Can Catholics Counsel? The Loss of Prudence in Modern Humanist Psychology

Author: Richard W. Cross


Richard W. Cross

This article was taken from a lecture to the faculty and students of Christendom College on October 22, 1993.

Most people I talk to are concerned about the moral decay in this country. Those of conservative politics are more concerned than others, but political persuasion doesn't seem to have a major bearing on the recognition of the general problem. Where differences do show between them is the attribution of the causes. My conservative friends who are read in psychology tend to lay a good portion of the blame at the feet of modern humanist psychology. There is some truth in this blame casting, but only some. Modern humanist psychology did not construct the foundations of our current decay, (and this I will you to accept without proof) but it did invent a tool whose use has accelerated the decay. This is the tool of <self-acceptance>, and is sometimes used within the practice of counseling psychology, and as such, gives rise to the question whether Catholics can counsel.

Many Christian academics—whom I call the apologists, Christians who wish to baptize humanist psychology—appear to embrace this tool of self-acceptance because they have acceded to the fusion of two rather distinct roles or activities into one. With the humanist, they have fused the psychologist with the counselor. This fusion is flawed, and from it the above-mentioned humanist tool evolves. This fusion has also been thoroughly institutionalized in graduate training programs in counseling psychology, and forms of pop psychology which generally flow from the humanist assumptions. Although the apologist's failure to understand the fundamental problems with the humanist techniques I think involves a lack of scientific understanding, the deeper problem is philosophical.

The Christian community has been quite stubborn in its adherence to the humanist tool, even after well articulated critiques from their own ranks, such as books by Vitz1 on the one side, and open and bitter attacks from the humanists themselves on the other. Most recently, George Albee,2 a well-known humanist academic psychologist, argued in writing that after interrogation, those orthodox Christians who had been flushed out should be barred from admission to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology.3 So it is safe to say that Professor Albee thinks that Catholics can't counsel.4 And by his understanding of the matter, I am inclined to agree. Nevertheless, many responded to the substance of Albee's attack with surprise, as if to suggest that humanism as an ideology can be baptized, and that a fundamental rapprochement with Christianity had already been effected.

In order to understand the humanist tool, we should describe the humanist schools of psychotherapy. There are many, and there are significant differences between them. When I use the descriptor here, I refer to a summary of the works of Carl Rogers, known variously as client-centered therapy, and non-directive therapy. I chose Rogers because he is by far the best known of the humanist psychotherapists and his works are used in virtually all graduate training programs in counseling psychology. The scope of other humanist thinkers is not as wide, nor is their influence as great. Several of my criticisms would not apply to some other so-called humanist thinkers. However, it would be hard to overstate the influence of Rogers in counseling psychology. He is its father.

The Humanist Seminary

A little background. Rogers was a divinity student in the early 20's at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He apparently suffered a crisis of faith, and abandoned his training to pursue an education across the street at Columbia University, at a time when John Dewey was at his peek of intellectual influence there—an influence to which Rogers was most certainly amenable. Rogers began to write extensively on the therapeutic relationship on his return to academia after several years of practice in psychoanalysis—a technique he vigorously abandoned. He conducted research well into the 1960's with a large number of studies on patients from student counseling centers at major universities, among them being Universities of Chicago, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. The philosophical influence of John Dewey, and ultimately J-J. Rousseau, coupled with his experience in psychotherapy apparently lay at the root of his development of a new school of personality theory.

Rogers' predecessors, most notably Freud, proposed that the development of the human personality is the product of a conflict between opposing psychological processes. What happens in the development of a psychological problem is that the opposing forces do not balance each other out, thus resulting in some kind of neurosis. Social influences such as the father and mother can play a role as a factor in these conflicting forces, and can actually affect how the personality develops in either a positive or negative sense. And so, the key to change involves some interaction between forces within the person and without.

Rogers strongly disagreed with the idea of conflict development, and thought that if one's personality is allowed to develop with only support and encouragement from the family and society, adjustment and happiness would inevitably result. According to Rogers, people become conflicted, unhappy, or destructive only because each person's innate capacities are not allowed to come to their natural fruition. Here then, development is essentially within the person—a proposition which doesn't sound too unreasonable. As most humanists, Rogers' argument was based on two assumptions, and it is here where problems pop up. One is that people are good so long as they're not forced to do things that they do not want to do. It follows then that human evil is the result of bad environments. If one simply is left to do what he is inclined to do from an internal impulse, then peace or tranquility will be the outcome. The other assumption is that the origins of the good for the individual are within that individual exclusively. Any external influence to the good is purely accidental to the good which arises from within. Nature is such that we are each born with these inner potencies to autonomous fulfillment (or what fellow humanist A. Maslow called self-actualization.) As the term suggests, each of us strives toward autonomy in our own peculiar way, but never in conflict with others who are themselves seeking autonomy. This conflict-free activity is possible since its origins are from nature as an evolved adaptive tendency within the human species. The autonomous person cannot help but contribute to the benefit of man. This inner impulse to autonomy is like an inner calling, a psychological vocation, as it were.

