Andrew Sodergren on Sin vs. Symptom
ARLINGTON, Virginia, 22 DEC. 2005 (ZENIT)
Psychology needs to examine the role of sin in mental health, in the
light of Christian anthropology, says a Catholic therapist.
Andrew Sodergren is a therapist at the Alpha Omega Clinic and
Consultation Services, and a doctoral candidate at the Institute for the
Psychological Sciences (IPS).
The recently accredited institute is dedicated to the development of a
psychology that is consistent with Church teachings while in
constructive dialogue with the world.
In this two-part interview with ZENIT, Sodergren shares his views on
psychology's tendency to "medicalize" human behavior and the implication
Q: What do you mean when you say that modern man and society have lost a
sense of sin? How have secularism and secular psychology in particular
contributed to this?
Sodergren: We have been hearing a great deal recently from the Holy
Father, various Church leaders and commentators about the growth of
It is worthwhile to recall the words of Benedict XVI shortly before the
conclave that elected him Pope. In that address he accused modern
culture of "building a dictatorship of relativism that does not
recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely
of one's own ego and desires."
This growth in a relativistic mentality would not be possible without a
prior weakening of the sense of sin. The "sense of sin" refers to having
an accurate conception of sin and an awareness of sin in one's life.
It is part of what is normally understood as "conscience." John Paul II
in "Reconciliatio et Paenitentia" wrote of a "sensitivity and an acute
perception of the seeds of death contained in sin, as well as a
sensitivity and an acuteness of perception for identifying them in the
thousand guises under which sin shows itself. This is what is commonly
called the sense of sin. This sense is rooted in man's moral conscience
and is as it were its thermometer."
Thus, without a healthy sense of sin, man's conscience becomes clouded,
and he easily goes astray. When this happens on a large scale, it can be
disastrous for society.
Indeed, many writers have commented that "sin" has all but dropped out
of modern discourse. John Paul II analyzed this situation and concluded
that modern society has indeed lost its sense of sin for which he
largely blames secularism. I believe that secular psychology has also
had a particularly important role in diminishing the sense of sin.
Indeed, John Paul himself identified secular psychology among other
human sciences as contributing to this loss.
Q: Can you explain what you mean by sin, in terms of character
deformation rather than mere legalism?
Sodergren: In order to overcome the loss of the sense of sin, it is
essential to recover a proper understanding of the nature of sin itself.
Sin is not simply a violation of a norm, rule, or law. Yes, it is that,
but it is much more and its effects are far more insidious. It is
crucial to widen our understanding of sin and avoid reducing sin to a
merely legalistic view.
A renewed sense of sin begins with an acknowledgment of sin in its
different manifestations: original sin, actual sin and social sin.
The Church's doctrine of original sin is often neglected today. By
choosing themselves over God and thus rebelling from his command, our
first parents marred their likeness to God. Their human nature was
wounded by this rupture. We are all affected by the deleterious effects
of original sin.
Every evil in the world is traceable back to this fundamental disruption
at the beginning of time.
Since human nature consists of a unity of body and soul
see the Catechism, No. 365
and the human soul is a spiritual soul
see No. 367
original sin has then physical, psychological and spiritual effects.
In addition, man is a fundamentally relational being, which means that
original sin necessarily disrupts his interpersonal relationships. Thus,
disharmony is introduced between man and God, between human beings,
within the human subject, and even between man and the cosmos.
Actual sin refers to the sinful actions that human persons commit. The
character of the human person is shaped through his moral actions, which
lead to the formation of dispositions. If his actions are righteous, the
person develops virtues.
If, on the other hand, man's actions are immoral, his state in the world
already disordered by original sin
is worsened through the development of vices. This condition inclines
him to commit further sins thus moving him toward further
Seen in this way, sin can be seen as a dynamic, insidious force that is
somewhat like a disease or addiction that works to unravel the human
person, making him a slave of sin and alienating him from his ultimate
"Social sin" is a concept that has received greater attention in recent
teachings of the magisterium than in previous times. John Paul II
pointed out that there are ways that this term is used that are false.
These erroneous meanings absolve the individual of all responsibility
and blame solely the larger social forces for the individual's misdeeds.
Nonetheless, there are legitimate notions of "social sin" that have, in
fact, been incorporated into the official teachings of the Church.
Because of a greater appreciation of the relationality of man and the
solidarity of all human persons, these teachings of the Church express a
great sensitivity to the myriad ways in which one person's sins affect
others, the Church and the world.
