Thomas Plante asks the question roughly 20 times a year, and if it doesn't work, he's ready with the follow-up. "You say, 'Well, tell me what your dating history is like,'" explains the Santa Clara University psychology professor. "And usually they'll hand it to you on a silver platter. If they don't, you say, 'Well, do you find yourself more interested in involvement with women or with men?' If they say, 'I've never dated,' you say, 'Well, when you walk down the street, who catches your eye?" And so, gently but relentlessly, Plante, one of several dozen U.S. therapists who screen candidates for Roman Catholic seminaries, attempts to ensure that the church knows the sexual orientation of one more would-be priest.
For the past month, screeners like Plante have braced for a new directive from the Vatican. In the wake of the sexual-abuse scandal among U.S. clergy--in which some 80% of the victims were boys--the church seemed poised to carry out a blanket ban on admitting homosexuals, even celibate gays, to its seminaries. Italian newspapers, however, are now reporting that Pope Benedict XVI had signed a somewhat less extreme "instruction." (See accompanying story.) But while awaiting that edict, the psychologists like Plante, who (among other things) help determine whether prospective seminarians are gay, have been drawn into a debate about that particular aspect of their job. Predominantly Catholic but not necessarily ordained, most of these psychologists are quite comfortable with the notion of celibate gay priests. And most are quick to point out, as Plante does, that "being homosexual doesn't put you at higher risk for committing sexual offenses against kids."
Fifty years ago, Plante's sideline--he has done roughly 175 seminary evaluations since 1988, at about $450 apiece--did not exist. While seminaries have always screened candidates through interviews, personal references and, often, written spiritual autobiographies, the process has become increasingly complex and now takes one to three years. Testing by professional psychologists, introduced in the '50s, has proliferated in the past two decades as the American church has redefined spirituality from a narrow focus on piety and discipline to one "involving things like the psychological and social maturity on which spirituality builds," explains Charles Bouchard, president of the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Mo. Supporters of the added vetting believe that it may eventually be seen to have played a role in reducing priestly sexual abuse, which appears to have crested in the '80s. Says Bouchard: "Unknowingly, we actually screened in some people who, we now realize, had markers for sexual abuse. Compliance, docility and solitariness fit the earlier definition of holiness, but we now recognize [those traits] as possible indicators for an abusive personality."