Beyond Psychology


I'm going to talk about contemporary psychology. Frankly, psychology has not been a very reliable friend of the faith.

Paul Vitz

Although, and this may sound like a surprise considering my first critique of psychology, I think, as years go on psychology may become less of an enemy and more of a friend. Maybe I'm being optimistic, but I don't think so.

What I will talk to you about today is based on my experience in New York City as a psychotherapist and counselor. I have a small practice there and I've been in touch, of course, with lots of other people. The title of this talk is “Beyond Psychology” and as such I will not be really criticizing psychology. Instead I will be talking about how to place it in perspective and explaining why psychology is very fundamentally limited in its capacity to deal with basic forms of human suffering of a psychological kind. And when that logic is spelled out, I hope you will see that the faith that you, as a priest hold, is the key to those really deep problems that people have. This is a very unusual message from a psychologist, but I think I can demonstrate to you that this is the case. I'm not going to do it by bashing psychology; I will be evaluating it though.

Modern American psychology, like the land of ancient Gaul, is divided into three parts. The largest and most familiar part is the popular psychology of self-esteem found throughout American society. Self-esteem and the obsession that so many have with it, is familiar to almost all of us these days. Self-esteem programs today affect the lives of countless school children, because this idea, really an ideal, has been taken and applied primarily in education.

The second part of psychology derives primarily from a specific experience of psychology, individual psychotherapy and counseling. By now, millions of Americans and North Americans have seen a psychologist at some point in their lives. When Philip Rieff and others described America as a psychological society in which there has been a “triumph of the therapeutic,” they are speaking mainly of psychotherapy and its effects.

Third, comes what might be called group psychotherapy although it usually does not use trained psychotherapists. Today, the best example of this kind of psychology is the recovery group movement, beginning with Alcoholics Anonymous in the 30s. Groups of people with some particular problem, especially an addiction, have gotten together for mutual support in following a program to facilitate recovery from their problem. Here again, especially in recent years and especially in the US, large numbers of Christians have been in such recovery groups.

The division of psychology into these three types is necessary because each type has its own advantages and failures and each has a different relation to the Christian faith. In addition, each displays its own distinctive facets of the contemporary idolatry of psychology. Now, I'm not sure which of these three is most significant to your lives but I'm going to talk this afternoon about two of them: about the self-esteem movement and then about psychotherapy. So I'm going to put aside the recovery movement because I'm not sure that we have time and in general, I am least critical of the recovery group movements. So, I'll begin with what I call the curse of self-esteem.

Historically, the concept of self-esteem has no clear or obvious intellectual origins. No major psychological theorist made it a central concept. Many psychologists, however, have emphasized the self in various ways but the usual focus has been on self-actualization or fulfillment of one's potential. As a result, it is difficult to trace the source of this emphasis on self-esteem. Apparently, this widespread preoccupation is a distillation of the general concern with the self found in so many psychological theories. Self-esteem seems to be the common denominator pervading the writings of such varied theorists as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, ego-strength psychologists, and moral educators especially recently. In any case, the concern with self-esteem hovers everywhere in the US today. It is, however, most reliably found in the world of education — from professors of education, to principals, teachers, school boards, and the television programs that are concerned with education, particularly those programs concerned with preschool education like Sesame Street.

Self worth, a feeling of respect and confidence in one's being has merit as we shall see. But an ego-centered, let me feel good self-esteem, where we can ignore our failures and our need for God is quite another thing. What is wrong with the concept of self-esteem? Lots, and it's fundamental in nature. There have been thousands of psychological studies on self-esteem. Often the term self-esteem is muddled and confused as it becomes a label for such various aspects as self image, as self acceptance, self worth, self love, self trust, etcetera. The bottom line is that no agreed upon definition or measure for self-esteem exists. And whatever self-esteem is, no reliable evidence supports self-esteem scores as meaning much at all.

