The National Catholic Review

It has been nearly six months now since I have been writing for "In All Things" and I want to thank the America staff for their great help and support. Very few psychologists have the opportunity to reach a such large audience, so I view this opportunity as a great gift. Responses from readers, both here on the blog and at, mean a great deal to me, and I hope that my observations of mental health from a Christian perspective have been useful.

When I had the tremendous opportunity to work with Eugene Kennedy and Frank J. Kobler during my doctoral training in clinical psychology at Loyola University of Chicago, there was both a certain prestige and wariness toward the field. On the one hand, psychologists such as Kennedy and Adrian van Kaam brought high levels of energy to incorporating the freeing aspects of psychology to Catholicism. At the same time, some embraced certain psychological theories and gurus, notably Carl Rogers' "Person-Centered Therapy," that favored subjective feelings (Would life be happier with another? Well, have an affair, etc.) over a natural law developed over thousands of years. It is also a fact that many priests and nuns who attended psychological graduate programs left their vocation or married each other. Cause and effect? I am not sure, but in the 1980s church leaders saw this happening and grew suspicious of the field. A few intelligent prelates such as Cardinal John O'Connor and Bishop Howard Hubbard continued to see the good that trained therapists could bring about and supported their work.

In the 1980s the secular culture changed the face of mental health; insurance companies took on a greater role, and too many therapists, clinics, and hospital took advantage of the easily accessible reimbursement systems. This has brought about, in the 21st century, a system that strives to define specific behaviors that are "maladaptive" and to fix them as quickly as possible. These efforts, along with great advances in medication, have alleviated much suffering. Yet at the same time, the role of therapy may have become ennervated, neglecting the true quest for life's meaning and the discernment of God's call.

The great gift of psychology and psychiatry to our culture includes effective treatment for many different conditions. Due to some good government legislation, such as PL 94-142 and IDEA, many kinds of psychological treatment are now available to young people.  Of the 25 or so pieces I have written, I've been especially gratified by our discussions of the tremendous problem of child abuse and neglect (apart from the priesthood), and how to strike a effective balance between punitive and therapeutic responses to youth crime. I was slightly surprised that the topics of gambling and anorexia did not draw as many readers: within the mental health field, these are life-sapping problems where clinicians are going to require greater assistance from the public to bring about further healing. Is it possible each of us brings a little bit of denial to some of the painful issues surrounding us?

While the Sermon on the Mount calls on us to meet the needs of the economically poor, I am reminded always that Jesus also calls us to meet the needs of the meek and poor in spirit--Scriptural termas that I believe encompasses people with mental illness, dementias, developmental disabilities, and autism. And in the end our response to them, our help, is just as important as offering help to the economically needy.

In this year of Newman, I have become more aware of my own interdisciplinary background (educated at DePaul and Loyola), and I am grateful for the opportunity to write within what I think is Newman's "liberal" tradition. So thanks to all for reading. I will continue to do my best in both a faithful and intellectually honest manner, qualities which I believe have defined Jesuit spirituality and education, now into their fourth century of stewardship and service, and these ideals continue to guide me.

William Van Ornum



we vnornm | 9/30/2010 - 3:07pm

I have certainly witnessed many kindnesses to people who have special needs within the Church and hopefully these will be like a whole truckload of mustard seeds! Thanks for your thoughtful responses. bill
we vnornm | 9/30/2010 - 3:05pm
Hi Bob,

It is amazing how similar some of the core teachings are between various religions.  Obviously Christians and those of the Jewish faith share a great deal but there are many other approaches from Buddhist and other Eastern religions (shown by Father Clooney's many insightful columns). Native American Spiritualities, African spiritualities, Islam, and other ways of standing in reference to the Holy and Sacred. (I've re-read tgis sentence and don't think it goes against anything the Pope has ever said.) I have just purchases the Oxford University translation of the Koran and hope to learn from this Holy book. Within psychology there are also various approaches. If the logicians and mathematicians among us were construct all the Venn diagrams and their interactions and calculate all the combinations and permutations, there is much to be learned. best, bill
we vnornm | 9/30/2010 - 2:56pm

AA and related groups deserve great praise and I shall devote time to them. Interestingly, the spiritual director for one of the founders of AA was a Jesuit priest, so some of St. ignatius's thoughts, particularly on gratitude, can be experienced through the 12-step processes. The steps, taken together, show no inconsistency with Catholic teaching, and can be used even by those whose view of a "higher power may be radically different than most religions. For some people the 12-step approach has given a lifelong philosophy of life. Thanks for brining this up.

