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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Candidates already queried about sexuality, seminary screeners say

Agostino Bono

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Years before the Vatican's recent document putting restrictions on homosexuals entering seminaries, U.S. seminary candidates were being openly questioned about their sexual orientation.

Within the past 20 years, such questioning has become a growing part of efforts to determine the suitability of candidates who want to enter a seminary.

Psychological screeners for seminaries interviewed by Catholic News Service were quick to note, however, that the aim is not to single out people because of their sexual orientation but to determine if a candidate is psychologically and sexually mature enough to make a commitment to the celibate priesthood.

Screeners said that it is impossible to do this without discussing a candidate's sexual activity, preferences and dating history.

They added that the sexual history is only a part of the psychological profiling that is done to judge the candidate.

"The most important thing is to certify to the church that the man is mature in relation to his age and is ready for a serious formation program," said Sulpician Father Melvin Blanchette, who has been doing screening since 1978.

"We also want to know how bright the candidate is. Can he do the work required?" he said.

Father Blanchette, formation adviser and spiritual director at Theological College, the national seminary affiliated with The Catholic University of America in Washington, was one of five screeners interviewed by CNS.

The screeners said that they do not recommend whether a candidate should be accepted or rejected for the seminary. Their job is to present their findings, red-flagging any issues that seminary officials should be especially aware of, said the screeners.

CNS interviewed screeners after the Nov. 29 publication of a document by the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education. It said that the church "cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called 'gay culture.'"

Thomas Plante, who has been doing screening for 17 years, said that until now homosexuality by itself "hasn't been a deal breaker" for entrance into a seminary.

"The jury is still out if the Vatican document will change screening procedures," said Plante, psychology department chairman at Jesuit-run Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif.

Bishops and religious superiors need to interpret the document and decide whether changes may be needed, he said. "They may say that gays are out, or that if they can manage their orientation they are in."

Plante said his professional experience indicates that many homosexual priests "are the real McCoy" when it comes to having a fulfilling celibate life.

At the same time, Plante said he would worry about a 30-year-old who told him that he was an active homosexual but believed he could live a life of celibacy.

A major aim of sexual profiling is to determine if the candidate, whether homosexual or heterosexual, shows any risk factors for abnormal sexual behavior or has a tendency to act out his sexuality, he said.

"Does he like anonymous sex, picking up people for one night? Is his only social contact with people younger than himself? Is he naive? Does he have a wild and crazy lifestyle?" said Plante.

It also is important to know if a candidate was abused as a child, he said.

Father Stephen Rossetti, a 15-year screening veteran, said someone who identifies with his sexual orientation is not acceptable.

"They shouldn't be wearing their sexuality on their sleeves. You don't want someone who is flirtatious or campy," said Father Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., which treats clergy and religious who have sexual and addiction problems.

Jesuit Father Gerard McGlone, who has been doing screening for 15 years, said there is no standard profile for homosexuals or heterosexuals.

"What you are looking for is stability in the person," said Father McGlone, assistant professor of clinical psychology at Jesuit-run St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

"Do they have the ability to be open, trustworthy and self-assured? Do they make the grade? We know what makes a successful priest," he said.

Another important question, said Father McGlone, is how long has the candidate lived a celibate life before deciding to enter the seminary.

"You don't decide you want to be a celibate overnight," he said.

Screeners draw a person's sexual profile by using standards tests, interviews and background checks and drafting a family history, sometimes going back to the grandparents.

Interviews are open and direct as candidates generally are willing to discuss their sexual history and orientation, said screeners.

When candidates become closed or cautious, Plante has a few questions to try to catch them off guard. One such question is: "Who catches your eye when you walk down the street?"

Many standard psychological tests have built-in lie detector scales using control questions, they said.

Father Rossetti said that when a person is trying to hide something a screener should be more confrontational in talking to the candidate because "sometimes a person is in strong denial about his homosexual tendencies."

In discussing the Vatican document's distinctions between "deep-seated" and "transitory" homosexual tendencies, Father Rossetti said that seminary rectors and mental health professionals will have to get together and discuss what these terms mean as the Vatican did not write a document about psychology but was giving pastoral guidelines.

The Vatican document said that a person who overcomes "transitory" tendencies could become a priest.

"These categories need some interpretation," he said.

Father McGlone said that he did not know what "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" meant.

If a person cannot control his fantasies and attractions, then he is clearly unsuitable for the priesthood, he said.

But what happens if a person does not want to change his homosexual orientation but can control it, said Father McGlone.

Father Rossetti said the church should recognize that a homosexual seminarian faces unique challenges heterosexuals do not.

It is harder for a homosexual to initially come to terms with his orientation, which can cause internal conflicts, he said.

A homosexual has to live in a seminary with other men and this can produce a "sexually charged" environment, Father Rossetti said.

"We need special screening and formation around these homosexual issues," he said.

"The mistake we made in the past with homosexuals is that we said if they can live a chaste life they are fine for orders," he said. "But this is not enough."

Santa Clara's Plante said universities also had to deal with a "sexually charged" environment when they put young men and women in the same dormitories and even on the same floors.

"You have to create an environment that acknowledges this and deals with it by toning down the situation," he said.

In seminaries, "the days of one big, open shower may be gone," said Plante.

  • Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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