Unlike other personality theories, for the humanist, conflict is extrinsic to the human personality, and is the source of unhappiness and sickness only. Where conflict arises is when forces outside the person redirect or suppress these autonomous tendencies. Such conflicts occur for example, (note the vocabulary here) when parents are not permissive with their children, or when a parent's love or regard of the child depends upon how the child behaves. Parents who give their children unconditional positive regard enhance the child's process toward autonomy, and the child develops self-acceptance and self-esteem and can therefore maintain his adjustment to an ever-changing environment.

People who do not experience unconditional acceptance of others, fail to develop self-acceptance. They then end up doing those things that others tell them to do, or in the opposite extreme, they simply react against what others tell them to do. In either case, they are less able to do that which they "truly" desire. This leads to a conflict between what they see themselves as, and their ideal self. The result is a lack of self-acceptance, and poor self-esteem. These folks are pushed around and beat up, so to speak. They're victims of their surroundings.

It is in the therapy setting where we see clearly the development of the humanist tool. As far as the therapist is concerned, the process of authentic Rogerian technique is to accept <unconditionally> the patient5 as he is, so that the person can experience, and then openly express certain feelings or emotions without having to resist, suppress, or otherwise repudiate these feelings. In the presence of the therapist, this emotional expression (hopefully guilt free) is designed to lead the patient to self-acceptance, and it is this self-acceptance which is the humanist tool referred to above.

Self-acceptance leads to autonomy, heightened self-esteem, and happiness. So if I as the therapist am using the authentic Rogerian technique alone, no matter what the patient says, I have to place myself totally into the position of the patient, and accept whatever is said.6 For example, in the extreme, if the patient says that he wants to kill himself, as the therapist, I must accept this desire as legitimate, and must not in any way direct the patient to consider the possibility that such would be a mistake. Note that I am not encouraging the patient to kill himself, but neither can I discourage him, I simply accept his wish as being part of him. Granted, not every patient I have will be putting me into the position of having to accept a suicide gesture as such, but consider the options of, say, abandoning a family, or divorce, or shedding the guilt over a significant drug, alcohol, or sex problem. The authentic Rogerian technique requires that I neither encourage nor discourage such destructive behavior. I must simply accept it. Many manuals and books premised on Rogerian notions carry on endlessly about the emotions of the patient, and this makes sense since it is our desires as expressed through our emotions which can get us into conflict with those around us. But as Rogers himself notes in his early writings, the emotions are only a <conduit> to the core consideration in therapy, which is the will. The point of therapy is to get the patient to desire without feeling guilty, and then to chose to follow through on such a desire.7 For Rogerian man, the emotions then are the conduit to the unencumbered will.

The Rogerian therapist escorts, rather than leads, the patient to the point that the patient can extract himself from the effects of any other desire except those that are his own, since these alone issue forth from the ideal self. It is a premise in Rogerian thinking that the root of all guilt is the attachment to some other person or standard against which one's own actions are measured. It is also central to his thinking that in therapy, guilt is conquered by exercising one's desire to choose without reference to someone else's standards. The conquest over guilt is accomplished by self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is the humanist tool, <par excellence>.

With these general comments in mind, let's walk through an actual case and see how these ideas usually take shape. Now this case is somewhat simplified, but I have deliberately not placed into the mix any problems of major emotional disturbance. Let's suppose you are the patient, you're not schizophrenic, nor obsessive-compulsive, nor agoraphobic: all technical terms indicating that you're not mentally ill. It is important that you're not, because, as Rogers emphatically insists, diagnosis is not important, since all emotional distress and unhappiness is due finally to the same underlying problem, social impediments to personal autonomy.

By and by you come to me as a confused angry patient who has been having an increasing number of arguments with your parents and your boss. You hold a job and have some talents. You have feelings of not knowing what you should be doing with yourself, and of not knowing how to react to others. Your situation is a prime example of what Rogers refers to as the discrepancy between the actual and ideal self. You've done pretty much everything you've been told, your entire life. You're the obedient son (or daughter). You are beginning to feel that you have a domineering mother. Anger is welling up in you, but you're not sure why. You love your mother, but hate her too in some respects. You're uncertain, confused, unhappy.

During therapy, you talk about your confusion, your anger, your fantasies. All this time I'm simply reflecting back at you what you say. This reflection can be done in a number of ways. But typically I will summarize your statements, without the emotional edge that they may contain as they come from you. I am most likely thinking that you have these conflicted feelings because you're not fulfilling your own desires, you're not doing your own will, but only those of others, perhaps foremost your mother's. But I don't say this, I'm simply a sounding board.

