What is Catholic Psychology?

Harmony between faith and reason

Dr. G.C. Dilsaver
November 17, 2022
min read

The following is an excerpt from Imago Dei Psychotherapy: A Catholic Conceptualization.

The philosophical or qualitative requirements for a secular psychology become more explicit and defined when applied to a Catholic psychology. A Catholic psychology requires the formulation of anthropological principles derived from essential teleological, epistemological, and moral truths of the faith.

In some formulation or another, any authentic Catholic clinical psychology must equate mental health with a correspondence to reality, since Catholicism is based on the understanding that reality is an objective phenomenon that emanates from God and is discernable by man. Imago Dei Psychotherapy’s specific definition of mental health is the ability to perceive, receive, reflect upon, and act upon the real. Such a reality-based definition of mental health makes even more apparent the need for the science of psychology to access qualitative categories. Understanding the nature of man’s encounter with reality goes beyond mere scientific issues of physiology and neurology and depends on the answer to questions such as whether or not man can know reality, and, as such, what is the nature of man and reality. As will be seen, the answers to these questions ultimately depend on the answer to the questions of whether God exists and what his nature is. Such ultimate questions only philosophy and theology can answer.

To philosophize means . . . to concentrate our gaze upon the totality of encountered phenomenon and methodically to investigate the coherency of them all and the ultimate meaning of the whole; to examine what “something real” actually is, what man himself is, mind, the complete total of things. (Pieper 1991, 147)

Theology goes beyond philosophy and spans both faith and reason, for theologizing is "endeavoring to discover what really was said in the divine revelation" (148).

A Catholic clinical psychology, then, will depend upon the insights of philosophical reasoning to inform scientific reasoning and upon the light of faith to clarify and guide philosophical reasoning. It is this synergy of faith—the faith—and reason that is the specific difference of a Catholic clinical psychology.

A religion’s worldview understanding of the relationship of faith and reason determines the dynamics of integrating that faith’s contents with reason’s philosophical and empirical findings. The Catholic worldview holds that "faith supports reason and perfection; and reason, illuminated by faith, finds strength to raise itself to the knowledge of God." So proclaimed Benedict XVI in his Angelus address on the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, and so has been the Catholic understanding of revealed truth and rational truth for two thousand years. From the beginning there has been no compartmentalizing of truth in Catholicism: faith illuminated reason, both philosophical and empirical, and reason scrutinized and systematized faith. The wedding of the Catholic faith to classical Western philosophy not only preserved the best of ancient Greek thought but rectified and perfected it in the penetrating light of revelation, thus producing schools of philosophy that can truly be said to be the fruits of the faith.

Reason’s components of philosophic knowledge (which is qualitative and deductive), and empiric knowledge (which is quantitative and inductive) work together to inform and validate each other, so too these components of reason work synergistically with faith. The Catholic understanding of the dynamics of faith and reason is reciprocal. A Catholic integration entails not only faith informing and enlightening reason but also reason validating and expressing faith. That is, a valid faith should be harmonious with reason if all truth, revealed or natural, is held to emanate from the mind of God. This does not mean that all truths of faith are fathomable via reason alone, but that those truths of faith that are fathomable via reason do not contradict that reason.

Revealed truth can also illuminate reason in its own discoveries. Much as flashes of intuition aid the process of deduction by providing insights that serve as points of reference, thus allowing the philosopher (or poet) to triangulate on these points like a navigator and locate certain truths, so does revelation provide him with the reference points within which all truth is located. Revelation, like intuition, often provides the answer so that one can work backward and construct the solution’s formula. Most importantly, unlike intuition, revelation as taught by the sacred Magisterium of the Church is infallible, providing absolutely certain reference points of truth.

In accord with man’s essential existential orientation, both reason and faith ultimately have the same end: to discern the purpose of human existence, which is the glorification of God. Faith perfects reason. Faith sheds light upon obscure truths that are barely accessible to reason and facilitates their understanding. The horizon of faith is required to bring the findings of reason together into an integral whole, to synthesize and integrate knowledge toward its singular goal, its final cause and end. Thus faith enables relational knowledge and gives rhyme to the reason. Without faith, reason is informational at best, and remains fragmented and compartmentalized. In the context of faith, reason also acknowledges its limitations.

A fragmented, unsynthesized knowledge is akin to an information overload, where the onslaught of information can lead to an unprocessed cacophony. Schizophrenia has been described as just such a phenomenon. So too, when a person does not recognize the limits of his intellectual capacities, he utilizes a criterion of a grandiose or egotistical personality. This is the case when one denies that there can be any truth that is not measurable or discoverable by his own unaided reason. Faith, then, fosters mental health by its integration of knowledge and its demarcation of the intellect’s limits.

Complete openness to truth is the hallmark of the Catholic worldview. It is the infallible truths of faith and morals as enunciated by the Magisterium and both qualitative and quantitative truths of reason that make up the whole truth. Hence the entire gamut of truth—from the most mundanely empirical to the most sublimely speculative—is essential to a Catholic clinical psychology that aims at facilitating a therapant’s openness to-reality.

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