The Roman Catholic Psychiatrist

Author: Luz G. Gabriel, M.D.

The Roman Catholic Psychiatrist

by Luz G. Gabriel, M.D.


The psychiatrist who is zealous for the Catholic Faith, obedient to the Church's Magisterium and earnest in the support of traditional family values sees in bold relief the reciprocal relationship and the common relevance of Roman Catholicism, the family and the medical science of psychiatry. I write from my own personal impressions and clinical experience; my training in child psychiatry and family therapy has intensified my staunch conviction that interviewing the family members of any particular patient, child or adult, contribute to an understanding of family psychodynamics. On another and a more elevated level, the discovery of the richness of the Catholic Faith and the examples of the saints expanded my outlook and augmented my therapeutic armamentarium.

The Catholic psychiatrist has numerous opportunities to induce others to the virtuous life, and to evangelize. The amassed myriad pieces of knowledge of the Catechism or of the chronicles of holy men and women, fortunately, are stored in the memory bank of the brain, (the hippocampus) and spring to life in definitive recollections, and are used in concrete events of a patient's life. This article will focus on three key items: (1) some vital concepts of the traditional family; (2) an overlooked technique or approach in clinical practice; and (3) the wisdom of Catholic precepts.

The Family

Traditionally, the family is viewed as the basic social and cultural unit crucial to the survival of the human race. The family starts with the marriage of two opposite sexes, a man and a woman, in a lifelong holy bond, a sacrament instituted by Christ Himself at the wedding feast in Canal The Church's esteem for the family is envisioned in these metaphors: the family as the most complete school of humanity, a domestic church, a fountainhead of sanctity and the of the world. Pope John Paul II reiterates that "the future of mankind passes through the human family." In an increasingly secular world we need the guidance of the Church's Magisterium and the Holy Father as the families we treat contend with formidable choices and confront divorce, abortion on demand, violence, homicide, suicide, euthanasia and many other social ills. Truly, life has become cheap while truth and morals are no longer absolute, but relative. The world is tottering on the brink of self- destruction. Indeed, our Holy Father sums up the contemporary scene in his apt comment, "We have become a culture of death, not a civilization of love and life."

In family therapy, the psychiatrist evaluates the essential family functions of problem-solving, communication, affective involvement, autonomy and role definition. He must unravel the roots of marital conflicts and motivate the couple to give up sinful habits for reciprocal satisfaction and fulfillment.

Psychiatry And Religion

As a medical discipline, psychiatry delves into the genetic and biochemical etiology of brain disorder; as such its practitioners prescribe neuroleptics, antidepressants and other psychopharmacologic agents which potently alleviate suffering and normalize mental functioning-albeit appropriately, and competently. Some psychiatrists specialize in group therapy or individual counseling. The aforementioned are modes of treatment on the biological and natural level.

Religion and mental illness, many a time, intertwine; this bare fact becomes clear as we skim over a brief historical profile of the medical specialty of psychiatry. It is roughly categorized into three overlapping periods beginning at the dawn of human history. For the first 1800 years A.D., sickness of the mind was baffling, inexplicable and mysterious. Then, psychiatry was not a medical specialty. Theories of mental diseases commixed with philosophy and religious beliefs. Often the causation was ascribed to evil spirits or divine chastisement; remedial steps were, repeatedly, inhumane, and the patients, stigmatized. With the outset of the second phase, circa. 180 years ago, the field of psychiatry became more cohesive and comprehensible. This ushered in humane reforms in the then so- called "hospitals for the insane." The third or current period, also dubbed the scientific era, commenced about a hundred years ago with the combined research in psychology, psychiatry and neurology.

The Neurosciences And the

The past ten years or so have been designated as the decade of the brain, inasmuch as the neurosciences advanced by leaps and bounds; consequently, psychiatry, too, accelerated its pace, with perfected diagnostic tools and more precise differential diagnoses. The far- reaching positron emission tomography, often termed by its acronym, PET, tracks down psychopharmacologic medications into discrete brain areas; working together, neurologists and psychiatrists, enhance their diagnostic acumen, as they view physiologic processes inside the living brain.

Psychiatry, an empirical science, based on direct observation and experimentation, ordinarily, focuses merely on one aspect of the human person, and one constituent of human reality.

The (no. 1703) teaches that man is "endowed with a spiritual and immortal soul; the human person is the only creature that God has willed for its own sake. From his conception, he is destined for eternal beatitude." And in no. 1702, we read that "The divine image is present in every man." Man's likeness to God and his spiritual nature amplifies our present Pontiff's categorical affirmation of the "whole truth about man." Sadly, the supernatural factor is either shunned or decreed non- existent, even by good psychotherapists. The aforementioned factor is the neglected complementary, but obligatory part of treatment. "Human virtues are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God's help, they forge character" (CCC, no. 1810).