You are perhaps somewhat surprised at first that I do not comment on your ambivalence towards your mother. But as session after session of therapy passes, you begin to realize that no matter what you say, no matter how outrageous or benign, there is no direction from me, I simply support every emotion that you have. You begin to feel relief during therapy. You look forward to being able to vent, particularly about your mother, with acceptance from me. You begin to think to yourself over time, "Gee, this venting stuff is great, it seems to be the way to go." Now ideally, you are to imitate my self-acceptance, and simply react to others the way that I react to you. But you may also come to the following line of thinking, and by supposition, I, the therapist, cannot divert you from it. "If the therapist's acceptance makes me feel better, and my self-acceptance does the same, well then others better accept me too, just the way I am." If you're an extroverted type of person, you will most likely begin to argue with mom, you confront her, you assert yourself. Occasionally mom backs off. "Wow! This autonomy stuff is great! I don't have to listen to mom any more, I can confront her, I can ignore her, I can go through the motions with her, but I'm now free from her, I'm in control of my own destiny. I'm becoming autonomous."

Now what's missing from this scenario? As the therapist, I have no idea of what attributes can be realistically applied to the mother. Are her concerns realistic? How generous or selfish, how prudent or foolish, is she? I may not know how reasonable or unreasonable her requests are. I likely have no idea of the context of your remarks. Numerous and contradictory situations are possible, I may not have a clue as to which is which; but as a well-trained Rogerian, it is simply unimportant to the therapeutic process. Even if I knew all about the mother, it doesn't matter. As the terminology suggests, the therapy is non-directive, it's client-centered, not mother-centered. Why does it have to be non-directive? Because if I direct you, the patient, I have to make judgments. But making judgments implies that there is some standard by which I judge, and an appeal to a standard implies that such can be imposed, or used as a measure. But we must remember that there can be no imposition of any standards within therapy, since it is this imposition from without that impedes your self-acceptance, destroys your autonomy, and is at the root of your unhappiness. Recall that all standards are already within the person, by nature. You accept my standard or you accept yourself.

Suppose that as therapy progresses, your outcome is acceptable in the short term.8 Let us sketch two different scenarios. On the one hand, the mother may be quite reasonable, and has been encouraging you for years to become more independent, but your dependency needs were quite excessive due to some earlier learning experience. So the liberation from your mother may not be such a bad thing in itself, but the manner in which it was accomplished poisoned your relationship. On the other hand, the mother may be a thoroughly nasty and insufferable shrew, and your assertion may be a rather constructive step in the short term. And for me as the therapist, it is likely that I'll never know. Now not knowing about such things in therapy is no surprise to a therapist—there are so many things we never discover about our patients—but what is surprising is that for the Rogerian <in principle> it's not important that I do.

But an even more serious and insidious problem crops up for you, the patient, along the following lines—and this is where the humanist tool betrays its philosophical origins. As my unconditional acceptance of everything you say can effectively encourage you to assert yourself for its own sake, and without any reference to the morality of your desires or actions, the psychology of the situation will likely take one of the following two directions. Either you will begin to dominate others, or will divorce yourself from them.

In the case of domination, you come to believe through therapy that you must assert yourself with conviction to become autonomous—this entails using the tool of self-acceptance.

Remember, assertiveness means behaving in a manner consistent with your own desires. You live with others, who have their desires too. Sometimes your desires and theirs coincide. Sometimes they don't. You are becoming more confident in therapy that contradicting or simply ignoring the will of another places you firmly on the road to a cure. So in the clear cut case where you refuse to feel guilty for your behavior or desires in opposition to other's desires for you, you are confident, you have some certainty, that you're becoming autonomous. And this is all according to plan. Now if those around you happen to be sordid, then you may be a little better off.

But suppose those about you are not so boorish, and are rather reasonable and balanced folk, and your desires happen to conform to theirs. How can you be sure that your desires are really your own, and not the result of some latent social or familial influence? Unless you're perfectly happy, quite frankly, you can't. Besides you're not perfectly happy. Recall that unhappiness is, by assumption, due to social forces outside of you. You must then look for someone else's desires to contrast with yours. As long as you're unhappy, you cannot be sure that any given desire of yours is really yours except in contrast with what you believe others want of you. The dynamic of the unhappy person is the <discrepancy> between the ideal and actual person. To be happy you must move in the direction of the ideal self. Rogers provides no specific guidelines on how to discover this ideal self. He does suggest some general strategies which move one in the direction of autonomy, including moving away from each of the following: façades, oughts, meeting expectations, pleasing others; and moving toward each of the following: self-direction, being process, being complexity, openness to experience, trust of self, acceptance of others.9