One of the positive aspects of managed care is that they encourage and even ask therapists if and how 12-step groups fit into a treatment plan for a particular client.

amdg, bill
Marie Rehbein | 9/30/2010 - 12:12pm

It has been my experience, at least in one case, that people in parishes are very tolerant and accepting, even loving, of people with the type of mental illnesses that you list in your reply to me.  However, the experience of being with these people is so difficult that it would not surprise me if not more than one individual were driven into counseling as a result.  It certainly keeps people on the edges of their seats to see how someone will respond when they have an encounter with people who suffers with these mental ailments.
ROBERT NUNZ MR | 9/30/2010 - 11:16am
In today's deeply divided Church and world,  I think Eddie's comment the most germane - the need for balanc eand the appreciation of various approaches.
Unfortunately, it seems harder to be perspective  in solving the divisive dilemma.
The maturity to move beyond one's single view is a great contribution that psychology can enhance -especially in our Church.
ed gleason | 9/30/2010 - 11:13am
How about the peer to peer, group recovery organizations and processes that have very often produced remarkable results in bringing people with destructive behaviors back to better balance and emotional health? AA and Retrouvaille are two peer to peer processes that have the Christian community/fellowship approach that some posters here find lacking in the more individualistic therapeutic approaches. The AA revolution that brought the  healthy community/fellowship into play cannot be easily dismissed as lacking true Christian grounding. They are also free of the 'money grubbing' attack made above, God blesses intentional communities that bring emotional/behavioral health.  
we vnornm | 9/30/2010 - 6:22am
Dear Brett:

The affiliation of Patrick Denneen withe the good Jesuits of Georgetown Univeristy certainly bespeaks of a tolerance for diversity at that fine university! best, bill
we vnornm | 9/30/2010 - 6:15am

There are indeed many good hearted people working in the endeavor called psychotherapy. As you point out, one can have a range of mixed feelings toward the work of psychotherapists and they types of work they do. Let's hope the managed care "monster" will continue to evolve into a system that truly helps people in an economically honest manner. Thanks for writing, bill
Anonymous | 9/30/2010 - 2:18am
Hello again, Bill -

Wow, you put together a great summary of Rieff's ideas!  (thanks for the link to that article, too) 

I discovered him by reading a blog (thank God for the web!): either the Postmodern Conservative or Prof. Patrick Deneen at G-town.

There are only two modern thinkers that really knock my socks off: Mr. Rieff and Rene Girard.

Finally, here is a great quote from him on modern ideology:

"Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man was born to be pleased.  The ascetic cries: "I believe!"  The theraputic cries: "I feel!"
we vnornm | 9/29/2010 - 11:16pm

Thank you for your kind and charitable assessment about how things get "out of kilter." Hopefully our awareness of God's presence can help us spin around our own lights a bit less-and be more like Him. I like your poetic, even mystical, way of putting things.
best, bill
we vnornm | 9/29/2010 - 11:10pm

Thank you for introducing me to Rief. How did you learn so much about him?

Besides Weber, Rieff engages with the Old Testament prophets, Saint Paul, and Kierkegaard. His exegeses are ingenious and original, and they all yield the same conclusion: religion is prohibition, culture is inhibition, authority is salvation, submission is wisdom, transgression is folly, and criticism of anything but the pretensions of critical reason is impiety. Modern American society has so completely forgotten these lessons that one is constantly expecting to hear Rieff exclaim, like Heidegger, “Only a God can save us.”
* * *
In all his books—indeed, on virtually every page—Rieff propounded a single thesis: the urgent necessity of a “sacred order,” promulgated by a “creedal organization,” consisting of “interdicts and remissions,” admitting of no appeal and no criticism—except, if it should decay, from prophets who either purify and reaffirm the old interdictory order or establish a new one. Without this, he warned continually, no greatness of soul, no lasting happiness, no common life is possible.
Hoyt Roberson | 9/29/2010 - 11:00pm
I suspect part of the issue is that any over-listing to one side or the other (physical or spiritual) needs some corrective action. If we are made in the image of God, then it seems we should be interested in both the spiritual and physical realities of His creation. Why? Because He is. Liberal or Conservative, we are all humans and sometimes spin a bit too tightly around our own lights. Is God interested in the physical aspects of life on this planet? Yes. Should we be? Yes - but not because God is. Rather, because we have come to be like Him and our own compassion moves us in that direction. Are we interested in spiritual activities? Yes - but not because God is. Rather, because we understand that the spiritual view - as opposed to the apparent physical realities - provides illumination to our lives and being.

