteristics would be both inaccurate and unjust.

Does testing candidates for HIV affect the group doing the testing? In an important review of the foregoing questions, moral theologian James Keenan has raised the foregoing question in an article in Review for Religious. Exploring the concept of maintaining purity within religious organizations, he suggests the possibility that HIV testing may be considered not so much to exclude disabling illness as to insure the relative “purity” of the group by forbidding certain conditions. He also questions what the limits of such an approach might be as he anticipates the next generation of genetic tests, based on the human genome project, that will identify increased propensity to develop a broad array of diseases.13

Adopting a testing policy

This discussion of antibody testing of candidates for religious orders and dioceses reveals the number and complexity of issues involved. While cogent arguments can be made in favor of HIV testing for reasons of economics and apostolic availability, a number of counter-arguments raise serious objections to a protesting approach, especially if the policy excludes on the basis of HIV-infected status alone (i.e., without consideration of the specifics for each individual case). Given this situation, is there a single appropriate position to take? How should a group go about developing its policy?

The processes by which different groups have developed their HIV testing policies vary widely. In some, policies have been developed after a wide consultation with members and experts over months or even years. In others, the policies of another group have been used “as is,” or after minor adaptations. In some circum stances a decision to screen applicants for HIV has been made without having a clear understanding of the meaning of being HIV-infected, or without a plan of action in the event that an HIV positive applicant is encountered.

While it can be invaluable to review testing policies developed by other groups, the complexity of the issues involved suggests that there is no substitute for each group engaging in a prayerful and thoughtful discernment of the question. Simply adopting another organization’s approach prevents the organization from reflecting on the challenges to which it must respond from its own perspective, and it also bypasses an opportunity for critical reflection on the group’s general criteria for admission and its unique mission in the church. It is suggested, then, that each organization invest in the process of working through these questions in its own circumstances. After consulting with experts and other groups in similar circumstances, the members can fashion their response based on an understanding of relevant current scientific and ethical data applied in the context of the group’s unique characteristics, including its finances, history, personnel and charism.

Recommendations

If a policy to employ antibody testing is made, the following recommendations are offered.

If some candidates are to be tested, all should be tested. Although a group might want to selectively test those applicants who report what it considers past “high risk” activity for HIV exposure (e.g., homosexual orientation or activity, blood transfusion, intravenous drug use), if knowledge of HIV status is the goal of testing, justice suggests that the same criterion be applied to all.

If candidates are to be screened for HIV antibodies, the test result could be considered a significant part of that candidate’s overall profile without necessarily precluding consideration for entrance. Orders and dioceses have historically admitted candidates with certain medical problems, believing that even persons with health risks can have vocations. To accept an HIV-positive applicant would clearly involve accepting the probability of increased medical and financial liability. On the other hand, a positive HIV test is not absolutely predictive that serious disease will develop, especially since the development of currently available treatments. For those found to be HIV-positive, a detailed clinical evaluation by an HIV-experienced physician could be obtained. This would help locate the individual along the continuum of the natural history of HIV infection.14

If being HIV-infected is automatic grounds for exclusion, it is recommended that HIV testing be done early in the application process. It seems only fair to applicants that the group’s testing policy be made clear from the outset, and that HIV testing be done as the first step (or as a very early step) in the application process if its results are determinative. There is no need to put applicants (and the group) through other parts of the admission process only to tell applicants later that they would never have been considered had their HIV status been known earlier.

If an order or diocese requires HIV antibody testing of candidates, it is responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of all results reported to it. Local law may require that the applicant designate in writing the individual(s) to whom test results will be released. Disclosure of test results to other individuals or agencies, or failure to protect against inadvertent release of such information to other individuals or agencies, could create significant legal liability. Agencies have been successfully sued for loss of confidentiality when the results of HIV tests have been divulged without explicit written consent. Policies regarding precisely which individuals will learn HIV test results, who will be responsible for maintaining confidentiality, where records will be stored, and how long test results will be kept for both rejected and retained candidates, should all be determined before testing begins, and this information should be available to applicants. (See the box above for a resource on archiving medical information.) The results of prior HIV antibody tests which are freely offered by a candidate must be treated with the same strict confidentiality.

If an order or diocese is instrumental in a candidate’s being tested, and if the test becomes grounds for the candidate’s exclusion, the group must consider sharing some responsibility for the eventual impact of that test result on the individual’s life. Groups that require HIV testing of candidates must insure that the candidate is aware of all possible implications of learning that one is HIV-positive before testing occurs (e.g., its potential, if illegal, impact upon housing, employment and both life and health insurability). The group should also consider its responsibility to assist the individual in adapting to the news of learning that one is HIV-infected, including helping to bear the costs of counseling if this is necessary. Devising admissions policies in regard to HIV antibody testing is far from simple. However doing so can head off many potential problems. A proactive stance that anticipates and prepares for the possibility of HIV-infected candidates (or longstanding members) through ongoing educational programs and policy development can defuse crises and guarantee well thought-out policies. Never creating HIV-testing policies leaves a community or diocese in a reactive and crisis-oriented mode. Those in authority will be well served to avail themselves of qualified consultants, to move carefully but deliberately in developing policy, and to be mindful of the need to frequently review and revise all related policies and procedures.

1. L.A. Gostin, “The AIDS litigation project, a national review of court and human rights commission decisions, Part II: Discrimination,” JAMA 17 (1990) pp. 482- 489.

2. Administrative Board of the United States Catholic Conference, “The Many Faces of AIDS: A Gospel Response,” Origins 17 (1987) pp. 482-489.

3. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Called to Compassion and Responsibility: A Response to the HIV/AIDS Crisis,” Origins 19 (1989) pp. 421-436.

4. F.J. Hellinger, “Forecasting the medical care costs of HIV in the United States from 1993 through 1996,” IXth International Conference on AIDS, Berlin, Germany, June 6-11, 1993 (Abstract PO-D28-4223).

5. D.E. Bloom, G. Carliner, “The economics of AIDS in the United States,” Science, (1988) pp. 604-610.

6. Christopher D. Holzer and Steven G. Deeks. Winter 2005 Fuller HIV policies “Impact of HIV-1 protease inhibitors on the cost of treating HIV/AIDS patients,” Drug Benefit Trends 10 (1998) pp. 27-31. William N. Valenti, “HIV care can be cost-effective,” Drug Benefit Trends 12 (2000) pp. 23-24, 33-36.

7. J.A. Coriden, T.J. Green and D.E. Heintschel (editors), The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary. (New York: Paulist Press, 1985) p. 725.

8. J.D. Anderson, “Legal considerations in developing testing policy,” presented at the Second National Conference, HIV/AIDS: Its Impact on Clergy and Religious, sponsored by the National Catholic AIDS Network, St. Louis, MO, March 14-17, 1992.

9. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Called to Compassion and Responsibility,” Footnote 45.

10. Coriden, p. 725.

11. R. Gibbons, “Admission to the seminary and HIV testing,” Roman replies and CLSA advisory opinions 1991, Canon Law Society of America, pp. 76-77.

12. R.R. Calvo, “Admission to the seminary and HIV testing,” Roman replies and CLSA advisory opinions 1991, Canon Law Society of America, pp. 72-75.

13. J.F. Keenan, “HIV testing of seminary and religious order candidates,” Review for Religious 55 (1996) pp. 297-314.

14. Gibbons, pp. 76-77.

Jon Fuller, SJ, M.D. is a priest and physician who belongs to the California Province of the Society of Jesus. He has provided care to persons living with HIV/AIDS since 1983. An associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, he is a member of the clinical staff of the Center for HIV/ AIDS Care and Research at Boston Medical Center. He also was the founding president of the National Catholic AIDS Network in the U.S.



Psychological assessment: why, what and how to assess

By Ronald J. Karney

Today’s vocation director is faced with the daunting task of not only inviting applicants who may be experiencing a calling to religious life, but at the same time ensuring that the applicant is psychologically stable, well developed, mature and capable of entering into a process of discernment and formation leading to religious life. Often, vocation directors are chosen for their youthful energy with the expectation that they will relate well to young adults. They are well-versed in the mission and charism of the community and are aware of the needs of the community. However, over the years of assessing applicants, many new vocation directors express concerns regarding the psychological assessment. It is not uncommon for new vocation directors to approach this requirement for admission with fear, trepidation and uncertainty. When asked what they are looking for in an applicant in terms of a psychological assessment, many struggle to articulate anything specific and often reply with a simple “just a psychological” or “whatever you usually do.” It is crucial for vocation directors to have a basic understanding of the assessment process and how it can be used for candidate selection and formational development. For many vocation directors a professional psychological assessment provides objective insight into his or her own understanding of the candidate’s psychological well-being. Often, an assessment by a licensed psychologist takes place after the vocation director conducts a behavioral assessment. The two sets of information create a more complete picture of the candidate’s maturity and well-being.

Basic elements of assessment

A brief discussion of the basic elements of a professional psychological assessment can help set the stage for understanding how it can be used in vocational selection. Psychologists recognize that the nature of psychological assessment is more than the administration and scoring of psychological tests. A major task force of the American Psychological Association (APA) on the nature of psychological assessments (Meyer, GJ, et.al, 2001) defined a psychological assessment as a complex process in which a psychologist utilizes a variety of psychological measures and tests and interprets the data with respect to the individual’s history, the questions being asked by the referral source, and the behavior that is observed during the assessment process in order to understand the individual and answer the referral questions. This information also needs to be communicated clearly and effectively to the individual and the referral source.

Maximum assessment validity—that is, the degree of confidence one has of the findings—requires that the psychologist utilize a multi-method assessment battery that encompasses an unstructured interview, structured interview, performance-based personality tests, standardized personality tests, cognitive tests and, when possible, collateral information, often in the form of an observer rating scale. Each of these methods collects data that can lead to a convergence of findings. The multiple findings in turn maximize the validity of the conclusions. At the same time, multiple methods can yield contradictory findings that will require the psychologist to consider, in light of the unique development of the individual, the situation being assessed, and then determine if the inconsistency merits further exploration.

Several elements are present in this understanding of a psychological assessment. First and foremost is the referral question or purpose. Why is this person being assessed? The more specific the answer to this question, the better the psychologist can select a battery of assessment tests to elicit relevant information. Embedded in this element is an understanding of the context for the assessment. Psychologists in the industrial organizational field are often called upon to help major corporations select individuals who can “best fit” into the administrative structure of the corporation. This requires the psychologist to have a clear sense of the cultural components and values of the organization, along with an understanding of how the strengths and weaknesses of the individual would complement and interact with the other members of the organization. In these settings, the psychologist is required to fully understand the corporate climate and value system in order to understand the referral questions being asked.

The second element is the selection of the assessment battery components. What types of questions need to be asked during the interview? What information is required through a background history and developmental history? What psychological tests would be most appropriate? Would this approach be cost-effective in terms of time and money? And what collateral data needs to be obtained?

The third element is the professional competence of the psychologist, both in terms of assessment processes and in understanding the nature and purpose of the evaluation. The psychologist’s expertise is critical in making certain that the findings are interpretable in terms of sound psychological principles and in an understanding of the situation being presented. The psychologist needs a firm understanding of religious life and the corporate culture of the community.

The referral question or purpose

To maximize the utility of the psychological assessment, the vocation director should have a clear understanding of what information is being sought. Generally the psychological assessment has two major purposes: 1) to identify those individuals who are at risk of being unable to fully commit to the process of formation or who are at risk of being unable to live the life in a full and committed manner. This is the exclusionary aspect and would cover such issues as severe mental illness or personality disorders that would disrupt community life or the ministries of the community, addictions that could jeopardize the individual or the community if left unchecked, or other developmental issues or behaviors that could prove problematic. 2) The second aspect of an assessment is to identify the individual’s strengths and weaknesses so that the formation team can best maximize the effectiveness of formation. This constitutes the formational focus of the evaluation.

Vocation directors need to share with the assessment psychologist the community’s specific exclusionary issues or concerns. For instance, an individual with a schizophrenic disorder would likely require a lifetime commitment by the community to the individual’s mental stability through medication, therapy and a low stress environment. At the same time the community would have to recognize the likelihood of relapses. Such individuals should not be accepted into religious life. However, what is the attitude of the community toward an individual who has experienced periodic bouts of depression that can be managed with medication and therapy?

Additionally the vocation director needs to make certain that the assessment psychologist understands the nature of the community. What is the lifestyle? Is it an active community in which each member lives in an intentional community and each member is required to find a ministry position in discernment with leadership? Or is it a cloistered community in which each member is required to take part in a limited range of assignments? How is the vow of obedience lived? Additionally, what is the charism? What is the current age of the membership? Is there a cohort for this applicant to relate to? These types of questions can assist in making certain that the assessment psychologist has a sense of the nature of the religious community and what would be expected of each member. This assists him or her in selecting the tests to be used and in determining if the personality styles identified are areas of strength or weakness for the individual and the community.

Equally important is the selection of the assessment psychologist. This individual needs to be competent and experienced in psychological assessment principles, test selection, test administration, test scoring, test interpretation, interviewing, and in communicating the results in an understandable way. The psychologist needs to be licensed to practice psychology, and the license needs to be current. Additionally, the psychologist needs to be familiar with religious life within the Catholic Church, non-judgmental about living a consecrated vowed lifestyle, and familiar with the lifestyle of the religious community. (See the box below for more on selecting an assessment psychologist.)

In a recent study on the use of psychological testing for admission into seminary formation (NCEA 2010), psychologists noted some differences for men entering religious communities as opposed to the diocesan priesthood. Specifically, they pointed out that psychologists need to be aware of three general areas when dealing with religious life. First, the psychologist must understand the culture or charism of the religious community and be able to ask questions in the interview to assess the candidate’s understanding of this charism and determine if the applicant’s personality style is suited for it. Second, the psychologist should inquire about the candidate’s awareness of living a communal lifestyle and determine whether the candidate is suited for it—particularly when the communal setting involves the close, constant relationships of monastic life. Finally, the psychologist should assess the candidate’s understanding of the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. While this study focused only on male seminary applicants, these three main principles would likewise be appropriate in assessing prospective brothers, sisters or nuns.

