A Partnership: Christian Psychology

Author: Father John Flynn, LC


A Partnership: Christian Psychology

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 transcendent desires.

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, Virginia.

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.

Contrasting approaches

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 Perspective."

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 impulses.

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," Vitz commented.

Rediscovering virtue

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 affirmed.

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 Psychological Assessment."

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 vows.


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," they wrote.

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 conscience."

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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On the Net:

"Edification" Catholic issue: http://christianpsych.org/wp_scp/wp-content/uploads/edification-31.pdf

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