There is no evidence that high self-esteem reliably causes anything. Indeed, a lot of people with little of it, have achieved a great deal in one kind of activity or the other. For instance, Gloria Steinem, who has written a number of books and been a major leader of the feminist movement, recently revealed in a book long statement that she suffers from low self-esteem. And many people with high self-esteem are happy just being rich, beautiful, or socially connected. Some other people, whose high self-esteem has been noted are successful inner-city drug dealers who generally feel quite good about themselves. After all they have succeeded in making a lot of money in a hostile and competitive environment.

A 1989 study of mathematical skills compared students in eight different countries. American students ranked lowest in mathematical competence and Korean students ranked highest. But the researchers also asked students to rate how good they were at mathematics. The Americans ranked highest in self-judged mathematical ability, while the Koreans ranked lowest. Mathematical self-esteem had an inverse relation to mathematical accomplishment. This is certainly an example of a feel-good psychology keeping students from an accurate perception of reality. The self-esteem theory predicts that only those who feel good about themselves will do well, which is supposedly why all students need it. But in fact, feeling good about yourself may simply make you over confident, narcissistic and unable to work hard. Now, I am not implying that high self-esteem is always negatively related to accomplishment. Rather, the research mentioned above shows that measures of self-esteem have no reliable relationship to behavior, either positive or negative. In part, this is simply because life is too complicated for so simple a notion to be of much use. But for other reasons we should expect this failure in advance.

We all know, and know of, people who are motivated by insecurities and self doubts. These are often both the heroes and the villains of history. The prevalence of certain men of small stature in the history of fanatical military accomplishment is well documented. Julius Cesar, Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin were all men determined to prove they were big. Many great athletes and others have had to overcome grave physical disabilities and a lack of self-esteem. One might call this the Demosthenes effect after the ancient Greek with a speech impediment. He practiced speaking with his mouth full of pebbles and later became a famous orator.

Many superior achievements appear to have their origin in what psychologist, Alfred Adler, called an inferiority complex. The point is not that feeling bad about ourselves is good, but rather that only two things can truly change how we feel about ourselves. Real accomplishment and real love.

First, accomplishment in the real world affects our attitudes. A child who learns to read, who can do mathematics, who can play the piano or baseball, will have a genuine sense of accomplishment and an appropriate sense of self-esteem. Schools that fail to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, corrupt the proper understanding of self-esteem. Educators, who say don't grade them, don't label them, you have to make them feel good about themselves, cause these problems. It makes no sense for students to be full of self-esteem if they have learned nothing. Reality will soon puncture their illusions and they will have to face two disturbing facts: that they are ignorant; and that the adults responsible for teaching them have lied to them.

In the real world, praise has to be the reward for something worthwhile. Praise must be connected to reality.

There is an even more fundamental way in which most people come to genuine self-esteem, actually to feelings of self worth or what psychologists call “basic trust.” Such feelings come through receiving love.

First of all, our mother's love, normally. But this foundational experience of love and self confidence cannot be faked. When teachers attempt to create this deep and motivating emotion by pretending they love all their students for one hour or less a day, and by praising them indiscriminately, they misunderstand the nature of this kind of love. Parental love simply cannot be manufactured by a teacher in a few minutes of interaction a day. The child not only knows that such love is fake, but that real teachers are supposed to teach, and that this involves not just support, but discipline, demands, and reprimands, in short tough love.

Good teachers show their love by caring enough to use discipline. Thus the best and most admired teachers in most American high schools today, are the athletic coaches. They still teach, but they expect performance and they rarely worry about self-esteem. One of the best things that can happen for a budding football player who isn't any good is to be cut from the team, because then he can begin looking for what he is good at. Instead of struggling at football where he would be wasting crucial years of his life being a third-rate player, he might become a first-rate golfer, or math student or artist. A lot of things in life we discover by the process of elimination and we have to have enough faith in our teachers that they'll eliminate us from some of the subjects we don't belong in so that we can find where we do belong.

