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Andrew Sodergren on Guilt and Mental Disorder

ARLINGTON, Virginia, DEC. 31, 2005 (Zenit) - A sound psychology must rekindle man's innate spirituality by taking sin seriously, contends a Catholic therapist.

Andrew Sodergren is a therapist at the Alpha Omega Clinic and Consultation Services, and a doctoral candidate at the recently accredited Institute for the Psychological Sciences.

In the second part of this interview with us he shares his views of an integrated psychology that is true to human nature and acknowledges human freedom.

Part 1 appeared earlier this week on Catholic Online.

Q: How can a sense of sin and vice contribute to the field of psychology?

Sodergren: In 1995, Pope John Paul II said in an address to the Roman Rota, "Only a Christian anthropology, enriched by the contribution of indisputable scientific data, including that of modern psychology and psychiatry, can offer a complete and thus realistic vision of humans."

Any psychology that is going to be true to human nature must take into account the revealed knowledge present in the Catholic faith as well as two millennia of theological and philosophical reflection of the human person. Such an account takes seriously human freedom and necessarily contains the concepts of sin and vice.

Unfortunately, the present age seems to be one in which the sense of sin has been lost due to the effects of secularism and secular psychology. And this loss of the sense of sin has detrimental effects not only on individuals but on the social development of the world.

Q: What then is the answer to this state of affairs, specifically for those seeking to propose a psychology grounded in Catholic anthropology?

Sodergren: First, as John Paul II continually warned, we must not fall into the trap of giving an account of the human person limited to this temporal sphere.

Rather, he said, a psychology integrated with Catholic anthropology "considers the human person, under every aspect -- terrestrial and eternal, natural and transcendent. In accordance with this integrated vision, humans, in their historical existence, appear internally wounded by sin, and at the same time redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ."

Thus, in our academic and clinical psychologies, we must strive to rekindle man's innate "religious awareness," that is, the inner longing of the human heart for God, which St. Augustine so eloquently articulated and has been echoed in the Church for centuries.

Secondly, we need to recover an authentic understanding of human freedom: one that underscores the fundamental connection between freedom and truth, the ability for man to shape himself through his free choices, and neither takes an overly pessimistic view nor an exaggeratedly optimistic view of the power of freedom in the face of human weakness.

Such a notion of freedom, springing from our Catholic anthropology, must penetrate both theoretical and clinical aspects of a renewed psychology.

Thirdly, as Robert George said in his 2002 commencement address to the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, "A sound psychology takes sin seriously."

We need to adopt a rich understanding of the dynamics of sin. That is not to say that Catholic psychologists should begin blaming their patients for their own troubles as some authors would suggest. On the contrary, our anthropology impels us to the highest level of compassion and gentleness.

Nor should we go to the extremes taken by people like Szasz who deconstruct mental illness altogether. When someone comes for psychotherapy, there really is "something" wrong for which they need some form of treatment. The question is, "How is that 'something' to be understood?"

This is where the work of integration must be done. We must strive to parse the relationship between sin and mental illness.

Presently, I see three ways of construing this relationship, although there are probably more.

One view is that sin and mental illness are two mutually exclusive ways of conceptualizing the same phenomenon. In that perspective, to the extent that one wishes to begin from a Catholic anthropology, one must reject modern understandings of psychopathology. Though there is some truth to this, I think it would be foolish to discard this whole area of the discipline.

A second view of the relationship is to see them as entirely separate domains: sin and vice pertaining to the moral domain and mental disorder pertaining to the medical domain with no intrinsic connection between them.

This view must absolutely be rejected. No patient arrives at the psychotherapist's office unaffected by original, actual and social sin. Nor have they been unaffected by the call of grace, and these have the utmost bearing on the human person's psychic and interpersonal life.

The third perspective is to recognize that sin and mental illness are not exactly the same thing, but they are closely related. Current standards for identifying and classifying mental disorders use a descriptive approach based on observable signs, symptoms, course and onset. This approach makes few if any claims regarding etiology.

What a rich concept of sin provides is a sure grounding for speculation regarding the etiology of mental disorder. Simply put, there is no clinical disorder whose genesis cannot be accounted for through the dynamic interplay of original, actual and social sin. These do not however, provide much detail about the concrete manifestations of such a disorder. Here modern psychopathology offers us a genuine service through systematic observation and data collection.

