Psychotherapy That Takes Virtue into Account

Frank Moncher Goes Beyond «Feel Good» Treatment

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 9, 2002 ( Is there room in psychology for a Catholic view about personal virtue? Dr. Frank J. Moncher thinks so.

In fact, he believes an emphasis on virtue can help patients of any religion, or none at all, when they are in therapy, precisely because, being made in God´s image, they have a profound moral dimension.

Moncher, director of clinical training at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences ( in Arlington, Virginia, near the U.S. capital, spelled out his approach at length for ZENIT.

ZENIT: Could you briefly explain the mission of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences?

Moncher: The institute was created to fill a need in the psychological field, which has traditionally been dominated by a secular humanist view of the world and the human person, and neglectful or at times hostile toward the perspective of religious faith.

To fill this need, the institute explores the integration of the truths of revealed faith and the truths of scientific reason in its curriculum. In doing so, the institute is dedicated to the recovery of the Christian intellectual tradition and the development of a Catholic psychology consistent with the teaching of the magisterium of the Church and in dialogue with the modern world.

Simply put, IPS strives to train a new generation of psychological professionals who embrace and can practice from a perspective that respects the inherent dignity of each individual as a child of God.

Q: IPS is starting a new radio program. What kind of format will it have? Where and when will it air?

Moncher: Recently, the institute and its faculty were asked to participate in an effort to expand Catholic radio programming in the Washington, D.C., area. The show has been named «Healthy Minds, Healthy Souls,» and is currently an interview format, where the host interviews the guests about their particular area of expertise with a focus on how listeners can practically apply the information in their daily lives, fostering both their emotional as well as their spiritual growth.

There is some thought being given to changing to a call-in, question-and-answer format. The show can be heard Mondays through Thursdays, 7-7:30 p.m., on WUST 1120 AM, Washington. It can also be accessed through their Web site:

Q: You recently wrote that patients can benefit from a focus on their exercise of virtue when they enter psychotherapy. What kinds of patients?

Moncher: While there is a certain universality to the idea of a psychotherapy of virtue, the types of patients who would be most appropriate to explore these notions would be individuals who are struggling with addictions, marital problems, parenting issues, or other problems of adjustment to life circumstances.

Furthermore, while more severe psychological problems may require different interventions in order to help a patient become more stable, a psychotherapy focus on virtue could still be a useful addition.

Finally, although patients who have a strong investment in their faith lives easily see the connection between their psychological behavior and their spiritual behavior, even for those not focused on growing in holiness, the focus on good choices that comes with the exercise of virtue is potentially very beneficial.

Q: What exactly do you mean by a practice of virtue? And why is this approach unique?

Moncher: In order to understand the notion of «improving virtue,» we should first discuss a way of understanding the nature of emotional problems.

In the framework I´m applying, problems occur in someone´s life when he is prevented from acting toward that which he knows is truly good — as opposed to something that merely feels good in the short term. People may be prevented by needs, wants, feelings or passions that compel them toward different goals than what they know to be good.

Clinically, many of the clients we see are suffering psychologically from a restriction in their ability to choose freely; in fact, that is maybe the best way to understand counseling and psychotherapy from a Catholic perspective, that is, the goal from this perspective is to free people to freely choose God, lives of holiness, or in the language of this interview today, to choose virtue.

Individuals who are hindered in their ability to know, freely choose, or act upon their choices because of psychological problems, are compromised in their ability to demonstrate virtue. Because of this connection between the two — psychological problems interfering with virtue — people can benefit from performing the opposite, that is, through exercising virtue in the face of emotional struggles.

The specific nature of this benefit occurs in the realm of self-acceptance, and trusting that they are worthy of love — this can at times be very difficult for people who find themselves engaging in behaviors that they disagree with in principle.

Q: How does this process, of involving virtue in therapy, work?

Moncher: Virtue develops through education, deliberate and conscious acts, and perseverance in times of struggle and challenge. In order to act with virtue, one must utilize both their human capacity for reason and their capacity of free will; in other words, virtue is acquired through the mutual influence of knowledge and action.

While it is possible to accomplish this on one´s own initiative, it is not uncommon to require support in the process. The therapy itself may look similar to any of the traditional types of psychotherapy in practice today, particularly in the early stages. However, as therapy progresses and the patient becomes more free of their troubles, the notion of practicing virtue is introduced.

The patient may be encouraged to look at the areas in their life that could be improved should they improve their exercise of specific virtues. Of course, because some lack of freedom may still persist, psychologically speaking, and because the building of virtue takes time, perfect exercise of virtue is not expected.