Scripture, and rightly understood Christianity and psychology, are all compatible. In fact, the primary import of Scriptural teachings about human maturity line up very well with core psychological concepts. This despite the fact that some mental health professionals and some religious professionals sometimes get things out of kilter.
we vnornm | 9/29/2010 - 10:54pm

Dr. Armand M. Nicholi has for 25 years taught a course at Harvard Univeristy comparing Freud and CS Lewis. A great book that deals specifically with what you bring up: Armand M. Nicholi, "THE QUESTION OF GOD: CS Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. NY: Free Press, 2002. By now, some of my affection for CS Lewis is becoming apparent in different ways.

The mental state of Freud and Lewis, as each approched death, is illuminating. bill
we vnornm | 9/29/2010 - 10:47pm

One of the benefits of psychotherapy is to be able to talk in a safe and confidential environemnt, apart from family, friends, or work, and I'm glad you brought this into the discussion. Some therapists will even have a separate entrance so that people leaving a session won't run into someone arriving for a session or waiting for a session.

The ethics of different helping professions keeps a watchful eye out for possible "dual relationships" between therapists and clients so that the privacy of the client is respected. I have even seen workshops for therapists who live/work in small towns. I know one therapist who lives 35 miles from the clinic worked at in order to draw a boundary and respect the privcy of clients.

I seem to recall something in the old canon law that stipulated a seminarian's spiritual director could not be a member of the faculty who was doing the intellectual evaluation of the candidate. This recognized how easy it would be to get a "reputation."

Colleges often ensure a boundary between teachers who work in psychology departments and those who work in college counseling centers.

If I might expand a bit on my posting, I agree that it is not appropriate in many cases to open up about close personal problems to others say, in a parish or one's family-better to seek someone like a therapist or spiritual director to deal with these. Even though many corporations offer "free" sessions of counseling through an EAP, I know many will avoid this and pay out-of-pocket to keep their sessions truly confidential even when assurances may be given that material from sessions does not get back to an employer.

But perhaps in the Church we need greater acceptance of those conditions which may readily be apparent to others-schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity, Tourette's syndrome, anorexia, past suicide attempts, developmental disabilities-not that parishioners etc. are going to be "therapists" but will have the compassion to make an effort to go the extra mile to include those suffering in the life of the Church. Sometimes people become dependent on therapists for social or friendship needs.

Insurance companies mandate that a great deal of information be given to them in order for them to pay for treatment. How effective are their computer firewalls and how good is their inservice training for clerical staff who come and go and may see confidential material? How much will the government want to know when it is the government supervising the therapists?

As I think you are emphasizing, the "safe place" where one is not given a "reputation" or "gossipped about" in necessary when talking about deeply personal concerns. In the years ahead both consumers of therapy and therapists themselves are going to guard this essential feature.

Thank you for your especially insightful comments. bill

we vnornm | 9/29/2010 - 10:18pm

Therapy, spiritual direction, and their interaction reminds me of the Venn Diagrams and their interaction. What an incredibly challenging situation for a therapist-working with someone through the process of deciding about leaving a vocation. Would seem to me the therapist would have to be particularly watchful for any biases or countertransferences brought into the therapy. best, bill
we vnornm | 9/29/2010 - 10:13pm

Thank you, as always, for your perceptive, intelligent, and kind comments. Let's hope and pray for greater awareness toward "the least of my people." bill
Anonymous | 9/29/2010 - 10:11pm
PS - read the great Jewish thinker on Freud - Philip Rieff - and his work "Triumph of the Theraputic" to really understand what has happened in popular and scientific culture.
Anonymous | 9/29/2010 - 10:09pm
Those who think psychoanalytic therapy is not an attempt to "free" men from religion have not read the father of our theraputic culture, Freud:

"Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires." -Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis,1933.

"Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis." -Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, 1927

He also said that "if man were to go on living, he must stop thinking" - the complete opposite of Catholic intellect and healing.

