Is there a fundamental conflict between the Catholic faith and psychiatry?

Filed in Science by on July 6, 2014 14 Comments


A review by Dr Anulika Igboaka of Catholicism and Mental Health by Pravin Thevathasan, Catholic Truth Society.

This work sets out to explain why there should not be any conflict between Catholicism and Psychiatry. By providing an overview of contributions made by Catholics, including figures such as Johann Weyer and Juan Luis Vives, it shows how Catholics have supported and made significant contributions to mainstream medical models of understanding, classifying, and treating mental disorders.

It shows that the Church has encouraged the use of medical treatment as part of the management plan for patients presenting with mental illness, whilst still expressing caution at a purely medical approach that excludes acknowledgement of the spiritual factors that also need to be considered. The author’s own willingness as a Catholic to explain that there are sometimes biological and environmental causes to mental illness highlights the shared beliefs that a Catholic can hold with the medical model of mental illness.

The historical cases of witch hunting are briefly touched upon. The author acknowledges these as tragic and misguided, particularly as they involved many people within the Church.  However, he educates the reader about the significant care and advocacy role that some Catholics had towards people suffering with mental illness during the period of the witch hunts, contrary to what is commonly reported.  Key Catholic figures who opposed the trend such as St Vincent de Paul are brought to attention.

One cannot help but be particularly impressed by the parallels between St Vincent’s method of treating the mentally ill, and the interventions and life-style factors considered to be effective for mental health recovery today.  Examples are given of how the incorporation of Catholic spirituality into the management of people with mental illness produces beneficial effects for their symptoms and illustrates good care. For example, a case study is used to highlight the effect of the Sacrament of Reconciliation on alleviating guilt.

To further support the assertion that there should not be any conflict between Catholicism and Psychiatry, data is presented that suggests that there is synchronicity between the values that Catholicism promotes, for example with respect to family life and sexuality, and what mental health research demonstrates.

Whilst the overall aim of this book is to illustrate the positive relationship that exists between Catholicism and Psychiatry, contradictory evidence to this assertion is also brought to the reader’s attention in the section on “When Psychiatry and Catholicism Conflict”.  Here the lives, psychological theories, and personal belief systems of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud are discussed, as well as apparitions and mystical experiences.

This work has several implications for Christians and non-Christians alike.  For Christians, it highlights the significance of evidence-based medical and psychological treatments as management options for people suffering with serious mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia.  For non-Christians, especially those working in the field of mental health, it raises an important question about the significant role that Catholic spirituality can play in healing somebody during a period of mental suffering.  It also challenges the misconception that the Church holds unscientific beliefs about the causes of mental illness and that the early Church’s only position on what causes mental illness was one of demonic possession.

The author should be commended on the brevity of the work, which makes it accessible to the busy clinician or clergyman who may not have time otherwise to read a detailed thesis on the conflicts and similarities between Catholicism and Psychiatry.  There is a wide range of references to the relevant literature.

It would have been helpful to have further examination of the conflicts or similarities that arise between Catholicism and the psychotherapies that stem from Freud’s and Jung’s theories, rather than focusing just on the theories themselves.  Furthermore, it would have been interesting to examine the ‘positive psychology’ movement and to explore whether there are commonalities between its thinking and a Catholic spirituality, perhaps focusing on theories by key psychological figures in this movement, for example Martin Seligman.  I would also have been interested to read a synopsis of the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, whose concept of the ‘good-enough mother’ is referred to a lot in psychiatric training, and whether there are commonalities between this concept and a Catholic understanding of good parenting.

In my opinion, this work will begin to alleviate some of the suspicions that can exist amongst non-Christians working in the mental health field towards Christianity, and amongst Christians towards psychiatric treatment. It will also serve to highlight areas of mental health, e.g. theories underpinning interventions, that may not be fully compatible with Christian belief.  It also makes a good attempt to highlight some of the conflicts that arise when human experience is reduced to a purely biopsychosocial model of understanding and the reality of supernatural experience is neglected.

Although not stated by the author as an intention of his writing, this book encourages good psychiatric practice by highlighting the need to consider the whole person when treating a patient, by adopting a biological, psychological, social and spiritual approach to care.  It would appeal to anybody working in the mental health field, particularly psychiatrists, psychotherapists and psychologists, to clergymen and religious, and to the lay person interested in the areas of mental health and spirituality.

To order the book visit the CTS website here.

Catholicism and Mental Health

By: Dr. Pravin Thevathasan

Format: A6 Booklet

Dimensions: 10.5cm by 14.8cm

ISBN : 9781860829185

Number of Pages: 72

[This review was first published in the Catholic Medical Quarterly. Re-posted here with permission of the editor.]

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Anulika Igboaka

About the Author ()

Anulika Igboaka is a medical doctor, currently training in psychiatry. She has an interest in medical ethics as well as the role of spirituality within mental health. She enjoys teaching medical students when she has the opportunity to, and one of her favourite pastimes is singing in church choirs.

