Aunique institution in American higher education opened its doors in Arlington, Va., for the start of a new school year this past fall. A graduate program which aims to integrate new and current psychological theories with Catholic understanding of the human person, the Institute for the Psychological Sciences is a badly needed complement to programs currently available for students of psychology. This, at least, was the conclusion of an independent board of reviewers from the state of Virginia who granted the institute its license just four months after it opened for classes. Register staff writer Brian McGuire spoke with the institute's dean, Dr. Gladys Sweeney.

McGuire: Where did the idea for an Institute for the Psychological Sciences come from?

Sweeney: It emerged as an idea in the spring of 1998, from a group of psychologists who saw the immense need for a program that could bring psychology into harmony with the truth and wisdom of the Catholic vision of the human person, human dignity and Catholic moral values. Psychologists that are grounded in an understanding of the nature and dignity of the human person can bring people to deeper levels of healing and, in so doing, contribute to a better society. This need became evident after running postgraduate training for mental-health professionals through the Catholic Institute for the Psychological Sciences, a postdoctoral institute. We felt it was important to focus on training the younger generation, rather than retraining. That's how the graduate program came about. This program is presently offered at IPS, which is a free-standing institute.

How rigorous was the institute's licensing process? What was the state's evaluation of the program?

The application was overwhelming. When it was all done, it was close to 500 pages of paperwork. In November of 1998, we got licensed to enroll students. Seventeen students trusted in the mission, even though we could not promise them that we could grant them a master's degree.

We needed to be up and running before we could schedule the site visit to obtain permission to grant master's degrees. And so, on Dec. 15 of 1999, a group of three professionals, picked by the state of Virginia, evaluated our program on the basis of its faculty, the curriculum and the students. They spent two days evaluating every aspect of the program. Interviews were conducted with the different professors, staff members and the students.

In their final report they wrote: “The institute has great strengths. It is a unique program which has some parallels in a few Protestant universities, but none in secular or Catholic circles. The integration of academic psychology with religious and traditional philosophic teaching portend significant contribution to research, clinical work and teaching that will make their mark not only within, but far beyond the Catholic community.” At the meeting for the final decision on Jan. 18, the reviewer said: “The program looked excellent on paper and the site-visit committee was ‘blown away’ by the quality of the teaching, the faculty and the students.”

Where do your students and professors come from?

Our faculty include nationally prominent scholars, drawn from across the country, who have very enthusiastically accepted our invitation to teach here.

Currently we have two half-time professors who will soon go to full time, along with nine adjuncts. Among the adjunct professors are Dr. Paul Vitz, Franciscan Father Benedict Groeschel and Dr. Wanda Franz. Our doctoral curriculum includes eight integration courses. Consultants involved in the development of these courses include Dominican Fathers Benedict Ashley and Romanus Cessario.

As for the students, we have been impressed by their level of academic qualifications and maturity. Of the 17 students enrolled, two-thirds have advanced degrees already, several with master's degrees and one has a Ph.D. We have graduates from Harvard, Yale, MIT, Oxford, Notre Dame and The Catholic University of America. It is indeed a very rich student population.

What is the mission of the institute and what do you hope it will achieve?

The mission is to foster the development of Catholic approaches to the psychological sciences [as] informed by the view of the human person given in Scripture, Church tradition and papal teachings, with special emphasis on the writings of Pope John Paul II.

We hope to promote research and clinical application of the psychological sciences in a manner consistent with Catholic moral and social teachings.

Plus we want to assist in the intellectual and spiritual formation of mental-health professionals as they seek to integrate a Catholic approach to the psychological sciences with their role as clinicians and researchers.

Why should the Church focus resources on psychology?

Psychology as a discipline studies the human person, who is complex and transcends biology. Unfortunately psychology has tried to follow the example of the physical sciences, which deal with precise measurements and predictability. This emulation has caused a reductionistic approach to the human person, in other words, a tendency to leave out of the realm of study those aspects of the individual that cannot be measured.

Thus, often the person is reduced to behaviors that need to be modified, synapses that need to be medicated, cognitions that need to be reframed, feelings that need to be controlled and so on. The spiritual life, which could be of tremendous importance to an individual, tends to be ignored in research, because it cannot be measured.

Spirituality also tends to be ignored in therapy because of therapists' aim to remain “neutral” and not impose their own values on the client. However, this cautious attitude often means ignoring a very important aspect of the patient's life, an aspect that has been proven by research, is associated with a faster and more enduring healing process. A therapist who can integrate the two realms can recognize a client's particular world-view, respect it and help integrate it in their life by helping them live a life coherent with their principles. Plus our professionals will be trained to work cooperatively with clients' spiritual directors for clients who have them.

If the client is Catholic, the professional will help free the client to grow in the sacramental life of the Church—reconciliation, Eucharist and so on.

The healing that comes from grace is extremely powerful. So, because psychology deals with the suffering human person, more than any other human science, it needs a profound awareness of the person's transcendence and dependence on God's healing power.

How will you train Catholic psychologists to deal with persons who live by other faiths, or by no faith at all?

By training them to understand the different worldviews that exist, including secular humanism.

An integrated therapist needs to recognize where the client is coming from. The psychologist is there to help clients free themselves from unresolved psychological, conscious or unconscious trauma, which prevents them from thinking clearly, from perceiving reality objectively, from making prudent decisions—in other words, from truly exercising their free will.

Often clients who are suffering psychologically cannot even pray. Once they are free from their inner conflicts, the Catholic therapist will help them integrate their own worldviews with their life. If they are Catholic, the therapist might help them to go back to the sacraments, might direct them to a spiritual director so that they can deepen their interior life and thus grow in holiness. When they experience this freedom from within, and open their hearts to Christ the true healer, they stand a better chance to find true happiness. If the client is not Catholic, he or she may still want to become more committed to his or her own particular faith. The integrated therapist will be open to this and be ready to work cooperatively with the person's particular faith.

What else distinguishes a Catholic approach to psychology from the secular one?

The main difference between a Catholic approach to psychology and a secular one is the conceptualization of the human person. A Catholic therapist will be convinced that his or her clients (even if they are not Catholic) have been created by God in his own image out of love, that God has called them to be with him for all eternity.

Even if the clients are atheists, the therapist respects their dignity by virtue of believing that they are also God's masterpiece and that Christ shed his precious blood for them. This insight can be very powerful in the care that you give to clients, even if this insight is never shared with them. The particular techniques used by secular and Catholic therapists might be very similar. However, the understanding of what the person does after the neurosis is overcome is different. The secular therapist will consider his or her work done as long as the client does what makes him feel self-actualized, or feel good. The Catholic therapist will consider his or her work done as long as the client is free to live a life coherent with his principles.

‘The healing that comes from grace is extremely powerful.’

— Dr. Gladys Sweeney