Similar problems arise for those who try to build their own lagging self-esteem by speaking lovingly to their own inner child or other insecure inner self. Such attempts are doomed to failure for two reasons: first, if we are insecure about our self worth, how can we believe our own praise? Think about it. If you don't think you're really very worthwhile, how can you tell yourself you are and believe it? Reality has to come in — other people's love or the actual accomplishment of something. Then you know, “Hey, it's grounded.” Otherwise it's kind of your own little psychological narcotic. And second, like the child, we know the need for self discipline and accomplishment. In short, self-esteem should be understood as a response, not a cause. It is primarily an emotional response to what we and what others have done to us. Though it is a desirable feeling or internal state, like happiness, it does not cause much. Also, like happiness and like love, self-esteem is almost impossible to get by trying to get it. Try to get self-esteem and you're likely to fail, but do good to others and accomplish something for yourself and you will have all you need.

The subject is vital for Christians partly because so many are so concerned about it, and partly because the recovery of self-esteem has been emphasized very explicitly, particularly in Protestant Christianity. We must note, however, that self-esteem is a deeply secular concept, not one with which Christians should be particularly involved. Nor need they be. Christians should have a tremendous sense of self worth. God made us in His image, He loves us, He sent His Son to save each of us, our destiny is to be with God forever. Each of us is of such value that the angels rejoice over every repentant sinner.

But on the other hand, we have nothing on our own to be proud of. We were given life along with all of our talents, and we are all poor sinners. There is certainly no theological reason to believe that the rich or the successful or the high in self-esteem are more favored by God and are more likely to reach heaven. Indeed, blessed are the humble, blessed are the meek.

In addition, self-esteem is based on the very American notion that each of us is responsible for our own happiness. Thus, within a Christian framework, self-esteem has a subtle and negative effect; we may take the pursuit of happiness as a far more intense personal goal than the pursuit of holiness.

Today, self-esteem has become very important because it is thought to be essential to happiness. Unless you love yourself you will not be happy. But to assume that we must love ourselves, that God will not love us as much as we need to be loved is a form of practical atheism. We say we believe in God but we don't trust Him. Instead, many Christians live by the very unbiblical: “God loves those who love themselves.”

Another problem is that Christians have begun to excuse evil or destructive behavior on the grounds of low self-esteem. But self-esteem, whether high or low, does not determine our actions. We are accountable for them and we are responsible for trying to do good and to avoid evil. Low self-esteem does not make someone an alcoholic, nor does it make a person finally able to admit his or her addiction and do something about it. Both of these decisions are up to each of us regardless of our level of self-esteem.

Finally, the whole focus on ourselves feeds unrealistic self love. What psychologists often call narcissism. One would have thought America had enough trouble with narcissism in the 70s which was the Me Generation and in the 80s with the yuppies. Today, the search for self-esteem is just the newest expression of America's old egomania.

In giving school children happy faces for all their homework just because it was handed in or giving them trophies for just being on the team is flattery of the kind found for decades in our commercial slogans — “You deserve a break today,” “You are the boss,” “Have it your way.” Such self love is an extreme expression of an individualistic psychology long supported by our consumer world. Now, it is reinforced by educators who gratify the vanity of even our youngest children with repetitive mantras like “You are the most important person in the whole world.”

This narcissistic emphasis in American society and especially in education and to some extent in religion is a disguised form of self worship. If accepted, America would have 250 million “most important persons in the whole world.” Two hundred and fifty million golden selves. If such idolatry were not socially so dangerous, it would be embarrassing, even pathetic. Well, so much for self-esteem; I want to move on to psychotherapy.

This is the second part of Gaul, if you will, and, as I said, I'm not going to get to the third part because I think psychotherapy raises a number of very important issues that we need to go into in some detail.

Although psychology has been justly criticized by both secular and Christian critics, there is plenty of evidence that it is also beneficial. How does psychology in fact help people? The research literature on the effects of psychotherapy and counseling is now reasonably clear. Most people do benefit from going into psychotherapy and counseling. About sixty-five or seventy percent of clients show some measure of improvement in their lives. This improvement is identified both by their own reports and by the reports of therapists.