There may be the odd religiously oriented analyst; however the vast majority wish to satisfy the human self with the mere material or medical world - technocrats in easy chairs or to use an old leftist phrase: "the human face" of the bureaucratic system.
Marie Rehbein | 9/29/2010 - 9:56pm

I'm afraid I do not read so much negativity in the article you cited as you convey in your comments.  The article seems to be summarizing the situation and describing the social changes that have led to the increase in mental health professions.  It particularly struck me that the article describes how in the 1950's the need was present, but the help was not. Do you think that this information about the 1950's is made up?  It seems that you are claiming that those in the mental health industry and our government are in cahoots in isolating us and are intending to brainwash us.

Bill (and Brett),

I tend to believe that people often prefer to turn to professionals so that they do not taint their (hopefully) enduring relationships with the effects of temporary crises.  Contrary to the idea that everyone finds themselves isolated against their will, I sense that they feel themselves too exposed because they have so many more people in their lives than did people who lived in smaller communities in times with less mobility. 

These days everyone lives the life of a celebrity in the sense that more people know who they are than they know.  This is particularly true of those of us who move frequently because of work and become the new family in Church.  As the new family, we would not be inclined to share with our new acquaintances the effects of relocation on our family relationships, for example, even though that may be a very significant problem. 

It's all about not getting a "reputation", which if you think about it, happens to people in more intimate communities.  People are sometimes paralyzed by the opinions of those who know them well, and it holds them back from becoming most fully themselves or adds an obstacle at least. 


I suspect that though there is a difference between a psychologist and a spiritual advisor, some of those who turn to psychologists would be better served by spiritual advisors if they were comfortable with religion.  In my reading of this article, I got the impression that it would be good if psychologists were able to identify spiritual longing and bring their patients to a point where they would be comfortable seeking the assistance of a spiritual advisor instead of just giving them coping strategies and sending them on their way.
Anonymous | 9/29/2010 - 8:39pm
 I don't see psychology  as a replacement for religion and I don't think it came about in order to replace religion.  I've been to  psychologists and spiritual directors  -  I don't think it makes sense to compare what they do or to assume they can fix the same problems.

About psychology and priests and nuns leaving their orders, I read an interesting journal article by William Barry SJ (a psychologist and a spiritual director) about  priests and nuns falling in love and trying to decide if they should stay or leave .... how spiritual direction coud help them decide -  Affectivity and sexuality : their relationship to the spiritual and apostolic life of Jesuits : comments on three experiences / by William A. BarryStudies in the spirituality of Jesuits ; v 10, no. 2-3 (March & May 1978)

I think both psychology and spiritual direction try to help people be their authentic selves, whther that's being authentic in front of God, other people, or oneself.

JANICE JOHNSON | 9/29/2010 - 8:31pm
My thanks to the editors of "America" for providing this forum and many thanks to you, Bill, for your very generous giving of your time and talents to subjects of major concern in our church and society and near and dear to my heart.  That Jesus calls us to help meet the needs of the meek and poor in spirit should be a challenge to Catholics, whether conservative, liberal or whatever .  I still hear and read so much rhetoric and see so little action in our church to help the meek among us.  Is it a matter of indifference?  Denial?  I see the issue as being both social justice and culture of life.  In our diocese the dirctor os social ministry is stretched to the maximum.  Maybe we need to look at our pro-life groups and ask why they are not taking the lead in providing help to those most vulnerable in our society and their families.  With our states so cash strapped, there will be less and less state support.  Who in the church will help to fill the gap?

Brett, I read the excellent article and thank you for the reference.  In my lifetime I've been both a recipient and a provider in the "caring industry", sometimes both for long periods of time.  I'd consider myself and most of the many providers to be caring individuals, but what we do/did can never take the place of long-term loving relationships of family, friends and church community.  The very fact that most of the therapeutic work is short-term makes it transitory and transient.  This is not what people need.  Over the years my family has had a multitude of "carers"-social workers, counselors, psychologists public health nurses, etc, etc.  We soon learned that they will be with us for awhile and then, gone, never to be heard from again.  And I, as a social worker, also worked briefly with people and learned to be very clear as to the brevity of my relationship with them.  This was the natue of the work.  As we all experience separation anxiety, this is hard on everyone involved.  And as Bill pointed out, this kind of brief work can be superficial....people may end up feeling "good" but not ever addressing guilt, for example.  I agree that we all need the grace of the Sacraments that the church provides, but I wouldn't discount the enormous good that mental health professionals can do.  There needs to be some kind of rapprochement between church and mental health professionals.  Perhaps a better understanding and appreciation of what each has to offer would be a for example what is happening on this blog!
Anonymous | 9/29/2010 - 4:34pm
Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Bill - I agree with you wholeheartedly on the issue of profound mental illnesses that require professional help. 