Comments (14)

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  1. Paul Rodden says:

    Good review with which I tend to agree. The booklet isn’t very ‘analytical’.

    Too often, I think there has been a tendency to ‘over-psychologize’ in the past 40 years, especially in the ‘treatment’ of priests (you get the subtext here!) and retreat centres using ‘humanistic psychology’ (the ‘self-centred’ therapy of Rogers/Maslow, etc.). But it is also crucial to be able to distinguish between the mystical and the hysterical, too.

    Of course, Freud and Jung couldn’t really be referred to ‘scientific’ in the strict sense, but at the other extreme is the ‘medicalization of distress’ (just shoving a prescription in a client’s hand rather than helping). It works, but devoid of all humanity.

    There has to be a healthy balance, and I think you’re right about the caution many people feel with Christians. Sadly, there are some awful ‘born-again’ therapists who, although trained, practice what could only be called a form of irresponsible ‘Christian’ magic, which seems little different from a modern form of witchcraft – praying over people as if casting a spell – and they give us a bad name, especially when the client decides they’re going to, ‘Let go, and let God’, and drop their medication (as I have observed too many times with the subsequent negative consequences).

    I have found anything by Paul C Vitz is very useful in this sphere, and strangely, the work of Dr David Smail. Smail is an atheist, but most of his work focusses on the premise that the objectification of the client is what causes therapy to fail (as it often does). I often see the same objectification taking place in catechesis, and I’d argue that’s why it can cause the process to fail with candidates/catechumens who are self-aware who see through the game even if they can’t articulate it. For Smail, for therapy to ‘work’ the client has to sup/repress certain factors of the therapist/client relationship.

    In other words, he stresses that the quality of the therapist’s relationship with the client (how much they are genuinely loved), as well as environmental factors, are incredibly important. Needless to say, as a Christian, there are other aspects of his works would not ‘fit’ within the Catholic anthropological viewpoint, and to which we could not subscribe.

    These books by Vitz I have found useful:
    Psychology As Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship
    The Self: Beyond the Postmodern Crisis

    and more recently, Philosophical Virtues and Psychological Strengths (2013)

    Also Msgr Cormac Burke’s paper, Self-Esteem Why? Why Not? is an excellent article, originally published in HPR
    As is his book, Man and Values: A Personalist Anthropology
    (Hard to get hold of, but a full pre-edited/proofed edition of the book can be found here (with Foreword by Ralph McInerny):

    As to, ‘It would have been helpful to have further examination of the conflicts or similarities that arise between Catholicism and the psychotherapies that stem from Freud’s and Jung’s theories, rather than focusing just on the theories themselves.’, I would recommend Philip Rieff’s Classic, The Triumph of the Therapeutic if you haven’t read it already. As a clinician and a believer, I think you’d appreciate it.

    I must admit, I gradually found Philosophical Anthropology, especially the work of St John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla), Max Scheler, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Dietrich von Hildebrand, John F Crosby, etc., and their Christian Personalism the most enlightening in this field of the human-person-in-relation, and one can smell it’s influence in the thought of Pope Francis via Msgr Luigi Giussani.

    As he said, “The method is imposed by the object!”, and often we do it the other way round – what suits us.

    • mags says:

      Paul – you might enjoy this!

      Psychoanalysis and Philosophy conference

      Chancellors Hall, Senate House, University of London

      17 October 2014 – 18 October 2014 13:00

  2. mags says:

    Jean Vanier founder of the L’Arche movement gave a brilliant talk at Heythrop a while back which touches on Catholicism, Psychiatry, and holistic care and Love. Its a beautiful article with the deepest insight that ties in beautifully with this post.

    try this link

    Text: Jean Vanier at Heythrop College

    Working for the N.H.S as a health trainer ~ holistic health considering spiritual wellbeing, was not 3 years ago considered an appropriate conversation to have with clients. Very frustrating when you see first hand clients psychological depravation, due to lack of community and their apparent lack of faith.

    • Paul Rodden says:

      Hi Mags!

      The Health Profession issue is a real problem, I agree.

      In terms of ‘psychological depravation’, I presume you’ve read the work of Conrad Baars? He’s well worth reading as his work is on Emotional Deprivation and environmental factors preventing healing. He also writes from a Catholic perspective.

      One of the biggest problems, I feel, is the number of ‘Evangelical’ nutters (I have to include Catholics and New Age Hippies) who are desperate to get into this field, who simply poison the well for the rest of us through guilt-by-association.

      In prisons, for example, these ‘Evangelicals’ try to get dramatic conversions from prisoners as it looks good on them rather than anything about bringing the Gospel (if I seem cynical, I’ve been too close to these situations) and messed up big time, so the prison excluded all but clergy from doing prison visits. Sensible, but they lose contact with the benefits of genuine Christian outsiders.