Vocation directors would need to determine if the psychologist is experienced and qualified to conduct this type of assessment. While all psychologists are exposed to psychological testing through graduate school and internship, many do not regularly conduct testing. Making certain that the psychologist is experienced in assessments is of major importance. Licensure can be verified, either by requesting that the psychologist supply a copy of his or her current license (a common practice) or by contacting the licensing board for verification. Finally, a vocation director can meet with a psychologist to help him or her become familiar with the community.

Using a proposal

Once a psychologist has a clear understanding of the nature and purpose of the assessment, he or she is in a position to submit a proposal to the vocation director outlining the process to be employed. Vocation directors need to feel comfortable in requesting a proposal, since it will clearly state what is being done, the time frames and fees. The following elements are helpful to have:

1. The purpose for the evaluation and the referral questions that need to be answered This will allow the vocation director the opportunity to make certain that the psychologist understands what needs to be covered and addressed in his or her report.

2. The specific methods and tests that will be used in the assessment battery Questions as to why a particular test is being used can be answered at this time.

3. The time frame for the actual assessment, the feedback session and the written report (Also included may be how the applicant will contact the psychologist.) Vocation directors have time lines that need to be followed for when all of the information will be reviewed so that a decision may be made about whether the applicant can enter into formation. If a candidate will be entering a seminary, there may be deadlines connected to the academic calendar. All these needs should be made clear to the psychologist before the assessment to ensure that the psychologist has adequate time to meet deadlines.

4. Who will be present for the feedback session and to whom is the report sent While the community often pays for the assessment, it must be recognized that a psychological evaluation is an invasive procedure and that it would not be ethically justifiable to deny the applicant the opportunity to obtain feedback regarding the findings. The APA code of ethics (2002) requires such feedback to be part of the assessment process. Feedback needs to be given by the psychologist. Such sessions allow for a fuller and more complete explanation of the findings and in some instances introduces information that sheds a different light upon the assessment findings. The proposal should specify who will receive a copy of the report. Current practices are diverse in this regard between a copy going only to the community, a copy to the community and a summary to the applicant, and a copy to both the community and applicant.

5. Fees and payment The psychological assessment is a time intensive process that requires not only the face-to-face time of being with the applicant, but it also includes the cost of testing materials, time to interpret and write a report, and time for the feedback session. While the community may have a fixed budget for such testing, it is important to discuss any financial constraints with the psychologist. Some adjustments in the specific tests used can sometimes be made without significantly impacting the findings; other times it may result in modifying the areas to be assessed, thereby limiting the utility of the assessment to a specific range of questions. This discussion needs to take place prior to the acceptance of the proposal. A proposal is an important and fiscally responsible step. It provides an opportunity to clarify expectations and to make certain all deadlines are reached.

The psychological report and findings

After the assessment, the findings need to be conveyed in an understandable manner to both the applicant and to the community. As most communities are aware, the applicant must authorize release of this information to designated members of the community. The psychologist is bound to follow this release and is not permitted to release the data to anyone not specified. In rare instances, the applicant will decide to retract his or her authorization, and when this occurs, the psychologist is unable to release any information.

Assuming the applicant has given permission to release the findings from the assessment, there are two methods often used. The first is a formal feedback session. At this time the psychologist is able to review the findings with the applicant and in some instances concurrent with the vocation director. This discussion permits a clear conveyance of the findings, along with an opportunity for the applicant to share more information about the interpretation and its application. In some instances the new information may require the psychologist to amend his or her findings. More often than not, the vocation director is able to observe the manner in which the applicant reacts to feedback. At the same time, the vocation director is able to further clarify any issues he or she does not fully understand.

The second method of sharing the findings is the actual written report. It is the responsibility of the psychologist to write in a jargon-free manner, and if certain psychological concepts need to be used, the psychologist should make certain that the recipient of the report understands the terms. Often, reports have subheadings to assist the reader in identifying key aspects. While each psychologist will most likely have his or her preferred formatting, it is not uncommon to have identifying information about the client, the reason for the referral, the dates and tests administered, the background information, behavioral observations, test findings and a summary and recommendation section.

Record retention

By law psychologists are obligated to maintain a record of the evaluation for a specified period of time, which may vary by each state. During this time the psychologist will keep all of the information in a secure setting. After the time limit1, he or she is permitted to destroy the file. Vocation directors would need to ask the assessment psychologist about this time limit at the time of the evaluation.

Vocation directors will need to understand their community policy and procedure related to security and confidentiality of this report, too. Key questions to ask and know include: who reads the report; where is it kept; who has access to it; how long is it kept? Knowing the answers to these questions can greatly relieve the concerns of the applicant, who must give permission to send the report to the community.

The general principle with information sharing is that while the applicant is the gate keeper regarding information related to his or her psychological functioning, the applicant can give permission to share this information with others. However, such permission can only be given in an informed manner, which entails the applicant knowing what will happen with the report once the community receives it.

Road map for formation

A well-conducted and well-written psychological assessment can be of significant importance to a vocation director, a selection committee, as well as to the applicant. However, as discussed above, a number of elements need to converge in order to maximize its usefulness. A good psychological assessment can provide a snapshot of the applicant’s current level of psychological development and functioning, indicating the inner resources available for formational development. A good assessment can identify potential risk factors or issues that would require the selection committee to seriously consider acceptance, deferral or rejection. It can confirm many of the observations of the selection committee and the beliefs that an individual holds of his or her strengths and weaknesses. It can jump start the formational experience by serving as a road map of issues to be addressed or concerns to be monitored.

For these positive effects to come about, a vocation director needs to do more than just contact a psychologist and arrange for an assessment. He or she plays an instrumental role in designing the assessment that will be most useful in selection and formation and in preparing the applicant to benefit from the experience. The greater the understanding of the psychological assessment process by the vocation director, the more effective the results can be for the community.

 

1. At this time some states regulate retention of records for seven years after the professional relationship ends (eg., California, North Carolina, Tennessee and Connecticut) but for minors it would not begin until the minor reaches the age of maturity. Other states have no laws, eg., Illinois. The American Psychological Association Record Keeping Guideline is seven years after the last date of service, and for minors, for three years after reaching the age of majority. It is best to check with the psychologist for the regulatory guidelines for the state in which the evaluation takes place. (APA Practice Organization, Pointers for Psychologists on Record Retention, APA website.)

References

American Psychological Association Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Washington, DC: APA, 2002.

Meyer, G.J., et al. “Psychological testing and psychological assessment: A review of evidence and issues,” American Psychologist, 56 (2001): 128–165.

National Catholic Education Association. Psychological Testing and the Screening of Candidates for Admission to Seminaries: A survey conducted by the NCEA Seminary Department and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Unpublished study, anticipated publication 2010.

 

Selecting a psychologist to assess candidates
PROFESSIONAL QUALIFICATIONS
~Doctoral degree in psychology from an accredited college or university
~Program of study approved by the American Psychological Association (see http://www.apa.org/ed/accreditation/ doctoral.html)
~Courses in psychological assessment with supervised experience leading to independent expertise
~If considering other mental health professionals: are they trained and experienced in conducting assessments?

LICENSURE
~Licensed for practice as a psychologist
~If not licensed, is the professional under the supervision of a licensed psychologist? The supervisor is responsible for the work and will need to be evaluated for suitability by the community.

LIABILITY INSURANCE
~It is acceptable practice to ask for a copy of the person’s curriculum vitae (which shows education and training), license (verification), and liability insurance. (The face sheet of the liability insurance is verification.)

EXPERIENCE
~Routinely conducts psychological assessments as part of his/her practice
~Maintains competency with new assessment tools and techniques and uses the most current versions or editions of the tests
~Has conducted evaluations of applicants for seminary formation or religious life formation
~Has knowledge of Catholic anthropology, values priesthood and religious life
~It is acceptable practice to ask for references regarding seminary and religious life formation evaluations

KNOWLEDGE OF CATHOLIC ANTHROPOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS LIFE
~Does the potential psychologist understand the charism and lifestyle of the community or institute?
~Does he/she understand the nature and permanency of commitment to religious life?
~Does he/she view religious life as a healthy lifestyle?
~Does he/she understand living a celibate lifestyle?
~Does he/she have any reservations regarding an individual living a life of celibate chastity?
~Does he/she understand formation and how it is not synonymous with educational preparation and job training?
~Is he/she willing to understand and discuss your specific needs regarding religious formation, including the type of candidate desired?
~Are you willing and able to work with the psychologist to help educate him/her to these important issues if they are lacking in this understanding?

PRACTICAL CONCERNS
~Is the psychologist able to meet your time line for the assessment and report?
~How will the results be communicated?
~Will there be a feedback session with the applicant? With the vocation director? With both?
~How long will the report and test data be kept?
~What is included in the fees?
~It is acceptable practice to ask for a written proposal.

—by Ronald Karney

 

Ronald J. Karney, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with over 30 years of experience and who has spent the last 20 years focusing on assessment of applicants to religious communities, lay ministry programs, diaconate formation and the seminary. He is the chief psychologist and director of outpatient Services at St. John Vianney Center in Downingtown, PA and maintains a private practice as well. Dr. Karney is on the advisory board for the National Catholic Education Association’s Seminary National Project regarding the use of psychological assessments for seminary applicants.

 



Tests for assessing applicants to religious communities

By Eric, Eric Haas, c

IN HIS PASTORAL EXHORTATION, Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul II emphasized the need for the harmonious integration of four key elements of formation: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral (John Paul II, 1992). The Holy Father emphasized the human dimension as the foundation of all formation. While Pastores Dabo Vobis was written with priestly formation in mind, the document’s insights contain truth for all church vocations: for both men and women, ordained and vowed. All of these vocations, then, merit an emphasis on human formation.

From a psychological perspective, human formation encompasses several areas: individual identity development, affective maturity, and the capacity for empathy and interpersonal sensitivity. Careful attention to each of these characteristics, among others, is crucial in evaluating a potential candidate for religious life.

The assessment process

In the assessment of religious candidates, psychologists are typically asked to assist in determining personality characteristics that represent areas of personal strength and weakness for religious life, as well as whether any significant psychological factors exist that could be impediments to a healthy religious vocation. Depending upon individual circumstances, such factors could include major mental illness, intellectual limitations, personality disorders, substance abuse or other addictions, or a lack of psychosexual integration. While there are limits to the ability of psychological tests to definitively predict whether a candidate will ultimately succeed in religious and community life, psychological evaluations can be valuable to formation teams when used for screening out the above difficulties (Malony, 2000). Early identification of areas for needed growth can assist formation teams and the candidate in seeking appropriate intervention or assistance prior to final vows.

Competent psychological assessment incorporates a thorough clinical interview (often supplemented by written history questionnaires completed by the candidate), behavioral observations, and the administration of a comprehensive battery of psychological tests. (The way the psychologist’s data builds on information gathered by the vocation director is treated in an article on page 35, “When the vocation minister assesses: seeking consistent belief, word, action,”by Sister Cindy Kaye, RSM.) The use of a multimethod approach to gathering data is recommended. This approach involves integrating history and interview data, collateral information from vocation and formation teams, and the use of both the selfreport and performancebased psychological tests. Given the tendency of individuals who are being evaluated for “employmentrelated” decisions to present themselves in an overly favorable manner in their self-report, the inclusion of projective personality tests (such as the Rorschach Inkblot Method) is advised to provide data that is less susceptible to self-report bias.

In the hands of qualified professionals experienced in evaluating candidates for religious life, a number of psychological tests can be valuable tools in the assessment process. This article provides an overview of the typical elements of a comprehensive psychological evaluation of a religious candidate, the most commonly used tests that assess these areas, and the basic advantages and limitations of these particular instruments.

Validity and multicultural factors

Since a psychological evaluation relies heavily on what individuals are willing to reveal about themselves, it is important to understand the style in which the person responds to the questions on self-report inventories and questionnaires. In testing situations such as in the screening of religious candidates where the results have an impact on vocational decisions, the tendency for individuals to present themselves in a highly positive or socially desirable manner increases. This type of defensiveness is often referred to as “impression management.” Fortunately, many psychological tests have specific scales that measure the degree to which one responds to the questions in an overly favorable or unfavorable manner—minimizing or exaggerating their problems or faults. Scores on these scales are used to determine the validity and interpretive usefulness of the test results. Impression management is influenced by both conscious and less conscious factors, and measures are available to psychologists that help differentiate between an individual who is responding favorably primarily due to the circumstances of the evaluation versus a more potentially problematic form of self-deception that is associated with poor self-awareness and narcissism (Paulhus, 1998).

An even more basic validity issue in psychological testing involves the capacity of the candidate to comprehend the test questions. While the large majority of psychological tests are written at an eighth grade reading level or below, candidates with intellectual limitations or learning disabilities may not fully understand certain questions. Comprehension can be a factor, too, in the evaluation of candidates from other cultures, particularly those whose native language is not English. Since the number of foreign and Hispanic candidates is increasing (McGlone, et al., 2009), psychologists who evaluate candidates from other cultures need to be particularly sensitive to language and cultural factors during testing. Many of the commonly used psychological tests have at least Spanish language translations of the items. It is ethically responsible to ask the candidate which language he or she prefers. While multi-language translations of tests are helpful, they do not replace the need for culture-specific norms, which would allow an individual candidate’s responses to be compared to others of similar ethnicity. Unfortunately, such norms are rarely, if ever, available, so psychologists must use clinical judgment in adjusting their interpretation of test results as necessary in these situations. (The article “Assessment with cross-cultural candidates,” by Father Gerard J. McGlone, SJ and Fernando A. Ortiz, page 24, explores issues related to psychological testing and minority candidates.)

