Psychology Grounded in Catholic Thought

The Institute for the Psychological Sciences recently marked its 10th anniversary.

The 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 avoiding neurosis.

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 ignore.

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 psychology.

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 Psychological Association.

Over the institute’s 10 years, Vitz said, “We have faced challenges and met them successfully with the help of the Holy Spirit.”

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 recognize that.”

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 better.”

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 human nature.”

Alumni attest to the value of the institute’s method.

“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 to them.

Student 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.

“As a priest,” he said, “I see the need, and I think we can help fill it.”

Pete Sheehan writes from Rockville Centre, New York.