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The Institute for the Psychological Sciences recently marked its 10th anniversary.
BY Pete Sheehan
Catholic vision of the person joined with the best of psychology can
point the way to healthy relationships, contend the staff and founders of the
Institute for the Psychological Sciences.
“We base our psychology on who the
human person is,” someone created in the image of God and with an eternal,
transcendent destiny, said Gladys Sweeney, dean of the Arlington, Va.-based
institute. “The human person is not a series of psychological symptoms.”
“Catholic theology, Catholic
philosophy and Catholic anthropology offer a framework,” said Paul Vitz, an
author and professor emeritus at New York University. Through that, psychology
can more fully address the depth of the human person.
The combined wisdom of the best of
modern psychology and Catholic thought, said Sweeney, “can help people flourish
as human beings in fruitful relationships with each other,” rather than merely
The institute fosters an
understanding of psychology grounded in Catholic thought. Founded in 1999 by
Sweeney, Vitz, Father Benedict Groeschel and others, the institute pursues
research and trains psychologists at the master’s and doctoral levels.
Sweeney became aware of the need to
integrate Catholic teaching with psychology while working at a Legionaries of
Christ retreat center. “I was treating patients with the same issues in the
same way I always had, but I found that they were getting better quicker — with
fewer relapses,” she said.
Soon she concluded that her patients
were progressing better because they were receiving spiritual direction and
dealing with a side of their psyche that conventional psychology tended to
This prompted her to re-examine the
writings of Pope John Paul II and others. Sweeney concluded that a Catholic
anthropology should underlie the empirical-based perspective and methods of
Since the institute’s founding a
decade ago with 17 students, the school has “grown rapidly,” with 70 students
now, Sweeney said. The institute is affiliated with the Legionaries of Christ.
“We achieved regional accreditation
very quickly,” said Legionary Father Charles Sikorsky, institute president. The
school is exploring other avenues of recognition, such as from the American
Over the institute’s 10 years, Vitz
said, “We have faced challenges and met them successfully with the help of the
The Value of Virtues
One of the insights of Catholic
thought for psychology is “the clear perception that marriage is permanent,”
Sweeney said. The wife and husband have a unique, irreplaceable relationship
with each other, “an ‘I-thou’ relationship, a mutual self-gift.”
Empirical research affirms the value
of the permanency of marriage for the health and happiness of the human person,
she continued. “The happiest people are married people.” That insight needs to
be promoted so that more people will work to persevere in marriage: “Even the
Church could do more with better marriage preparation.”
Another key insight is an emphasis
on the capacity for forgiveness, Sweeney said. “There is strong empirical
research that forgiveness offers healing not only for the forgiven person but
also for the forgiving person.” Those who practice forgiveness “have lower
levels of depression, anxiety, anger and post-traumatic stress.”
In addition, said Vitz, Catholic
thought affirms the importance of the virtues — prudence, justice, courage and
temperance — for psychological health: “Even secular psychology is beginning to
He cited the work of Martin
Seligman, author and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania,
who has promoted the idea of “positive psychology.” His approach emphasizes
character strengths or virtues, including wisdom, courage, humanity, justice,
temperance and transcendence.
The word “virtue” comes from the
Latin word for strength, Vitz noted. While in the past modern psychology has
focused on the negative — the elimination of symptoms and neuroses — Seligman’s work has pointed to the positive.
“They strengthen you for your
recovery, and they help protect you from future trauma,” Vitz said. Other
secular psychologists have followed Seligman’s lead and developed the idea
further. “We at the institute are working to develop it, as well.”
Importance of Self-Giving
Another insight from Catholic
thought is the importance of self-giving. “It is something that we are called
to,” Vitz said.
Modern psychology, while attempting
to heal a patient, lacks an objective measure for defining someone as
psychologically healthy. “It comes down to whether a person is feeling good,”
Sweeney said. Such an understanding, she said, is limited.
Whereas modern psychology has
emphasized an idea of self-fulfillment without regard to how that affects the
other person, Sweeney said, psychology grounded in Catholic thought calls for
finding one’s self in service and giving to others. “We seek to free you from
neurosis, but to free you for something
Vitz acknowledged the risk of
exploitation that self-giving poses, but called for prudence, not rejection of
self-giving love: “Jesus loved everyone, but he didn’t trust everyone. He knew
Alumni attest to the value of the
“Our graduates are finding
internships and jobs and finding that what they learn is helping their
patients,” Sweeney said.
Peter Martin, a recent graduate who
works at a social-services center in Lincoln, Neb., studied both psychology and
theology before coming to the institute. The institute helped him to integrate
the diverse traditions.
“I feel I got the best of both
worlds,” he said. His training enables him to treat patients regardless of
their faith or lack thereof or whether or not their spiritual life is important
Margaret Laracy said she does not raise the issue of faith with a patient
explicitly, though she would not shy away from discussing it if the patient
raised the topic. She has completed her doctoral course work and is pursuing
her clinical work and dissertation.
“What I learned affects the way that
I approach a patient and how the course of treatment I choose would best
promote that patient’s dignity,” she said.
Father Sikorsky sees the institute
as one way to further the dialogue between Catholicism and the modern world and
also to help meet a need for psychologists to whom Catholics can go with
confidence that their faith will be respected.
a priest,” he said, “I see the need, and I think we can help fill it.”
Sheehan writes from Rockville Centre, New York.