Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Finding Gay Candidates for the Catholic Priesthood Is Mission Impossible

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | June 03, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Catholic church, gay priests, priest, psychological testing

Recently, the New York Times wrote about the Catholic Church's attempt to ferret out certain types of gay candidates for the priesthood, using psychological testing.mmpi.jpg

This attempt is obviously something they feel strongly compelled to do, given their long history of failures to expelling known pedophiles, but it is a method doomed to failure.

I'm no psychologist, and I usually try to write about things within my area of competence, but I did spend an extensive amount of time looking into psychological testing during my Ph.D. studies in Law, Policy and Society. I was looking for psychological tests that could reveal the presence of a transgender or transsexual personality. I had heard about a number of tests that purported to do so. I took an advanced psychology course and chose, as my subject, the nature and construction of psychological personality testing. I spent a lot of time meeting with the professor outside of class to discuss the psychological tests I had researched. I hoped to use the information in my dissertation.

I scrapped the whole subject as a bad business, and not worth my time. It's a pretty fascinating idea, just like those quizzes you can take in Cosmo that tell you your ideal romantic partner. And about as useful, for the purposes of the Church.

What I learned about psychological testing startled me. It also suggests that the Catholic Church is not likely to learn much from these psychological testing methods. But it will give them pretty good cover for rejecting applicants that appear to them like the image of a gay man in their heads that they learned from TV and movies.

The MMPI, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, is one of the oldest and most highly regarded tests for psychopathology. It's basically a survey that asks the taker a lot of questions about their feelings -- a lot of questions, about 600. The format of the questions is true/false. It takes an hour or two to complete, depending on your reading level.

An analysis of the results can supposedly reveal the likely presence of mental illness or certain personality traits.

Now, if answered truthfully, I have no doubt that the results reveal something useful for a trained mental health professional.

But since when have people ever answered a survey truthfully? Especially if they know the test-giver is looking for specific "problem" traits? They might as well give a survey that asks candidates "True or false, do you like to fondle little children?" The reliability and validity of this test rank up there with the polygraph lie detector machine, which is to say that the test can be faked out pretty easily.

Ah, but the MMPI is no ordinary survey. First of all, after a while -- say about the 100th question -- the answering of the questions gets mechanical, and you have to think harder to lie.

Second, they have a "fake out the fakers" mechanism built in. That means that the test-makers, who have been working on this test for the past seventy years, have a pretty good idea of what the answer profile is going to look like. Some people want to "fake bad," that is to say, they want to appear ill in some way. Maybe they are taking the test to try to back up their claims of disability. There are certain questions salted throughout the test that even those with serious mental illnesses would mark "No." But the fakers, malingerers and people with factitious disorders show a pattern of marking yes. Or at least, that's the theory.

There are also people who want to "fake good."

In other words, they have mental illnesses or personality problems, say, the desire to fondle little children. But they want to appear as if they don't. Those people say "No" to everything that even hints at psychopathology. But the normal person, telling the truth, would actually mark "Yes" to a lot of those questions. Those who wish to "fake good" show a pattern of marking no. That's the theory.

In the best tradition of "your lips say no, no, but your eyes say yes, yes," psychologists who believe in the MMPI also believe that they can evaluate the answers to certain questions given by the millions of people who have taken the test, and reliably decide that they indicate faking. But the people who really want to fake don't have to look far to find information on how to fake properly. I mean, all you have to do is look at the DSM, memorize the symptoms to your favorite mental illness, and answer everything truthfully, except for the questions that invoke your chosen illness.

In addition, people with certain mental illnesses seem to invariably have the same answer to certain questions, even though the question itself seemed totally irrelevant to psychopathology. For example, I recall one question that was deemed to reliably indicate the presence of mental illness. That question was:

True or False: My stomach often hurts.

Surprising, right? But when the test-maker ran the results through various mathematical analyses, they found that this was one question in common with the vast majority of people with certain categories of mental illnesses. Who know why? Maybe people with those illnesses have a high degree of anxiety that makes their stomachs hurt? Maybe they need attention? Maybe their psychological symptoms manifest as somatic symptoms? For the purposes of the test-makers, it doesn't really matter why. It just works.

And that's a lot of how the MMPI works. They looks at millions of test results, determine various patterns, and use those patterns to judge individual test-taker responses.

It's very, very cost-efficient. And that's the main thing about the MMPI that makes the psych people love it. After all, it's pretty obvious to everyone that if a trained mental health professional sat down with an individual and asked them 600 questions, the mental health professional's judgment would likely be better than a mechanical analysis of 600 true/false questions by someone with no personal knowledge of this test-taker. But how much time and money would that require? A lot. More than any organization cares to spend on candidates.

There are other tests that purport to be better than the MMPI, like the California Personality Inventory, but most of the other tests are shorter and have less research data on reliability and validity. The MMPI is still the gold standard in psych testing.