Again, how can you be sure that your desires are really your own? The thought may creep in that perhaps you're backsliding into the old pattern of responding to the subtle or obvious demands of others. How then, can you be sure that your autonomy is still intact? There are several options. You need not exercise any of them, but if you do, you will be assured that you're not relapsing into your old obedient ways. One would be you could simply letting others' actions towards you become ineffective in influencing you. Another would be to make a point of contradicting people in thought, word, and deed, even if you secretly agree with them; this way you're assured that it is your will rather than someone else's. People who are arrogant tend to come off this way. Adolescents can make a fine art of this kind of behavior in reference to their parents. The translation: Do your own thing! Another slightly less churlish approach, would be to be the first to do anything, which usually means that you'll cultivate simply giving into your impulses.

Some of the examples above are real enough, but they're not entirely true to the principles of Rogerian thinking, since a radical application of Rogerian thinking cannot finally resolve a potential conflict by a concession of wills, since this would constitute a violation of a basic principle of autonomy (this being the only restriction to the exercise of autonomous behavior). Neither can aggression nor domination, be used. But the above scenarios are what happen often enough.

What does the purist do? As alluded to above, since they cannot dominate or submit, and coincidence is unlikely, they resort to withdrawal or divorce as the mode of detachment. One of the best examples of this type of reaction came from Timothy Leary, a committed humanist psychologist and leader of the hippie movement: his motto "Tune in, turn on, drop out." The focus of good for Rogers being embedded in the person himself, rather than outside of and greater than himself, makes it impossible for a family or community to find a common point of reference. Because in actuality, what binds families and friends together is some common good greater than any member of the group. For Rogers, family or social union is at its root accidental. The only criteria for social unity that we have with Rogers is the inner disposition, which is only available to the person himself. My disposition is not yours. Only I have access to what is good for me, and only you have access to what is good for you (assuming we're both autonomous people). Hence, there is no way that we can unite in a common purpose: that we can be reasonably confident of what makes man man, but only what makes me me, and you you. I'm OK and you're OK!

From the above, it would appear that Rogerian counseling leads to choosing for its own sake, or rather, content-free choice—choice that is detached from its object. It is not so important what I choose, rather, simply that I choose, and that my choice is not linked to others choice for me, but rather that the choice issues from within me simply.

This, then, is the Rogerian idea of human happiness, the development of emotional distress, and the method of recovery from emotional distress. The notions of permissiveness and unconditional self-acceptance are throughout virtually all of Rogers' writings, spanning some 50 years. Now to our first question. If a Catholic, <qua> Catholic, believes that there exists rational, objective, and knowable standards of behavior, and if we use the word counsel in its current Rogerian meaning, the answer to our first question, "Can Catholics counsel?" would be a rather resounding no, since to counsel requires unconditional self-acceptance.

Why is Rogers So Popular?

At face value, one would think that an educated Christian would have some reservations about such talk. Yet one doesn't run across many critiques from the quarters where you might expect them. Why then has non-directive psychology gained such wide-spread popularity, even within groups, such as the Christian clergy, where one would expect perhaps a little closer scrutiny? There are four reasons for the continued popularity of the humanist theories and techniques amongst the religiously inclined.

The first, and perhaps the most obvious is sociological. Rogers and his intellectual brethren have made a significant contribution to an attitude of permissiveness in personal life-style. However, he and his followers did not create the foundations for such in the popular culture, but simply took advantage of changes already well developed by Dewey in, among other places, teacher training circles. Rogerian theory was a superstructure built upon a philosophical foundation laid in part by pragmatists such as Dewey, and the romantic Rousseau, but also by the Modernists like Bergson. Pope Pius X, in his encyclical <Pacendi> (1907) clearly articulated and condemned a prominent view of immanentism well developed by the turn of this century by dissident priests. Summarizing Pius X's observations: religious immanence suggests that the spark of faith resides within man as a certain need or impulse of the heart to the good which is at first unconscious. Pius X notes that this imminent impulse is used to justify moral permissiveness. For the last 75 years, popular culture, the arts, the media, entertainment, and the law have reinforced the notion of moral permissiveness in private affairs as detached from concerns for the common good. At the same time, the simplicity of Rogers' approach is an extremely attractive feature to any casual reader, and to the trainer of psychologists, particularly if it is seen as a tool, rather detached from a way of life. It is the kind of approach that could be readily taught to a group of students in an academic setting, and is almost universally done in the university.

The second reason for his popularity is theological, or rather quasi-theological. Here is a fit for the humanist apologists, since some of Rogers' views appear consistent with certain Christian ideals. For example, the uniqueness of the individual is seen by some popular Christian writers to map onto the idea of the unique vocation from God. Each person has a specific potential to develop into a vocation that is unlike that of any other person. Some popular writers go on to say that such a vocation can finally be known only by the person himself. (I have seen in the popular press a most recent appeal to this reasoning from those women who feel themselves called to the Catholic priesthood.)

