A popular priest-psychologist from Oregon, Father Ray Carey, has warned bishops for decades with his sage advice: “The absence of psychosis is not a valid reason to ordain someone a priest.”
Recently, I’ve met with individuals and groups that have read Bishop Barron’s Letter to a Suffering Church. With numerous questions and concerns, they are deciding how to move forward in their relationship with the church. They want to discuss significant matters, e.g., assessments given to men who express interest in priesthood, how the Dallas Charter has impacted the church over the past seventeen years, and whether or not a concerted effort—like a letter-writing campaign to bishops—can make a difference in shaping a healthier church. They want to discuss them openly, honestly, and lovingly. They also wonder if the majority of bishops agree with Barron’s assertion that serious institutional changes need to occur within the Catholic Church and, if so, why is it so difficult for them to make changes.
When I applied to study for the priesthood in the 1980’s, I took a battery of psychological tests. The following decade, when I served as director of vocations for my diocese, I oversaw the testing of others who applied. Even back then, the testing was thorough but designed primarily to rule out psychosis or notable neurosis; though there was a series of questions about sexuality, it was not central to the testing. Once the applicant was accepted as a seminarian, the formation program at his seminary took over by inserting various introspective exercises designed to help students understand personal, including psycho-sexual, issues. I’m sure that the testing and formation process has improved over the past quarter century but it cannot be flawless in predicting behavior. Then, like now, there were plenty of quirky or eccentric candidates. Cynics often quipped that if a guy wasn’t exposed as psychotic, he would be advanced each year to the next level, including ordination.
Since 2002, when American bishops adopted The Dallas Charter, essentially a zero-tolerance of illegal or immoral sexual behavior among priests and other church workers, most—if not all—sexual abuse cases against priests and others associated with the church have been handled swiftly and according to civil law. Though incidences of abuse against minors still grabbed headlines, they occurred prior to The Charter’s adoption. The big exception, of course, was the bishops’ failure to hold themselves accountable. It is important to note that most of the bishops serving our dioceses today were not in their current role prior to 2002 and most of them are as outraged as you and I by what occurred within their ranks. Unfortunately, they seem to also be unable to effect serious institutional change for reasons that none of us knows.
I also don’t know if letter-writing campaigns to bishops would make much of an impact. They could. If Catholics who have no intention of abandoning the church are determined to hold bishops’ feet to the fire on certain issues (e.g., institutional changes of bishops’ accountability to Catholics, changes in seminary formation that address sinful clerical attitudes, changes that bring laity to the church’s decision-making tables while bishops yield to their expertise, changes in which bishops pledge to be faithful primarily to God rather than primarily to the ecclesial institution…) we might be able to effect needed changes. In this way, we can create a healthier, holier church, which every Catholic—hierarchy to laity—would greatly appreciate. We are in this together.
We’ve made many positive strides during the past seventeen years, especially in educating priests and other church workers about protecting children. Our ultimate goal is heaven and our church should be the chief vessel that takes us there. Let’s do what we can to make it happen. In spite of quirky and sometimes neurotic characters in the mix, we can crush the evils within our church, even layers of sexual psychosis and ignorance thereof, to get ourselves back on the road that Christ wants us to travel.