The fields of psychology and traditional psychotherapy are often traced back to the works of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalytical methods. Actually, long before Freud, philosophers and scholars have addressed the needs of those suffering from mental distress or illness. Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and St. Ignatius of Loyola offered many ideas and discussions about people afflicted with mental distress.
However, today, most clinical psychologists favor a traditional approach to treatment relying on their particular theoretical orientations including psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, or other various forms of therapeutic interventions.
Many of these orientations have proven to be effective for both mental illness and daily life problems that many of us face. However, as a Catholic clinical psychologist, I have not found it always helpful to rely exclusively on traditional methods of therapy. Instead, I have found that using both traditional and Catholic-based approaches to therapy are much more effective.
What is Catholic-based psychotherapy? And, who is it for?
Catholic-based psychotherapy includes the careful application of moral teaching conforming to the Magisterium of the Catholic faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a central source describing the teachings of Holy Mother Church and the tenets of our faith. This means the rationale and interventions for treatment are grounded in a Catholic understanding of the Sacraments of Marriage, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, the definition and explanations of the family life from conception to natural death, and issues of same sex attraction. In addition, Catholic-based psychotherapy acknowledges the vicissitudes of the life’s spiritual journey as a framework for helping with a person’s problems. Catholic-based therapy is for anyone who desires a Catholic centered approach for help.
St. Augustine described well the turmoil experienced by those afflicted with psychological conflicts. St. Augustine wrote in the City of God, “they will say and do many incongruous things, things for the most part alien to their intentions and their characters, certainly contrary to their good intentions and characters; and when we think about their works and actions, or see them with our eyes, we can scarcely—or possibly we cannot at all—restrain our tears, if we consider their situation as it deserves to be considered.”
Two such psychological problems that thwart well-being and present similar dynamics as described by St. Augustine are depression and anxiety.
Everyone experiences depression at times. However, clinical depression means a person is suffering from daily bouts of sadness, despondency and inability to enjoy anything in life. There are different forms of depression with the most serious being Major Depression. A major depression can be caused by a serious event such as the death of a loved one, divorce, financial problems, etc. However, major depression can also be caused by genetic factors and by bio-chemical changes occurring in the brain. Older people are more susceptible to depression. Some would say that depression could also stem from evil spirits. Though this may be true in certain cases, we must remember that the first task of sound treatment is to explore the above-cited natural and psychological causes.
Everyone has times when they feel nervous, insecure or afraid. However, these are normal forms of anxiety. People with Anxiety Disorders are more than what we may consider as “worry warts”. Anxiety Disorders are a persistent feeling of fear, worry, agitation, and inability to relax that persists for at least six months and occurs almost on a daily basis. Recall that Jesus told us “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matt: 6:34). The tendency to worry about daily problems is what many of us experience throughout our lives and this was what our Lord was referring to. However, when a person has an actual Anxiety Disorder their symptoms interfere with their ability to concentrate and they have difficulty functioning at work, home, or at school. The most serious form of anxiety is Generalized Anxiety Disorder. However, there are other forms of Anxiety Disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), social phobias, and panic attacks. Panic attacks are a unique form of anxiety because they feel almost like a heart attack. There are sudden problems with breathing, heart pounding, and intense fear. Again, Anxiety Disorders can be caused by a severe trauma or intensely stressful situations. They can also be caused by health problems (hypertension) and by genetic and biochemical factors.
Although spiritual factors can be involved, it is important to rule out other medical factors first. In the cases of both depression and anxiety it is always important to see your family doctor for a complete medical evaluation.
Not everyone who comes to see a psychologist has a mental or emotional disorder.
Most of the time people seek out psychologists or psychotherapists
for help with personal problems, anger, addictions, marriage / relationship issues,
parenting issues, self-esteem, and even spiritual concerns.
The Major Difference Between Secular Psychology and a truly Catholic-based Psychotherapy
There are still many other disorders and mental health issues that affect people. However, not everyone who comes to see a psychologist has a mental or emotional disorder. Most of the time people seek out psychologists or psychotherapists for help with personal problems, addictions, anger, marriage / relationship issues, parenting issues, self-esteem, and even spiritual concerns.
Catholics who need to see a therapist should be aware that many do not subscribe or utilize forms of interventions that are based on Christian moral principals. Psychology has largely been a secular profession that has traditionally relied on the axiom “heal thyself”. This means that despite the hundreds of different theoretical orientations, most are based on the idea that healing occurs through self-awareness, introspection, and motivation to change. And, as myself a clinical psychologist, I would strongly agree with this premise. However, the major difference between secular psychology and a truly Catholic-based psychotherapy is that in the final analysis, the Catholic approach is based on Christian moral principles and God is recognized as the source of all healing.
It is important to note that Catholic based psychotherapy must always be guided by empirically validated psychological interventions that do not contradict Catholic teaching nor ‘Catholically’ modified interventions that combines ‘New Age’ belief systems.
This is an important difference between secular psychology and Catholic psychology to some of the ‘New Age’ methods. Traditional secular psychologists, for example might encourage their clients with depression or anxiety to take up activities such as Yoga, Tai Chi, or to use assertiveness statements such as “must do what is best for me.” For more information about misleading ‘New Age’ practices, please read: How to Determine Between “Christian or New Age”
Catholic-based psychotherapy uses therapeutic interventions within a Catholic approach
based on Christian moral principles and God is recognized as the source of all healing.
In Catholic-based psychotherapy, we can rely on the words of Jesus when He reminds us in the Gospel of Matthew (25: 31-46), “truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The difference here is that in Catholic-based psychotherapy we are seen as responsible for our brothers and sisters in Christ. This means that the rationale and interventions for treatment are grounded in a Catholic understanding of the family and our entire Catholic community. In addition, Catholic-based therapy would include examining and helping the client with their prayer life, examining how the client understands and views the teachings of the Church, helping the client with prayer development and spiritual formation in the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord.
In some cases, Catholic therapists can make referrals to spiritual directors such as priests who can provide further advice and guidance to clients. Another huge difference between secular and Catholic-based psychotherapy is the use of prayer in the actual treatment. It is important for clients to learn to utilize prayer as part of the healing process.
St. John of the Cross, wrote, “In tribulation, immediately draw near to God with confidence, and you will receive strength, enlightenment, and instruction.”
This spiritual maxim expressed by St. John of the Cross would require that a Catholic approach by a therapist recommends frequent use of the Sacraments such as: Reconciliation, attending mass, and receiving the Eucharist. Fasting and mortification are also important to the healing process. This approach would never rule out the need for medication if required along with therapy sessions. Nor would Catholic-based psychotherapy blame the client for their lack of faith or “spiritual commitment”. Catholic therapists need to have an understanding and be able to accurately communicate to their clients that sufferings play an important role in the redemptive pursuit of holiness in their lives as well as the importance of having joy and peace. A Catholic therapist helps their clients suffering from emotional, psychological, and relational issues to go through the therapeutic process of healing with a focus on trusting that God will bring about a greater good in their lives.
In John 14:27, Jesus reminds us, “peace I leave you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.”
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