Other examples for the religious popularity of Rogers reside in his treatment of scrupulosity. There is little doubt that if the scrupulous person seeks autonomy as Rogers prescribes, his scrupulosity will have been vanquished. Religious counselors can also exercise this technique as an act of mercy motivated by Christian ideals. A justification of this desire is found in St. Thomas' <Summa Theologica>. St. Thomas defines mercy as the heartfelt sympathy for another's distress. He continues "it is essential to happiness that one should obtain what one wishes. . . . and it belongs to unhappiness that a man should suffer what he wishes not."10

Another reason for Rogers' popularity is psychological. There is an appeal in this approach to the basic psychological impulse to reduce for the patient the <tension inherent in the lack of certitude> in practical affairs dealing with vocational and family-related decisions. By reducing the uncertainties about the morality of one's own emotions and behavior, many decisions are easier to deal with, at least in the short run. Frankly, it provides an apparently easy way out of some difficult situations by indulging in fantasy.

Another psychological reason: Rogers presents a scheme which taps into a common feature of those who find themselves in higher education, and those who have been in families where high expectations were the rule. Many of his patients were people associated with the university life; a very large number were students. Many of these students were in prestigious schools where one is likely to encounter tremendous pressure from parents and peers to perform at exceptionally high levels, and to become committed academically to a course of study in which they may have had little interest. Many students under such pressure can develop significant ambivalence (read rage) towards parents when they see themselves in a psychological vise to fulfill only someone else's desires. Undoubtedly many of these students that Rogers dealt with had developed a profound sense of being at odds with their basic desires. His treatment approach of simply accepting the impulse to detach oneself from the pre-existing familial and social pressures, may have been quite beneficial, <per accidens>, for some of these people.11 But the impulse to detachment and rage fits well with the current trend to secure victim status, as a form of moral exoneration, sometimes for the most unconscionable behaviors. A further investigation of this last psychological reason betrays a significant philosophical blind spot in the development and use of the humanist tool of self-acceptance.

Knowledge of the Singular

Aristotle makes a statement on the nature of sensation where he notes that although the sense of sight is the sense of knowledge, the sense of touch is the sense of certainty. This observation underscores a very important attribute in the way we humans come to know things. The sense of sight, and hearing, probably provide us more discriminating information than the other senses combined. More than any other sense, the sense of sight helps to tell us what something is—a house, a car, a horse, what have you. But for all the information that we get from both seeing and hearing, they don't do the best job of telling us <whether> something is. If I see or hear something unfamiliar, I'm inclined to touch it to see if its real. At the sensory level, touch tells us <whether> something exists, whereas sight tells us <what> it is. Notice all the signs about an art gallery or a museum "Don't touch." The proprietors would have us increase our curiosity as to <what>, but would rather have us forego our curiosity as to the <whether>!

The reason for talking about the distinction between our knowledge of whether something is, compared to our knowledge of what something is, is because it is related to the notion of contingency. The word "contingent" can have several meanings, but we're interested particularly in the notion that something that is contingent if it is something that <need not be>.

Although our sense, particularly the sense of touch, can have certitude about the existence of a particular object, our intellectual understanding of the object is not at all certain. I can see the horse in the field, walk up to it, touch it. I know that it's there. But I have a hard time telling you exactly what it is, in the sense that, I have a hard time both defining it, and also grasping why it is there in the grand scheme of the universe. And this is because all things made of matter exist contingently—they need not exist. Contingent objects of knowledge are less knowable in themselves, and our certainty or firmness of understanding them in terms of what they are is correspondingly less. Contingent things, things that are rooted in matter and time, entail more uncertainty or ambiguity in their being understood by us. This is so because they are subject to change. Some contingent things like the weather are one thing one day, and something else the next, rendering any reliable understanding of it rather problematic. So even though the sensory information of singular events can be quite certain, the intellectual apprehension of the meaning or significance of these singular events is quite uncertain.

The importance of understanding the nature of certainty in our sensory knowledge as compared to our intellectual knowledge becomes apparent when we evaluate the humanist theory on the standard of certitude. Humanist theory contains a fundamentally incoherent explanation for the attribute of certainty, or lack thereof, in the mind of the morally conscious person.

Moral Certainty

An attribute of people actively seeking psychotherapy relates to two features of the neurotic's state of mind: their certainty about contingent matters, and their moral status within their immediate community. The psychologically impaired man is inclined to feel certain about things that are inherently uncertain, and uncertain about things that are rather obvious to any normal person. This reversal of things certain can be called the certitude inversion Contingent things that are uncertain are now certain, and contingent things that are relatively certain, are now uncertain. Furthermore, the patient, particularly if his condition is chronic, but stable, is acutely sensitive to how his behavior relates morally to those around him. Whether directly or indirectly addressed, one of the objectives of psychotherapy is to realign this certitude inversion.

