The psychological profile of Jesuit applicants

Jesuits make up an elite order of Catholic priests. Historically known for their keen intellects and wealth of knowledge, the Jesuits play a key role in the Catholic Church. This general observation of the “smartness” of Jesuit priests led psychologists Anthony Kuchan, Michael Wierzbicki, and Mary Anne Siderits (all from Marquette University) to wonder if Jesuits would fit a tighter, more formal psychological profile. By surveying applicants to the Jesuit Order, they found that Jesuit applicants indeed have above average intelligence and education, as well as an interest in teaching and religion.

Studying Jesuit applications is not as straight-forward as it appears, because entering the Society of Jesus could take 12 or more years for those seeking the priesthood. During this time, applicants may drop out or the Society of Jesus may remove them for a variety of reasons. Additionally, the motivations that led someone to join the order initially may change over such a long period of time. Due to the complications brought about by the lengthy application process, the researchers broke down the process into eight phases and studied each phase, looking for changes and patterns.

The obstacle of time span aside, the psychologists relied on several instruments to measure the psychological profile of Jesuit applicants. First, the Otis Test of Mental Ability measures intelligence in a timed format. Second, the Strong Interest Inventory measures a participant’s vocational interest in terms of six categories: Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional. It also includes 211 exact occupations. Third, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2), of which the researchers focused on two subscales, the clinical and the validity scales. The clinical scales of the MMPI-2 measure psychological well-being, and include factors such as depression, hysteria, paranoia, and introversion. As for the validity scales, they detect how clients respond to their psychological symptoms, offering three responses: (1) lack of detecting the symptoms or reporting them inconsistently, (2) overexaggerating symptoms, and (3) underexaggerating symptoms. Finally, the researchers conducted interviews and did other types of qualitative research.

With these tools in hand, they found 89 Jesuit applicants willing to participate in their study (although these applicants did not give explicit permission for their data to be used in a research paper). As expected, the Jesuit applicants did have above average intelligence (an average IQ of 118), education, and GPA (3.39). In terms of vocation, they scored unusually high, compared to the average person, on Social. Of the 211 possible occupations, 26 came to the fore, with the most frequently selected dealing with teaching and religious activities (both of which fall under Social). Surprisingly, the occupation Minister scored no differently than the general population. Finally, for the MMPI-2, the Jesuit applicants scored highest on its clinical scale’s masculinity/femininity scale, and on its validity scale’s defensiveness scale. The masculinity/femininity scale measures how closely a male fits the popular male stereotype (and likewise for females, although in this case all the applicants are male), while the defensiveness scale indicates that the participant tends to under-report or downplay psychological symptoms. The researchers note that even though these applicants scored highest on defensiveness, their defensiveness scores were still within the average range.

Putting all of this data together, the researchers conclude that “…when this profile is produced by persons of above average intelligence, social status, and educational achievement, as was true of the participants in the present study, it suggests positive qualities such as self-reliance, resourceful versatility, self-confidence, social success, verbal fluency, and a positive balance between self-evaluation and self-criticism.” Overall, Jesuit applicants appear to seek nurturing environments, where they themselves can be the nurturers, and strive to be free of interpersonal conflict. Perhaps spending 12 years to join a monastic community isn’t so crazy after all – at least for the right type of person.

For more, see “Psychological Characteristics of Applicants to the Jesuit Order” in the journal Pastoral Psychology.

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