Rediscovering the spiritual dimension in modern psychology

Rediscovering the spiritual dimension in modern psychology

Wanda Skowronska

Catholic psychologists and social workers attended a conference held in Arlington, Virginia, last October.

Among the 300 who attended were four Australians, Father Anthony Phillips from Victoria and Bernadette Devine, Janiene Wilson and myself from Sydney.

The conference, entitled "Witnesses to Hope: Catholic Anthropology as the foundation for Psychological Practice", was evidence of the retrieval of the importance of the spiritual dimension in counselling psychology.

Freud ( so last century) considered religion to be an obsessional neurosis, while Behaviourists did not even take account of human consciousness, let alone a soul.

Of course, Carl Jung "rediscovered" the soul but he invented an occult-tinged mythology to account for it which regarded Christianity as its enemy.

Then came Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and Rollo May and their emphasis on the self, very suited to the "me" generation of the 1960s and 70s.

Despite the popularity of Rogerian encounter sessions, Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl used to refer to them as "mutual monologues".

Challenge

Admittedly Maslow and May began to have doubts about humanistic psychology towards the end of their lives but not even they could persuade Rogers to alter his warm inner glow. And that warm inner glow has led to the warm inner conflagration of new age psychology.

One person who challenged his profession's anti-spiritual tenor was the American Catholic psychologist, academic and author, Paul Vitz, who came to the Arlington conference and delivered riveting papers, one on the psychology of atheism, another on the nature of psychology itself.

He reminded his listeners that the major waves of psychology which invaded our thought last century ignored the fact that everyone has a spiritual story inescapably hard-wired within us, more significant than any Oedipal, behaviourist or "self-actualisation" story.

These waves forgot that the term "person" itself (whom psychologists presumably wish to heal) owes much to Christianity's early profound reflections on the personhood of Christ and on human persons.

Like David taking on a psychological Goliath, Professor Vitz took on the popular humanists in the mid-1970s. This was like spitting on a psychological Elvis - who would dare do such a thing?

He was taking on a movement of immense significance in mass-cultural psychological terms, giving intellectual and spiritual witness to what Joseph Ratzinger has always exhorted Christians to demonstrate, namely "the courage of non-conformism in the face of the trends of the affluent world" and their need to "revise [the] euphoric view of the early post-Conciliar era" ( The Ratzinger Report, p.115).

Vitz did this in writings such as Psychology as Religion (1978), Faith of the Fatherless (1999) and The Self: Beyond the Post-Modern Crisis (2006), and hundreds of articles.

Vitz could see decades ago that the over-emphasis on self and disconnection from our spiritual ecology would only bring harm.

It is interesting that as interest in physical ecology grew, interest in spiritual ecology waned. Initially Vitz was a lone voice as Catholics pursued secular psychology.

Things changed when he met Fr Benedict Groeschel, the Franciscan priest, psychologist and author (who died in October 2014) in whom he finally found a kindred soul.

Vitz's conversion to Catholicism followed not long afterwards as well as a great psychological and spiritual alliance. He did not discard psychology completely as some were tempted to do, but sought an integration of the spiritual dimension with the best of psychological research.

Now many Christian psychologists understand the pioneering work Vitz did several decades ago, in reorienting psychology to its philosophical and theological roots.

In fact he understood this even before he knew of the documents of Vatican II which had called for this.

Then came the founding of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in 1997 which included Thomistic philosophy in its fully accredited courses training psychologists.

Spiritual revival

Many of the current staff from the IPS gave papers at the conference, including Margaret Laracy, Andrew Sondergren, William Nordling, Craig Titus and of course Paul Vitz.

These are among names to be reckoned with in the revival of the spiritual dimension in psychology and any Catholics aspiring to study psychology would do well to familiarise themselves with these authors' works.

This is not to mention the work of Conrad Baars, a Buchenwald survivor and Catholic psychiatrist, whose daughter Susanne Baars, herself a highly regarded therapist, was at the conference as the new president of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association.

George Weigel, though not a psychologist, but rather an astute analyser of the times, was also there and one felt as if the psychological empire was striking back at secular psychology.

The conferences will continue on an annual basis and form a powerful international base of research and contact for Catholics working in psychology and the social sciences.

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