Perhaps the clearest example of patients with certitude inversion come from people who are clinically paranoid. A person with paranoid attributes can take the most inconsequential or accidental features about the behavior of others and concoct fantastic and sometimes intricate schemes relating to the ideas of another person. These concoctions have no relationship to the actual behaviors themselves, but are wholly contrived by the paranoid. The notions are of course ludicrous.

Paranoid thinking illustrates the oddity of the thinking when seizing on matters uncertain and rendering them certain. Any normal person would see that even though there is no way to disprove his assertions, (since the denial is itself proof in the mind of the paranoid), these assertions lack "common sense." A person with common sense knows with practical certainty that one can't be certain about such uncertain affairs!

Now when one discusses moral proscriptions (say divorce) with a Rogerian, a simple rejoinder to comments about right and wrong receives the invocation "you're being judgmental" or "such matters aren't so black and white" or "I'm personally opposed, but I can't impose my beliefs on others." Doesn't this kind of talk sound very much like our being uncertain about contingent affairs? Doesn't it sound prudent and charitable?

Well no, because these remarks issue from a complete confusion about where moral certitude is and is not to be found in life. The intellectual attributes relating to certainty and morality come together in the particulars of day to day life. Many affairs of daily life are rather predictable and well understood. Customs can help make things certain, because custom makes things less contingent or changeable. Regularity lessens the amount of change, and thereby increases the likelihood that such matters can be understood—if they can be understood at all. In these kinds of affairs, the virtuous man has some confidence, or certainty about the particular understanding of right and wrong.

However, in those situations where our customs no longer seem to apply, for the virtuous man, it can be difficult to know exactly what to do. Changing circumstance, or novelty, renders certainty improbable. In other words, contingency enters and complicates the picture, and thereby muddles up our understanding of the virtuousness of an action or decision. But, despite all the murkiness, the <general> understanding of moral right and wrong remains certain; it hasn't changed.

If the Catholic is true to his tradition, he has a pretty good idea about the general nature of right and wrong; and in customary situations knows with relative certainty how to interpret the rightness or wrongness of his actions. But in contingent affairs, the virtuous man isn't ever completely sure he's pulled it off rightly. For contingent affairs, the virtuous man isn't so sure if he's done something right, but still has a good grasp of the nature of right and wrong in general.12

By supposition, Rogerian man is confident he's acting rightly so long as he is striving for autonomy, but has no way of knowing he has done something wrong, except if he felt forced to behave according to someone else's wishes. For example, let's suppose that my desires happen to coincide with my wife's. But I am quite concerned about behaving autonomously: then the purity of my autonomy has been tainted by the conformity of my desires with those of my spouse. This casts a pall of uncertainty over my intentions; I am then inclined in the name of autonomy, prompted by self-acceptance, to contradict my spouse, since then I am assured (made certain) that my intentions are autonomous. Now I do not wish to suggest that every Rogerian sympathizer struts about finding people to contradict, but the temptation to do so is always there, since the greatest good is in the name of autonomy. Autonomy is guaranteed by being assertive or detached. It would seem as if being contrary, that is, assertive, had some special honor attached to it—as if there was a sacrament of dissent. Perhaps this is what Pope John Paul II had in mind in his most recent encyclical <Veritatis Splendor>, when he said "opposition to the teaching of the church's pastors cannot be seen as a legitimate expression either of Christian freedom or of the diversity of the Spirit's gifts."13

Rogerian man has done, in a philosophical sense, what our neurotic friend has done on the emotional level. We have a situation where our autonomous man is led to believe that he is at least not doing evil in the particular, but has no idea in general about right and wrong. The humanist notion that the unimpeded will is the origin of happiness has the psychological effect of creating a sense of certitude about the rightness of one's behavior, in a way that ignores the inherent uncertainty about matters rooted in the particular.14 The patient who seriously entertains these inherently false opinions is bound to be bitterly disappointed at some future point in time.

We can now see that the unconditional positive regard by the therapist can only contribute in many cases to the confusion in the patient, because it seeks to render certain, affairs which are inherently uncertain. It is a tool that cannot possibly be baptized, any more than a dog can, no matter the intent of the well-meaning Christian Rogerian.

If Rogers approach is wrong, does it follow that all counseling approaches are mistaken? The answer is of course no, so long as they at least avoid the Rogerian pitfalls—which are many, and some others besides. In the <ST>II-II, St. Thomas defines prudence as that virtue which devises fitting ways to achieve a good end of man's whole life. It involves taking counsel, judging, and commanding, or rather: seeking out knowledgeable opinion and deliberating upon it (taking counsel), determining the best course of action based upon a common law (judging), and acting upon the judgment (commanding).