Components of the evaluation

Cognitive Assessment Psychological evaluations of religious candidates often include an assessment of intellectual functioning. This is accomplished through the use of a standardized intelligence test. While a variety of such tests are available, survey results (NCEA, 2010) have indicated that the large majority of evaluators utilize either the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-IV) (Psychological Corporation, 2008) or its shorter version, the Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (WASI) (Wechsler, 1999). These tests are comprised of different sub-tests and provide measures of intellectual ability in four domains: 1) verbal (i.e. Verbal Comprehension Index), 2) non-verbal (i.e. Perceptual Reasoning Index), 3) attention/concentration (i.e. Working Memory Index), and 4) information processing speed (i.e. Processing Speed Index), as well as a measure of overall intelligence (i.e. Full Scale IQ).

The WASI and the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test (K-BIT2) (Kaufman & Kaufman, 2004) are shorter tests of intellectual functioning that require less administration time, although they provide less comprehensive information about cognitive functioning. Another, even briefer measure used is the Shipley - 2 (Shipley & Zachary, 1987); however, it is a screening test designed to provide a quick estimate of intelligence and should not be considered equivalent to more comprehensive measures of intellectual functioning such as the WAIS-III.

These tests can provide information about a candidate’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses in skills such as vocabulary, fund of general knowledge, abstract reasoning, visual-spatial perception, social judgment, attention/ concentration, and speed of information processing. Since tests of intelligence have been shown to be predictors of potential for academic success, results can help determine whether a candidate possesses a sufficient aptitude for meeting the academic requirements of formation. Intelligence test results can also guide decisions about the type of ministry duties that would best match the abilities of a particular candidate. Finally, intelligence tests can help detect cognitive problems or learning disabilities that may warrant more extensive neuropsychological or psycho-educational testing.

Assessment of Emotional Functioning and Personality Psychological testing can provide a wealth of data to vocation and formation ministers about a candidate’s current mental health and personality characteristics. This information can aid in decisions regarding the candidate and can help shape the formation process. The test results section in a good psychological evaluation report should provide information about signs and symptoms of psychopathology and major personality dysfunction, as well as a thorough description of a candidate’s coping and personality style and how it is expressed in behavior. Through the use of clinical interviews and testing, a psychological evaluation can determine the presence of a mental health condition that could interfere with a candidate’s formation and personal development. Examples of the most commonly diagnosed conditions are mood disorders (e.g. major depressive disorder, dysthymic disorder, bipolar disorder, etc.) and anxiety disorders (e.g. generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessivecompulsive disorder, etc.). Personality disorders, addictions and sexual disorders can have significant implications for both acceptance and formation, and they should be thoroughly assessed.

Personality is complex and multi-faceted. Psychological testing can provide information about many aspects of how individuals view themselves, view others around them, process their emotions, and cope with stress. Several elements of personality have particular relevance for candidates entering religious life. First, formation teams are strongly encouraged to be attuned to a candidate’s sense of identity. Psychological testing can assess a candidate’s capacity for introspection and self-awareness, or essentially, how well a candidate knows him or herself. The ability to acknowledge areas of vulnerability and weakness, as well as personal strengths, and one’s openness and flexibility to growth and change should be considered. Test data can provide a window into a candidate’s self esteem, self image and any distortions in that view of the self. A candidate’s sense of how firmly rooted he or she feels in his or her identity has important implications in regard to relating to others in ministry and in communal life.

Managing stress and emotions

Psychological testing can also provide important information about how a candidate deals with his or her emotions and with various stresses. Specific test instruments and scales can determine individuals’ ability to recognize their feelings when they experience them, the degree to which they use their feelings in their decision making and how effectively they manage and regulate their feelings. Certain psychological tests can offer insight into the degree to which strong emotions cloud a person’s perception and thinking and provide a sense of one’s overall reality testing. Test data about a candidate’s ability to tolerate stress and frustration and the amount of resources available for coping can offer a sense of the resiliency of a candidate in the face of obstacles.

Interpersonal skills

Finally, psychological testing can offer insight into a candidate’s interpersonal skills, which should be an area of great importance to formation teams. Personality tests can measure an individual’s level of comfort in social situations, capacity for empathy and intimacy in relationships, and a general sense of how the applicant perceives people and social interactions. Interpersonal boundaries and social skills, particularly the ability to read nonverbal cues, are critical areas to assess. The tendency to distort or misinterpret interpersonal situations is a capacity that can be formally assessed and has implications for interpersonal relatedness and successful integration into a community of peers. Vocation ministers should be particularly concerned about personality disorders, which are enduring patterns of inner experience and behavior in which these aspects of interpersonal functioning are disrupted (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).

Types of personality tests

Two main types of psychological tests are used to assess psychopathology and personality: objective tests and projective tests. Objective tests are self-report inventories and symptom questionnaires in which the examinee answers various questions designed to elicit symptoms, characteristics, and behaviors that indicate a particular syndrome or personality style. Since these measures rely on self-reporting and many of the items are face valid (i.e. the subject can easily determine what the question is measuring), they are to some degree limited by the person’s degree of self-awareness and willingness to self-disclose. Hence, the other type of psychological test, the projective test, can be useful. Projective tests are performance-based measures that are less structured and less face valid. These tests are based on the premise that an individual reveals his or her personality when responding to an ambiguous stimulus, such as inkblots or more openended type questions. Since objective and projective tests gather information about an individual via different means, a combination of both methods is often used.

Survey results have indicated that among evaluators of religious candidates, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory -2 (MMPI-2) (Butcher, et al., 1989) is by far the most commonly used objective test to assess psychopathology (NCEA, 2010). In addition to its well-established research base, the MMPI-2 offers evaluators of male religious candidates the advantage of a seminary norm group. Thus, if desired, a particular candidate’s responses can be compared to those of a large group of applicants to the seminary to note how the results compare with a group of individuals who may more closely reflect the candidate’s demographic type than the general population. With its numerous scales and subscales, the MMPI-2 provides information about signs of depression, mania, anxiety, bodily concerns, antisocial tendencies, paranoia, thought disturbances, social discomfort, and personality characteristics that correspond with certain diagnostic groups. The MMPI-2 is also respected in the field of psychology for its validity scales, which include measures of defensiveness, socially desirable responding, and response consistency and infrequency.

Other objective personality tests used in the evaluation of religious candidates are the Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI) (Morey, 1997) and the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI-III) (Millon, 1994). Both of these instruments have validity scales and provide information similar to the MMPI-2, with the addition of specific scales that measure personality styles and personality disorders. The MCMI-III has numerous scales designed to measure the various DSM-IV personality disorders, as well as other personality styles. While these instruments have fewer questions than the MMPI-2, thus take less time to administer, there is a recently reconfigured and briefer version of the MMPI-2 now available, the MMPI-2-RF, which may become increasingly popular in years to come. Brief symptom checklists, such as the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI-II) (Beck, et al., 1996), Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI) (Beck and Steer, 1993) and the Symptom Checklist-90 (SCL-90-R) (Derogatis, 1983) are also commonly used to provide a quick overview of a candidate’s current level of emotional distress.

As for projective measures, surveys have indicated that the Rorschach Inkblot Test is the most commonly used among psychologists who evaluate candidates for religious life (NCEA, 2010). While the Rorschach is not without its critics (Wood, et al., 2003) and like other psychological tests, it has its limitations, its clinical utility is supported by a wealth of research over several decades. The development of a comprehensive scoring and interpretative system (Exner, 1991) for the test was a tremendous advancement, and the use of this system has become standard among Rorschach users in the field. The advantage of including the Rorschach in a test battery is that, through a means other than directly asking the person, it adds unique information that other tests do not provide. Rather than determining a specific diagnosis, the Rorschach is designed to provide information about an individual’s cognitive and emotional processing style. It includes measures of cognitive processing and reality testing, mood and affect, self-perception, interpersonal functioning, stress tolerance, and impulse control.

Other projective techniques involve having the individual comprise stories in response to pictures (Thematic Apperception Test (Murray, 1943), draw pictures (House- Tree-Person and other projective drawing tests), and complete open-ended sentences that begin with certain prompts (Rotter Incomplete Sentences Blank) (Rotter, et al., 1977). While these tests can be useful additions to a test battery and yield information about a candidate, their lack of norms and their mostly unstructured and subjective interpretation makes them most valuable as adjunctive tools to confirm hypotheses derived from more formal measures.

In addition to screening for psychopathology and personality disorders, testing can provide information about characteristics that are assets for someone entering religious life. An evaluation that assesses a candidate’s strengths and liabilities can identify building blocks for potential growth during formation. Tests such as the NEOPI- R (Costa & McCrae, 1992), the 16 Personality Factor (16PF) (Cattell, 1989), and FIRO-B (Schutz, et al., 1978) measure characteristics such as introversion/extroversion, assertiveness, agreeableness, and needs for affiliation and inclusion. These tests can also offer data regarding a candidate’s leadership capacity and style, as well as his or her needs for autonomy, independence and control. This information can be helpful in understanding how a particular candidate may adjust to religious life and in matching him or her to an appropriate ministry. Finally, these types of tests can help determine how a candidate’s personality may mix with others in a particular community.

Emotional intelligence tests

Emotional intelligence, which includes the ability to sense and understand one’s own feelings and the feelings of others, is a set of skills considered as important for success in life, if not more important, than cognitive intelligence (Goleman, 1995). These skills, which are the building blocks of empathy and intimacy development, are particularly important for those entering a communal life of service to others. Recent developments in psychological testing have resulted in instruments designed to measure emotional intelligence. One such test is the BarOn Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i) (BarOn, 1997), which provides measures of inter and intrapersonal awareness, the capacity for adaptability/ flexibility and the ability to manage daily stress. However, the self-report format of this instrument means its results may not be entirely accurate, as candidates are motivated to present themselves as sensitive to the feelings of others regardless of the reality.

Perhaps a potentially more useful tool in evaluating emotional intelligence is the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) (Mayer, et al., 2002). The MSCEIT requires the respondent to actually demonstrate skills of emotional intelligence rather than rating his or her capacities in this area. Structured in a manner similar to other ability-based tests, the MCSEIT requires the examinee to judge the emotional tone of faces and pictures, discern how a person may feel in certain hypothetical scenarios, and decide how emotions can be used to solve interpersonal problems. The performance-based format of this instrument makes the results less susceptible to bias by candidates who are managing the way others perceive them. Since the concept of emotional intelligence is akin to “affective maturity,” these newer tests represent a potentially useful addition to evaluations of religious candidates and seminarians.

Tests for specific areas of concern

Substance Abuse and Other Addictive Behaviors In addition to careful clinical interviewing, measures are available to assess drug and alcohol related difficulties. In a recent survey, 96 percent of psychologists indicated that they screened for drug and alcohol problems in their evaluations of religious candidates (NCEA, 2010). The Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (Miller, 2003) is a self-report instrument that assesses both the obvious and more subtle indicators of drug or alcohol problems and provides a probability estimate for the likelihood that the individual has a substance dependence problem. The Alcohol Use Inventory (Horn, et al., 1990) is another instrument with a more structured way of sampling drinking patterns and problematic use.

A sometimes overlooked but important area to assess in religious candidates involves spending patterns and other money issues. Evaluators are encouraged to carefully question candidates about any compulsive buying habits, credit card use and significant debt. Inquiring about a candidate’s family financial situation can be important, as some families may be relying heavily on income generated by the candidate. At times significant debt may indicate a compulsive gambling problem. Formation teams may want to consider credit checks on applicants as part of the initial screening process.

Psychosexual Development and Sexual Disorders Taking a detailed sexual and relationship history is an essential component of a psychological assessment. Through the use of clinical interviewing and sexual history questionnaires, the evaluator attempts to understand a candidate’s chronological psychosexual development, starting with influences and experiences during childhood, and progressing through the various life stages (Coleman, 1996). This information, along with a candidate’s awareness of and comfort with his or her sexual orientation, views on chastity and celibacy, understanding of appropriate interpersonal and sexual boundaries, and capacity for intimacy in relationships are key areas to assess. Along with sexual history questionnaires, the Personal Sentence Completion Inventory (Miccio-Fonseca, 1997) is a projective measure that can be useful. Special attention should be given toward identifying any unusual or deviant sexual interests, childhood sexual abuse, or extremes in sexual development, such as hypersexuality or asexuality.

With the age of the Internet, problematic use of computer pornography has become increasingly common. In fact, in a recent survey of psychologists who evaluate men seeking seminary admission, 80 percent reported that they assess for pornography-related issues (NCEA, 2010). Other potentially compulsive uses of the computer can involve Internet chat rooms, “cybersex,” and—particularly among the younger generation—fantasy role-playing and other video games. An instrument that can be useful to clinicians in assessing these problems is the Internet Sex Screening Test (Delmonico, 1999).

Whatever tests a psychologist uses for evaluating a candidate, clearly, a psychological evaluation plays an important role in the admissions process. In addition to the information gleaned from clinical interviews, behavioral observations, record reviews, and reports from collateral sources, psychological testing provides an objective and standardized means of understanding the personality and mental health of an applicant to religious life. While the selection of specific tests varies among evaluators of religious candidates, as shown in this review, several measures are used almost universally. With a test battery that uses multiple methods, a competent evaluator who is familiar with religious life can screen for potential psychopathology, as well as determine areas of strength and weakness. The needs for growth can then direct a candidate’s ongoing formation. When combined with information that the vocation minister gathers, a psychological assessment is a valuable tool in the application and entry process.

References

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1994.

BarOn, R. BarOn Emotional Quotient Inventory – EQ-i. Lutz, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources, 1997.

Beck, A.T.; R.T. Steer and G.K. Brown. Beck Depression Inventory –II. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation, 1996.

Beck, A.T. and R.T. Steer. Beck Anxiety Inventory. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation, 1993.

Butcher, J.N., et al. MMPI-2: Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2: Manual for administration and scoring. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Cattell, H.B. The 16PF: Personality in Depth. Champaign, IL: Institute for Personality and Ability Testing, 1989.