Of course, a small percentage of people, especially those who are seriously disturbed before going into therapy, or who had an inexperienced or incompetent therapist are harmed by psychotherapy. About nine or ten percent of people going into psychotherapy apparently are harmed. That's an estimate over a lot of different studies. And for the others, maybe twenty percent, or twenty-five percent, it doesn't seem to make much difference one way or the other, it's sort of neutral.

But let us look more carefully at what it is that helps people in the psychotherapeutic and counseling process. Research studies very strongly suggest that the positive outcomes in psychotherapy are unrelated to the psychological theories used by the different therapists. That is, the psychological concepts guiding the therapy do not seem to have much causal connection to the positive effects. It does not matter a great deal, in fact, perhaps not at all, whether the therapist is a Freudian or Jungian or an Adlerian or humanistic or cognitive behavioral psychologist. The client seems to benefit independently of the therapist's arduously mastered training in a particular theoretical framework. The major factors of psychotherapy which cause benefit involve certain common factors all related to what is called the therapeutic alliance. They are often called common factors, they exist across all the theories of psychotherapy and they're all related to the nature of the relationship between the patient and therapist — the therapeutic alliance.

What are these factors that support, that are related to the rather high percentage who do benefit from psychotherapy. Well, successful therapists are described as empathic, supporting, caring, and patient. Now, not every therapist will be able to be that way with every client, but for a successful therapy to take place, they must be able to empathize, be supportive, patient and caring with that person. And the other person, the patient has to know it. In other words, you have to establish a relationship that lets the client know that the therapist is your ally.

Also important are the therapist's experience and skill at intervening with interpretations of the client's behavior. And, his or her ability to challenge the client's distortions and misunderstandings about themselves and others. The therapist must be more than just a sympathetic supportive friend. He or she must be able to help clients confront destructive patterns from the past and to confront reality. In short, therapists must give clients support, but not let them off the hook. Or more simply the therapist must provide both mercy and justice — again, tough love. The problem is how to intervene with painful truths. You can't just have a `pity party'. And certain therapists and counselors tend to do that. They let the patient cry on their shoulder and they agree that life is bad and life is difficult and you had a hard time and I don't blame you, etcetera. This is necessary to some degree to establish the relationship of empathy and support, but sooner or later you must confront reality – e.g. “Well, don't you think maybe some of this is your own fault?” Now, you don't say it quite so crudely as that, you may just suggest something that they might do to help change. But they're going to have to recognize their own contribution to their problems and work positively to address them.

Positive effects in the therapy are also due to attributes of the clients themselves. For example, a client must be committed to the therapeutic process. The most obvious way such commitment shows is in the willingness to come to the sessions in the first place. Large numbers of people for various reasons are so uncommitted to therapy and the therapist, so unconvinced of its benefits, that they do not even stay past the first few sessions.

But many clients are committed and this client-commitment effect can also be described as the client's faith in psychology or the therapeutic process. These days, many Americans seem to have more faith in psychology than in their religion. But the client's commitment to the process is essential. When they finally decide after years of living with a problem to do something about it and they decide to pay money, for an hour a week, to really work on it. That kind of commitment is a very important positive predictor of therapy benefits. So that's what the patient brings. The therapist brings empathic support and the ability to intervene with unpleasant truths in a way that allows the patient to accept them and to try to begin to do things about them.

There are other things that the therapist does. The therapist gives the patient permission to change. There are lots of people who need that, strangely enough. They need another adult, a parent figure, who seems sensible and experienced to say: “Yes, why don't you do something different.” It's called permission to change. But all these things that I'm mentioning, are in fact common or potentially common to any form of therapy.

Now, of course, professional psychologists are somewhat disconcerted by this account for it suggests that much of the specialized training that they received in particular psychological concepts and so on, is unrelated to positive outcomes in the therapy. And that seems to be where the research is now, with one qualification. There is one form of psychotherapy that has some evidence that it is superior to the others. And that is cognitive and behavioral therapy. This kind of therapy, however, has shown some of its superiority only for particular rather narrowly defined kinds of psychological problems. Things like panic attacks, phobias, special anxieties and so on, and there is some evidence that these cognitive and behavioral strategies work better for such rather narrowly defined psychological problems.