In order to give good advice, you have to know something about human nature—and many true things about human nature can be garnered from the great teachers in western civilization, certainly starting with Aristotle and St. Thomas. But in the counseling situation, you must know more than the general attributes of the human person, you have to know about the circumstances within which that person finds himself. In other words, you have to have a handle on the contingencies, as much as that is possible since they're rather slippery and uncertain. Now the person who is able to understand human nature, sometimes referred to as natural law, and perhaps also common law in the <ST>, and who also has a way of grasping the particular as best as this can be done, was called prudent, by the ancients. St. Thomas in his question on the Integral Parts of Prudence, asks "whether docility should be accounted a part of prudence?" and notes:

Prudence is concerned with particular matters of action, and since such matters are of infinite variety, no one man can consider them all sufficiently; nor can this be done quickly, for it requires length of time. Hence in matters of prudence man stands in very great need of being taught by others, especially by old folk who have acquired a sane understanding of the ends in practical matters. Wherefore the Philosopher (Aristotle, Ethics vi. 11) says: <It is right to pay no less attention to the undemonstrated assertions and opinions of such persons as are experienced, older than we are, and prudent, than to their demonstrations, for their experience gives them an insight into principles>. Thus it is written (Prov. iii. 5): <Lean not on thy own prudence>, and (Ecclus. vi. 35): <Stand in the multitude of the ancients> (i.e., old men), <that are wise, and join thyself from thy heart to their wisdom>. Now it is a mark of docility to be ready to be taught: and consequently docility is fittingly reckoned a part of prudence.

Prudence is of course the most important of the cardinal virtues, because it directs the implementation of these others, and renders their effective application possible. Prudence is not about an understanding of the ends, or about what is right or wrong, but of the ability to put into effect the means that secure a good end. Prudence is also understood to be associated with counsel, which is the ability to help someone else by way of placing before them information of due consideration of both the natural law and the contingent circumstances.

What is quite clear from these ancient teachings is that in order to be prudent and to give good counsel you have to have had experience. Experience means, among other things, learning from mistakes, yours as well as others. Of course, one cannot ascertain that some particular action is good or bad unless they bring to bear some standard. The use of standards involves judging, and also being able to weigh in the nature of contingency, or circumstance. All of this takes time to learn for most of us, and so it follows that the development of prudence would take considerable time. If, therefore, for most people experience is acquired over some time and as such cannot be simply taught, then, one cannot counsel well lacking experience. Where then is the counselor and the psychologist in all of this?

As far as the good counselor is concerned, prudence is that virtue which somehow brings together those eternal verities of culture, with the dynamics of society. We can study carefully about human nature, but we don't thereby know how it works in day-to-day affairs. We have to see it working in the innumerable circumstances, with patience and hard virtuous work, without losing focus on the more general truth of things. It is precisely the moral order, imparted to us from the natural law, that provides the basis to organize our learning, even by mistakes, around some coherent principle of organization. It is only through the objective moral order that learning from experience is possible. But an understanding of this moral order doesn't automatically confer with it the ability to apply it to practical affairs, in so far as these affairs are contingent. The correct exercise of the virtuous life in contingent affairs takes considerable experience, and as such, is a rather dynamic affair.

The psychologist has a few tools to help people who suffer from chronic or debilitating habits of thought, emotion, or behavior. In so far as these tools are applied to those features of human activity that are only remotely related to the human will, as a kind of raw material of the emotions or desires, then the application of such is a matter of manipulating the person's appetites (desires), in some sense analogous to the way the physician manipulates the body, through drugs, diet, or surgery. This manipulation helps establish habits of thinking, emotion, or behavior, which stabilizes the patterns of living and creates a friendly environment for starting on life again. But once that person's activity in therapy encroaches into the rational understanding of the good, which could most certainly occur as the person begins to stabilize and readjust his way of thinking about long-term behavior patterns, then the psychologist is thrust into the act of giving counsel, and here his technical training is inadequate to the task. The patient is being counseled, in the traditional sense of the term, and the psychologist's own prudence and view of the world become an important factor in effecting a change for the better in the patient. It follows that if we understand the nature of prudence and counsel, the psychologist is not counselor, and therefore, what the Rogerian preaches is not psychology, but rather, a kind of philosophy, and a poor one at that. C. S. Lewis put the matter well when he stated in <Mere Christianity> (paraphrasing) that what psychology undertakes to do is to remove the abnormal feelings, that is, to give the man better raw material for his acts of choice. Whereas morality is concerned with the act of choosing, the act of willing itself.15

Recall the fairy tale about the unhappy little peasant girl who catches the talking fish. The fish pleads with her to let him go. She agrees only after he grants her three wishes. One of the wishes indulges her fantasy, her ideal self, to become a princess. The girl finds herself isolated from everything she knew and loved, and quite lonely. She resolves finally to use the third wish to return to her former self. Alas, in real life there is no third wish as such, just prudence, hard work, and patience, which can bring us to those verities that we might know after all.