Coleman, G.D. “Taking a sexual history.” Human Development, 17 (1996): 10-15.

Costa, P.T. and R.R. McCrae. NEO Personality Inventory-Revised. Lutz, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc., 1992.

Delmonico, D. Internet Sex Screening Test. Pittsburg, PA: Internet Behavior Consulting, 1999.

Derogatis, L.R. Symptom Checklist – 90 – Revised (SCL-90-R). Towson, MD: Clinical Psychometric Research, 1983.

Exner, J.E. The Rorschach: A comprehensive system. New York: Wiley, 1991.

Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam, 1995.

Horn, J.L., K.W. Wanberg and F.M. Foster. Alcohol Use Inventory. Bloomington, MN: Pearson, 1990.

John Paul II. Pastores Dabo Vobis. Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, 1992.

Kaufman, A.S. and N.L. Kaufman. Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test second edition (K-BIT2). San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation, 2004.

Malony, H.N. “The psychological evaluation of religious professionals.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 31 (2000): 521-525.

Mayer, J.D.; P. Salovey and D.R. Caruso. Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) User’s Manual. North Tonawanda, NY: Multi-Health Systems, Inc., 2002.

McGlone, G.J., Ortiz, F.A., Viglione, D.J. “Cause for hope and concern: a commentary on the Vatican statement, ‘Guidelines for the use of psychology in the admission and formation of candidates for the priesthood.’” Human Development, 30 (2009): 12-20.

Miccio-Fonseca, L.C. Personal Sentence Completion Inventory. Brandon, VT: Safer Society Press, 1997.

Miller, F.G., et al. Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI-3) User’s Guide. Springville, IN: SASSI Institute, 2003.

Millon, T. Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory-III: Manual. Minneapolis, MN: National Computer Systems, 1994.

Morey, L.C. Personality Assessment Inventory. Lutz, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc., 1997.

Murray, H.A. Thematic Apperception Test. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1943.

National Catholic Education Association. Psychological Testing and the Screening of Candidates for Admission to Seminaries: A Survey conducted by the NCEA Seminary Department and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Unpublished study, anticipated publication 2010.

Paulhus, D. L. Paulhus Deception Scales. North Tonawanda, NY: Multi-Health Systems, Inc., 1998.

Psychological Corporation. Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence. San Antonio, TX: Psychological Corporation, 1999.

Psychological Corporation. Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale IV. San Antonio, TX: Psychological Corporation, 2008.

Rotter, J.B., M.I. Lah and Rafferty, J.E. Rotter Incomplete Sentences Blank - Second Edition. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation. 1977.

Schutz, W., A.L. Hammer, A.L. and E.R. Schnell. Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation – Behavior (FIRO-B). Mountain View, CA: CPP, Inc., 1978.

Shipley, W.C. et. al. Shipley - 2. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services, 2009.

Wood, J.M., et. al. What’s wrong with the Rorschach: Science confronts the controversial inkblot test. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003.

 

Eric D. Haas, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who has been serving the needs of clergy and religious for the past seven years. As a staff psychologist at St. John Vianney Center, he conducts psychological evaluations, individual and group psychotherapy, and consultations with dioceses and religious orders throughout the country. Dr. Haas has extensive training and experience in psychological and neuropsychological assessment. He is an adjunct assistant professor at the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology of Widener University and maintains a private practice in Wilmington, DE.

 



Vocational discernment and the psychological report

By Sr. Mary M. Lindsay S.S.J.

For decades most dioceses and religious congregations have required psychological assessment as part of their application process, while clearly maintaining that psychological health is one factor, among many, that enters into the discernment of a religious vocation. Throughout the years many experiences and concerns have shaped an ongoing conversation in response to the question of how a comprehensive psychological assessment informs and affects vocational discernment, religious formation and the overall adjustment and effectiveness of candidates once they are accepted.

Vocation discernment and mental health

A vocation to priesthood or religious life emerges through a calling experienced within one’s personal relationship with God. Such a calling depends upon the action of God’s grace in one’s life and spiritual development. Vocation directors strive to determine if a candidate has an authentic relationship with God, a healthy spirituality and a meaningful understanding of the vocation to which he or she aspires. Vocation directors also attempt to determine if an applicant has an adequate and positive understanding of the congregation or diocese to which he or she is seeking acceptance. Undoubtedly vocation directors also assess whether a candidate has the capacity to understand and respond with interior freedom to a divine calling. They must assess whether the candidate is capable of fulfilling the expectations and requirements of a religious celibate commitment. One can certainly note the underpinning of psychological health that is inherent in the process of vocational discernment, given the maturity and self-awareness that it requires.

In these shifting times, concern has been growing about how best to determine whether an applicant has adequate psychological health to live priesthood or religious life responsibly. This concern is sometimes fueled by the frustrating phenomenon of marked psychological problems that appear after testing has been completed. Applicants are evaluated, admitted to a formation program and in a relatively short period of time, they develop serious emotional or behavioral issues. This concern also extends to the increasing number of individuals who, within five years of profession or ordination, struggle in their lives and vocations and need psychological treatment. Simultaneously many who are examining and writing about vocation ministry are suggesting that there be increased collaboration between vocation directors and the psychological assessors working with them to provide adequate evaluations.

More in-depth and more qualitative collaboration between psychologist assessors and vocation directors will lead to a more concrete understanding of how psychological assessment and vocational discernment can interface. In completing a helpful, comprehensive assessment, the behavior of the individual must be understood within the context of his or her personality. Very often it is the vocation director who has important history plus personal experience with the applicant. This is a direct result of many dioceses and religious congregations initiating changes in their admission procedures and vocation programs. Many dioceses and religious communities have instituted behavioral assessments, expect multiple meetings over time between candidates and vocation directors, and encourage applicants to meet with other members of a community or diocese. Some applicants live and minister with groups to gain further experience of the life and ministry. All of this information and personal contact, if utilized, enhances the discernment and assessment process significantly.

The hazards of inadequate assessment

Particular cases seem to speak to the issue of collaboration and the perception that issues and circumstances may be missed in some assessment situations. One is the case of a priest (Father X) who had two psychiatric hospitalizations and public legal issues within five years of being ordained. He was also diagnosed with a psychiatric illness that most likely existed prior to admission to the seminary. Another is a religious sister (Sister Y) who within two years of final profession was admitted for psychiatric treatment and was diagnosed with two mental disorders and a substance abuse problem. A retrospective examination of both of these situations revealed that both individuals received psychological assessments prior to their admission to religious life.

Information gathered in a treatment context indicated that: Father X suffered several episodes of depression dating back to high school/college. He had a poor work history and was never able to secure a position in his field or maintain any position for a long period of time. He seemed socially isolated and dependent on family. He had a difficult relationship with his father, as he experienced him as controlling. He struggled to sustain satisfying and meaningful relationships over time. His life circumstances indicated an inability to deal with the normal stress of everyday life.

Sister Y, unknown to her community, had two inpatient psychiatric treatments prior to her acceptance into the congregation, the first in high school and the second was a readmission during college. She reported drinking alcohol excessively during college. In community she was very driven, intense and needy. She had communication and interpersonal difficulties in community life. Her mother had died when she was a pre-teen, and her father remarried. She had many unresolved issues with her mother, who was ill for many years and had treated her poorly. When asked why her community was not informed about her previous psychiatric treatment, she said that she was never asked about prior mental health treatment.

Without knowing more about how these two individuals were psychologically assessed, I can only conclude that critical information was missed in terms of their histories, and that their assessments failed to fully capture an accurate level of personality functioning. These are the kinds of situations that can occur when necessary questions are not being asked and clear “red flags” and other concerns are likely being missed.

A third example is a sister who during her formation program experienced depression, anxiety, dependency needs, inability to cope with stress and interpersonal problems in community. Efforts to deal with her symptoms in outpatient therapy were not sufficient, and she needed to be referred for inpatient treatment. In this case I did have the opportunity to review the pre-admission psychological assessment for this sister. The assessment was based upon the four measures that focused on vocational aptitude and interests and personality style and preferences. Although helpful information, none of the instruments used was the type needed to detect the kind of pathology she exhibited. Additional background history also indicated that this sister had experienced considerable social anxiety and isolation, an interrupted and erratic school history and enmeshed and dependent relationships with her parents.

These cases highlight why communication, collaboration and understanding are necessary among the vocation director, the psychologist, the diocese or congregation and the applicant involved in the assessment process. The community requesting a report must have a clear sense of the type of report needed and of the necessary historical and behavioral information that is relevant to the report findings. In an era when many applicants are older than in the past—typically mid-20s and beyond—there is often more critical history to be gathered. In addition to family history, education history and work history, the community needs to obtain histories covering the candidate’s medical, psychiatric, relationship, sexual, and substance abuse background. Important questions about these areas of life cannot go unanswered. In addition, it is extremely important in the collaborative process to understand which aspects of personality a psychological assessment is measuring and to understand the corresponding symptoms and behaviors of specific personality traits.

Detecting disorders and their severity

The type of comprehensive assessment needed to gain a clear picture of a person’s psychological health should include: extensive background information, current behavioral observations and impressions, and clear diagnostic information from testing that identifies whether an individual is experiencing symptoms of a psychiatric disorder or is exhibiting any type of personality dysfunction. It is essential that the psychological testing encompass critical domains of the personality and be able to assess the severity of any impairment. The information from all components should be synthesized, with each component reviewed and understood in light of the others.

It is important to recognize that psychiatric disorders (Axis I diagnoses) and all types of personality dysfunction (Axis II diagnoses) exist on a severity continuum. In terms of Axis I (mood disorders), the condition can be active, or the disorder can be recurrent or in remission. The related symptoms can be severe, moderate or mild. All of these distinctions are critically important. For example, an individual experiencing a major depressive disorder that is severe and recurrent, meaning that the symptoms are very debilitating and that there have been previous debilitating episodes, will most likely struggle with the demands of celibate commitment, active ministry and community. Whereas an individual who has suffered a depression that was situational, perhaps related to a loss or transition, with mild to moderate symptoms, and who remained functional while coping with symptoms, might be able to deal adequately with the demands of ministry and community.

Another area where accurate distinction would be critical is in identifying substance use disorders. It is essential to distinguish between substance abuse and substance dependence. It is also important to know specific details about the process of treatment and remission. The use of remission specifiers, such as: early full remission, early partial remission, sustained full remission or sustained partial remission are essential features for accurate diagnosis. For this reason, if there is any concern about substance abuse or substance dependence in a comprehensive assessment, I highly recommend further assessment by an addictions specialist. Extreme clarity is needed for accurate understanding and treatment. I would strongly suggest that at least two years, preferably more, of sustained full remission is recommended for anyone attempting to transition to living a vowed commitment and engaging in active ministry.

Understanding personality

Undoubtedly the single most important area of a comprehensive psychological assessment is an understanding of the personality organization of an individual and an assessment of his or her current level of personality functioning. This piece of information is the foundation upon which all information is considered. Any Axis I diagnosis has to be understood in terms of the personality structure that underlies the disorder. It is important to identify severe personality pathology that could impair perception, judgment, emotional responsiveness, impulse control and interpersonal functioning. Individuals with severe personality pathology tend to have recurrent relational difficulties, problems with work, periods of significant depression and anxiety, vulnerability to all types of addictive behavior and high risk for other self-destructive behaviors.

It is likely that all involved in the assessment process can communicate and collaborate more effectively when they have a greater understanding of the components of personality. The remainder of this article will highlight four key components of personality and examine aspects of personal history and behavior connected to these foundational components. The first of these is reality testing.

Accurate perceptions judgements?

In order to make this reality determination, a psychologist must focus on various aspects of cognitive processes, namely acquisition of information, perception, and judgment. The question is how does a person acquire information? Does an individual have the ability to discriminate his or her subjective world from objective conditions surrounding them? Is the person able to appreciate conventional notions of what is realistic? Some people have an open and flexible manner of acquiring information while others might have a rigid and constricted manner that can cause distortion. Perceptive ability is the translation of information that is observed from the environment. Individuals who understand situations and other people in a conventional manner, as most people would, are said to have good reality testing. Individuals who have difficulty in this area often have adjustment problems, as they experience the world in an idiosyncratic manner. Individuals with impaired reality testing have great difficulty in taking the perspective of another, or understanding others’ motivations and behaviors. People with impaired reality testing often have difficulty anticipating the consequences of their behavior, and they lack an empathic capacity. These kinds of misperceptions lead to impaired judgment and an inability to form accurate and logical conclusions and decisions.

In vocation work how you experience an individual becomes very important. If you sense that people have chronic relational difficulty, are rigid in their ability to hear or entertain new information or possibilities, are never able to see the part that they play in any conflict or confusion, seriously lack the capacity to empathize with others, and consistently come at all discussions and experiences from a very different perspective, this is helpful diagnostic information that should be shared as part of the collaborative effort.

How developed is personal identity?

A second critical component of personality is identity. An individual with a well formed identity is able to view him or herself and others in complex, stable and accurate ways. The first component of identity concerns an individual’s selfimage, self-esteem and sexual identity. Second, the nature of an individual’s personal development needs to be ascertained because it will help to explain his or her personal conflicts. The stages of psychosexual development have corresponding developmental themes. An individual’s early developmental conflicts and basic developmental difficulties must be identified, as stage specific conflicts contribute directly to the formation of self-esteem and identity concerns. In addition, identity includes the nature of parental identifications and to the manner in which these have been internalized and accepted. When the internalizations are not acceptable, then psychosexual problems will exist.

Ambivalence in psychosexual identification correlates to immature and diffuse psychosexual development. Some derivatives of a relatively immature psychosexual identity are: the extent and degree of dependency, sexual actingout (whether heterosexual or homosexual), the nature and management of frustration tolerance, overall ability to sublimate impulses for constructive purposes, and the ways in which ambition, achievement, mastery and gratifications are worked out.

