Carlos ChiclanaA problematic sexual behavior is something more complex than a struggle for the virtue of chastity".

In a recent study, Carlos Chiclana, a medical psychiatrist, has focused his attention on the affective and emotional needs, deficiencies and challenges of priests and seminarians. The results show the importance of attending, in priestly formation, to the essential elements of the priesthood, as well as to particular needs according to formation, education, social origin, family system and life experiences.

Maria José Atienza-March 22, 2023-Reading time: 10 minutes

Carlos Chiclana is a psychiatrist and a regular contributor to Omnes. He recently directed a study focused on the affective aspects of priestly life and its integration with the other dimensions of the person. A study that reveals, among other things, the importance of a serious personal and community affective formation, as well as the necessary time of preparation and discernment before priestly ordination. 

You have conducted a survey among numerous priests, deacons and seminarians. What are the relevant results of the survey? 

We conducted qualitative research with five open-ended questions about what challenges seemed most significant to the affective life of a priest, what risks they appreciated, what opportunities they saw, what particularly helped them in their formation on affectivity, and what they missed in formation and now felt would have helped them.

The survey was completed by 128 participants, mainly priests, with an average age of 50 years and an average of 20 years of priestly life. The total number of responses obtained was 605 open-ended responses, containing more than a thousand different ideas (specifically 1,039), which were categorized and structured according to their subject matter for subsequent more detailed analysis.

As for challenges, the most frequently mentioned were spiritual life, loneliness, mission, difficulties in the task, and giving and receiving affection in a healthy and balanced way. Also mentioned were the development of good friendships, community and family life and some psychological aspects. It might be striking that the integration of sexuality, dealing with women or the pressure of the environment were not of primary concern to them, although they were mentioned in some responses. 

However, when mentioning the risks, loneliness appears again as something perceived as important, along with personal psychological limitations, possible affective dependencies or moral defects. They also refer that the neglect of personal spiritual life due to a high occupation of time, the excess of pastoral dedication and affective detachment as a defense strategy can be risks they face.

When they express what opportunities they can find, the great majority perceive that their affective life has a very favorable scenario which is the continuous dealing with people, followed by the spiritual life and the development of good friendships with other priests.

The spiritual life, formation, priestly friendships, with the witness of these people, and being able to rely on the family of origin are, based on the answers, what had helped them to develop their emotional life. 

When collecting information on those aspects that the priests felt were lacking and that they felt would have been helpful in their personal development, they most frequently indicated that they would have liked to have received better formation. Others were satisfied and did not miss anything, and some would have appreciated better attention to spirituality and psychological needs.

If we analyze the main categories grouped together, we see that the areas of greatest interest are the spiritual life, solitude, interpersonal relationships (dealing with people, friendships in general and among priests, giving and receiving affection) and formation. This last aspect - having a good particular formation (personally directed by oneself and with a good spiritual accompaniment) and in community (specific programs of general formation and adapted to the real needs of these priests) - can be one of the conclusions of this study. In the study we did find a desire for more formation, better accompaniment and a more affectionate and less normative development of the spiritual life.

One of the recurring aspects mentioned, especially in the sections on challenges and risks, is loneliness. However, in spite of this, it is not shown that they lacked training in relation to loneliness, both physical and affective, that can be experienced within the priesthood, and whether this loneliness is natural and desirable, a negative consequence or something to be tolerated without further ado. 

As for loneliness, what would help to improve the quality of priestly life?

-I suggest that it might be of interest to continue formation in this area, so that every priest who feels lonely can understand why this is happening to him. He can assess whether the origin of this loneliness could be related to childhood wounds or shortcomings that have shaped an insecure attachment. If so, he will need specific spiritual accompaniment to help him heal his attachment, or professional psychotherapeutic help.

If not, he will have to discern whether he suffers from social loneliness - which can be remedied by developing a network of general, priestly and family friendships - or whether this loneliness is precisely the place where he can develop more intensely the experience of celibacy and his bond with God.

The Cardinal Lazzaro You He affirms that loneliness is often caused by a lack of rootedness of life in the Gospel and the abandonment of prayer. How to accompany a priest and avoid this loneliness? 