Richard W. Cross is Associate Professor of Psychology at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.


1 Paul C. Vitz, <Psychology as Religion: the Cult of Self Worship> (W. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1977).

2 Professor Albee is the founding president of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology, (AAAPP) and a long time surveyor for the American Psychological Association's accreditation team for graduate school training programs in counseling and clinical psychology.

3 <The Scientist Practitioner>, De. 1992; the AAAPP monthly.

4 The strident anti-religious attitude of academic psychologists is beginning to crack. Prof. Martin Seligman, one of the foremost authorities on depression, notes: "In conclusion, people who subscribe to more fundamentalist religious beliefs are on average more optimistic than people who hold more moderate beliefs. Moderates are in turn more optimistic than liberals. We believe that the more optimistic explanatory style present in fundamentalist religious services as well as greater religious hope, involvement, and influence all combine to cause greater optimism in fundamentalists. It has been a fashion for modern social science to argue that authoritarian upbringing and doctrine damage mental health. In contrast, we find that the more authoritarian religions produce more hope and optimism, and we suggest that the question of mental health, authoritarianism, and religious belief be reopened." S. Sethi & M. Seligman, "Optimism and Fundamentalism," <Psychological Science>, vol. 4, no. 4, July 1993, p. 259.

5 Rogers, by the way always uses the word client, never patient.

6 It is quite unlikely that an experienced psychotherapist will use the Rogerian technique exclusively with a given case. Most therapists that I have personally worked with use Rogerian tools but only to a rather limited extent early in therapy. Nevertheless, my criticisms apply to the partial use of the tool, since its utilization of self-acceptance fails to distinguish between the various origins of the psychological disturbance.

7 This facet of Rogers' thinking is a consistent theme throughout his career, and is articulated in his book, <Client-Centered Therapy> (Houghton Mifflin, 1965). Particular attention has been paid to the second chapter "The Attitude and Orientation of the Counselor" which was developed from a 1949 article in the <Journal of Consulting Psychology>.

8 By the way, I'm being quite generous here, since 40 years of therapy research fails to clearly show that non-directive therapy has a generally positive effect on the typical patient.

9 Each of these come from "To be that self which one truly is: a therapist's view of personal goals," <On Becoming a Person>, p. 163ff. It should be pointed out here that Rogers' use and definition of the expression "acceptance of others" in no way implies agreement with or understanding of a view of the good, or common purpose or goal to human behavior, either as it is found in family or social environs. His analogies, and those of fellow humanist A. Maslow, betray a kind of detachment, highly conducive to behavioral withdrawal or divorce.

10 <ST>II-II, q. 30, art. 1. "On whether evil is the proper motive for mercy."

11 Even in the absence of the strong philosophical prejudice that he was laboring under, Rogers fell prey to sampling bias, particularly at the time he was developing his views. In psychological research, great care must be taken in forming views from experience with subjects that are known to be representative of the much larger population. Much of Rogers' therapy experience was with persons associated with the academy. At that time, one would not reasonably expect such a group to be representative of the entire population of psychologically disturbed. When Rogers sought to extend his therapy validation in the 1960's to the seriously disturbed inpatient, the failure was nothing short of spectacular. Case reports from these studies routinely reported that these inpatients became extremely angry during therapy, and couldn't wait to get out of the study.

12 There may be an asymmetrical relationship of understanding the contingencies of moral affairs. The virtuous man usually knows he has done something wrong, but isn't quite as sure he's done something right. Rogerian man erroneously believes he's acted rightly, but never realizes that he can make moral mistakes.

13 Diversity is quite different from uni-versity. The notion of university suggests that many parts come together to form a whole. Diversity suggests no such coming together, and rather would emphasize the fragmentation of some whole.

14 They have the notion of "matter" all wrong. It is the form that is the principle of unity, and the source of certitude in the truth. It is matter, as the principle of division, that gives rise to doubt, or a lack of certitude, since it brings division into the equation. And it is division that makes something hard to understand (hence the meaning of the word "complicated," of having many parts).

15 Christian Behavior, p. 84 in <Mere Christianity>.

This article was taken from the Spring 1994 issue of "Faith & Reason". Subscriptions available from Christendom Press, 2101 Shenandoah Shores Road, Ft. Royal, VA 22630, 703-636-2900, Fax 703-636-1655. Published quarterly at $20.00 per year.