In other words, my sins not only wound myself, worsening my own
condition, but they also harm other people around me, the Church as a
whole, and even drag down the human race through what John Paul II
called the "communion of sin."
Another valid aspect of the notion of social sin is that social
situations arise as a result of sin that inflict harm on others and
incline them to sin as well. These social structures that can lead
people into sin have been termed "structures of sin."
Thus, when sinful actions become accepted by a society, structures of
sin can emerge, which tend to push others toward committing sinful acts.
This does not absolve the individual of responsibility, for he will
still be judged according to his personal free acts. Nonetheless, it
does give a richer view of how the sin affects others and can indeed
lead them to commit sin as well.
Q: What is it in the content of certain secular psychology theories that
denies the sense of sin?
Sodergren: Secular psychology has produced many theories of personality.
These theories have contributed to the loss of the sense of sin in two
ways: by their secular view of the person and by their misconceptions
regarding human freedom.
Dr. Paul Vitz has noted many times that all of the major theories of
personality in psychology are secular in nature. In other words, they
attempt to give an explanation of human existence, development,
fulfillment, and obstacles to that fulfillment without any reference to
divine or sacred realities. These theories focus on the immanent
happiness of the individual without any reference to the transcendent or
to objective truth.
They portray a humanism totally without God. Thus, these secular
theories of the person reduce one's sense of God. As John Paul II and
others have pointed out, the sense of God is closely related to the
sense of sin. When the former withers, so does the latter.
The other way in which these theories of personality undermine the sense
of sin relates to how they conceive of human freedom.
Many psychological theories conceive of the human person in a
deterministic fashion. That is, they regard the human person and his
actions as pre-determined results of his childhood experiences, his
genes, his neural circuitry, the pressures of environmental
reinforcements and punishments, and so on.
Within a deterministic framework, human freedom soon disappears, and if
man lacks freedom, moral notions such as sin likewise become
Other psychological theories absolutize human freedom conceived as
autonomous choice. These theories deny the reality of original sin
stating that the human self already possesses everything it needs to be
self-actualized. It only needs to be freed from any constraints placed
on it by external forces.
The problem with these theories is that they embrace an ethical
subjectivism that denies the existence of moral absolutes other than,
perhaps, the "commandment" to self-actualize. Duties and obligations
toward others are secondary at best. With this mindset, any sense of sin
Q: How does secular psychology define mental illness, and how can this
be related to the reality of sin? Is it significant that psychology's
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has been
rapidly expanding as the sense of sin has been diminishing?
Sodergren: This is a very subtle and complicated but important issue.
The application of a purely secular disease model to the realm of mental
disorder and its treatment has served to undermine the sense of sin. How
could this be the case?
John Paul II again points us in the right direction: "Another 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 shortcoming."
Many scholars from psychiatrist Thomas Szasz to sociologists P. Conrad
and W.S. Schneider to psychologist O.H. Mowrer and more have observed
that as the field of clinical psychology with its classifications of
mental disorders has grown, so has the tendency to "medicalize" human
My faults and foibles, my internal or interpersonal struggles, my bad
habits and the like are no longer my responsibility but rather symptoms
of an illness that needs medical treatment.
As the notion of "mental disorder" has gained prominence, it has been
stretched to include more and more areas of human thought, feeling and
In the book "Rethinking the DSM," published by the American
Psychological Association, several secular authors criticized the
expansion of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
and how more and more phenomena today are considered a diagnosable
It may surprise some that modern psychology and psychiatry do not have a
settled vision of what mental health is.
With this lack of a clear norm, how can a valid system of mental illness
This is a problem of which John Paul II was well aware: "The difficulty
which the experts themselves in the field of psychology and psychiatry
experience in defining satisfactorily for everybody the concept of
normality is well known. In any case, whatever may be the definition
given by the psychiatric and psychological sciences, it must always be
examined in the light of the concepts of Christian anthropology."
Not only has the sense of sin subtly been undermined by this emphasis of
clinical psychology, but at times it has also been forthrightly
As the reasoning goes, if this medicalized view of human behavior is
correct, then any residual guilt feelings regarding my own condition or
that of someone close to me must themselves be symptoms of psychological
Despite the attempts of a few marginal thinkers to restore a sense of
moral responsibility and thus a sense of sin to the psychotherapeutic
milieu, the psychiatric establishment has largely been unaffected. Thus,
the sense of sin continues to wither under the powerful influences of
Andrew Sodergren on Guilt and Mental Disorder
ARLINGTON, Virginia, 23 DEC. 2005 (ZENIT)
A sound psychology must rekindle man's innate spirituality by taking
sin seriously, contends a Catholic therapist.
