Catholic psychotherapy is grounded in St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that grace perfects nature.
“In other words,” explained Christina Lynch, director of psychological services at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver and president of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association (CatholicPsychotherapy.org, CPA) , “God’s work in the human person does not supplement or bypass our humanity, but, rather, heals, strengthens and transforms it.”
“One cannot separate the person into parts of healing,” she explained. “Therefore, those who engage in psychological counseling in conjunction with spiritual direction are more likely to flourish, as opposed to addressing only one part of the person.”
To promote holistic counseling, the CPA began as an informal support group among Catholic counselors seeking to integrate faith and counseling. Five years ago, the CPA became a nonprofit 501(c)3 national association, with more than 275 members.
Finding True Happiness
“In secular psychology, people may come looking for happiness,” Lynch said. “If only symptoms are addressed, true happiness may not be found, since that involves understanding the whole person.”
Lynch said that Pope St. John Paul II’s teachings on theology of the body are primary for integrating faith with psychology, since every action and thought affects the person.
“A disordered culture promotes distorted notions of freedom and happiness and of marriage and family,” she explained. “Freedom doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be dominated by passions, without discernment. It is given to us so that we know how to make good decisions in life.”
Lynch noted that there are times when a person must first work on the natural life to gain insight and truly know himself or herself as beloved by God before he or she can grow spiritually.
Father Daniel Barron, of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, who serves as director of spiritual formation at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary concurs with Lynch. “Seminarians come out of our culture,” Father Barron said, “so we find that even those who come from healthy families often struggle with cultural assumptions, lies, habits and sins that prevent them from experiencing the ‘life to the full’ that Jesus came to bring us.”
Psychological screening and counseling services are becoming standard in seminaries, according to Father Barron. “St. John Paul II urged those who work in priestly formation to make use of the human sciences, such as psychology, to form integrated priests who are true men of communion and powerful instruments of God’s grace for others,” he said. Father Barron pointed out that spiritual direction can only go so far in helping a seminarian who finds himself “stuck” due to unresolved issues in human development. “In such cases, the help of a competent psychologist who understands and believes in Church teaching is invaluable,” he said. “Family background forms the foundation for a vocation. If there is a crack in the foundation, such as an absent father, there could be a block in his relationship with God the Father.”
Dan Burke, founder of the Catholic Spiritual Direction website and the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation and author of the award-winning book Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, explained that spiritual direction and counseling can support one another. “A great deal of psychological difficulty can be overcome just through spiritual direction and exercises,” he said, “but the need for counseling comes into play when patterns of destructive behavior are not overcome by the normal course of spiritual maturation.”
Burke, who is also the executive director of the Register, shared that, in overcoming his own background of abuse, his greatest progress was from spiritual direction. “Fighting against sin through prayer and the sacraments has been powerful; although, at times, I found counseling helpful.”
He added, however, that it’s important for counseling to be grounded in Catholic anthropology: “Through grace, pursuing God will amplify the effect of what comes from psychology.”
Confronting the Culture
Catholic psychologists practicing outside of seminaries confront the culture in a more expansive way.
James Link is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Bismarck, N.D. He attended seminary for three years before discerning a call to the healing ministry, where he now combines a doctorate in psychology with a master’s degree in theology. Yet not all of his patients are Catholic, and not all of his Catholic patients understand or accept all of the Church’s teachings.
“I try to help people navigate the issues that are important to them, but sometimes —such as someone who wants help embracing a homosexual lifestyle — I have to let them know where I stand and that I can’t help them,” he said.
Although his Catholic faith guides his work, Link said that his role is to help patients, regardless of their faith, to find true meaning and overcome problems.
Often, sin is causing problems, but people are not always receptive to hearing that. Pornography is a big example of this sin-causing-issues scenario.
“It is an epidemic,” he said of pornography. “A majority of people in my profession would say it’s not a big deal if it’s not causing a problem in your marriage; or they might even say a wife needs to lighten up if it bothers her.”
But Link tries to help men see that pornography keeps them from living a virtuous life.
“I tell them to reflect on the emotion they feel when they are done and ask them if they feel like a better husband or a better father.”
It is not always just a male problem, and sometimes couples don’t want to give it up, he said. “If they don’t want to talk about it, I won’t force them, but I let them know that, at some point, it’s probably going to cause problems,” he explained, since it is a sin. “What I find is that, sooner or later, frustration sets in — because it ultimately reduces people to objects for pleasure.”
Link also helps clients find meaning in suffering, because it can never be completely avoided in daily life.
“If I am working with someone with no faith, I begin with the power of controlling his or her attitude,” he said.
Link admits that embracing suffering is “more difficult if you don’t believe in the cross. But it comes down to the natural virtues: ‘I can choose my attitude in all circumstances.’” Through suffering, he said, people often encounter Christ, and if anyone asks him personally, Link shares how his own faith sustains him.
Capuchin Father David Songy, recently named president of the Saint Luke Institute (SLI.org), a Catholic center for psychological and spiritual treatment and education in Maryland, and the clinical and spiritual director at Redemptoris Mater Missionary Seminary in Denver, receives patient referrals when a person’s Catholic faith appears to be involved with psychological problems.
“When there is a Catholic element of faith to a problem that the counselor does not understand, the case is often referred to me,” he said.
According to him, it is usually an immature understanding of faith that is the problem.
For instance, he explained that, if someone suffers from scrupulosity, which is a form of obsessive-compulsive behavior, a counselor without spiritual training might think the person has a deep faith.
“In reality,” Father Songy said, “they are constantly worried about committing a sin, so their faith is weaker than it looks, not stronger.”
He explained that they are often very virtuous people who struggle unnecessarily. “I would treat their obsessive-compulsive [disorder] and help them see that they are really misunderstanding their faith.”
Since he works with seminarians and only takes referrals where the Catholic faith is an element, the faith is a common denominator among his patients.
This frees him to speak directly to his understanding of Catholic anthropology.
“Catholic anthropology explains that the nature of the person is that he is created in the image of God and called to holiness,” he explained.
“The dignity of the person does not come from them doing what they want to do — it comes from resembling Christ.”
And that, he said, is the ultimate goal for a Catholic psychologist — or spiritual director — in his work with clients: “I try to point out when something is missing and use my knowledge and direct them towards God. “
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.