      I have my suspicions, for example, about those who were sacked ‘just for wearing their cross to work’, and how much they might actually have been trying to stuff their ‘religion’ down the throats of their colleagues, at the same time. Proselytising, not Evangelising.

      For some reason, in Mental health as well as Prisons, etc., these ‘Evangelicals’ believe they are above the statutory law as well as the temporal order. They are peddlers in magic and mayhem, whilst their main characteristic is their utter hubris and presumption.

      They’re obsessed with replicating the dramatic events in the Acts of the Apostles, fantasising that they’re Apostles. They want to be the one to save the soul of the of the next David Wilkerson.Nicky Cruz/John Pridmore.

      They imagine they are the Christian equivalent of Spiderman, and they mess it up for the rest of us because any sane secularist will see that it’s insane, and they throw that experience onto their pile of evidence that religion breeds only nutters.

      There is a couple in our town who are completely clueless, yet they’re fighting for the innocence of a multiple murderer who’s been refused parole as he’s a nasty piece of work, yet because he says he’s innocent. They believe it’s Satan blocking his parole, because he goes through all the right ‘Christian hoops’ when he’s with them. In short, he’s a con artist. (I know the Chaplain of the prison he is in, and he reckons he should never be let out as he’s a danger to society because of his pathological ability to con people, too.)

      One ‘Christian’ nutter who’s allowed to work in health care ruins it for dozens of others quietly beavering away, doing genuine good, just as Patricia De Menezes brought Marian apparitions into disrepute and makes it risible to those who don’t understand.

      • mags says:

        Thank God for volunteer prison chaplains like Sr Dr Gemma Simmonds CJ

        • Paul Rodden says:

          Thank God for anyone who goes into Mental Healthcare or Prison chaplaincy who isn’t needy themselves and so can give, rather than their ‘giving’ being a form of self-gratification, or as a friend of mine used to call their ‘need to be needed’. :)

    • Paul Rodden says:

      It is a good piece.

      When I worked in London I was friends with an Irishman who was an ex-homeless/alcoholic, who was in recovery. He used to take me to AA meetings as I was interested (non-alcoholics are allowed to attend ‘open’ meetings). He started a successful office cleaning business which offered work and dignity to the homeless, and we used to be out at 2-3am when I was on night shift talking to them.

      Also in another project I worked on for Oxford (Anglican) diocese I spent time as a binman – refuse collector – as part of my induction. It’s amazing how so many people despise ordinary people – even if they haven’t got mental illness, but because they do do menial work. I had people (especially middle-class ones) talking to me as if I was retarded, too.

      My best friend here in our town has Cerebral Palsy and, although he’s a lawyer (LLM) teenagers call out ‘Spazzo!’ across the street (even in these supposedly enlightened times), and people in restaurants, pubs etc., talk to him like he’s an idiot, when he’s standing or sitting next to me, whilst they talk to me normally. He tells me ‘You get used to it…’.

      The worst thing is, so many Christians are no different. In fact my friend and I agree that, in some ways, they’re worse, because they actually patronise people with disabilities or mental illness in an utterly disingenuous manner. They ‘know they’re meant to be nice’, whilst you know, bing on the receiving end, their smile is about as sincere as a dodgy second-hand car salesman’s.

      • Paul Rodden says:

        I suppose what I’m getting at, is that there’s no conflict between Catholic Faith and Psychiatry if neither are objectifying the subject of their ministrations.

        Behind any good pastoral concern, as with Catholic Sexual Ethics, is the idea of the Person as an end in themselves, and ‘Karol Wojtyla’ makes that pretty clear in the first chapter of Love and Responsibility, An Analysis of the Verb ‘to Use’.

        The difference is that the objectification of persons goes completely against the Catholic worldview or ‘phenomenology’, whereas one will find many people in the ‘Helping Professions’, who clearly ‘do it’ merely because it’s ‘a job’, rather than it being part of their nature – who they are – this is where the Vanier bit is important: the importance of a sense of self-identity (and how virtue is central).

        • mags says:


          ‘Behind any good pastoral concern, as with Catholic Sexual Ethics, is the idea of the Person as an end in themselves, and ‘Karol Wojtyla’ makes that pretty clear in the first chapter of Love and Responsibility, An Analysis of the Verb ‘to Use’.

          The difference is that the objectification of persons goes completely against the Catholic worldview or ‘phenomenology’, ‘

          You lost me at this point. Whats your point!

  3. mags says:

    Pope Francis’ priorities for a Bishop: “Prayer, staying close to the people, and always being a servant
    there must be no psychology of princes.”


    The latter part of this statement could be read in 2 ways.

    However its Thanks be to God that Brentwoods new humble bishop has a PhD in Psychology. 0-:O)

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