|Gladys Sweeney on What Therapy Can Do for Troubled Believers
WASHINGTON, D.C., 13 JAN. 2005 (ZENIT)
A psychology rooted in the
Catholic understanding of the human person is not only true to science,
but true to God.
So says Gladys Sweeney, dean of the Institute for the Psychological
Sciences, which aims to provide a bridge between science and faith.
Sweeney shared with ZENIT how psychological sciences are at the service
of the Church if they free individuals to become better Christians and
benefit from a sacramental life.
Q: What are some solutions for Catholics who suffer from depression or
Sweeney: Oftentimes depression or other forms of mental illness
constitute an obstacle to free will. Effective psychological treatment
is very helpful, because the treatment essentially seeks to free the
person not only to see the "good" more realistically, but also to be
able to choose the "good."
Traditionally there has been mutual distrust between the psychological
sciences and faithful Catholics. Psychology has tended to see faith as
superstitious behavior, and religious people have tended to see
psychology as science unnecessary to them. Sufficient faith should take
care of all the problems, whatever they might be.
Neither position reflects the truth. A psychology rooted in the Catholic
understanding of the human person is not only true to science, but true
to God. The psychological sciences have much to offer a person whose
free will is impaired.
For example, let's take the case of somebody suffering from extreme
scruples. He might in fact be suffering from "obsessive compulsive
neurosis." This psychological disorder can become so severe if not
properly treated as to impair the person from functioning normally.
Good, faithful Catholics might in fact stop going to confession to avoid
feeling that they have invalid confessions for having forgotten to
confess "all sins." They might in fact stop going to Communion for fear
that they may be receiving Our Lord unworthily. This disorder is easily
diagnosed and treated.
The psychological sciences are at the service of the Church. By helping
this person regain normal functioning, they free him from the neurosis.
But the freedom is not only a "freedom from," but also a "freedom to"
freedom to become a better Christian and to be able to benefit from a
Properly understood, then, there is no conflict between a psychology
grounded in a sound anthropology and the teachings of the Church. The
challenge is to find psychologists trained properly in this perspective
who will respect the religious values of their patients, and will not in
any way undermine them.
Q: What are the most common misunderstandings in the treatment of
Sweeney: One of the greatest misunderstandings in the treatment of
depression is the notion that depression is alleviated "solely" through
Although it is true that the use of antidepressants has offered
tremendous relief to patients suffering from this disorder, the
exclusive reliance on the pharmaceutical treatment, excluding more
traditional forms of psychotherapy, is not the best treatment.
One of the most effective treatments for depression is what
psychologists have named "cognitive restructuring." This treatment
modality attempts to reorder emotions according to reason.
Often, in a case of depression, the feeling of hopelessness and
helplessness takes control of the entire person, and the patient is not
able to see reality objectively. It is as if they view the world through
dark lenses. A depressed person might "interpret" a neutral event as
negative, as personally offensive, when in reality it is not so.
The treatment consists of helping the depressed individuals to
restructure their thinking, of aiding them to reframe their distorted
negative schemas. They are trained to order the emotions according to
reason and to see situations more objectively. It has proven extremely
effective in helping patients with this diagnosis.
It is important to note that sometimes depressed individuals do not
respond well initially to this therapy. This is often the case when the
depression is severe.
In those cases, the best treatment is a combination of medication and
cognitive therapy. However, medication alone is seldom a good long-term
solution to the problem.
Q: How can a life in Christ
that is, participation in the sacramental life, establishing a prayer
life, getting spiritual direction
help heal mental afflictions?
Sweeney: Participation in the sacramental life, establishing a prayer
life and getting spiritual direction are all means to receive divine
Christian spirituality is life in Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit
that keeps us moving in faith
hope based on faith and above all in love as the fullness of faith on
the straight path toward the community of the Holy Trinity.
Since grace perfects nature, this spirituality is entirely consistent
with psychological health. But spiritual health and psychological health
are not identical and neither always proportionate.
An obsessive compulsive neurotic person who cannot deal with confession
and maybe even Communion needs treatment to be able to avail himself of
the means of receiving sanctifying grace. However, mental health, as
with physical health, is not a necessary condition for holiness.
A person suffering from anxiety does not need to be cured of his anxiety
first in order to develop the virtues of courage and fortitude or to
increase his trust in God. It certainly helps, but it is not a sine qua
non for the growth in human virtue. The difficulties encountered in
struggling with psychological conditions may in fact serve to foster
particular virtues, occasion an outpouring of grace and deepen one's
Therefore, unless the person's psychological problems impede his
participation in the sacramental life, it is of paramount importance
that the person actively participates in it, even as he or she is going
through therapy. This is why is so important that the therapist
recognizes this need, and encourages the person to do so.
The effects of grace acting with sound psychological treatment are very
powerful in achieving healing. Any Catholic suffering from mental
illness should continue to receive the sacraments frequently and
reverently as well as maintaining a consistent, balanced prayer life.
A good spiritual director can be very helpful in this regard, offering
guidance on the path of spiritual development. Whether through therapy
or through spirituality, it is always Christ who heals.
Q: Why is it important for Catholics with mental health problems to be
paired with Catholic therapists?
Sweeney: Every psychological theory contains within it assumptions about
the nature and destiny of the human person. There are theories that are
secular in nature and sometimes downright anti-religious. Sometimes they
deny human freedom, moral absolutes and thus the reality of sin.
This is why the Holy Father states in "Reconciliatio et Paenitentia,"
No. 18: "[One] reason for the disappearance of the sense of sin in
contemporary society is to be found in the errors made in evaluating
certain findings of the human sciences. Thus on the basis of certain
affirmations of psychology, concern to avoid creating feelings of guilt
or to place limits on freedom leads to a refusal ever to admit any
Therefore, Catholics must be very cautious about receiving psychological
services or allowing psychological fads to influence their lives.
In addition, psychologists in general tend to view religion rather
negatively, which creates further difficulties for Catholics. In
psychotherapy, it is possible for the therapist to influence his patient
in subtle ways that slowly undermine his or her religious beliefs.
With a good Catholic therapist, however, the patient's religious beliefs
and practices would be encouraged, and they may even openly discuss
religious matters in the sessions. Such a therapist is going to be
working from an authentic understanding of the human person based on the
teachings of the Church and augmented by sound psychological data.
This sort of approach is absolutely essential for any Catholic seeking
help for a mental health problem.
Q: What resources does the Church offer for members of its flock who
deal with mental health issues?
Sweeney: The Church offers us Christ who is the revelation of the love
of the Father, and he is man's revelation of himself.
Christ reveals to us the meaning of our existence and the answer to the
longing in our hearts. The Church, in giving us Christ, gives us that
which we most desire and ultimately that which will alone satisfy us.
In this "valley of tears" there will inevitably be disappointment,
tragedy and sorrow, and all the while the Church points us beyond this
horizon to the bosom of the Trinity where Christ is preparing a home for
us. Thus, Christ shows us the redemptive meaning of suffering. Through
the sacraments of the Church, we encounter Christ and are continually
renewed and transformed as our union with him grows.
However, the Church needs to be aware of the unique service that the
psychological sciences can offer, especially if they are in the hands of
well-formed, integrated therapists, who understand the Church's teaching
concerning human freedom and human dignity.
The mutual collaboration of the human science and pastoral work is of
paramount importance, and done in harmony, can bring souls to Christ and
promote the establishment of the Kingdom of God on this earth.