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Modern Psychology and Catholic Understanding part 2


The founders of modern counselling and psychotherapy weren't at all timid about voicing their hostility toward orthodox Christianity.

vitz11311Dr. Paul Vitz

Abraham Maslow described traditional religion as "pathological"; Rollo May asserted that traditional Christianity was for "weaklings"; while Eric Fromm likened it to spiritual Nazism and called it "idolatry".  Carl Rogers, probably the most influential psychologist of the twentieth century, asserted that traditional religious morality was "ridiculous."

Traditional religion and modern psychology stand in a special relationship to one another because both of them provide philosophies and technologies for ordering the interior life.  This equivalence of function may well be the source of much of the antagonism that has characterized the relationship between psychology and orthodox Christianity through the years.

While it can be difficult to document the attitude of an entire profession, especially when, as with most forms of institutionalized prejudice, psychologists tend not to be aware of their biases, there is plenty of evidence of a wide-spread, broadly-based, and scientifically unjustified prejudice against religion throughout the field of psychology. Evidence of anti-religious bias, for example, has been documented in the areas of the licensing and hiring of psychologists, in accreditation, and in graduate school admissions. And while religion has arguably been the most important social force in the history of man, research that focuses on the religious dimension in counselling remains a risky undertaking, only rarely accepted for publication in the major counselling journals.

Paul Vitz describes how, in graduate school at Stanford University, "... religion was treated as a pathetic anachronism.  Occasionally a person's religious beliefs were "measured" in personality tests.  The common interpretation was that people holding traditional religious views were fascist-authoritarian types." Training in the clinical professions is bereft of content that would engender an appreciation of religious variables in psychological functioning.  As Allen Bergin has noted, "Race, gender, and ethnic origin now receive deserved attention, but religion is still an orphan of academia."

As large a voice as Abraham Maslow, the founder of modern humanistic psychology, believed that much of the enmity that psychologists express toward religion is due to the fact that they are essentially competing voices, rival recruiting agencies seeking to do good to the same population.

In their moral role, counsellors and psychotherapists tend to function as a kind of secular priesthood purporting to establish standards of good living while often facilitating a transition to a non-religious view of life.  Sensing this, committed Christians are often distrustful of psychology and tend to avoid its healing waters out of concern that psychotherapy will undermine their deeply held Christian faith.

Today many others enter the counsellor's office as they once might have gone to the priest, in search of solace, absolution, meaning, and the chance for a new life.  A number of psychologists have made the observation that psychotherapeutic systems have been derived from traditional religious forms; that the psychotherapies possess religious forms, but with secular contents.  Psychologist Robert Sollod has recommended that "psychologists begin to sort out what aspects of their approaches represent a form of substitute religion, closely mimicking religious traditions, and drawing on those motivations which in a religious context would naturally lead to religious commitment and spiritual development.  From the point of view of religion, the psychotherapies may be responding to important religious motivations, which constitute humanity's spiritual potential and not merely psychological needs."

Of course the fields of religion and psychology can't possibly conflict if they serve totally different functions: the problem comes in the fact that counsellors and psychotherapists today serve both a scientific and a moralistic role.  While their scientific function is usually explicit, their moralistic role is often only implied: "significant portions of the modern psychologies, and especially the clinical psychologies, are actually instances of religio-ethical thinking.  They are, in fact, mixed disciplines which contain examples of religious, ethical, and scientific language.  When many of these psychologies are submitted to careful analysis one discovers that they have religious and moral horizons about which both they and the general public are unclear.  Frequently the leaders of our religious institutions are also unaware of the religious and moral dimensions in the psychologies that they use (Browning)

In their moral role, counsellors and psychotherapists tend to function as a kind of secular priesthood purporting to establish standards of good living while often facilitating a transition to a non-religious view of life.  As one critic has observed, one of the biggest problems in communication between much of psychology and the Christian faith is the refusal of psychotherapists to acknowledge, address, and, if need be, defend the implicit moral positions they take.

Where to get help

Counselling can be a great help in the right context — that context being Christianity.  But secular psychotherapy — divorced from or ignorant of — a proper understanding of the nature of the human person and how grace works in our lives is totally inadequate.  In my experience the best place to find counselling help that integrates the most effective methods of modern psychotherapy with a deep and comprehensive Catholic understanding is the CatholicPsych Institute run by Dr. Greg Bottaro.  Battaro's approach is not just baptizing a secular model with a Catholic name.  It's the real goods. I've seen it myself. 

Where to go to get training to be a Catholic counsellor.

The School of Counselling at Divine Mercy University in Sterling VA, is very likely the best place in North America to get the necessary training to become a Catholic counsellor. 


See Part 1 of "Modern Psychology and Catholic Understanding" here




fraser J. Fraser Field. "Modern Psychology and Catholic Understanding part 2." Catholic Insight (November, 2001).

This article was first published by Catholic Insight.

The Author

Fraser Field is the founder and managing editor of the Catholic Education Resource Center. He holds an MA in counselling psychology.

Copyright © 2001 J. Fraser Field
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