Frank Moncher Goes Beyond "Feel Good" Treatment
WASHINGTON, D.C., 9 MAY 2002 (ZENIT).
Is there room in psychology for a Catholic view about personal
virtue? Dr. Frank J. Moncher thinks so.
In fact, he believes an emphasis on virtue can help patients of any
religion, or none at all, when they are in therapy, precisely because,
being made in God's image, they have a profound moral dimension.
Moncher, director of clinical training at the Institute for the
Psychological Sciences (www.ipsciences.edu) in Arlington,
Virginia, near the U.S. capital, spelled out his approach at length for
ZENIT: Could you briefly explain the mission of the Institute for the
Moncher: The institute was created to fill a need in the psychological
field, which has traditionally been dominated by a secular humanist view
of the world and the human person, and neglectful or at times hostile
toward the perspective of religious faith.
To fill this need, the institute explores the integration of the truths
of revealed faith and the truths of scientific reason in its curriculum.
In doing so, the institute is dedicated to the recovery of the Christian
intellectual tradition and the development of a Catholic psychology
consistent with the teaching of the magisterium of the Church and in
dialogue with the modern world.
Simply put, IPS strives to train a new generation of psychological
professionals who embrace and can practice from a perspective that
respects the inherent dignity of each individual as a child of God.
Q: IPS is starting a new radio program. What kind of format will it
have? Where and when will it air?
Moncher: Recently, the institute and its faculty were asked to
participate in an effort to expand Catholic radio programming in the
Washington, D.C., area. The show has been named "Healthy Minds,
Healthy Souls," and is currently an interview format, where the
host interviews the guests about their particular area of expertise with
a focus on how listeners can practically apply the information in their
daily lives, fostering both their emotional as well as their spiritual
There is some thought being given to changing to a call-in,
question-and-answer format. The show can be heard Mondays through
Thursdays, 7-7:30 p.m., on WUST 1120 AM, Washington. It can also be
accessed through their Web site: www.wust1120.com.
Q: You recently wrote that patients can benefit from a focus on their
exercise of virtue when they enter psychotherapy. What kinds of
Moncher: While there is a certain universality to the idea of a
psychotherapy of virtue, the types of patients who would be most
appropriate to explore these notions would be individuals who are
struggling with addictions, marital problems, parenting issues, or other
problems of adjustment to life circumstances.
Furthermore, while more severe psychological problems may require
different interventions in order to help a patient become more stable, a
psychotherapy focus on virtue could still be a useful addition.
Finally, although patients who have a strong investment in their faith
lives easily see the connection between their psychological behavior and
their spiritual behavior, even for those not focused on growing in
holiness, the focus on good choices that comes with the exercise of
virtue is potentially very beneficial.
Q: What exactly do you mean by a practice of virtue? And why is this
Moncher: In order to understand the notion of "improving
virtue," we should first discuss a way of understanding the nature
of emotional problems.
In the framework I'm applying, problems occur in someone's life when he
is prevented from acting toward that which he knows is truly good—as
opposed to something that merely feels good in the short term. People
may be prevented by needs, wants, feelings or passions that compel them
toward different goals than what they know to be good.
Clinically, many of the clients we see are suffering psychologically
from a restriction in their ability to choose freely; in fact, that is
maybe the best way to understand counseling and psychotherapy from a
Catholic perspective, that is, the goal from this perspective is to free
people to freely choose God, lives of holiness, or in the language of
this interview today, to choose virtue.
Individuals who are hindered in their ability to know, freely choose, or
act upon their choices because of psychological problems, are
compromised in their ability to demonstrate virtue. Because of this
connection between the two—psychological problems interfering with
virtue—people can benefit from performing the opposite, that is,
through exercising virtue in the face of emotional struggles.
The specific nature of this benefit occurs in the realm of
self-acceptance, and trusting that they are worthy of love—this can at
times be very difficult for people who find themselves engaging in
behaviors that they disagree with in principle.
Q: How does this process, of involving virtue in therapy, work?
Moncher: Virtue develops through education, deliberate and conscious
acts, and perseverance in times of struggle and challenge. In order to
act with virtue, one must utilize both their human capacity for reason
and their capacity of free will; in other words, virtue is acquired
through the mutual influence of knowledge and action.
While it is possible to accomplish this on one's own initiative, it is
not uncommon to require support in the process. The therapy itself may
look similar to any of the traditional types of psychotherapy in
practice today, particularly in the early stages. However, as therapy
progresses and the patient becomes more free of their troubles, the
notion of practicing virtue is introduced.