But that kind of psychology is not very popular with the country at large. It's not a philosophy of life. The rationale behind cognitive/behavioral psychology is very much like the old psychology that Christianity used to believe in. It involves having the person come in, understand the problem and try to go through relearning to change their habits. It's a more sophisticated form, I believe, of the old rational psychology that existed a hundred years ago. It is similar to some of the things that you can find in the Old Testament in the Book of Proverbs.

So, in summary, psychotherapy tends to benefit roughly two thirds of the people who participate in it. The benefits seem to come primarily, however, from the common positive factors that are established in the relationship between the patient and the therapist which are independent of particular theories — with the exception of a few more specialized forms of pathology which at present show a more positive response to the cognitive and behavioral approaches. In any case, the benefits that come from psychotherapy are moderate. They are significant, but people's lives aren't often dramatically changed. But lives are improved.

Now there are also some negative effects of going into psychotherapy. And I want to mention some of them. Many clients are unaware of the possible negative effects of the process of psychotherapy itself. These are, if you will, side effects, like any medicine might have. The very act of constantly looking at and talking about one's past, can generate new forms of psychological pathology and exacerbate old problems. For example, although many people have suffered from traumatic events in their childhood, they are unaware that this understanding can have harmful effects. The perception of oneself as a victim, creates in many people feelings of self pity, an understanding of their life as determined by the past and therefore as being basically unchangeable.

Moreover, seeing oneself as a victim, frequently results in an increase in resentment and deeper hatred toward the people responsible for one's suffering. The status of victimhood often gives rise to a strong sense of moral superiority not only towards the particular perpetrators of the trauma, but to similar people in society at large. Thus those who had bad fathers often reject all parent and authority figures wholesale. This sense of self righteousness can prevent any real understanding or empathy with those who caused the suffering, and can isolate one from others except fellow victims. We conveniently forget, for example, that those who hurt us were often themselves hurt in their own childhood. We stop with the generation of our parents, and beyond that, you know, we don't pay much attention.

Here I might add, one new special problem that has arisen in the last few years in psychology. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of people who claim to have been abused physically, sexually, or emotionally, in childhood. A common perpetrator is an alcoholic father or stepfather, or a cold, emotionally abusive mother. Many of these claims are undoubtedly correct. As much adult psychopathology has its origin in childhood abuse. The sins of the fathers are indeed visited unto the third and fourth generations.

But there is now evidence also, that a growing number of these claims are seriously distorted, or even false. For example, distorted memories often combine two or more people. Hence, a person may fuse the memory of an uncle or neighbor with memories of the father and then accuse the father of incest, when it was actually the other man. Sometimes the memories can eventually be sorted out or corrected. But when false memories derive from early years, they are often so convincing that they can never be corrected. And in many cases, the memory is completely made up. It is an early fantasy, recalled as though it were true.

The problem of people who report mistaken memories as true has become so serious now that the phenomenon is called the “false memory syndrome.” And most researchers in universities who do research on memory, are claiming that most childhood memories are false. Elizabeth Loftus of the University of Washington is now internationally famous for claiming that these memories of traumas are primarily false. And there is now an organization of parents who are making this claim too. I'll give you an example of one of the reports which has been made and which I found interesting.

A Harvard psychiatrist did some studies of early memories of abuse and claimed that about two percent of Americans have clear memories of having been abused as children by space aliens. When I first read that space aliens have sexually or physically abused roughly 5 million Americans I laughed. Then I said, let's assume it's an over statement. But, that maybe a hundred thousand people really report having been abused by space aliens. Well, again, I laughed. I said to myself, I don't believe in space aliens but I don't believe the people are lying about the memory. So where did the memory come from?