And the MMPI people clearly make the point that the test is only as good as the interpreter. In their directions to the test-giver, they note that the results can only be interpreted by a properly-training mental health professional who actually works with the individual to address areas suggested by the test. And that requires a patient who wants to get better, not someone who's trying to get out of being identified as mentally ill.

But the idea that the MMPI can reliably root out pedophiles, or gay men, or transsexuals, or whatever, is based in nothing scientific. Its mystique, however, is likely sufficient for the purposes of the Church. They can say they're working to root out pedophiles, or gay men, or whatever, and that they have this magic wand that can tell them who is who.

It's the same reason government agencies continue to use the polygraph lie detector machine. It has a lot of dials and buzzers and lights and stuff, and even though it's easily faked out, it can induce a lot of confessions from people who are afraid of it.

Fear is the best truth-detection tool. It worked pretty well for the Inquisition, it works pretty well at Guantanamo and Baghram, and, truth be told, the 15th century really isn't all that far away.

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Gosh Jillian from the title you gave this article I thought the Catholic church was now looking for Gay priests and finding the task difficult. My instinctive reaction was... why change past successful methods.

lol. Yes, they have been remarkably successful in finding gay men to be priests. I think it's the celibacy thing?

A. J. Lopp | June 3, 2010 1:15 PM
Its mystique, however, is likely sufficient for the purposes of the Church. They can say they're working to root out pedophiles, or gay men, or whatever, and that they have this magic wand that can tell them who is who.

Is it anything new that the RCC is confusing the issue about what is good science, what is junk science, and what is total superstition? They have played this game for centuries, but here they are getting better at it, using junk science as a black box into which they can project their own theological authority. In other words, they use bullshit to substantiate other bullshit and then end with the pronouncement, "I'm the representative of God, don't question me."

Scientologists have E-meters for about the same reasons.

A side note: using the MMPI to screen candidates for the priesthood is not really new. I had to take it 35 years ago while I was in the seminary. I never got the results but I always figured they didn't contain anything troubling. I think the new thing is that this kind of testing will be mandatory and that the results more closely scrutinized. I wonder if a testee has the right to see the results. I'd love to see what the MMPI said about me. I'm quite sure I made I made a deliberate effort to appear "not-gay". I wonder if I was successful.

It was 22 years ago for me and I got to see mine!
(Well-adjusted, hyper-responsible, intellectually curious, problem solver, independent and determined- I photocopied it when the vocation director wasn't looking.)

It was the "independent" that they should have flagged....

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | June 3, 2010 9:58 PM

Gosh, Jillian, it won't be too difficult finding candidates for the priesthood. Granted their exclusion of women and FLBT folks limits them.

But following the vaticans demonstrated preferences all they have to do is examine the rolls of violent child rapists.

(I first saw this in JMG.) A victim of clerical rape and beatings describes the rape and beatings he endured: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyh4FXqzYNo&feature=player_embedded#!

Tony, I hope you understand that my generally very hard line remarks about the roman cult aren't ever meant personally. My sainted Irish mother and grandmother urged me to go into a jesuit (shudder) seminary. We all trooped down where when I was about 15. The seminary was a huge disappointment - the seminarians were only so-so. Yours must have been better. The guys on our diocesan boxing teams were kinda gorgeous, so I 'missed' my vocation and got my first lover, another boxer.

Win, win.

Lynn David Lynn David | June 3, 2010 10:25 PM

I took an MMPI in 1975 and after about the first 50 questions I realized the thing was rigged with 'trick questions.' From then on out I read each question very carefully. I'm not sure what made me out to be - according to the test. I didn't talk much with my therapist, I didn't trust him.

I took the MMPI about fifteen years ago for a counselor. When he got the results, the counselor wanted to discuss why there was a time I apparently didn't want to be a woman. Hah! I told him it was during my Angry Young Woman period when I realized it was more important to be cute than to be intelligent and competent. I was pissed for years at the inequity toward women (and it may be why so many young women are such angry drivers, IMHO). The inequity is still there; I just work around it.

But my response made the counselor laugh, because he was headed down the gender identity road. What if he hadn't asked about it? He may have made assumptions about my state of mind and pursued the wrong path.

Other than that, the MMPI said I'm about as honest as they come. It got that right.

A magic wand to find the potential child molesters? They already have that - they're just refusing to use it!

You see, all they have to do is look up whether a certain priest has been repeatedly accused of or convicted of child molestation. Then - and here's the tricky part for the Church - they have to put him in a situation where he won't be in contact with children.

I know, it's tough stuff. But I hear the results are a lot more accurate than any personality inventory.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 7, 2010 4:57 AM

Also the many Catholic Senior Citizens homes would appreciate the attention.

What annoys me to the bone are the fine Gay priests I have known who are now embittered because despite their faithful service they are now openly told their service was a sham. They are retired men now and living on their pensions and quietly seething at the church which has stolen their honor.

And yes, the Catholic church was a rich place to hang out for men with no interest in women's "company," but if I may loosely quote Mr. T:

"I pity the fool who would try to do that today."