Psychology and Christianity: need they be at odds?

Psychology and Christianity: need they be at odds?

Wanda Skowronska

In the mid-20th century, American writer Philip Rieff, in The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), asserted that Western society was in the grip of a psychological narrative that engulfed every human life from birth to the grave.

However psychology had its critics too and the very titles of R.D Rosen's  Psychobabble (1977) and Michael Ventura's  We've had Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse (1992) expressed this growing unease.

Many Catholics also wondered whether psychology was compatible with Christianity joined in the spirit of critique. Hence it comes as a surprise to realise that the rise of psychology owes a great debt to Catholicism

Protestant historians of psychology, Eric Johnston and Stanton Jones, in a book entitled  Christianity and Psychology (2000), point to the debt owed by psychology (especially counseling psychology) to Tertullian, Cassian, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory the Great for their "penetrating insight into the nature of the soul and soul healing."

They also unequivocally acknowledge that the "two greatest intellectual lights of the Church's first fifteen hundred years" were Augustine and Aquinas and refer to their "theological and psychological insights." For from the beginnings of the Church, Catholic advocacy of introspection encouraged exploration of the inner workings of the mind and soul.

Modern psychology

But what of the 'modern' psychology which has aroused much suspicion and critique, if not outright condemnation among Catholics? Is Catholic involvement in psychology just a thing of the past? 'Modern' psychology is commonly understood to date from the establishment of the first psychological laboratory by Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (1832-1920) at the University of Leipzig in 1879.

Wundt so enraptured scholars from around the world that there was standing room only in his laboratory as he did his experiments. Interestingly as regards this modern period Stanton and Jones state that "the most distinct group of Christians in early modern psychology in America were Catholic." They refer in particular to American psychologist priest, Father Edward Aloysius Pace, and his many followers.

In addition, Cardinal Désiré Mercier (with his followers) was an outstanding Catholic pioneer of early psychology. And yet it is safe to assert that few Catholic students of psychology would have ever heard of them.

Cardinal Désiré Mercier (1851-1926) was born in Belgium and held doctorates in theology and philosophy, also having expertise in chemistry, neurology, mathematics and physics. He was so impressed by Wundt's scientific approach to studying the human mind, that he established his own experimental psychology course in 1891, and soon afterwards set up the first psychological laboratory at the Catholic University of Louvain, the first in Europe outside Germany.

He saw experimental psychology as a valid field of inquiry, but never at the expense of metaphysics and the theological anthropology of Aristotle and St Thomas. His work  Psychologie, Les Origines de la Psychologie Contemporaine (1892), a compilation of lectures given to his students at Louvain, expressed his view that psychology based on a sound metaphysics should be open to all scientific development.

Wundt also welcomed American priest Father Edward Pace to his laboratory. Pace was ordained in 1885 and had impressed Pope Leo XIII with his clear disputation on Thomistic themes. One day in 1889 Pace was browsing through a second hand bookshop in Paris and came across Wundt's best seller  Principles of Physiological Psychology which had been first published in 1873. He was so enthralled by what he read that he decided to travel to Leipzig immediately.

Wundt, who was not a Catholic, welcomed Father Pace commenting on Thomistic philosophy and its understanding of the human soul, showing familiarity with the recently published encyclical of Pope Leo XIII,  Aeterni Patris. In fact the very year Wundt established his experimental laboratory in Leipzig - 1879 - was the year  Aeterni Patris was published in Rome.

Thomist principles

While Wundt spoke positively of the encyclical, Father Pace was so attracted to Wundt's new research that he stayed on in Leipzig to complete a doctoral dissertation there. In 1891, he returned to America to establish the first department of psychology at the Catholic University in Washington, where he integrated the principles of Thomism with best scientific thinking and findings of the day.

He was a tireless proponent of the 'new' psychology, a prolific writer and reviewer, for the  Psychological Review and the  American Journal of Psychology, and one of twenty-six charter members of the new American Psychological Association, founded in July 1892.

Other future Catholic psychologists, like the remarkable Father Verner Moore, studied under him - all holding that the study of scientific psychology did not exclude philosophy and metaphysics.

However, the subsequent influence of Freud, the behaviourists and the humanistic psychologists banished metaphysical concerns. Later in the twentieth century, however, an ever growing Christian critique of these major movements arose and the integration of psychology and the faith again became a salient issue.

American Catholic psychologists, Paul Vitz, William Kilpatrick and Richard Cross, among others, wrote searching critiques, joining this Christian counter-offensive. In America the Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS) has over 25,000 members while the Catholic Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Virginia has steadily grown in influence.


In Australia there are regular conferences of Christian psychologists (the most recent in April 2010 in Sydney) run by the Christian And Psychology Interest Group (CAPIG) within the Australian Psychological Association. CAPIG currently has over 400 members in Australia.

Recently a Catholic psychology group was established in Sydney by Sister Lydia Allen RSM, who holds a PhD in Psychology and an MA (Religious Studies). Sister Lydia is a clinical psychologist who has practised for many years in the USA and Germany. She is a consultant at the Congregation for Catholic Education at the Vatican and is currently working at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush in the area of Human Formation.

Sister Lydia can refer to Thomistic philosophy along with recent empirical research to discuss contemporary issues such as homosexuality and bioethics about which the Church has much to say. Her approach demonstrates that experimental research in psychology does not obstruct theology, nor vice versa, as long as the correct distinctions are made about the nature of each field and there is openness to the transcendent.

The current revival of the spiritual dimension in psychology continues the rich intellectual legacy of outstanding pioneer psychologists who integrated their profession with their Catholic faith. They understood that psychology and theology can never be mutually exclusive endeavours as both give an account of the human person.

Freud, behaviourist rats and Rogers are fading into a pallid intellectual sunset and the transcendent has dramatically re-entered psychology whose very name "psyche logos" refers to the study of the soul.

Wanda Skowronska, an Australian writer of Latvian descent, is a registered psychologist living in Sydney. She has taught at school and university level, is a regular contributor to religious publications, and the author of Long Road to Rezekne (Trafford Publishing, 2007).

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