Identity formation is one of the critical assessment areas for vocational discernment. Becoming a priest or a religious sister or brother involves new roles and in some sense “additional identity.” What I have often encountered is that superimposing additional identity on an individual who does not have a solid personal identity can be quite problematic. It is analogous to expecting something to stand that is not on a firm foundation.

Very often vocation directors have significant information in these areas. It is important to note experiences—as observed in candidates—of personal immaturity, excessive dependency or inability to function. Often there are valuable observations about a person’s sense of self, whether the person presents as consistent and stable, or is perceived as different in various situations, saying what he or she thinks you want to hear. Vocation directors also have valuable information that informs this area. Family history and information about family relationships, specifically parental relationships, is of utmost importance. Also information about an individual’s educational history, work history, personal accomplishments, failures, unfulfilled dreams and incomplete projects sometimes can speak volumes about their sense of achievement and mastery. Information about sexual history and sexual behavior is important, whether it is in the form of specific questions, or to clarify things that have been made known that are a cause for concern.

Is ego strength adequate?

A third, important component of personality is ego strength. Ego strength is a measure of an individual’s emotional resilience and capacity to adapt to and cope effectively with the demands and stresses of life. It is an important determinant to highlight in any assessment. Clearly an individual’s identity formation is an integral part of his or her ego development. Again, ego strength exists on a continuum. If ego strength is described as brittle or fragile one’s adaptive capacity is seriously compromised, creating an experience of emotional vulnerability and poor adaptability. When an individual has adequate ego strength, he or she is able to respond to stress resourcefully, manage anxiety, regulate impulses, manage relationships effectively, achieve desired goals and recover from painful events without undue difficulty. The person copes in ways that are adaptive. An important question to answer in an evaluation is if an individual’s ego is brittle, rigid, flexible or fragile.

For vocation directors there are many ways to collaborate around issues of ego strength. Basically any feedback about how an individual copes with life demands and expectations is very important. From your perception and experience, how well do individuals seem to manage their impulses and their anxiety? How do they seem to meet their goals, manage distress and maintain balance in their lives? How are interpersonal relationships managed? Can they be sustained or deepened? Do you experience an individual as creative, resourceful and resilient?

Mature emotional regulation is key

A fourth component of personality that is most important to understand is emotional regulation. It is important to determine if individuals are able to experience a full range of emotions in themselves and others, and if they are able to regulate impulses and affect in ways that foster adaptation and satisfaction, with flexibility in using defenses and coping strategies. What determines a healthy personality is a mature balance of impulse and control. Maturity demands that we maintain “healthy control” of our impulses and emotions. In individuals with adaptive personality functioning, a natural and relatively comfortable fluctuation occurs in the interplay between impulse and control factors. If someone is immature and impulse-oriented, the potential for actingout their feelings, frustrations and conflicts behaviorally and interpersonally and harming others is likely high, specifically in regard to anger and sexuality. An individual can also be emotionally immature and control dominated, in which case his or her behavior is guided by caution and a fierce desire to maintain control over either impulse or action. This leads to an extremely inhibited and restricted approach to managing affect, which can often be very debilitating and ineffective.

From the point of view of vocation directors it is important to notice how individuals manage their emotions and deal with impulses. It is important to determine if individuals can express their feelings in ways that are productive, for themselves and others. Or, for example, do they express emotions in masked ways? For example, instead of expressing anger directly, is it expressed in sarcasm, quarrelsomeness or passive-aggressive behavior? Is an individual able to express positive emotions but finds it impossible to express any type of negative feelings? When attempting to express anger does an individual become hostile or aggressive? Is there any past information suggesting that an individual ever acted-out either aggressively or sexually?

In summary, informed mutual collaboration between vocation directors and the psychologists who are assessing applicants should foster the gathering and sharing of pertinent historical and behavioral information. It should also help assessors to formulate precise and informative assessment batteries. Having in-depth and accurate background shapes clear referral questions and concerns and allows for the selection of the best measures to yield more accurate results.

I also believe that there must be a clear understanding of the task at hand. In terms of a revered spiritual axiom, there must be a clear appreciation of the particular human nature upon which the grace of religious life can build—“grace builds on nature.” To do anything less than attempt to capture a real, accurate assessment of an individual’s psychological health and capacity for celibate commitment is to do him or her a grave disservice. To encourage people to seek a life and a future for which they may not be a good match and for which they lack the necessary disposition and resources, is to place them and the community in a precarious position.

References

Antony, Martin M. and David H. Barlow. Handbook of Assessment and Treatment Planning for Psychological Disorders. New York: The Guilford Press, 2002.

Kellerman, Henry and Anthony Burry. Handbook of Psychodiagnostic Testing: An Analysis of Personality in the Psychological Report. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1991.

PDM Task Force. Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual. Silver Spring, MD: Alliance of Psychoanalytic Organizations, 2006.

 

Sister Mary M. Lindsay, SSJ, Ph.D. is a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia who is a licensed staff psychologist at St. John Vianney Center. She has worked in the assessment and treatment of priests, sisters and brothers for the past 18 years. Dr. Lindsay is also an instructor and supervisor in the Department of Professional Psychology at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia and coordinator of field placements in the master’s in clinical/counseling psychology program at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia

 



Assessment with cross-cultural candidates

By Fr. Gerard J. McGlone S.J., Fernando A. Ortiz, c

Culture is so natural to man that human nature can only be revealed through culture.
—Pontifical Council on Culture

The U.S. church today encompasses a great many immigrants and ethnic minorities. Likewise, more and more priests and religious are either foreign-born or come from families that are ethnic or cultural minorities. In keeping with this trend, an increasing number of minority candidates for priesthood or religious life are also being psychologically evaluated (Batsis, 1993; Niebuhr, 2000). The goal of these evaluations is to determine whether candidates have the skills and mental health to live religious life fully. However, since testing is culturally bound, vocation ministers are well advised to tread carefully when they assess a person who is ethnically or culturally distinct.1

This article focuses on male candidates—our area of expertise—but much of the current discussion about assessing minority candidates may also apply in some measure to women. A candidate’s assessment usually involves the administration of widely used psychological measures that have been constructed, normed, standardized and published in the United States (Hennessy, 1994). More specifically, these measurement instruments include intelligence, personality, vocational, behavioral, spiritual and symptom inventories, which are mostly used with English-speaking populations by examiners trained in doctoral level institutions accredited by the American Psychological Association. However, as this article points out, assessment practices with ethnic minority or international populations generally requires a significantly high level of “cultural competence and sensitivity” (Dana 1995a, b, 1996, 1998). Several researchers have identified serious shortcomings in the multicultural utilization of the most widely used assessment instruments (Allen & Dana, 2004; Dana, 1995b). This includes biases in measurement, inaccurate and invalid interpretations and method and test item biases.

The consideration of cultural factors in psychological assessment has become an imperative (Jones & Thorne, 1987; Miller-Jones, 1989; Westermeyer, 1987). In order to minimize or eliminate some of the problems associated with the assessment process of international or minority candidates, we offer the following reflections and practical applications.

A Catholic perspective on assessment

The psychological assessment of candidates to the priesthood, religious life and ministry should “be accurate, thorough and, most importantly, ethically informed, culturally sensitive and theologically sound.” These are among some of the sine qua non requirements outlined in the recent Vatican document addressing priestly formation. In the document “Guidelines For the Use of Psychology In the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood,” Pope Benedict XVI highlighted the methodological accuracy of psychological assessment that is obtained through multiple sources of data in an ethically responsible context of free consent, that is “to arrive at a correct evaluation [emphasis added] of the candidate’s personality, the expert can have recourse to both interviews and tests. These must always be carried out with the previous, explicit, informed and free consent [emphasis added]of the candidate.” Our first question is a quite basic one with nonetheless serious implications: If the language employed in the assessments (interviews or tests) is significantly different for the non-English-speaking candidate or minister, how can one be sure that his or her consent is indeed both free and informed? Language abilities vary widely. Self-report of these abilities may be biased. One simple question to ask at the outset is this: what language does the candidate use in prayer? This language will be the language of the emotions, the passions and the heart. Therefore, it is this language that might well be the best language to use in testing or in measuring a dimension like “affective maturity” and its development.

Moreover, experts conducting these psychological assessments “must be inspired by an anthropology that openly shares the Christian vision about the human person.” A second more pointed question not often asked of the psychologist is quite central to cultural competency and sensitivity, namely how familiar and inspired are you (as an assessor) with the current environment, lifestyle and demands associated with a healthy celibate lifestyle that will be required of this candidate? A holistic and multidimensional approach is of paramount importance given that “…today’s candidates represent a considerable diversity—not only of differing personal gifts and levels of maturity but also significant cultural differences—that must be taken into account. All those involved in the evaluation of applicants for priestly formation must appreciate cultural, generational, educational and familial differences and be able to recognize which are gifts, which are liabilities and which are simply indications of a need for fuller growth” (Program of Priestly Formation, PPF, 38). Thus, the recommendation is that all those involved in the assessment and evaluation of candidates should make sure that “due care should be observed in correctly interpreting the results of psychological testing in light of the cultural background of applicants” (PPF, 52). We strongly recommend going one step further, to ask: How familiar is the assessing psychologist with the demands that will be placed upon a culturally different candidate by this new and equally “different” environment or sub-culture and the inherent belief system that is operational within the religious community? This inquiry is often overlooked because vocation ministers and formators fall back upon rationales such as “we have always used this person” or “they are Catholic—they know us!” Yet research by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (2009) indicates that lack of in-depth familiarity with the community or diocese is a problem. There are major disconnects and misunderstandings between the assessing psychologist and the rector, vocation director, religious community and/or seminary personnel.

Framework for culturally sensitive assessments

Consistent with the Catholic perspective outlined above, we propose that in cross-cultural situations, religious communities should make every effort to work with a psychologist who possesses what we call “cultural assessment competency.” This competency entails: a) self-awareness, b) knowledge, c) skills and d) a genuinely Catholic anthropology. Ideally, psychologists evaluating candidates would be competent in all of these four dimensions. Unfortunately some psychologists are only “aware” of cultural factors, but may not know what to do with this cultural awareness in the absence of knowledge, skill and the understanding of distinctively Catholic perspectives. Other psychologists may have obtained factual knowledge and information on culturally sensitive assessment through graduate training, readings and information, but they may lack competence in the other dimensions. The question, then, for religious orders and vocation directors is: How culturally competent is the psychologist whom we are using (or plan to use) for psychological assessments with the Catholic environment, situation, and lifestyle into which this culturally diverse candidate will be formed and challenged?

Given that psychological assessment always occurs within a cultural context (Ridley et al., 1998) and that unfortunately cultural factors are often ignored or overlooked in psychological evaluations (Dana, 1995a), we believe that evaluators, vocation ministers and formators should be cognizant of the following dimensions during the entire assessment process. We encourage them to take the following actions and attitudes.

1. Self-Awareness Be aware and sensitive of your own cultural background and world view when relating to culturally different candidates. Monitor how your own experiences, attitudes, values and biases may influence the assessment process. Be comfortable with differences that exist between yourself and candidates in terms of cultural values (including spirituality issues).

Explore objectively the issues of acculturation, language and racial/ethnic identity development during the assessment process. Explore the issues of celibacy, chastity and abstinence from a distinctively Catholic framework and not simply your own personal view or the dominant culture’s perspective.

Monitor carefully the relational history of the candidate for clear evidence that indicates a realistic possibility that the foreign-born or minority candidate is capable of intimacy that is relationally-oriented, balanced, open to growth and freely celibate.

Communicate clearly to the assessing psychologist the expected psychological, situational and spiritual capacities that generally enable a candidate to live a fruitful and healthy life within a rectory or religious community.

Pick assessors who are culturally competent in Roman Catholic identity and who have experience with and knowledge of the fundamental elements of religious or priestly formation that every seminarian or candidate to religious life will inevitably experience as a new lifestyle— a new way of living.

As with any candidate, one must carefully acknowledge, screen and assess the full range of socio-economic realities that might constitute contributing factors toward the overall motives with which the candidate might be coming to this vocational discernment process.

2. Knowledge Recognize the limits of your knowledge of cultural concepts and worldviews; this includes the ability to know what spiritual and psychological resources are necessary for living as a healthy celibate today.

Acquire specific knowledge of the variety of personal worldviews in your own culture and in other cultures; this includes unique Catholic sub-cultures.

Establish consultative relationships with cultural experts (e.g., interpreters and translators, cultural diversity consultants and culturally diverse members of your own presbyterate or religious institute).

3. Skills Learn about culture-specific or indigenous psychological experiences, and use them to understand the candidate’s frame of reference. Incorporate into the assessment practice and evaluation of candidates the use of culturallymeaningful expressions to establish positive rapport and trust.

Consult with and get feedback from other colleagues who have solid experience with the practice of ethically responsible and culturally sensitive assessment practice.

4. Catholic anthropology Take a holistic approach to the human person during assessment and closely consider a Catholic anthropology of the human person (body, mind, spirit) across multiple dimensions of existence (natural, spiritual, supernatural, etc.).

Appreciate the overlap and interrelation between internal subjective experience that reflects culture (thoughts, emotions, beliefs, perceptions, values, attitudes, orientations, epistemologies, consciousness levels, expectations and personhood) and external correlates of culture (roles and cultural practices).

To illustrate the interplay of these four dimensions and the complexity of psychological assessment employing all four with culturally diverse candidates, this vignette offers some practical suggestions we have gleaned from the scientific literature.

The example of José

José, a 19-year-old Mexican male, arrived in the United States two years ago. Since his arrival, he has been very active in his predominantly Spanish-speaking home parish in Los Angeles, California. He graduated from high school in his native country and recently has completed an intensive English as a Second Language program to acquire more fluency in English. He has a strong interest in discerning his vocation to the priesthood and has already started the screening process with the vocation director. During the interview process, he stated that he misses his hometown in Mexico. He maintains a strong sense of loyalty to his family and participates in Mexican cultural practices. As part of the customary screening process, the vocation director refers José to a licensed psychologist for a fully integrated psychological evaluation. José reported that he has never seen a therapist before or previously talked to a psychologist.