The patient may be encouraged to look at the areas in their life that
could be improved should they improve their exercise of specific
virtues. Of course, because some lack of freedom may still persist,
psychologically speaking, and because the building of virtue takes time,
perfect exercise of virtue is not expected.
But with practice, more positive habits will begin to develop. It should
be noted that the work of striving to become virtuous is difficult, and
patients may need to be reassured that in time as the external habit
becomes an interior virtue, greater ease of performance will occur.
The difficulty arises from the intensity of effort which it often
requires to make the correct acts. Pain occurs because one is still in a
state of imperfect virtue; if one's state of virtue were perfect, they
would experience pleasure, not pain, in practicing virtue.
Q: So which comes first: psychological health, or the practice of
virtue? Can you have one without the other?
Moncher: Realistically, the exercise of virtue on a regular basis should
not be expected, particularly with someone who has emotional or
psychological problems. However, efforts at virtuous outward behavior
can have a strengthening impact on the inner order of the person, and
should certainly be encouraged.
From the Catholic perspective, you can be psychologically healthy and
still choose sin—but this is a spiritual disorder, not a psychological
one. On the other hand, one can lead a holy life and have some emotional
issues, as evidenced in some lives of saints.
Perhaps the best way to think about this, is that while separate ideas,
they do tend to go hand in hand for most of us, and it is helpful to try
to grow in both areas, as they facilitate each other.
Q: Where is mainstream psychiatry failing in this regard?
Moncher: You might find some interest among the behavioral school who
might focus on the development of habitual responses through well-known
reinforcement and punishment principles. However, this does not
necessarily lead to the most healthy outcome. In fact, mere development
of habit with no real moral compass can actually lead to psychological
dysfunction—for example, addictions—whereas virtue is by definition
related to positive works and makes the one who possesses it healthier.
It is the repetition of the interior acts, of intelligent mastery over
one's self, that will contribute directly to the formation of virtue. In
contrast, the repetition of exterior acts can produce habits, but will
not necessarily lead to virtue.
Another area where some progress is appearing in the mainstream is a
relatively recent development in psychology called "positive
psychology," an aspect of which focuses on the issue of character
development. The institute is sponsoring a continuing education
conference in Baltimore, Maryland, this summer where scholars will
discuss and debate the issues of character development from both secular
and spiritual perspectives, as well as how the family is involved in the
development of character in young people.
Q: The climate of moral relativism we live in today: Does that affect
the way patients view their problems? Are they too forgiving of
Moncher: Virtue is an inclination toward the doing of the good actions
commanded or permitted by the moral law, and the avoiding of the evil
actions forbidden by the moral law. Such a statement brings the issue
you ask into clear focus, as it makes clear the existence of fundamental
and objective truth.
Moral relativism, on the other hand, is a pervasive aspect of many
individual's worldview in contemporary society. And, yes, you do have
people seeking therapy who are focused primarily on how they might
"feel better," with little sense that there is any objective
truth or reality that might be impacting them and contributing to their
This shortsighted focus on "good feelings" really diminishes
the fullness of what we are capable of as human persons, because it is
focused upon our sense feelings, and ignores that which makes us most
human: practical reason and the related ability to make choices, which
either strengthen, or weaken, our self-mastery and moral virtue.
Here is where the truth of what it means to be a human person from the
Catholic perspective can be a great help. Because God has made us in a
clear manner, with free will that is directed toward love, even a person
who is currently pursuing selfish goals has an internal awareness of the
greater truth of God's love and their destiny to love others.
Hopefully the introduction of the idea of virtue, or building character,
in the therapy session might awaken the positive internal goodness of
the individual being treated.
Q: Regarding your approach: Which part of it is hardest for other
therapists to accept?
Moncher: I imagine secular therapists can get lost in the
religious-sounding language of virtue, particularly moral virtue.
However, it is important to note that the concepts apply to all persons,
not just those who are spiritually or religiously inclined.
This is an important focus for the Institute for the Psychological
Sciences as a whole: Our program is designed to train clinicians to work
with all human persons, regardless of worldview or belief system. This
is possible precisely because every human person shares the dignity
imbued by God's love in creating him. Therefore, what is an effective
intervention for helping someone professing a Catholic faith will be
effective for someone who professes a different faith, or even no faith
Moncher's article "A Psychotherapy of Virtue: Reflections on St.
Thomas Aquinas' Theology of Moral Virtue" appears in the Journal of
Psychology and Christianity, 20(4) pp. 332-341. ISSN 0733-4273.
Copyright 2001 Christian Association for Psychological Studies. The is
available through the IPS Web site.
The Institute for the Psychological Sciences can be contacted at:
Jefferson Davis Highway
Arlington, Virginia 22202