-All of us, in every community, group, parish, etc., have the responsibility to accompany and care for priests. We can be attentive to their material needs (where they live, if they eat well, etc.), their needs for rest and leisure (facilitate plans, invite them home as friends), their needs for sharing (joys, worries).

The study shows how it helps them to have collaboration in the projects they have in hand, so that the priest can focus on what only he can do, and to have time for life in the Gospel and prayer, which will be very good for him. At the same time it is necessary for the priest to let himself be helped, to ask for concrete help, to express his needs and to share his hopes and sorrows in a healthy way.

When should people devoted to God ask for professional psychological help?

-Like any other person: when he or she needs it. Being devoted to God, by itself, does not protect from mental pathology, nor does it prevent psychological problems. We have examples of saints who had mental pathologies, from the admission to a psychiatric hospital of St. Louis Martin (father of Therese of Liseux), to the gambling addiction of St. Camillus de Lelis.

Pope Francis himself said that he went to psychotherapy when he needed it. I understand that this self-disclosure was not only addressed to the dedicated people of Argentina, but to anyone who needs it, without fear, even if it involves a certain fatigue or respect.

It is necessary to ask a physician when medical symptoms appear continuously for more than two weeks in a row, that generate discomfort to the person or alter the way he/she functions in daily life or interfere in relationships with others, and that are not explainable by an internal or external circumstance that is temporary and occasional.

If it is the first time it happens, sometimes it is enough to initially consult with the family doctor. The doctor will do an examination, rule out that it is secondary to a medical pathology and, if necessary, refer to a mental health specialist.

There are times when some psychological issues require help from a psychologist to step forward and continue to grow. Among these issues are low esteem, disordered use of technology, disordered sexual behaviors or affective wounds from the past. Complex family dynamics, having been abused or having problems in interpersonal relationships can also be found here: other aspects to be treated can be disproportionate fear of a situation, avoiding conflicts or not knowing how to deal with women. Likewise, the excessive desire for security, or for power, esteem or control and difficulties in maintaining friendly relationships; absence of personal plans or difficulties in communication and the vision of the priesthood as a goal, a status... are susceptible to this professional attention.

The Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis stresses affective formation and personal maturity in the discernment of candidates. What do you consider to be the key points in this affective formation? 

-Like other professional occupations, priests must meet certain conditions. Therefore, certain psychological and personality characteristics are necessary. It seems, therefore, very appropriate that before entering ordination - and even before entering the seminary - candidates should be examined to see if they will be happy, balanced and healthy priests.

It is not a matter, therefore, of examining him in a judicial way, but of knowing and understanding him, knowing his personal history and helping him to put in place all the necessary means to mature in his personal vocation and, if he shows signs of a vocation to the priesthood, to have the necessary help to mature in the different dimensions of his ego, also in the psychological dimension. If necessary, everything that could hinder the harmonious and integral development of his personality should be healed. Also participating in the formation of the candidate are his family, friends, teachers, companions and other members of the Christian community that surrounds him.

If in this shared process it is observed that he does not meet the necessary conditions, the decision not to become a priest will be a joyful and serene decision, because the candidate himself will assume that this is what is good for him, what will make him happy and will place him in his proper place in the Church.

Good intentions are not enough to become a priest. Preconditions are necessary to establish a life of faith, such as an intense sacramental life, the practice of prayer and service in the community. In addition, sincerity, loyalty, affective development and a predisposition to live in community are necessary. Other aspects refer to the capacity for friendship and responsibility, creativity. Candidates for the priesthood must also have a spirit of initiative and availability to others, without forgetting obedience, youthful chastity, as well as living poverty with simplicity of life. 

How to evaluate these aspects in candidates to the priesthood? 

-It will help to evaluate the attachment styles developed by each child. It is necessary to know the educational style, the dynamics of the family of origin, which often conditions their way of understanding interpersonal relationships, espousal, fraternity or the right estimation of the values of the marital state. It is also necessary to know the family psychiatric antecedents, to be able to prevent its appearance with the pertinent care. 

It is obligatory to know the environment and the surroundings from which he comes, how the priesthood is understood in his country, city, family, neighborhood, parish, etc. In this way we will try to integrate his personal call with the "group and community call".