The dimensions of acculturation, immigration, education and vocation are some critical assessment domains that need to be addressed during the assessment process, especially if José will be expected to minister to both ethnically similar and dissimilar parish populations, each of which may provoke the stress of acculturation and thus require multicultural skills and competencies.

Acculturation What is José’s cultural self-definition and level of comfort interacting and working with people from ethnically different groups and navigating the predominant American culture? What is José’s level of acculturation (i.e., assimilation, separation, marginalization and integration) and what degree of acculturative stress associated is with these levels? (Acculturative stress is the tension experienced when a person must function in a new and foreign culture; “culture shock” is the colloquial term for it.) What is the extent and relative strength of his social support network? Has he personally experienced or witnessed any racism, discrimination or oppression? What impact have these experiences had on his psychological coping capabilities?

Immigration What were the circumstances and experiences surrounding his departure from Mexico? Did he incur any losses as a result of leaving? How well have he and his family adjusted and adapted to life in the United States? Is he experiencing any other distress stemming from his immigrant status (e.g., feeling pressured to learn English, experiencing difficulties interacting with others due to limited English skills, feeling unaccepted due to his status as a Mexican immigrant?

Education What was José’s highest level of schooling in his native country and language? How strong are the cognitive and academic foundations necessary to facilitate his acquisition of English and successful academic seminary performance? Is there any history of academic underachievement or learning disabilities? What are his parents’ respective levels of education and how have they influenced his own academic aspirations?

Vocation What are some of the most salient cultural influences on his vocation (e.g., positive cultural role models; family, peer and cultural involvement and support)? What specific norms, rules, conventions, values and beliefs (or stereotypes) typical of Mexican culture have shaped José’s personal idea of the priesthood? To what extent have these internalized, culturallyderived ideas of the priesthood affected his motivation and vocational expectations?

Stages of the assessment

Be aware of José’s familiarity with psychological resources and his cultural attitudes toward psychology. In some Latino cultures, for example, the profession of psychology may be negatively stigmatized and considered culturally undesirable.

Facilitate José’s participation in the assessment process by informing him of reasons for evaluation and expectations. Explaining the purpose, goals and process of assessment to culturally different candidates may ease misunderstandings.

Recognize that culturally-related defensive reactions to assessment may be normative for some minority or foreignborn candidates.

Identify a qualified evaluator (preferably a bilingual, licensed Ph.D.) who has received explicit training and supervised evaluation experience working with Hispanic/ Latino Catholic examinees. Be careful to seek out someone who has this multidimensional, multifaceted “cultural competence” in each of these areas.

Assessment Establish culturally-sensitive rapport with José (e.g., prior to psychological evaluation, assess his level of bilingual skills and culturally-related test-taking attitudes).

Evaluate his level of acculturation and racial/ethnic identity development. Use standardized instruments in culturally appropriate ways. Typically cited problems with common instruments include: bias in item content, differences in test-taking skills, lack of appropriate norms for various cultures, misinterpretation of test data and problems in test translation. An evaluator may need to consult specialized literature and manuals on more specific guidelines (e.g., see Fernandez et al. 2007, for professionally responsible test selection for Spanish-speaking clients).

Use culture-specific instruments that have been constructed, normed and validated with Mexican populations. In this case, the use of the Acculturation Rating Scale for Mexican Americans (ARSMA, Cuéllar et al., 1995) or the Hispanic Stress Inventory (Cervantes et al., 1991) would aptly augment the assessment process. These two instruments were specifically developed with Mexican and Mexican-American populations in mind.

When necessary, use interpreters who, at a minimum, a) can relate to José’s racial and ethnic background, b) are trained in the use of Spanish for psychological assessment and c) will respect and honor his vocational and spiritual desires.

Post-Assessment The vocation director and evaluator should have a collaborative professional relationship. In this case, the vocation director should inquire about which culturally-appropriate protocol was used to evaluate José and what specific steps were taken to address cultural factors in his assessment.

Discuss with José the major findings of his psychological assessment and provide him with feedback based on evaluation results in a culturally sensitive manner.

We would like to offer some caveats regarding the suggestions made in this article. First, it must always be remembered that psychological assessment is a very individualized task and there is a reasonable range of diversity in how psychologists conduct evaluations. What we have provided here are general suggestions that may inform both evaluators and formators as they consider the best pathways to designing and employing culturally sensitive assessment of candidates to the priesthood and religious life. Second, not every suggestion presented here can be used with every culturally-diverse candidate, given the significant diversity of candidates to the priesthood apart from cultural considerations. We have carefully reviewed the existing psychological literature and extracted what we consider the most helpful suggestions. Ultimately, it is the expertise of the evaluator and his/her clinical judgments following best practices and ethical guidelines on assessment that will yield ethically informed, culturally sensitive and theologically sound psychological evaluations. The final word will be very simple. It is found in its simplicity and in its complexity within the collaborative dialogue, working relationship and open communication that must exist between vocation directors, formators and evaluators. This positive dialogue will determine the best outcome for religious communities and the church as a whole.

 

1. For the purposes of this article, the terms “multicultural,” “cross-cultural” and “cultural” are defined as broadly as possible to include personal dimensions and individual differences related to race, ethnicity, spirituality, gender, socioeconomic status, disability status, age, nationality, etc., which play a critical role in the human formation of candidates. The examples in this article refer primarily to ethnicity, given its salience in most ethnically diverse U.S. candidates to the priesthood and religious life.

Suggested books and websites

Handbook of Multicultural Assessment: Clinical, Psychological, and Educational Applications 3rd Edition, by L.A. Suzuki, and J.G. Ponterotto. New York: Wiley, 2007. This book has readable chapters for nonpsychologists on some of the major assessment instruments used to evaluate candidates to the priesthood. It addresses specific cultural dimensions (ethnicity, language, family values) and how they can be incorporated and interpreted in psychological assessment.

Assessment and Culture: Psychological Tests with Minority Populations by Sharon-Ann Gopaul-McNicol, and Eleanor Armour- Thomas San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2001. After 15 years of professional experience in culturally sensitive assessment with individuals from various ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, the authors have written this book with practical suggestions for the assessment of cognitive, personality, vocational, linguistic, visual-motor and educational areas. Vocation ministers and psychologists will find this resource very helpful in the evaluation of culturally diverse candidates.

http://www.apa.org/science/testing.html This is the official site of the American Psychological Association Science Directorate for Testing and Assessment. It provides information on psychological testing and assessment, acquiring psychological tests and ethical guidelines and standards. It contains a section of frequently asked questions regarding psychological evaluations.

http://www.wwu.edu/culture/readings.htm This site offers online readings in psychology and culture from the Center for Cross-Cultural Research at Western Washington University. It is an outstanding compilation of readings from multicultural and cross-cultural experts dealing with topics of culture and psychology.

References

Allen, J., and R.H. Dana, “Methodological issues in crosscultural and multicultural Rorschach research.” Journal of Personality Assessment, 82 (2004): 189-206.

Batsis, T. “Roman Catholic vocation directors’ attitudes regarding psychological assessment of seminary and religious order applicants.” Consulting Psychology Journal, Summer (1993): 25-30.

Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Psychological testing and screening of candidates for priesthood. A Project of the National Catholic Education Association Seminary Department and CARA. Washington, DC: Georgetown University, 2010.

Cervantes, R.C., A.M. Padilla, and N. Salgado de Snyder. “The Hispanic Stress Inventory: A culturally relevant approach to psychosocial assessment.” Psychological Assessment, 3.3 (1991): 438-447.

Cuéllar, I., B. Arnold, and R. Maldonado. “Acculturation Rating Scale for Mexican Americans-II: A revision of the original ARSMA scale.” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 17.3 (1995): 275-304.

Dana, R.H. “Culturally competent assessment practice in the United States.” Journal of Personality Assessment, 66.L (1996): 472-487.

Dana, R.H. “Culturally competent MMPI assessment of Hispanic populations.” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 17 (1995b): 305-319.

Dana, R.H. “Impact of the use of standard psychological assessment on the diagnosis and treatment of ethnic minorities.” Psychological Interventions and Cultural Diversity. Eds. J.F. Aponte, R.Y. Rivers, and J. Wohl Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999, 57-73.

Dana, R.H. Understanding Cultural Identity in Intervention and Assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998.

Fernandez, K., M.T Boccaccini, and R.M. Noland. “Professionally responsible test selection for Spanish speaking clients: A four-step approach for identifying and selecting translated tests.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 38 (2007): 363-374.

“Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood.” http://www. vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccatheduc/index. htm. Accessed on July 13, 2009.

Hennessy, J. “Psychological testing in vocational selection.” Psychology, Counseling and the Seminarian. Ed. Robert Wister. Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Educational Association, Seminary Department. 1994, 116-123.

Jones, E.E., and A. Thorne. “Rediscovery of the subject: Intercultural approaches to clinical assessment.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55.4 (1987): 488- 495.

Lu, F.G., R.F. Lim, and J.E. Mezzich. “Issues in the assessment and diagnosis of culturally diverse individuals.” Review of Psychiatry, 14 (1994). Eds. J. Oldham and M. Riba, Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

Malgady, R.G. “The question of cultural bias in assessment of diagnosis of ethnic minority clients: Let’s reject the null hypothesis.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 27 (1996): 73-77.

Miller-Jones, D. “Culture and testing.” American Psychologist, 44.2 (1989): 360-366.

Niebuhr, G. “Vietnamese immigrants swell Catholic clergy. Growing influence on a changing church.” The New York Times. 24 April 2000.

Oldham, J.M., and M.B. Riba, Eds. “Issues in the assessment and diagnosis of culturally diverse individuals.” American Psychiatric Press Review of Psychiatry, 14 (1995): 477-510.

Ramirez, S. Z., et al. “Mental health providers’ perceptions of cultural variables in evaluating ethnically diverse clients.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 27 (1996): 284-288.

Ridley, C.R., C.L. Li, and C.L. Hill. “Multicultural assessment: Reexamination, reconceptualization, and practical application.” The Counseling Psychologist, 26.6 (1998) 939-947.

Rollack, D. and M.D. Terrel. “Multicultural issues in assessment: Toward an inclusive model.” Multicultural Counseling Competencies: Implications for Training and Practice. Ed. DeLucia-Waack. 113-153. Alexandria, VA: Association for Counselor Education and Supervision. 1996, 113-153.

Sandoval, J., et al. Test Interpretation and Diversity: Achieving Equity in Assessment. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1998.

Sundberg, N.D. and L.R. Gonzales. “Cross-cultural and crossethnic assessment: Overview and issues.” Advances in Psychological Assessment, 5. Ed. Paul McReynolds. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 1981. 460-541.

Sue, S. “Measurement, testing, and ethnic bias: Can solutions be found?” Multicultural Assessment in Counseling and Clinical Psychology Eds. G.R. Sodowsky and J.C. Impara. Lincoln, NE: Buros Institute of Mental Measurements, 1996, 7-36.

Van de Vijver, F.J.R., and K. Leung. “Personality in cultural context: Methodological issues.” Journal of Personality, 69 (2001): 1007-1031.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Program of Priestly Formation: 5th Edition. Washington, D.C., 2006.

Westermeyer, J. “Cultural factors in clinical assessment.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55 (1987): 471- 478.

 

Father Gerard J. McGlone, SJ, Ph.D. is executive director of the Saint John Vianney Center in Downingtown, PA. He specializes in bilingual treatment and assessment, the dynamics of trauma, prevention of sexual abuse, and psychological assessment across the life-span. He has worked at Georgetown University School of Medicine and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Fernando A. Ortiz, Ph.D., is assistant director of the Counseling and Career Assessment Center at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, specializing in personality assessment and multicultural competencies.

 



What happens with the assessment?

By Sr. Mercedes J. McCann R.S.M., c

The following comments are based on my experience as a formator for nine years working with women in temporary vows as well as many years of doing consultation work with formators in numerous religious communities throughout the United States and beyond its borders. I found a common experience emerging that indicated a concern for the lack of written information available to formators about the women in the formation process. This concern was exacerbated in those communities whose novitiates were distant from the home communities of their respective novices. Upon entrance to the novitiate, behavioral health issues sometimes emerged, of which the novice director was unaware, despite three-way interviews involving the novice director, the novice and the sending formator. Novice directors lamented the fact that they had no written or even verbal information about these issues and felt they could have been forestalled had they known about them in advance.

In this article I would like to address the need for appropriate disclosure of assessment results, both formal and informal, written and verbal, to all formators who will be working with an individual throughout that individual’s formation process and the subsequent Plan for Growth that the candidate and formation directors can use as a template during the formation period. My remarks here are addressed to vocation ministers for religious communities, but these thoughts hold true for diocesan seminaries as well.

The power of assessment

In an effort to observe confidentiality and to avoid prejudicing a formation minister with regard to the individual in formation, pertinent information is often kept from formation ministers and is known only to the community leader and the vocation minister. This is all very well and good if the only reason for assessment prior to entrance to religious life or ordained ministry is to screen out. However, ideally, an assessment should give a much greater return, both to the candidate and the community. This could be accomplished if the assessment were seen as both a way to screen out those with severe problems and a way to identify strengths and weaknesses for those who are admitted into a formation program. A full and thorough assessment would not just screen out problem individuals but would also be the basis for a Plan for Growth for those who enter formation.