However, such procedures on their own cannot give a complete account of the phenomenon of psychic and/or interpersonal suffering. In a sense, the two perspectives need each other.

An authentic psychology that successfully integrates these concepts will be poised to give the clearest, most comprehensive explanations of human phenomena and offer forms of treatment that will truly help the human person overcome the effects of sin, become more human, and progress toward his ultimate end.

Q: In light of this discussion, is guilt a good thing -- or it is something to be resolved by the psychologist?

Sodergren: First, there is such a thing as neurotic guilt, i.e., guilt that is unfounded and misguided.

In such a situation, the task of the therapist would be to examine why the patient is inappropriately taking this guilt upon himself. Often, underlying such guilt is an experience of rejection and utter shamefulness.

A related problem is when the patient is Catholic and has been sacramentally absolved of a given sin but continues to feel profound guilt over it. In such a case there could be two things happening.

First, the person, through their prior relationship experiences -- going all the way back to infancy -- may have developed an interpersonal style in which he or she cannot accept the mercy, beneficence or care of another. This internalized view of self and other can prevent the objective fact of forgiveness from taking hold.

Second, a person who has committed a particular grave sin for which he or she is embarrassed and ashamed may have difficulty separating this experience from the sense of self. In other words, the experience of having done X, even though X has now been forgiven, overpowers the person's sense of self, leaving feelings of guilt and shame.

The goal here is to help the patient engage in positive behaviors that will strengthen the self-image that is currently being overshadowed by X. These patients may need to identify further ways to do "penance" for their sins that allow them to "pay the debt" of their misdeeds.

Rather than fixating on the morbid nature of their misdeeds, patients in this way can use the experience of their past sinfulness as a motivation to do good.

On the other hand, guilt is not always a bad thing and indeed, is an important part of the moral life.

Because of the sanctity of the human conscience and the tendency of psychology to diminish the sense of sin, psychologists must be extremely careful when dealing with patient guilt. In most cases, it is not the place of the therapist to absolve patients of guilt. This should be worked out between the patient, God, a confessor and perhaps a spiritual director.

Rather, the therapist can help the patient to identify the underlying causes of his difficulties, which led to the guilt, and work together to resolve them. When a therapist attempts to absolve a patient's guilt feelings, he steps into the arena of conscience, a sanctuary that one ought not trespass upon lightly.

When thinking about their patients' guilt feelings, it is important for therapists to keep in mind how subtly human beings can affect each other, often without a conscious awareness that it is happening, as well as how one's actions shape one's character, tuning the cognitive, affective and volitional powers of the person in a particular way.

With these dynamics in mind, how can the therapist be absolutely certain that a given patient has no reason whatsoever to feel guilt for something?

Q: How does a sound psychology, which takes sin seriously, relate to understanding the concepts of forgiveness and a God of mercy?

Sodergren: In his encyclical "Dives in Misericordia" about the Father who is rich in mercy, John Paul II noted that the "present-day mentality, more perhaps than that of people in the past, seems opposed to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy. The word and concept of 'mercy' seem to cause uneasiness in man."

Without a sense of sin, the need for mercy and the possibility of giving and receiving mercy are impossible. This places a horrible limitation on humanity for as John Paul taught, mercy is the form that love takes in the face of sin, i.e., in a fallen world.

Without a sense of sin, then, it is impossible to fully love.

A sound psychology does not restrict itself in this way. Recognizing that self-giving love involving the whole person is the goal of human existence, a goal of such a psychology will be the ability to give and receive forgiveness.

Psychotherapeutic interventions based on such a psychology will seek to help patients forgive others who have wounded them and to grow in the ability to seek and accept forgiveness for one's own misdeeds.

In regard to the latter, this means also taking responsibility for one's condition and using the gift of freedom in positive ways in accord with the Truth.

In the early stages, the patient's freedom will likely be fairly impaired, requiring much assistance from the therapist and others to counteract the habitual patterns of thinking, feeling and acting that have developed over time.

In the end, the patient will hopefully embrace these goals for themselves and continue to pursue them with the full force of their humanity.

A patient, who has been helped to give and receive forgiveness with other human beings, will be more able to accept the overwhelmingly profound fact of God's love.

As St. John explains, the measure of our love of God is our love for one another. The psychologist who can help his patients to love others more authentically, which necessarily requires the recognition of sin and the need for forgiveness, will do his patients a great service indeed.

Contact

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Keywords

Sin, Sodergren

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