In accordance with medicine and psychology, we talk about healthy personality when the person is coherent in the way he/she knows and understands him/herself, relates to others and understands and adapts to the reality that surrounds him/her. He must be able to have a coherent esteem, to know his own emotions and validate them, to understand himself as valid, unique and authentic, integrating this human dynamic with the supernatural dynamic of divine filiation and origin in God.

Some issues to observe and apply may be: day-to-day observation; information from seminary collaborators; active listening in spiritual accompaniment; information from family and friends; ways of behaving in living together inside and outside the seminary; personal style in dealing with others; ability in academic tasks; development of the life of piety; evaluation by an external and independent psychologist and questionnaires for one's own evaluation, and specific readings on psychology.

In an interview with Omnes, Cardinal Marc Ouellet pointed out that the "real cause of abuse is not the state of consecrated celibacy but the lack of self-control and affective imbalance". Do you agree with this statement? 

-It seems that the data from the research carried out go in this direction and that the priests who abuse are those who do not live their celibacy coherently. A well-integrated celibacy would prevent abuse. Some see priestly celibacy as an unhealthy repression of sexual impulses, and consider that this would encourage the tendency for clergy to abuse sexually. But sexual abuse is no more frequent among celibate Catholic clergy than in other lifestyles. 

The vast majority of child sexual abuse occurs in the family and in the home, committed by family members. There is no evidence of a higher prevalence of sexual abuse in church activities compared to other institutional contexts involving minors. This is not to downplay the importance of inappropriate behavior by some clergy, but to point out that there is no data to indicate that celibacy is the source of the problem. 

It cannot be affirmed that celibacy and pedophilia have a causal relationship. We can affirm that when a priest abuses, the gravity is greater because of his responsibility and because of the consequences of the fact that it is precisely a minister of Christ who is the abuser. It is convenient that the victims can communicate their drama, pain, anguish, rage and shame and heal the wounds that have been inflicted on them. 

According to the  John Jay ReportThe percentage of priests accused is similar to that of clerics of other religions who do not live celibacy; and those who had committed sexual abuse, did not live chastity and had had sexual relations with adults after ordination. 

 How to address this issue in order to avoid events like the ones we have known?

-It is not recommended that someone with habitual impulse control problems related to sexuality, pornography use or similar issues be ordained. It is the candidate's responsibility to communicate this to his bishop or whoever is appropriate. In the case of the spiritual director or confessor, he should encourage him to do so. Above all, considering the happiness of the person concerned, who has the right to live his life in a healthy and integrated way and in truth.

Usually candidates with problems of this type are people with good intentions, with real desires for holiness, with an active struggle in many fields, but this is not enough. The affection that formators have for these people could make it difficult to help them in the way they need. They may be excited to have seen their struggles, their desire to be faithful to God, etc., but they may not perceive that the problem is probably not one of "chastity" but is related to other deeper issues, which require a psychological approach. 

If a candidate with these problems is allowed to advance in the formative itinerary as if nothing happened, it can be encouraged that, even if he/she has a vocation, it will not mature in a healthy way or its development will be made impossible. With a limited time frame, it is not possible to fix the bottom line, which is not about sex, but about identity, personal esteem, attachment, emotional regulation, etc.

In this sense, I suggest several approaches that could help: that people who begin to have problems with the virtue of chastity should use ascetic means in an adequate and intense way, and extraordinary means when the situations are extraordinary. It is frequent to observe in the professional consultation that it was not done in the initial moments and then "they no longer work". It is necessary to train the trainers in the field of sexuality, so that they know when something is sporadic and of normal solution, and when it is out of the norm, even if it is habitual; to train them also in the new family and psychological dynamics of the families of origin (broken families, abuse in the home, addictions, recomposed family unions, etc.). It is also necessary to include subjects on sexuality and affectivity where the normal and the abnormal are explained and to insist on a greater formation in the sense and meaning of celibacy. If necessary, "possible seminary candidates" should be kept as "possible" for as long as they need to mature. 

In addition to all this, it is necessary to intervene firmly from the first moment with the spiritual and psychological means necessary in each case. We must be clear that when someone has a problem with sexual behavior, we are dealing with something more complex than a struggle for the virtue of chastity and it is necessary to have spiritual companions specialized in dealing with situations that require a deeper approach.

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