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The Lost Sense of Sin in Psychology (Part 2)

12/31/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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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 ...

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