But with practice, more positive habits will begin to develop. It should be noted that the work of striving to become virtuous is difficult, and patients may need to be reassured that in time as the external habit becomes an interior virtue, greater ease of performance will occur.

The difficulty arises from the intensity of effort which it often requires to make the correct acts. Pain occurs because one is still in a state of imperfect virtue; if one´s state of virtue were perfect, they would experience pleasure, not pain, in practicing virtue.

Q: So which comes first: psychological health, or the practice of virtue? Can you have one without the other?

Moncher: Realistically, the exercise of virtue on a regular basis should not be expected, particularly with someone who has emotional or psychological problems. However, efforts at virtuous outward behavior can have a strengthening impact on the inner order of the person, and should certainly be encouraged.

From the Catholic perspective, you can be psychologically healthy and still choose sin — but this is a spiritual disorder, not a psychological one. On the other hand, one can lead a holy life and have some emotional issues, as evidenced in some lives of saints.

Perhaps the best way to think about this, is that while separate ideas, they do tend to go hand in hand for most of us, and it is helpful to try to grow in both areas, as they facilitate each other.

Q: Where is mainstream psychiatry failing in this regard?

Moncher: You might find some interest among the behavioral school who might focus on the development of habitual responses through well-known reinforcement and punishment principles. However, this does not nece
ssarily lead to the most healthy outcome. In fact, mere development of habit with no real moral compass can actually lead to psychological dysfunction — for example, addictions — whereas virtue is by definition related to positive works and makes the one who possesses it healthier.

It is the repetition of the interior acts, of intelligent mastery over one´s self, that will contribute directly to the formation of virtue. In contrast, the repetition of exterior acts can produce habits, but will not necessarily lead to virtue.

Another area where some progress is appearing in the mainstream is a relatively recent development in psychology called «positive psychology,» an aspect of which focuses on the issue of character development. The institute is sponsoring a continuing education conference in Baltimore, Maryland, this summer where scholars will discuss and debate the issues of character development from both secular and spiritual perspectives, as well as how the family is involved in the development of character in young people.

Q: The climate of moral relativism we live in today: Does that affect the way patients view their problems? Are they too forgiving of themselves?

Moncher: Virtue is an inclination toward the doing of the good actions commanded or permitted by the moral law, and the avoiding of the evil actions forbidden by the moral law. Such a statement brings the issue you ask into clear focus, as it makes clear the existence of fundamental and objective truth.

Moral relativism, on the other hand, is a pervasive aspect of many individual´s worldview in contemporary society. And, yes, you do have people seeking therapy who are focused primarily on how they might «feel better,» with little sense that there is any objective truth or reality that might be impacting them and contributing to their distress.

This shortsighted focus on «good feelings» really diminishes the fullness of what we are capable of as human persons, because it is focused upon our sense feelings, and ignores that which makes us most human: practical reason and the related ability to make choices, which either strengthen, or weaken, our self-mastery and moral virtue.

Here is where the truth of what it means to be a human person from the Catholic perspective can be a great help. Because God has made us in a clear manner, with free will that is directed toward love, even a person who is currently pursuing selfish goals has an internal awareness of the greater truth of God´s love and their destiny to love others.

Hopefully the introduction of the idea of virtue, or building character, in the therapy session might awaken the positive internal goodness of the individual being treated.

Q: Regarding your approach: Which part of it is hardest for other therapists to accept?

Moncher: I imagine secular therapists can get lost in the religious-sounding language of virtue, particularly moral virtue. However, it is important to note that the concepts apply to all persons, not just those who are spiritually or religiously inclined.

This is an important focus for the Institute for the Psychological Sciences as a whole: Our program is designed to train clinicians to work with all human persons, regardless of worldview or belief system. This is possible precisely because every human person shares the dignity imbued by God´s love in creating him. Therefore, what is an effective intervention for helping someone professing a Catholic faith will be effective for someone who professes a different faith, or even no faith at all.

* * *

Moncher´s article «A Psychotherapy of Virtue: Reflections on St. Thomas Aquinas´ Theology of Moral Virtue» appears in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 20(4) pp. 332-341. ISSN 0733-4273. Copyright 2001 Christian Association for Psychological Studies. The is available through the IPS Web site.

The Institute for the Psychological Sciences can be contacted at:
Jefferson Davis Highway
Suite 102
Arlington, Virginia 22202
(703) 416-1441

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