This is such a broad issue, I am glad you will continue to address it on here - feel free to be extra critical of the industry as it expands its medicalized "services" to millions of American at the expense of true religious healing and grace of the sacraments offered by the Church.

Most therapists only help cope with spiritual angst and ignore the root of it.  In this regard they are part of the problem of modern culture - rather than the helpers they claim to be.
Anonymous | 9/29/2010 - 4:24pm
Point taken on my approach; however, I would say that this is not an issue of mere social change - rather, it is the active "selling" of individual therapy to the general public via the psych associations and medical industries and government support.

The "caring industry" has the same goals as centralized, bureaucratic government - the complete dependency, and then care, of the atomized individual.

Religion - esp. those atavistic Catholics - is a problem for the therapists and bureacrats to solve due to the fact that the church is at odds with both groups on the basic ideas of human nature and thriving. 

Theirs is a truncated, materialistic view that claims to provide freedom to the individual from suffering.  The Church provides a holistic, sacred view that takes into account human weakness and, most importantly, the nature of human longing for the God that both majority of psychotherapists and government technocrats deny as "unscientific."
we vnornm | 9/29/2010 - 4:19pm

The church as an institution, in many cases, and in other cases specific personalities within individual chuirches have driven many from the Church. You aptly note this as a "vacuum" which is then filled by others.

There is a book with a title "Bowling Alone in America" which uses bowling as a metaphor for social activities. The decline of bowling in America mirrors the loneliness and marginiazation occuring within the same time.

My old parish in Chicago during the 1960s had a four lane bowling alley. The kids could be pin spotters. They even had Hamm's beer on tap. Thank you for writing. bill
we vnornm | 9/29/2010 - 4:13pm
Dear Brett:

I have gone over the outstanding article you have posted and i agree with nearly everything that is written within. I hope others will read it too.

I hope some of the themes in this article have been coming across in my writings; by makng others aware of somne of the mental health conditions I hope to encourage them to watch for these concerns in the lives of others, at the individual and the parish level, rather than turn right away to the mental health "professionals."

There has indeed been an inappropriate subsitution of the therapeutic for the sacred in many spheres. Too many times therapists will try to help someone feel good rather than experience 'appropriate guilt" and repentance. Many dioceses are encouraging the Sacrament of Reconciliation and some offer this on a daily basis. A good trend.

Therapy many times is a temporary balm for loneliness that would not be needed if there were deeper and more permanent friendships, closer and more enduring family ties, and authentic live community rather than incessantly verbalized statements about community in parishes and churches.

Unfortunately families and networks of friends, etc. left many developmentally disabled persons neglected and this is also true for persons with profound depression and schizophrenia. Here public laws and mental health professionals have made a truly effective contribution but their effect would be magnified many times over if families, neighbors, and churches pitched in more.

Now that therapy is entrenched as an "industry," its careers have become an income-generator for colleges, unoversities, and medical centers.

What can we do? Be more present to others. I hope some of the writings here are giving a helpful approach or two. amdg. bill
Marie Rehbein | 9/29/2010 - 4:01pm
You know, Brett, you might have made your point better if you did not demonize "liberal" Catholics.  Quite frankly, I think you have no basis upon which to claim that anyone is focused only on material concerns if they are actively involved in the Catholic Church.

One might argue that the social pressure to disassociate oneself from religion has left a void that psychology has come to fill in many cases.
Anonymous | 9/29/2010 - 3:22pm
It seems to me that liberal Catholics focus on material conditions almost to the point of ignoring the spiritual battles that are at the heart of the human condition.  To say that the Sermon on the Mount was essentially about "ecnomic conditions" really drives home that point for me. 

Regarding the therapeutic, the secular liberal leaders in the past century actively worked to have psychology to replace ontology/theology and to have therapy to replace community. 

Therapists were to replace priests and in many liberal parishes that is essentially the role they took on - that of a therapeutic.

The article below is a great look at the role of the therapeutic in modern life as it attempts to be the human face of the centralized government and to help the populace "cope" medically (i.e. ignore) the angst of modern life that has destroyed the notion of the divine to focus on material conditions:

"Rise of the Caring Industry"