Andrew Sodergren is a therapist at the Alpha Omega Clinic and
Consultation Services, and a doctoral candidate at the recently
accredited Institute for the Psychological Sciences.
In the second part of this interview with ZENIT he shares his views of
an integrated psychology that is true to human nature and acknowledges
human freedom. Part 1 appeared Thursday.
Q: How can a sense of sin and vice contribute to the field of
Sodergren: In 1995, Pope John Paul II said in an address to the Roman
Rota, "Only a Christian anthropology, enriched by the contribution of
indisputable scientific data, including that of modern psychology and
psychiatry, can offer a complete and thus realistic vision of humans."
Any psychology that is going to be true to human nature must take into
account the revealed knowledge present in the Catholic faith as well as
two millennia of theological and philosophical reflection of the human
person. Such an account takes seriously human freedom and necessarily
contains the concepts of sin and vice.
Unfortunately, the present age seems to be one in which the sense of sin
has been lost due to the effects of secularism and secular psychology.
And this loss of the sense of sin has detrimental effects not only on
individuals but on the social development of the world.
Q: What then is the answer to this state of affairs, specifically for
those seeking to propose a psychology grounded in Catholic anthropology?
Sodergren: First, as John Paul II continually warned, we must not fall
into the trap of giving an account of the human person limited to this
Rather, he said, a psychology integrated with Catholic anthropology
"considers the human person, under every aspect
terrestrial and eternal, natural and transcendent. In accordance with
this integrated vision, humans, in their historical existence, appear
internally wounded by sin, and at the same time redeemed by the
sacrifice of Christ."
Thus, in our academic and clinical psychologies, we must strive to
rekindle man's innate "religious awareness," that is, the inner longing
of the human heart for God, which St. Augustine so eloquently
articulated and has been echoed in the Church for centuries.
Secondly, we need to recover an authentic understanding of human
freedom: one that underscores the fundamental connection between freedom
and truth, the ability for man to shape himself through his free
choices, and neither takes an overly pessimistic view nor an
exaggeratedly optimistic view of the power of freedom in the face of
Such a notion of freedom, springing from our Catholic anthropology, must
penetrate both theoretical and clinical aspects of a renewed psychology.
Thirdly, as Robert George said in his 2002 commencement address to the
Institute for the Psychological Sciences, "A sound psychology takes sin
We need to adopt a rich understanding of the dynamics of sin. That is
not to say that Catholic psychologists should begin blaming their
patients for their own troubles as some authors would suggest. On the
contrary, our anthropology impels us to the highest level of compassion
Nor should we go to the extremes taken by people like Szasz who
deconstruct mental illness altogether. When someone comes for
psychotherapy, there really is "something" wrong for which they need
some form of treatment. The question is, "How is that 'something' to be
This is where the work of integration must be done. We must strive to
parse the relationship between sin and mental illness.
Presently, I see three ways of construing this relationship, although
there are probably more.
One view is that sin and mental illness are two mutually exclusive ways
of conceptualizing the same phenomenon. In that perspective, to the
extent that one wishes to begin from a Catholic anthropology, one must
reject modern understandings of psychopathology. Though there is some
truth to this, I think it would be foolish to discard this whole area of
A second view of the relationship is to see them as entirely separate
domains: sin and vice pertaining to the moral domain and mental disorder
pertaining to the medical domain with no intrinsic connection between
This view must absolutely be rejected. No patient arrives at the
psychotherapist's office unaffected by original, actual and social sin.
Nor have they been unaffected by the call of grace, and these have the
utmost bearing on the human person's psychic and interpersonal life.
The third perspective is to recognize that sin and mental illness are
not exactly the same thing, but they are closely related. Current
standards for identifying and classifying mental disorders use a
descriptive approach based on observable signs, symptoms, course and
onset. This approach makes few if any claims regarding etiology.
What a rich concept of sin provides is a sure grounding for speculation
regarding the etiology of mental disorder. Simply put, there is no
clinical disorder whose genesis cannot be accounted for through the
dynamic interplay of original, actual and social sin. These do not
however, provide much detail about the concrete manifestations of such a
disorder. Here modern psychopathology offers us a genuine service
through systematic observation and data collection.