Well, space aliens are a very recent memory that people have. It's since television. If you've ever seen a two or three-year-old child watching a scary movie on television, you'll notice they don't know the difference between what they're looking at on television and reality. It would be quite easy for a two or three-year-old to watch a movie on space aliens that was very frightening and for this memory to go into their unconscious in some way and be forgotten and then to be elicited later perhaps through a similar fantasy or movie. And it can be very powerful and very convincing that this actually happened. One of the ways we know this can happen, is we know a number of people who have had false memories. For example, the famous psychologist Piaget had an early memory of having been kidnapped and abused which was later very clearly shown to have been false. Psychologists are now using experimental procedures to create early false childhood memories experimentally in subjects.

I think it is an honest error, that the people do have an honest recall of the memory but that they don't realize where the memory may have come from. That what they are remembering is not necessarily something that happened but something that they saw, probably on television or constructed from other unremembered experiences, etc.

I still remember vividly a scene in a movie that I saw when I was about eight. It was a World War II movie and there was a torture scene in it. And I can still see it, and I was terrified. I can still remember that movie. But if I hadn't remembered it was a movie, maybe I would have thought somebody in the neighborhood had done that to me or something like that.

You have to be very careful then, and as pastors you're going to hear people report memories and early abuse and you must be both sympathetic and listen but remember that these are very serious claims that they're making. They're usually major crimes that are being remembered. Things that are quite actionable and so you should be very cautious. You should have a good psychologist or two to be able to refer them to. You don't have to say you believe in the memory. They're obviously suffering, and you have to be concerned with that. But whether their memory is true or not, is very hard to find out. They are trying to develop some scales now for getting evidence as to whether an early memory is true or not, in a sort of probabilistic statement.

One of the things that goes against an abuse memory being true is if there were other siblings, not too different in age and they report, “Well my dad was fine,” or “Mother never did this to me.” Also, if the therapy that you've been in has heavily pressured the patient along the lines of abuse, you need to be very cautious. But it's a complicated business trying to get at the truth issue, and normally I think you should probably punt. Be sympathetic and supportive and be willing to refer to a good psychologist. On the other hand, from hearing confession, you know that these things sometimes do happen.

Many people have suffered from abuse or the absence of love when they were young. There's no doubt about this. Most of the things that have hurt us have been when people weren't loving. And that can be very painful for children if it is serious and repetitive. And in psychotherapy you can sometimes come to a better understanding of an abusive past. The person can have insight about it. They can be cathartic in expressing what has happened. But the basic fact is this: If a person failed to get the love that they needed when they were young, there is no way a psychotherapist can replace that love.

There's no way, in an hour a week when the patient is thirty-five and the therapist is forty-five that you can recreate in any way the love from a mother or a father that they didn't get. If the father was a drunkard and came home and beat the patient up, and they suffered greatly for this and you've discovered this and talked about it, the hole in the heart is still there. You can't fill it with psychology. So they have a psychological problem without a psychological answer. They have been sinned against. They have come to an understanding of it. They have paid the price of that sin against them in suffering but you can't make up for it, as a psychologist. I hope it's obvious that the psychologist can't give adequate love to them.

But who can give it to them? Our Lord can. The only answer to the loss of love in this world is the gain of love in the supernatural world. If you want love that won't let you down, that can heal the things that were painful in your past, that love can be found in Christ and in God, and in the Holy Spirit. That love can heal.

Now there's one other great source of suffering that human beings have besides having been sinned against. And this is the form of suffering that Christ was most concerned with, at least equally concerned with as the other. All of us have sinned against others. All of us have harmed and hurt others. And most of the time we put that out of our mind. You'd be surprised at how many parents who really may have beaten up their child have no memory of it at all. You would be surprised how many hurtful things you've experienced in your own life that the person who did it forgot in five minutes. And that means you've done the same thing, forgotten what you've done to others. We somehow or other keep a set of double books. We're much more aware of when we are hurt than when we hurt somebody else. But if we're honest with ourselves, which is one of the very good things about something like AA, you recognize that you have harmed other people and this is called real guilt.

