The Lost Sense of Sin in Psychology (Part 1)

Andrew Sodergren on Sin vs. Symptom

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ARLINGTON, Virginia, DEC. 22, 2005 ( Psychology needs to examine the role of sin in mental health, in the light of Christian anthropology, says a Catholic therapist.

Andrew Sodergren is a therapist at the Alpha Omega Clinic and Consultation Services, and a doctoral candidate at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS).

The recently accredited institute is dedicated to the development of a psychology that is consistent with Church teachings while in constructive dialogue with the world.

In this two-part interview with ZENIT, Sodergren shares his views on psychology’s tendency to «medicalize» human behavior and the implication for society.

Q: What do you mean when you say that modern man and society have lost a sense of sin? How have secularism and secular psychology in particular contributed to this?

Sodergren: We have been hearing a great deal recently from the Holy Father, various Church leaders and commentators about the growth of relativism.

It is worthwhile to recall the words of Benedict XVI shortly before the conclave that elected him Pope. In that address he accused modern culture of «building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.»

This growth in a relativistic mentality would not be possible without a prior weakening of the sense of sin. The «sense of sin» refers to having an accurate conception of sin and an awareness of sin in one’s life.

It is part of what is normally understood as «conscience.» John Paul II in «Reconciliatio et Paenitentia» wrote of a «sensitivity and an acute perception of the seeds of death contained in sin, as well as a sensitivity and an acuteness of perception for identifying them in the thousand guises under which sin shows itself. This is what is commonly called the sense of sin. This sense is rooted in man’s moral conscience and is as it were its thermometer.»

Thus, without a healthy sense of sin, man’s conscience becomes clouded, and he easily goes astray. When this happens on a large scale, it can be disastrous for society.

Indeed, many writers have commented that «sin» has all but dropped out of modern discourse. John Paul II analyzed this situation and concluded that modern society has indeed lost its sense of sin for which he largely blames secularism. I believe that secular psychology has also had a particularly important role in diminishing the sense of sin.

Indeed, John Paul himself identified secular psychology among other human sciences as contributing to this loss.

Q: Can you explain what you mean by sin, in terms of character deformation rather than mere legalism?

Sodergren: In order to overcome the loss of the sense of sin, it is essential to recover a proper understanding of the nature of sin itself.

Sin is not simply a violation of a norm, rule, or law. Yes, it is that, but it is much more and its effects are far more insidious. It is crucial to widen our understanding of sin and avoid reducing sin to a merely legalistic view.

A renewed sense of sin begins with an acknowledgment of sin in its different manifestations: original sin, actual sin and social sin.

The Church’s doctrine of original sin is often neglected today. By choosing themselves over God and thus rebelling from his command, our first parents marred their likeness to God. Their human nature was wounded by this rupture. We are all affected by the deleterious effects of original sin.

Every evil in the world is traceable back to this fundamental disruption at the beginning of time.

Since human nature consists of a unity of body and soul — see the Catechism, No. 365 — and the human soul is a spiritual soul — see No. 367 — original sin has then physical, psychological and spiritual effects.

In addition, man is a fundamentally relational being, which means that original sin necessarily disrupts his interpersonal relationships. Thus, disharmony is introduced between man and God, between human beings, within the human subject, and even between man and the cosmos.

Actual sin refers to the sinful actions that human persons commit. The character of the human person is shaped through his moral actions, which lead to the formation of dispositions. If his actions are righteous, the person develops virtues.

If, on the other hand, man’s actions are immoral, his state in the world — already disordered by original sin — is worsened through the development of vices. This condition inclines him to commit further sins thus moving him toward further disintegration.

Seen in this way, sin can be seen as a dynamic, insidious force that is somewhat like a disease or addiction that works to unravel the human person, making him a slave of sin and alienating him from his ultimate end.

«Social sin» is a concept that has received greater attention in recent teachings of the magisterium than in previous times. John Paul II pointed out that there are ways that this term is used that are false. These erroneous meanings absolve the individual of all responsibility and blame solely the larger social forces for the individual’s misdeeds.

Nonetheless, there are legitimate notions of «social sin» that have, in fact, been incorporated into the official teachings of the Church. Because of a greater appreciation of the relationality of man and the solidarity of all human persons, these teachings of the Church express a great sensitivity to the myriad ways in which one person’s sins affect others, the Church and the world.

