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Richard Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist and frequent commentator on marriage issues, was recently appointed a consultor to the Congregation for the Clergy.
BY Robert Kumpel
Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons has practiced psychiatry for more than 30 years.
As director of the Institute for Marital Healing near Philadelphia, Fitzgibbons
specializes in helping married couples heal their relationships.
work extends beyond marital problems, however; he helps priests, religious
orders and seminarians deal with the challenges of celibate life, and his
patients also include singles and children.
as a consultant to the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy last December,
Fitzgibbons shows a remarkable humility in spite of his accomplishments —
humility apparently rooted in his own conviction that his success comes from
following the teachings of the Church, particularly the writings of John Paul II
on the human person, marriage and family. He spoke with Register correspondent
How did you
feel when you learned you were appointed a consultor to the Congregation for
surprised. Very thankful. I was honored. Over the last 33 years, I’ve had the
pleasure of working with clergy in many dioceses and religious communities, as
well as formation teams at seminaries and seminarians, most recently in
Denver. I address the topic of resolving conflicts in self-giving as spiritual
fathers and spouses of the Church to priests and seminarians and to couples on
overcoming these weaknesses in marriage. These issues are presented on our
priest’s section at your website has topics like pornography, false
accusations, adolescent males as victims of sexual abuse, and loneliness. How
prevalent is loneliness?
of the major emotional challenges in priesthood, as well as in the sacrament of
marriage, is that of protecting oneself from loneliness. There is, of course,
no reason why a priest should feel lonely.
However, what can occur is that a priest can
experience loneliness because he is not giving himself enough in priestly
friendships or to the Lord or because he has unresolved loneliness from earlier
life stages, including childhood and adolescence. This understanding can help
in addressing the healing of this pain, with the Lord’s help.
of one’s emotional weaknesses is very important so that one can work to resolve
them before priestly ordination and before marriage. We need newer programs to
help both seminarians and engaged individuals to uncover conflicts which
interfere with cheerful self-giving, particularly loneliness, insecurities and
the selfishness which permeates this culture. With more self-knowledge, this
emotional pain can be resolved.
Would you say that there is a
problem with homosexuality in the priesthood today?
I’ve written about the crisis in the
Catholic Church and contributed to “Homosexuality and Hope” of the Catholic Medical
Association. I am not aware of a difference in prevalence of homosexuality in
the priesthood compared to the rest of the population, which is between 1.5%
and 3% in males. There are those who would say it may be higher in the
priesthood because of some of the problems in the seminaries in the ’70s and
Why is same-sex “marriage”
something that we should be concerned about?
should be concerned about it for a number of reasons. First, we want people to
be in loving, committed and exclusive relationships. Many research studies
demonstrate that those in the homosexual lifestyle experience a lack of
exclusivity and commitment, and as a result, develop significant loneliness
with depressive illness, difficulty in trusting and anxiety disorders, and
substance-abuse disorders. In addition, many studies report that between 35%
and 55% of people in homosexual lifestyles report being abused by others in the
lifestyle; that also contributes to a high prevalence of psychiatric illness
and substance abuse.
we should be concerned for cultural reasons. The basis of society is the family
based on a marriage between a man and a woman. Also, the gold standard for
raising children is a home with a mother and father who are married. Children have the right to a father and a
mother; adults do not have the right to children. Same-sex unions are highly
unstable and, therefore, are dangerous to children. Pope Benedict has written
that to deliberately deprive a child of a father or mother in same-sex adoption
is an act of violence against a child.
said that homophobia is not the cause of these disorders. A number of people
would disagree and argue that the homosexual community suffers more rejection
than the rest of the population.
causes of the higher prevalence of psychiatric disorders in the lifestyle are
primarily the lack of exclusivity and commitment. One study cited by the
Catholic Medical Association’s “Homosexuality and Hope” revealed that the
largest number of new HIV cases in Amsterdam come from those in “unions” or
“committed relationships.” Most studies on traditional marriages demonstrate
fidelity being between 75% to 85%. But fidelity is virtually unknown in
same-sex relationships. In fact, many don’t want fidelity. McWhirter and Mattison’s
major study on relationships between males in same-sex unions, The Male Couple, found that out of 156 couples, only seven had exclusive sexual
relationships, most had been together less than five years, and those who had
been together longer had a provision for outside sexual activity in their
relationship. Many reported feeling terribly lonely because of the absence of
That’s the second time you’ve
mentioned loneliness. It sounds like the problem of loneliness afflicts
everyone. Is that the case?
The first words spoken by God about
the human condition were: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” I believe
God could have communicated much more in Genesis about the severe difficulties
associated with the pain of being isolated from others and God. (We could have
10 more chapters in Genesis telling us all the problems that it causes.)
Loneliness is the most common emotional wound that we address in children,
teenagers, adults, married people, priests, nuns and seminarians.
people struggle with loneliness and don’t recognize its role in their lives.
Why? Because we deny our emotional pain with our intellect with the result that
the greater the emotional pain, the greater the impairment of the intellect,
leading to difficulties remembering, concentrating or thinking clearly. The key
is recognizing our loneliness and, with God’s help, addressing it.
of work are you doing to promote traditional marriage?
try to help couples understand that self-giving is the essence of marital love,
and then we attempt to uncover their weaknesses and work to resolve them. We
relate that if they want a happy marriage they need to have a healthy
personality. Our approach is in the field of positive psychology, which focuses
upon growth in virtues to strengthen the personality and to resolve emotional
pain. Instead of just rehashing the past, we recommend the use of virtues to
help people deal with their emotional conflicts.
I notice you use the term
“virtue.” A lot of your writings also focus on forgiveness. Those terms are
from a different lexicon than you’ll hear from most mental-health
There is a great deal of wisdom in
learning the benefits of using virtues in addressing the human passions (by
exercising virtues). Positive psychology is basically revisiting Western
civilization’s major approaches to address character weaknesses. This is the
approach we take with marital healing. If you want a healthy marriage, then
work on having a healthy personality. So how does one get a healthy
personality? A spouse can maintain a healthy personality by daily growth in
virtues, which diminish the role of selfishness and emotional conflicts.
Unfortunately, much harm has been
done to marriage over the past 40 years by mental-health professionals
encouraging couples to always express their passions and to look out for No. 1.
You obtain a healthy personality by learning how to control your passions. This
was one of Christianity’s gifts to the world, but it has been lost by
mental-health professionals who say, “Oh no! You’ve got to express your
passions or you’ll be a neurotic.”
Can you comment on the role of
faith in your work?
people have areas of intense emotional pain — of sadness, anger, mistrust and
anxiety and weaknesses in confidence or selfishness from childhood, adolescence
or young adult life that limit their marriages, priesthood and religious life.
In John Paul II’s words, “They are prisoners of their past.” Medication and
psychotherapy is insufficient in healing these deep wounds. However, as in the
treatment of addictive disorders, if you bring in a spiritual component into
the process, remarkable healings can occur. The mental-health field needs to
recognize that the increasingly serious emotional wounds we are dealing with in
our culture are so profound that without a spiritual component, recovery and
healing are unlikely to occur.
Robert Kumpel writes
from Valdosta, Georgia.