Because of the considerable cost to the community, as well as for a multitude of other reasons, assessment is often one of the final steps before acceptance. By virtue of this fact, it often holds some mystical power for all concerned. It is unfortunate if that power is simply to screen out or screen in. The real power assessment has is to offer objective information that may be used primarily by the individual but also by the community to help formulate a plan for living a more integrated and healthy life, regardless of whether the individual enters religious life. Presented this way both aspirant and vocation minister have the opportunity to devise an organic document—a Plan for Growth—which serves as a template for growth and progress in the formation process. The formal psychological assessment offers a baseline from which this growth can be assessed and plotted. It further offers a vehicle for conversation between the aspirant and the vocation minister regarding how it confirms what the aspirant already knew about him or herself and what new self-knowledge it provides.

As a former formation minister and a psychologist, I have an abiding interest in the ongoing use of psychological assessments with men and women in the formation process. I served as formation minister for nine years, working primarily with women who were in temporary vows. In addition I sat on the Admissions Board of my community for several years. My experience has told me that psychological assessments could be better utilized by communities to the advantage of both the candidate for vows and the community itself. For this reason I submit that all formators who will be working with an individual have access to the psychological reports.

The roles of vocation and formation ministers are delicate. The individual in those roles is first and foremost the agent of the community. However, at the same time, he or she is the advocate of the individual in the formation process. This is a sensitive balance, and, as one experienced minister told me when I became a formator, the formator stands with feet in two worlds simultaneously, at times pleasing no one in either world. Throughout the entire process, the formator, with the help of the community, is assessing the ability of the individual in the process to live the life of a religious.

The way in which the vocation minister introduces the need for psychological assessment to the candidate is critical. Its value as an instrument for growth should be the prevailing context in which it is presented. The candidate becomes a partner in the formulation of his or her own life plan and needs to understand that this partnership will extend to each formator with whom he or she will be working until final vows or ordination. Therefore, the candidate will have to sign a release of information that will include not only the major superior and vocation minister but also subsequent ministers with whom he or she will be working. If subsequent formators have access to the assessment results and to the original Plan for Growth, that plan has the potential to morph and grow with the individual throughout the formation process, and, indeed, throughout the individual’s life. At the time of final vows or ordination, both formators and the individual will be able to look back over the Plan for Growth, as well as the entire formation process, and see clearly the progress the individual has made over the period of formation.

Of course, assessment throughout the course of formation has two major components, formal and informal. Both forms of assessment are crucial in developing a Plan for Growth, and the information contained in each should be passed on from formator to formator in the course of the individual’s formation process. Therefore, when a candidate is signing a release of information, it should be made clear that the release includes both formal and informal assessment results. Though I am addressing specifically the formal assessment process, I would like to say something about the importance of the informal process for purposes of assessment. The observations of others in the informal assessment process provide an important component in the formulation of the Plan for Growth.

Informal assessment

The informal process consists of the observation of the candidate as he or she attempts to live religious life. The persons observing are the formators and those in the community who live with, minister with or otherwise interact with the candidate. How these people experience the candidate is critical information in assessing the appropriateness of the individual for religious life. Feedback from these people to the candidate and feedback to the formator are critical to the healthy development of the man or woman seeking religious life. It is further necessary that a synopsis of the feedback be kept on file in the event that there is a personnel change in formators. Subsequent formation personnel need to be aware of patterns of behavior that the candidate has had, so that when a persistent pattern prevails, it can be identified and acted upon. Of course, feedback should be given in a nonthreatening manner and should include those observations that indicate a consonance with the charism of the community, as well as those that require attention. Hopefully the candidate and formator will have established a climate of trust that increases over time, and the candidate will view the process as one of mutual understanding and growth, rather than one of evaluation.

Formal assessment

My comments on formal assessment of a candidate for religious life are predicated on the assumption that the community requires the candidate to undergo a battery of psychological assessments and behavioral scales to determine his or her mental health and his or her readiness to undertake the life of a religious.

Confidentiality is of utmost importance when dealing with the results of psychological assessment. I am assuming that all formators and religious superiors hold in strictest confidence the reports of assessing professionals with regard to the individual entering the formation process.

My personal bias is that behavioral assessments alone do not give a complete picture of an individual. To begin with, most behavioral assessments are self-reports. While one may assume that a candidate would not be purposefully duplicitous in answering these assessments, nevertheless the individual is not the best judge of his or her own behavior and may present a picture of him or herself that is colored by the prism through which it is viewed. A battery of tests, both projective and non-projective,1 in conjunction with the candidate’s behavioral assessments will yield a more complete picture of the person and one that is freer of bias than the behavioral assessment alone.

Who should be privy to the results of these assessments? Of course, the receiving community’s major superior should be one recipient of the information. The vocation minister should be another. Assuming that subsequent formators in the community are sensitive to the confidentiality necessary when dealing with such sensitive issues, I suggest that something in writing be available to each formator responsible for the individual as he or she passes through the formation process. This raises a number of important points.

First, not everyone is conversant with the psychological lexicon. Therefore, the assessing psychologist would do well to issue two reports: one, the formal report written in the language of the profession and the second, a report that is more user-friendly and would concentrate on those areas of strengths and weaknesses that the candidate possesses and that are germane to religious life. It is the second of these two that I am suggesting follow the candidate through the formation process and be accessible to all formators dealing with the candidate. There are several reasons for this suggestion.

Formation personnel change over the course of an individual’s journey through the formation process. While three-way interviews among the candidate, the vocation minister and the formation minister may take place, as each subsequent minister interacts with the candidate, the recommendations of the assessing psychologist often get lost. A report on file that outlines the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses and the psychologist’s recommendations would ensure that consistency in addressing these attributes is maintained. That is, the strengths of the individual would be acknowledged and enhanced throughout the formation process, and the limitations would be addressed so that the individual would lead a healthier life as she or he progresses through the formation process and on through religious life.

Second, the report should be treated as a document from which a plan of action, what I am referring to as a Plan for Growth, can be developed. This plan would be an organic document that would be added to and deleted from as each recommendation in the psychological report is achieved. The plan would include goals and objectives that are measurable and that the candidate and formator can review on a monthly basis so that each can assess the progress the candidate is making as he or she moves through the formation process. While the basis of the plan may be the recommendations of the assessing psychologist, the plan might also include goals and objectives regarding spiritual development, community life and ministry as reflected through the informal assessment process.

Oftentimes religious communities use the behavioral and psychological assessments solely as a screening device to weed out those individuals who are not appropriate for religious life. Using the assessments in this way renders them stagnant and does not afford the individual or the community the full benefit of their results. By developing a Plan for Growth based on the assessments and the needs of the community, the individual and the community continue to reap the benefits of the assessments over a period of years. In other words, it becomes a gift that keeps on giving. It also ensures consistency in the formation process as the plan moves with the individual through the process, and each formator with whom the individual interacts is a partner in its ongoing development.

Vocation and formation personnel have the obligation to educate candidates that the work of their lives is not over after novitiate but, rather, continues throughout a lifetime. Areas for improvement that emerge in an assessment will re-emerge in different forms over the course of a lifetime. Discernment is ongoing throughout the formation process, and the Plan for Growth provides a living, tangible document from which that discernment may develop. Since both the formator and the candidate have had a hand in its development, the plan reflects the dual discernment that is taking place.

Plan for Growth

The development of the Plan for Growth begins with the ongoing work between the vocation minister and the candidate. Working in consonance with one another, they identify three or four areas that the candidate needs to work on in order to make a smooth transition into religious life. Under each area one or more goals may be established with measurable objectives for each of the goals. All of this is put in writing, with the candidate and the vocation minister each having a copy. The plan then becomes the living document from which their conversations grow over the course of their meetings. Hopefully growth will be observed, and the degree of seriousness with which the candidate is approaching the initial formation process will become evident. Once assessment takes place, goals and objectives emerging from the results of the assessment may be added to the document.

At the time of admission into the community, the Plan for Growth is submitted as part of the admission portfolio, and those on the admissions board have the opportunity to review the progress the candidate has made over the course of the discernment process. At the time of admission the plan is shared with the initial formator and subsequently becomes part of the formation process.

In order not to overwhelm a candidate, no more than four or five goals at a time should be in the Plan for Growth. As each goal is achieved, it can be deleted and new ones added. Each plan should be kept on file until ordination or final vows and should follow the candidate through the formation process so that, at the end of the process, a complete picture of the progress the individual has made can be presented.

How long is assessment relevant?

A word about re-assessment: the prevailing opinion at this time is that psychological assessments are only pertinent for three years, after which time, a re-assessment would offer more up to date information. Considering the cost of these assessments, it is not necessary that every candidate be reassessed before final vows or ordination. However, where serious concerns were raised upon the initial assessment or where consistent concerns have emerged through the observations of formators or personnel living or working with an individual, a re-assessment may be warranted. If so, this reassessment should be given at least one year before final vows or ordination so that the candidate is not on the doorstep of a lifetime decision and is being told he or she is not a viable candidate for that lifestyle. The re-assessment would yield one more piece of information about the psychological growth of the individual and her or his potential to live religious life.

The term, Plan for Growth, is an arbitrary one. Religious communities or seminaries may have a title that fits their programs more aptly. However, whatever its title, such a document could provide invaluable information both for the individual candidate and the community.

I am indebted to the many religious superiors and formators whose input has been the impetus for this article. Not only have they validated my own experience as a formator, they have also contributed creative insight into how formation processes may continue to improve for the sake of vocation ministry, religious life and the church as a whole.

 

1. Projective tests are defined as “performance-based measures that are less structured.... These tests are based on the premise that an individual reveals his or her personality when responding to an ambiguous stimulus, such as inkblots or more open-ended type questions,” by Eric Haas in “Tests for assessing applicants to religious communities,” in this edition of HORIZON.

 

Sister Mercedes J. McCann, RSM, Ph.D. is a member of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Mid-Atlantic Community. She is a clinical psychologist at Saint John Vianney Center in Downingtown, PA. She served as formation minister in her community for nine years and has worked with vocation and formation teams in setting goals and criteria.

 



The chilling effect of education debt

A study released February 22, 2012 revealed that educational debt is derailing the dreams of young people to become religious sisters, brothers or priests. And the problem is likely to get worse: religious institutes report an increase in the number of inquirers with large educational debt, and national averages show record levels of student debt continuing to rise.

The 2012 Study on Educational Debt and Vocations to Religious Life, conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University (CARA) for the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC), finds that seven in 10 institutes (69 percent) turned away at least one person because of student loans. In addition many religious communities ask young people to delay their applications to enter because of educational debt.

“For those entering religious life, the expectation is that they be debt-free,” says Brother Paul Bednarczyk, CSC, executive director of NRVC, “but for graduates in today’s economy, where education costs have risen by 900 percent since 1978, paying off loans can take years to accomplish. The burden of student debt has become a serious problem for religious communities desirous of welcoming younger members.”

Of approximately 15,000 serious inquiries to men’s and women’s religious institutes in the past 10 years, one in three (32 percent) involved a person with educational debt averaging $28,000, a figure slightly higher than the $25,000 national average.

The majority of communities (two in three) show a willingness to work with candidates with educational debt—and some 42 percent of responding institutes assume educational debt for at least some applicants.

But, the study indicates, the practice of assuming debt places a heavy and growing financial burden on religious communities. Those applying to enter religious life during the past 10 years carried $3 million in educational debt, and if national trends continue, that overall student debt load will likely rise by 5 percent annually.

Men and women whose educational debt is delaying their entrance into a religious community often develop creative strategies for paying off their loans, such as online candy sales, marathon runs or bingo fundraisers.

Several philanthropic organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus and individual donors or patrons of the institutes, also provide assistance with educational debt. But the study finds that no national vehicle exists for redressing the burden of educational debt on religious vocations.

“Because religious sisters, brothers and priests are vital to the life of the church and provide great service to society,” says Bednarczyk, “we plan to bring together key stakeholders to develop strategies to ease this significant and growing barrier to religious vocations.”

In response to the study, the NRVC is also producing a handbook on best practices for communities working with inquirers and candidates who have educational debt. The study finds that three in 10 religious institutes have no policy or accepted practice for dealing with educational debt, and another 15 percent say their policy needs updating.

The study was funded by a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The complete study results are at nrvc.net.

 

Quick facts on student debt and religious life

Sister Kathryn Press, ASCJ (right), now a novice with the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, had prohibitive education debt before entering religious life, but with a combination of work, fundraising and assistance, she was able to pay off her educational debt and enter the community.

Men joining at higher rate
Although women greatly outnumber men among the finally professed, currently about the same number of men as women are in initial formation. Institutes of men are less likely than institutes of women to have no one in initial formation or to have only one or two in initial formation. Institutes of men are more likely than institutes of women to have more than ten in initial formation.

One third have debt, average $28,000
On average, responding institutes with at least one serious inquirer in the last 10 years report that for about a third of these inquiries (32 percent) the person had educational debt at the time of inquiry, with an average of $28,000.

Many with debt turned away
Of those responding religious institutes with at least three serious inquirers in the last 10 years who had educational debt, seven in 10 (69 percent) turned away at least some inquirers because of their educational debt.

Third of formal applicants quit due to debt
Religious institutes that have had at least three serious inquirers in the last 10 years who had educational debt at the time of their inquiry report that this debt is having a dampening effect on the institute. A third (34 percent) report that at least some serious inquirers have not pursued the application process because of their educational debt. Three in ten (29 percent) say that formal applicants have not completed the application process because of their educational debt. A fifth (22 percent) say that the unit has experienced financial strain due to the educational debt of candidates or members.

Only about half of applicants with debt accepted
Responding institutes report that slightly under half of the formal applicants with educational debt were eventually accepted into candidacy or postulancy.

Debtors on the upswing
Among institutes that have experience in dealing with the issue of educational debt, more than half (55 percent) are experiencing an increase in the number of inquirers with educational debt.

Debt delays other life commitments
While the NRVC-CARA study did not examine the effect of student debt on marriage and childbearing, there are signs of a parallel delay in those life commitments, too. As early as 2003, the Nellie Mae Corporation found that 14 percent of borrowers reported delayed marriage and 21 percent delayed childbearing. Other economic analysts have also linked debt with delayed life commitments.

