|Body and Soul From a Catholic Perspective
By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, 14 JUNE 2009 (ZENIT)
Psychology and faith might seem unlikely partners at first glance,
but they are compatible, according to a recent edition of a professional
journal of psychology.
In fact, psychology needs a conception of the human person that can
accurately describe what our body and soul are and how they relate. It
also would do well to acknowledge that humans have both natural and
This was the opening affirmation of the just-published "Catholic
issue" of the journal "Edification: A Journal of the Society of
Christian Psychology" (Vol. 3.1).
The issue was entrusted to the Institute for the Psychological
Sciences (IPS), a Catholic graduate school of psychology in Arlington,
Former IPS faculty member Christian Brugger, now an associate
professor at the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, served as the
guest editor and wrote the opening essay around which many of the
following contributions based themselves.
In his article Brugger pointed out that, given clinical psychology's
aim of assisting human flourishing in terms of a person's mental health,
it is helpful to understand the nature of the human person by basing it
on a sound anthropology.
As humans, he explained, we can rise above the perceptions and
emotions of the body because we are more than bodily beings and our
faculty of reason is not a material organ.
This means that a Christian psychology guarantees human freedom for
rational self-direction and free choice insofar as an immaterial faculty
not determined by causative physical laws, Brugger concluded.
The danger with the widespread denial by the secular social sciences
of this immaterial nature of our reason is that it not only opens the
door to assertions of radical determinism, but also denies the spiritual
dimension of the human person, Brugger argued.
Paul C. Vitz, of IPS, highlighted some of the differences in a
Christian approach to psychology as compared to a secular vision in his
essay titled: "Reconceiving Personality Theory From a Catholic Christian
Vitz noted that a Christian interpretation of personality begins by
assuming that God exists and that he is a person with whom one is in a
relationship. If a psychologist accepts the existence of God and the
validity of a religious dimension to life, this has the psychological
advantage of enabling them to treat a religious client both more
honestly and with a greater respect.
Much of modern secular personality theory, however, is reductionist
and assumes that religious experience and moral ideals are caused by
underlying lower phenomena, Vitz explained. Thus, in the Freudian
approach, love is reduced to sexual desire; sexual desire to physiology;
and spiritual life or artistic ideals are reduced to sublimated sexual
By contrast, a Christian approach is constructionist, according to
Vitz. This means that it emphasizes the higher aspects of personality as
containing, and often causing or transforming, the lower aspects.
It is, therefore a synthetic method, bringing things together in an
integrated pattern, while reductionist thought is analytic. Vitz
admitted that clearly good analysis is an important requirement.
However, much modern psychology has limited itself just to this
reductive analysis, without any integrated concept of the human person.
Vitz also highlighted the contrast when it comes to personality
theory. Much of the secular approach sees the personality as an isolated
autonomous self. Christianity, however, does not assume the goal of life
is independence, and instead gives a central role to relationships.
"Christianity postulates interdependence, and mutual but freely
chosen caring for the other as the primary type of adult relationship,"
Reclaiming a virtue-based vision of the human person was the subject
of the essay, "A Catholic Christian Positive Psychology: A Virtue
Approach," by IPS members Craig Steven Titus and Frank Moncher.
In fact, classical philosophers such as Aristotle based their
psycho-social vision from the point of view of virtue theory, they
Such an approach studies the potential correlation between
psychological well-being and ethical goodness that are displayed in the
major virtues. This contrasts with some secular approaches to psychology
that consider mental health as simply being the absence of disorder.
Titus and Moncher commented that a base level of each major virtue is
needed in order to be considered psychologically healthy or to have a
good character. Therefore, "Christian psychotherapy might seek not only
the reduction of symptoms but also growth in acquired virtues."
In a separate essay Frank Moncher looked at the implications of the
specifically Catholic Christian anthropological premises for psychology
in a contribution titled, "Implications of Catholic Anthropology for
It is important, he argued, that a psychologist has the full
theological and philosophical anthropology in mind when assessing a
client, and also to be interiorly curious about understanding the
client's worldview and value system.
Only too often, however, knowledge relating to transcendent
realities, moral norms, aesthetic beauty, and the development of virtue
is typically excluded by traditional clinical methods.
Moncher also commented that an openness to Christian anthropology is
particularly important when it comes to tasks such as assessing
candidates for entry to the priesthood or religious life, or in the work
of Catholic tribunals that must examine the validity of marriages and
the capacity of persons to give full and free consent to their marriage
IPS members Bill Nordling and Phil Scrofani turned the tables and
looked at what a Catholic approach means for the practitioner in their
essay, "Implications of a Catholic Anthropology for Developing a
Catholic Approach to Psychotherapy."
They explained why the concept of a vocation is useful when applied
to a professional career of being a therapist.
"For a Christian, becoming a therapist can be a response to a unique
call by God to provide mental health services to suffering clients,"
In this light a therapist's task not only involves a therapeutic
relationship with the client, but is a relationship that goes beyond
business. "Viewing his chosen profession as a personal vocation
motivates him not only conscientiously to observe his professional
ethics, but also to practice in accord with Catholic ethical
principles," Nordling and Scrofani added.
This vocation-based conception of being a therapist will also serve
to motivate when work with a client is difficult, or when sacrifices of
time or money are required.
The concept of a vocation will not only orient a therapist's
understanding of the client and the treatment, but it will also guide a
therapist to understand that the client is embedded within a family, a
culture, and often a faith tradition.
"Such an approach to psychotherapy demonstrates a profound respect
for diversity by starting with the fundamental principle that the client
is a unique, unrepeatable person made in the image of God," Nordling and
Scrofani commented. "In addition, it is a moral imperative ultimately to
allow the client to freely make self-defining choices in accord with
In concluding their contribution, the authors specified that such an
anthropologically informed approach to psychotherapy is not to be
conceived as being in opposition to the science of psychology.
Therefore, the therapeutic methods will be chosen with consideration
of their proven effectiveness.
They also conceded that the primary focus of a therapist must remain
on the psychological functioning of the client, thus leaving aside more
specific spiritual issues to clergy and spiritual directors.
Overall, the journal provides thought-provoking ideas on how an
anthropology based on Christianity can provide valuable insights into
the human condition.
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