Treatment Hierarchy: Natural And Supernatural

Catholic psychiatrists can be evangelizers of the Catholic Faith; too often psychiatric patients pine for God and require instruction in and direction to the knowledge and truth of our Faith. "The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to Himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for" (CCC, no. 27).

Families, too, need help on both natural and supernatural levels of treatment. We aid them to identify dysfunctional coping mechanisms or psychopathological behavior and also to grasp the sublime efficacy of supernatural grace as an antidote to family difficulties, for our "growth in Christian life needs the nourishment of Eucharistic Communion, the Bread for our pilgrimage until the moment of death" (CCC, no. 1392). Only then will family members be capable of heroic virtues; only then will their mutual devotion intensify while selfishness fades away.

The fields of psychology and psychiatry have rightly been censured by many, not only for their shortcomings, but also for their morally offensive theories. Both fields, however, have wise and competent experts who proffer more tenable and realistic views of the human person. Increasingly, Christian health workers, concede to the God- given dignity of the human person and their responsibility to respect moral values and family traditions. Our present Holy Father lauds psychiatrists who practice judicious therapy and dispense medications prudently.

The Catholic Psychiatrist As Evangelizer

The Roman Catholic Church has sounded the clarion call to duty: "Conserve Truth; preserve the family." She has singled out the laity as a major player in rebuilding the Mystical Body of Christ and uplifting society from its moral turpitude. The lay person, in the midst of the world, has a unique vocation, whatever the state of life or whatever the expertise. We are to proclaim and put into practice the Gospel of Christ in the classrooms and tribunals of justice, in the family abode, in the marketplace and in clinics and hospitals. Psychiatrists, too, are not to separate the Catholic Faith from daily life but to unify our natural existence with the supernatural vision, in ourselves and in the patients we treat.

Evangelization for the Catholic psychiatrist implies assent to the authoritative and irrefutable definition of man, "a being at once corporeal and spiritual" (CCC, no. 362), equipped with intelligence and a free will, with the capacity to ponder and to choose. This authentic model of the human person is the logical and sane replacement for the rampant deterministic, absurd and purposeless psychological and psychiatric theories.

There are some caveats to this approach to treatment which may not be applicable to some for sundry reasons. Only after a thorough analysis of the patient's past and present life history can one be confident in the pursuit of spiritual objectives.

The Catholic psychiatrist as evangelizer must avoid the extreme positions of naturalism (treating the body or mind) on one hand, and of pure supernaturalism or angelism (faith can heal), on the other. Many forget that we are not angels who are pure spirits; our bodies can be defective, our intellects, obscured, and our wills, rebellious. On the natural level, "human virtues can be acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever- renewed in repeated efforts" (CCC, no. 1810). Reassuring for all of us is the realization that the effects of original sin, and our own nothingness can be supplanted by the certainty of grace, and the human heart, filled with the fullness of God. This is therapy at the highest level. "It is not easy for man, wounded by sin, to maintain moral balance. Christ's gift of salvation offers us the grace necessary to persevere in the pursuit of the virtues. Everyone should always ask for this grace of light and strength, frequent the sacraments, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and follow His calls to love what is good and shun what is evil" (CCC, no. 1811). We need to reflect on the latent capability in all of us, either to soar to the towering heights of grace, or plunge down into the abyss of sin, decadence and despair. I will always marvel at the amazing effects on how a deepening faith and love of God in patients have strengthened their character and re-integrated their personalities.

Holiness And The Holy Spirit

Evangelizing others can lead to our own sanctification. Holiness is not a monopoly of the clergy, or monks and nuns. People of deep faith are invited not only to renew the temporal order, but also to a deep prayer life. Sanctity is not the discretion of a few but a duty and responsibility of all. This is made possible by the graces that accompany our state in life. "Having gifts that differ according to the grace given us, let us use them" (CCC, no. 2004).

"Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God Who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit Who apportions to each one individually as He wills. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ" (1 Corinthians 12: 4-12).

Dr. Luz G. Gabriel is a psychiatrist from Pittsburgh with postgraduate residency training at McGill University and the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and Vice President of the Steubenville/Western Pennsylvania Chapter of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

This article was taken from the March/April 1996 issue of "The Catholic Faith". Published bi-monthly for 24.95 a year by Ignatius Press. To subscribe, call: 1-800-651-1531 or write: The Catholic Faith, P.O. Box 160, Snohomish, WA 98291-0160.

Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN