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.
His 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.
Appointed 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 Robert Kumpel.
How did you feel when you learned you were appointed a consultor to the Congregation for the Clergy?
Very 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 website, MaritalHealing.com.
The 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?
One 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.
Self-knowledge 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 ’80s.
Why is same-sex “marriage” something that we should be concerned about?
We 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.
Secondly, 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.
You once 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.
The 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 commitment.
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.
Many 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.
What kind of work are you doing to promote traditional marriage?
We 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 professionals.
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?
Many 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.