Psychology That Is True to Science, True to God

Gladys Sweeney on What Therapy Can Do for Troubled Believers

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 13, 2005 ( A psychology rooted in the Catholic understanding of the human person is not only true to science, but true to God.

So says Gladys Sweeney, dean of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, which aims to provide a bridge between science and faith.

Sweeney shared with ZENIT how psychological sciences are at the service of the Church if they free individuals to become better Christians and benefit from a sacramental life.

Q: What are some solutions for Catholics who suffer from depression or mental illness?

Sweeney: Oftentimes depression or other forms of mental illness constitute an obstacle to free will. Effective psychological treatment is very helpful, because the treatment essentially seeks to free the person not only to see the «good» more realistically, but also to be able to choose the «good.»

Traditionally there has been mutual distrust between the psychological sciences and faithful Catholics. Psychology has tended to see faith as superstitious behavior, and religious people have tended to see psychology as science unnecessary to them. Sufficient faith should take care of all the problems, whatever they might be.

Neither position reflects the truth. A psychology rooted in the Catholic understanding of the human person is not only true to science, but true to God. The psychological sciences have much to offer a person whose free will is impaired.

For example, let’s take the case of somebody suffering from extreme scruples. He might in fact be suffering from «obsessive compulsive neurosis.» This psychological disorder can become so severe if not properly treated as to impair the person from functioning normally.

Good, faithful Catholics might in fact stop going to confession to avoid feeling that they have invalid confessions for having forgotten to confess «all sins.» They might in fact stop going to Communion for fear that they may be receiving Our Lord unworthily. This disorder is easily diagnosed and treated.

The psychological sciences are at the service of the Church. By helping this person regain normal functioning, they free him from the neurosis. But the freedom is not only a «freedom from,» but also a «freedom to» — a freedom to become a better Christian and to be able to benefit from a sacramental life.

Properly understood, then, there is no conflict between a psychology grounded in a sound anthropology and the teachings of the Church. The challenge is to find psychologists trained properly in this perspective who will respect the religious values of their patients, and will not in any way undermine them.

Q: What are the most common misunderstandings in the treatment of depression today?

Sweeney: One of the greatest misunderstandings in the treatment of depression is the notion that depression is alleviated «solely» through medication.

Although it is true that the use of antidepressants has offered tremendous relief to patients suffering from this disorder, the exclusive reliance on the pharmaceutical treatment, excluding more traditional forms of psychotherapy, is not the best treatment.

One of the most effective treatments for depression is what psychologists have named «cognitive restructuring.» This treatment modality attempts to reorder emotions according to reason.

Often, in a case of depression, the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness takes control of the entire person, and the patient is not able to see reality objectively. It is as if they view the world through dark lenses. A depressed person might «interpret» a neutral event as negative, as personally offensive, when in reality it is not so.

The treatment consists of helping the depressed individuals to restructure their thinking, of aiding them to reframe their distorted negative schemas. They are trained to order the emotions according to reason and to see situations more objectively. It has proven extremely effective in helping patients with this diagnosis.

It is important to note that sometimes depressed individuals do not respond well initially to this therapy. This is often the case when the depression is severe.

In those cases, the best treatment is a combination of medication and cognitive therapy. However, medication alone is seldom a good long-term solution to the problem.

Q: How can a life in Christ — that is, participation in the sacramental life, establishing a prayer life, getting spiritual direction — help heal mental afflictions?

Sweeney: Participation in the sacramental life, establishing a prayer life and getting spiritual direction are all means to receive divine grace.

Christian spirituality is life in Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit that keeps us moving in faith — hope based on faith and above all in love as the fullness of faith on the straight path toward the community of the Holy Trinity.

Since grace perfects nature, this spirituality is entirely consistent with psychological health. But spiritual health and psychological health are not identical and neither always proportionate.

An obsessive compulsive neurotic person who cannot deal with confession and maybe even Communion needs treatment to be able to avail himself of the means of receiving sanctifying grace. However, mental health, as with physical health, is not a necessary condition for holiness.

A person suffering from anxiety does not need to be cured of his anxiety first in order to develop the virtues of courage and fortitude or to increase his trust in God. It certainly helps, but it is not a sine qua non for the growth in human virtue. The difficulties encountered in struggling with psychological conditions may in fact serve to foster particular virtues, occasion an outpouring of grace and deepen one’s spiritual life.

Therefore, unless the person’s psychological problems impede his participation in the sacramental life, it is of paramount importance that the person actively participates in it, even as he or she is going through therapy. This is why is so important that the therapist recognizes this need, and encourages the person to do so.

The effects of grace acting with sound psychological treatment are very powerful in achieving healing. Any Catholic suffering from mental illness should continue to receive the sacraments frequently and reverently as well as maintaining a consistent, balanced prayer life.

A good spiritual director can be very helpful in this regard, offering guidance on the path of spiritual development. Whether through therapy or through spirituality, it is always Christ who heals.

Q: Why is it important for Catholics with mental health problems to be paired with Catholic therapists?

Sweeney: Every psychological theory contains within it assumptions about the nature and destiny of the human person. There are theories that are secular in nature and sometimes downright anti-religious. Sometimes they deny human freedom, moral absolutes and thus the reality of sin.

This is why the Holy Father states in «Reconciliatio et Paenitentia,» No. 18: «[One] 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.»

Therefore, Catholics must be very cautious about receiving psychological services or allowing psychological fads to influence their lives.

In addition, psychologists in general tend to view religion rather negatively, which creates further difficulties for Catholics. In psychoth
erapy, it is possible for the therapist to influence his patient in subtle ways that slowly undermine his or her religious beliefs.

With a good Catholic therapist, however, the patient’s religious beliefs and practices would be encouraged, and they may even openly discuss religious matters in the sessions. Such a therapist is going to be working from an authentic understanding of the human person based on the teachings of the Church and augmented by sound psychological data.

This sort of approach is absolutely essential for any Catholic seeking help for a mental health problem.

Q: What resources does the Church offer for members of its flock who deal with mental health issues?

Sweeney: The Church offers us Christ who is the revelation of the love of the Father, and he is man’s revelation of himself.

Christ reveals to us the meaning of our existence and the answer to the longing in our hearts. The Church, in giving us Christ, gives us that which we most desire and ultimately that which will alone satisfy us.

In this «valley of tears» there will inevitably be disappointment, tragedy and sorrow, and all the while the Church points us beyond this horizon to the bosom of the Trinity where Christ is preparing a home for us. Thus, Christ shows us the redemptive meaning of suffering. Through the sacraments of the Church, we encounter Christ and are continually renewed and transformed as our union with him grows.

However, the Church needs to be aware of the unique service that the psychological sciences can offer, especially if they are in the hands of well-formed, integrated therapists, who understand the Church’s teaching concerning human freedom and human dignity.

The mutual collaboration of the human science and pastoral work is of paramount importance, and done in harmony, can bring souls to Christ and promote the establishment of the Kingdom of God on this earth.

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