However, such procedures on their own cannot give a complete account of
the phenomenon of psychic and/or interpersonal suffering. In a sense,
the two perspectives need each other.
An authentic psychology that successfully integrates these concepts will
be poised to give the clearest, most comprehensive explanations of human
phenomena and offer forms of treatment that will truly help the human
person overcome the effects of sin, become more human, and progress
toward his ultimate end.
Q: In light of this discussion, is guilt a good thing
or it is something to be resolved by the psychologist?
Sodergren: First, there is such a thing as neurotic guilt, i.e., guilt
that is unfounded and misguided.
In such a situation, the task of the therapist would be to examine why
the patient is inappropriately taking this guilt upon himself. Often,
underlying such guilt is an experience of rejection and utter
A related problem is when the patient is Catholic and has been
sacramentally absolved of a given sin but continues to feel profound
guilt over it. In such a case there could be two things happening.
First, the person, through their prior relationship experiences
going all the way back to infancy
may have developed an interpersonal style in which he or she cannot
accept the mercy, beneficence or care of another. This internalized view
of self and other can prevent the objective fact of forgiveness from
Second, a person who has committed a particular grave sin for which he
or she is embarrassed and ashamed may have difficulty separating this
experience from the sense of self. In other words, the experience of
having done X, even though X has now been forgiven, overpowers the
person's sense of self, leaving feelings of guilt and shame.
The goal here is to help the patient engage in positive behaviors that
will strengthen the self-image that is currently being overshadowed by
X. These patients may need to identify further ways to do "penance" for
their sins that allow them to "pay the debt" of their misdeeds.
Rather than fixating on the morbid nature of their misdeeds, patients in
this way can use the experience of their past sinfulness as a motivation
to do good.
On the other hand, guilt is not always a bad thing and indeed, is an
important part of the moral life.
Because of the sanctity of the human conscience and the tendency of
psychology to diminish the sense of sin, psychologists must be extremely
careful when dealing with patient guilt. In most cases, it is not the
place of the therapist to absolve patients of guilt. This should be
worked out between the patient, God, a confessor and perhaps a spiritual
Rather, the therapist can help the patient to identify the underlying
causes of his difficulties, which led to the guilt, and work together to
resolve them. When a therapist attempts to absolve a patient's guilt
feelings, he steps into the arena of conscience, a sanctuary that one
ought not trespass upon lightly.
When thinking about their patients' guilt feelings, it is important for
therapists to keep in mind how subtly human beings can affect each
other, often without a conscious awareness that it is happening, as well
as how one's actions shape one's character, tuning the cognitive,
affective and volitional powers of the person in a particular way.
With these dynamics in mind, how can the therapist be absolutely certain
that a given patient has no reason whatsoever to feel guilt for
Q: How does a sound psychology, which takes sin seriously, relate to
understanding the concepts of forgiveness and a God of mercy?
Sodergren: In his encyclical "Dives in Misericordia" about the Father
who is rich in mercy, John Paul II noted that the "present-day
mentality, more perhaps than that of people in the past, seems opposed
to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove
from the human heart the very idea of mercy. The word and concept of
'mercy' seem to cause uneasiness in man."
Without a sense of sin, the need for mercy and the possibility of giving
and receiving mercy are impossible. This places a horrible limitation on
humanity for as John Paul taught, mercy is the form that love takes in
the face of sin, i.e., in a fallen world.
Without a sense of sin, then, it is impossible to fully love.
A sound psychology does not restrict itself in this way. Recognizing
that self-giving love involving the whole person is the goal of human
existence, a goal of such a psychology will be the ability to give and
Psychotherapeutic interventions based on such a psychology will seek to
help patients forgive others who have wounded them and to grow in the
ability to seek and accept forgiveness for one's own misdeeds.
In regard to the latter, this means also taking responsibility for one's
condition and using the gift of freedom in positive ways in accord with
In the early stages, the patient's freedom will likely be fairly
impaired, requiring much assistance from the therapist and others to
counteract the habitual patterns of thinking, feeling and acting that
have developed over time.
In the end, the patient will hopefully embrace these goals for
themselves and continue to pursue them with the full force of their
A patient, who has been helped to give and receive forgiveness with
other human beings, will be more able to accept the overwhelmingly
profound fact of God's love.
As St. John explains, the measure of our love of God is our love for one
another. The psychologist who can help his patients to love others more
authentically, which necessarily requires the recognition of sin and the
need for forgiveness, will do his patients a great service indeed.