In other words, my sins not only wound myself, worsening my own condition, but they also harm other people around me, the Church as a whole, and even drag down the human race through what John Paul II called the «communion of sin.»

Another valid aspect of the notion of social sin is that social situations arise as a result of sin that inflict harm on others and incline them to sin as well. These social structures that can lead people into sin have been termed «structures of sin.»

Thus, when sinful actions become accepted by a society, structures of sin can emerge, which tend to push others toward committing sinful acts. This does not absolve the individual of responsibility, for he will still be judged according to his personal free acts. Nonetheless, it does give a richer view of how the sin affects others and can indeed lead them to commit sin as well.

Q: What is it in the content of certain secular psychology theories that denies the sense of sin?

Sodergren: Secular psychology has produced many theories of personality. These theories have contributed to the loss of the sense of sin in two ways: by their secular view of the person and by their misconceptions regarding human freedom.

Dr. Paul Vitz has noted many times that all of the major theories of personality in psychology are secular in nature. In other words, they attempt to give an explanation of human existence, development, fulfillment, and obstacles to that fulfillment without any reference to divine or sacred realities. These theories focus on the immanent happiness of the individual without any reference to the transcendent or to objective truth.

They portray a humanism totally without God. Thus, these secular theories of the person reduce one’s sense of God. As John Paul II and others have pointed out, the sense of God is closely related to the sense of sin. When the former withers, so does the latter.

The other way in which these theories of personality undermine the sense of sin relates to how they conceive of human freedom.

Many psychological theories conceive of the human person in a deterministic fashion. That is, they regard the human person and his actions as pre-determined results of his childhood experiences, his genes, his neural circuitry, the pressures of environmental reinforcements and punishments,
and so on.

Within a deterministic framework, human freedom soon disappears, and if man lacks freedom, moral notions such as sin likewise become meaningless.

Other psychological theories absolutize human freedom conceived as autonomous choice. These theories deny the reality of original sin stating that the human self already possesses everything it needs to be self-actualized. It only needs to be freed from any constraints placed on it by external forces.

The problem with these theories is that they embrace an ethical subjectivism that denies the existence of moral absolutes other than, perhaps, the «commandment» to self-actualize. Duties and obligations toward others are secondary at best. With this mindset, any sense of sin quickly vanishes.

Q: How does secular psychology define mental illness, and how can this be related to the reality of sin? Is it significant that psychology’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has been rapidly expanding as the sense of sin has been diminishing?

Sodergren: This is a very subtle and complicated but important issue.

The application of a purely secular disease model to the realm of mental disorder and its treatment has served to undermine the sense of sin. How could this be the case?

John Paul II again points us in the right direction: «Another 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.»

Many scholars from psychiatrist Thomas Szasz to sociologists P. Conrad and W.S. Schneider to psychologist O.H. Mowrer and more have observed that as the field of clinical psychology with its classifications of mental disorders has grown, so has the tendency to «medicalize» human behavior.

My faults and foibles, my internal or interpersonal struggles, my bad habits and the like are no longer my responsibility but rather symptoms of an illness that needs medical treatment.

As the notion of «mental disorder» has gained prominence, it has been stretched to include more and more areas of human thought, feeling and acting.

In the book «Rethinking the DSM,» published by the American Psychological Association, several secular authors criticized the expansion of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and how more and more phenomena today are considered a diagnosable mental disorder.

It may surprise some that modern psychology and psychiatry do not have a settled vision of what mental health is.

With this lack of a clear norm, how can a valid system of mental illness be constructed?

This is a problem of which John Paul II was well aware: «The difficulty which the experts themselves in the field of psychology and psychiatry experience in defining satisfactorily for everybody the concept of normality is well known. In any case, whatever may be the definition given by the psychiatric and psychological sciences, it must always be examined in the light of the concepts of Christian anthropology.»

Not only has the sense of sin subtly been undermined by this emphasis of clinical psychology, but at times it has also been forthrightly attacked.

As the reasoning goes, if this medicalized view of human behavior is correct, then any residual guilt feelings regarding my own condition or that of someone close to me must themselves be symptoms of psychological disturbance.

Despite the attempts of a few marginal thinkers to restore a sense of moral responsibility and thus a sense of sin to the psychotherapeutic milieu, the psychiatric establishment has largely been unaffected. Thus, the sense of sin continues to wither under the powerful influences of psychology.

[Friday: On guilt]

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