 



When the vocation minister assesses

Seeking consistent belief, word, action

By Sr. Cindy Kaye R.S.M.

When vocation directors begin their ministry, candidate assessment is usually a brand new world for them. To help them be effective in this new arena, the National Religious Vocation Conference offers two workshops: Behavioral Assessment I and II. In the following article Sister Cindy Kaye, RSM shares some of the wisdom she has acquired over several years from taking the NRVC workshops, conducting assessments and polishing her skills.

NRVC recognizes the need for skillful assessments by both vocation ministers and psychologists. Both bodies of information together can reveal a comprehensive portrait of a candidate’s fitness to live religious life.

As I move into my sixth year of vocation ministry, I still find this to be a most creative ministry for building relationships, trying new techniques to animate people and building upon the foundation laid by other vocation ministers. During the past three years, I have been working on building a behavioral assessment for candidates who are applying to live religious life. I have been fortunate to have had many opportunities to interview a number of women who were seeking something different in their lives. Certainly not all were candidates for religious life. Nonetheless, I had the chance to interview them, and in the process hone my listening and interviewing skills.

I was working with a candidate who had been divorced and began to think, “What will I ask about her second family life experience?” I started typing questions, and new categories began to emerge. In the end, I had 16 categories of behavior-based questions that are related to aspects of living. I have been fortunate to have had a number of people who were interested enough in my emerging behavioral assessment tool to offer critiques, additions, questions and challenges—all of which prompted me to further refine the assessment. (I hope someday to be able to make it available to vocation ministers.) Thus far, I have used this new assessment tool six times, and I have received positive feedback from sisters in leadership and also from testing psychologists.

The title of this article, “When the vocation ministers assesses: seeking consistent belief, word and action,” reflects what we vocation ministers hope to see in those we welcome into our communities—new members whose beliefs, words and actions are congruent and self-grounding. While many types of behavior assessments exist, with different purposes for administering them, the behavior assessment we use with candidates applying to religious life is unique, in that two of the main components are to test for healthy behavior and consistency. We look for consistency in what candidates say about themselves, in their ways of behaving, as well as consistency in what they believe, say and do in a variety of settings.

During the application process, most religious congregations offer three ways for a candidate to self report. The first is a written autobiography, in which the candidate reflects on personal history, perhaps covering areas such as family, church, relationship with God, personal relationships, professional life and religious life. The categories may vary from congregation to congregation, but the overall requirement is a written account of the candidate’s life thus far. The second way for the candidate to self report is oral, via the behavior assessment, usually administered by the vocation minister. The candidate is offered behavior-based questions in a variety of categories. These responses generate a report, usually written by the vocation minister.

The third way for the candidate to self report is through the psychological testing process, using a battery of standardized and non-standardized tests facilitated by a licensed, clinical psychologist. This includes a feedback session which may include the vocation minister, the candidate and the psychologist. The hopeful outcome of these three ways of reporting—the autobiography, behavioral assessment and test results—is that they reflect one consistent narrative. All three of these pieces are necessary for the most complete and accurate assessment of a candidate’s emotional and psychological state as well as his or her way of acting.

All of this is written with the presumption that a vocation minister who is working with a candidate in the application process is receiving ongoing professional supervision from a licensed therapist who is knowledgeable about religious life, the respective community and Catholic culture.

What is the point of assessing?

The purpose of a behavioral assessment by the vocation minister is to allow a candidate to verbally describe her or his ways of behaving day-to-day. It is also a way for vocation ministers to observe congruence or lack of congruence within the candidate’s responses during the assessment time, in comparison with his or her autobiography, and later when compared to the results of his or her psychological tests. The behavioral assessment records behavior and consistency in oral reporting, while the psychological tests measure emotional and personality functioning. Finding that the candidate has healthy day-to-day behavior and that she or he is consistent in word and deed are positive signs that a candidate is probably healthy and mature enough to enter into a formation program. On the other hand, when a behavioral assessment shows that a candidate lacks congruence or lacks good daily behavior, the vocation minister will want to tread cautiously.

Recently I have offered my behavioral assessment report to the testing psychologist, along with the candidate’s autobiography. (The candidate must sign release forms to do this.) Since the testing psychologist only sees the candidate once or twice for the testing process, having these two biographical pieces in advance helps in the interview and testing process. It is also helpful to me as a vocation minister to have the psychologist’s extra set of eyes looking for discrepancies and for areas that may be of concern. Once again, the psychologist and I are also looking for congruence in the candidate’s reporting.

Finally, a vocation minister’s behavioral assessment can be part of the body of information gathered during psychological testing. The assessment and the test results, together, can help shape the goals of the candidate’s initial formation.

Behavioral assessment piece by piece

The behavioral assessment that I have built takes about five or six hours of interview time and is to be completed in one day with breaks taken as needed. Although this is a long process, the information gathered is extremely valuable. The majority of the assessment is given orally. There are four separate pages where candidates report on feelings, behaviors, thoughts and images of how they view themselves at the point of the interview by checking off the words that apply to them. These are offered at selected times throughout the interview and offer a momentary break in the oral reporting.

The results of the behavioral assessment offer a number of insights on how candidates have functioned in a variety of areas in the past as well as how they are functioning currently. It reflects consistency and shows how they deal with issues within the following categories:

Family of Origin/Personal History

Decision Making

Family History (married candidate)

Health/Leisure

Conflict/Resolution

Church

Faith Journey

Prayer

Community Life

Vows

Relationships/Friendships

Sexuality

Ministry

World View

The questions presented in each of the categories are behavior-based. Questions that ask: “What did you do when….?” Or “Can you name your experience of…? “Rather than “What would you do if….?” The questions are geared to the past and present and focus on behavior that took place or is taking place. To ask futuristic questions would lead the candidate into theory and belief rather than concrete behaviors that are or have been acted out.

Basic skills for assessing

Sisters, brothers and priests come into vocation ministry from a variety of backgrounds and fields. They bring skill sets, ethical principles and accountabilities that have been honed in their previous fields. Upon entering vocation ministry, a whole new set of skills, principles and accountabilities are employed, which may be different for them. In a sense, when beginning vocation ministry, ministers need to start anew, become intentional learners and focus, honestly, on their skill sets in relation to vocation ministry. They then self-educate according to the current needs, with an eye on what is missing in their skill set. Though we bring experiences of living religious life, memories of our own formative process, and perhaps some knowledge of the formation process within our respective communities, we must be willing to integrate our experiences and memories, (in some cases resolve them and free them) in order to focus on the needs at present.

If a vocation minister does not come from a ministry where interviewing was part of the job, and he or she does not possess that skill, it is wise to learn and practice it. Conducting an oral interview involves more than asking a battery of questions. It requires listening and responding with intuition and query into what is not being spoken as well as what is spoken. It also requires deep listening for inconsistency within the interview and also inconsistency in relation to the candidate’s autobiography. Effective interviewing requires clarifying and paraphrasing and an ability to notice body language. Although the behavior assessment has a list of questions for each category, the assessor needs to be able to deviate from the list and go with the flow of the interview, often posing the next question from the last answer of the candidate or asking for an expansion or clarification of the last answer. Relational skills are also needed to provide a level of trust and comfort for the candidate. If the interviewer is nervous and grappling for the next question or comment, most likely the candidate will feel uneasy, too.

What if you lack the skills?

Not every vocation minister may be comfortable conducting an interview. To know this about oneself is positive. Although the vocation minister normally administers the behavioral assessment, it is not uncommon or unreasonable to ask another vocation minister who is skilled at interviewing to administer the assessment. Most important is that the information gathered be accurate and that a well-written report, which clearly reflects the candidate’s way of being, be the final product of the assessment.

Preparing to assess

Prior to the behavioral assessment interview, it is important for both the interviewer and the candidate to feel wellrested and fresh. If the interviewer is tired or feeling spent, the interview may lag or information may be missed or misunderstood. It is also important for the interviewer to let go of any thoughts or distractions from his or her own life that would distract from his or her attention to the interview. A short prayer or a brief intentional time of silence may help start the interview in a more relaxed and focused mode.

Each time I administer the behavioral assessment, I prepare by reviewing the autobiography of the candidate, as well as by looking at each category of the assessment and noting three key points from each category that I want to glean from the interview. Key points will differ for each candidate. I type the points and keep the list in my range of vision throughout the interview. I change categories only after I have clarity on the three points. Also, even though the interview questions are familiar to me, I review them the day before the interview and prepare for typing the responses by category. Responses are recorded during the interview and can be done on the computer, or by hand; whichever works most efficiently for the administrator is the way to go.

Ironing out interview discrepancies

As explained earlier in this article, part of the behavioral assessment is checking for consistency between the responses and the candidate’s autobiography and consistency within the assessment itself. Sometimes words can be misinterpreted and answers can appear incongruent. Here is where deep listening and intuition on the part of the assessor come into play. For example, if early on in the interview the candidate speaks of having many friendships, going to many parties and having an active social life, and toward the end of the interview states that he or she often feels lonely and isolated, there is cause here to question the candidate more. Where is the loneliness coming from? The candidate may be telling two different stories. Or the person may explain that he or she feels lonely when dealing with difficult family issues or when seeing friends in good relationships with their families while the candidate does not share those same experiences. If the assessor does not probe further during the interview, the report may show the candidate telling two different stories—when in reality there is no discrepancy. The person could be in good relationships with friends, but find that family issues bring on a personal loneliness that makes them feel apart or isolated at times. Listening and recall on the part of the assessor are important. Remembering back to the earlier part of the interview allows for questioning at the point of discrepancy rather than recording both responses as a discrepancy.

Writing the report

Time is of the essence when writing the report from the information gathered during the behavioral interview. It is best to start writing the same or the next day so the material is not lost. Although notes have been recorded, it is best to write the full report when the material is most fresh in the mind of the assessor. As in psychological testing, the psychologist only reports the findings of the test materials. The report of the behavioral assessment is written only from the responses of the candidate. Feelings, thoughts and opinions of the assessor or vocation minister don’t play into the written report. In other words, No “I” statements are used in reporting the information gathered from the behavioral assessment. Only the responses of the candidate are appropriate. For example, statements such as,“ Karen was embarrassed during the sexuality portion of the interview,” would be a judgment made by the assessor. Unless Karen said, “Oh, I’m so embarrassed,” the assessor is guessing or giving information that may not be accurate. The assessor could say, “At the beginning of the sexuality portion of the assessment, Karen’s face became flushed. She began wringing her hands, and her speech changed from a moderate volume to a soft tone with stuttering.” The latter reports behaviors that were observed by the assessor, rather than guessing that embarrassment was an emotion that she was feeling. Ideally, the assessor would query as to Karen’s changed demeanor. Her feeling could be terror, shame or a number of other emotions. Unless the assessor checks out the behaviors with Karen, her or she can not accurately assess the change in behavior.

The report needs to be clean, in that only the responses of the candidate are written. This is why it is important to iron out discrepancies within the interview rather than speculate on or ignore the behavior altogether. The report is 10-15 pages and is organized by category, with an introductory page listing to whom the report is going, the assessor’s name, the date, the purpose of the report and the stated fact that the candidate understands the nature of the interview and has signed the necessary release-of-information document.

The letter of recommendation (or non-recommendation) is written at a later time by the vocation minister. This is the place to voice concerns and reflect upon experiences of the candidate.

Working with the testing psychologist

In preparation for psychological testing, it is helpful for the vocation minister to meet with the testing psychologist to inform him or her of what is required regarding testing and the reason for the referral. (For a more thorough treatment of this subject, see "Psychological assessment: why, what and how to assess" by Ronald J. Karney and “Vocational discernment and the psychological report” by Sister Mary M. Lindsay, SSJ—also in this issue of HORIZON.)

It is important that the chosen psychologist be skilled in test administration, scoring and interpretation. It is also the responsibility of the vocation minister to educate the psychologist about the charism of the community, its lifestyle (monastic, cloistered, apostolic, missionary) and its culture —as well as to ensure that the psychologist understands Catholic culture. While the community may have a list of suggested psychological tests, it would be unwise to assume that the same tests will fit all candidates. Therefore working collaboratively is essential to getting a comprehensive picture regarding a candidate’s suitability for religious life. Here is where both the candidate’s autobiography and behavioral assessment reports may be helpful to the psychologist.

Prior to offering the behavioral assessment report to the testing psychologist, it is helpful for the vocation minister’s supervisor to see the report. As stated earlier, most vocation ministers are not psychologists, and often they have not had report writing experience. Consultation with the supervisor allows not only for a review of the assessment report and its contents, but also a review of the overall form and content of the report. A testing psychologist may choose to review the autobiography and behavioral assessment before or after the tests are scored. Either way, the hope is that the vocation minister will have an extra set of eyes—those of the testing psychologist—to check for consistency in the narratives of the three documents (autobiography, behavioral assessment report and actual test results).

Healthy and whole

Clearly, then, to gain as much insight as possible into a candidate’s thoughts, words and actions, three components are needed: an autobiography written by the candidate, a behavioral assessment administered by a vocation minister and psychological testing administered by a psychologist. Together these provide a comprehensive profile of a candidate’s suitability to live religious life. While the assessment process in the past was primarily used to determine entrance into the community, today the reports can be of ongoing value in helping the candidate form goals and growth plans as she or he moves through the incorporation process.

Certainly the process of assessment requires time and a depth of mental and emotional concentration. When the candidate undertakes the process with openness and sincerity, the great effort it involves on everyone’s part can be an opportunity for the candidate to mature, grow and develop. A well-done behavioral assessment can be a key component in encouraging healthy, whole candidates and a vibrant, healthy community.

 

Sister Cindy Kaye, RSM lives in Burlingame, CA and is a vocation minister for the Sisters of Mercy. She has a master’s degree in counseling, psychology from Concordia University in River Forest, IL and a master’s in pastoral studies from Loyola University-Chicago.

 



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