Now there is neurotic guilt, people who feel guilty about things that they didn't do. We all know that, and one of the proper functions of the psychologist is to help people see neurotic guilt. I've had patients who have suffered from it. Irrational, neurotic guilt. But, there's also real guilt, if we're honest. We've harmed others and in the process sometimes harmed ourselves as well. And you can't forgive yourself although you hear people claim that in the Christian world.

There are two reasons for that. One is, if you can forgive yourself for your sins, why did Jesus come into the world? And second, what would you think of a criminal who said, “I forgive myself for murdering you.” You know, you can't forgive yourself if you have any integrity or honesty. You have to recognize that you are, in fact, convicted of what you have done. And Christ came to free us from that conviction. And so, when we have harmed others, including ourselves, the psychologist can't answer that problem either.

Here's what Freud said about it. “It would be absurd if I said to the client, `I, Sigmund Freud, forgive you for your sins.'” And Freud was right. It would be absurd for the therapist to say to the client, “I forgive you for your sins.” Some Christian therapists are claiming they can do that. But as priests, as other Christs, you have explicitly the power and capacity to forgive sins. You don't personally forgive the person. No, but in the name of Christ, as I understand it, you have the power to forgive them of their sins. And what that means is you can free them from the sins that they have done against others. Most of us think only about the people who have sinned against us. That's what the whole self-pity world is about, and the victim world is about. How many people have done you wrong? But there are a lot of us who have done other people wrong and that's all of us. If you really are honest with yourself.

Freud was right. The psychotherapist can't forgive the other person. The person you harmed could forgive you if you could speak to them, but often they're hundreds of miles away, or dead, or just unavailable. You can't forgive yourself. Self-forgiveness I see as another form of the American preoccupation with a kind of self-salvation. You don't need even God now, you can do it yourself. It's relatively popular but primarily in Christian circles.

Now there is a legitimate place for self acceptance, accepting your weaknesses, your limitations, and so on. But that's not the same thing — self acceptance is not self forgiveness. When you have a real sin on your conscience, you ask for God to forgive you and, as Catholic priests, you have the capacity to serve that function.

In summary, psychology can be useful, helpful to a moderate degree. But the two greatest forms of suffering: sins against us and sins we have perpetrated against others; the suffering of the loss of love and the suffering from real guilt, here psychology can't, in principle, provide an answer.

Psychologists are impotent in the face of those two profound sources of suffering. The person cries out for love because their father didn't give it to them, beat the hell out of them when they were a kid. You feel for them, but you can't make that up. Christ's love can however. And we find people who are wracked with real guilt, they've killed people. In New York, they're all over the place. Or they've done all sorts of other things. And if they've had the courage and honesty to face it they cry out, they want relief. “But only God can forgive them, and I assume that sometimes people are forgiven by God without a priest as a mediator. But your job, your function, as priest, is to forgive others. This is a profound answer to the psychological problem of guilt. If you will, guilt is a form of psychological suffering for which there is no psychological answer. So the bottom line is, that in both of these types of the deepest form of human pain, inadequate parental love and real guilt, psychology does not have the answer and you do. Thank you.




Vitz, Paul C. "Beyond Psychology." A talk given by Paul C. Vitz to an audience of priests in New Westminster, British Columbia, September 29, 1995.


Prof. Paul Vitz received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University (1962) and for many years was a professor of psychology at New York University, where he is now professor emeritus. Currently he is Professor/Senior Scholar at the Institute for Psychological Sciences (IPS) in Arlington, VA. This is a free-standing, fully accredited graduate program, awarding the Doctor of Psychology degree in clinical psychology. The program trains psychologists within an orthodox Catholic perspective.

Dr. Vitz's work is focused on the integration of Christian theology and psychology, breaking from the secular humanism and post-modern relativism prevalent today. His books include: Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship; Sigmund Freud's Christian Unconscious; Modern Art and Modern Science: The Parallel Analysis of Vision; and Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism. He and his wife live in Manhattan; they have six children, and they are now expecting their tenth grandchild. Paul Vitz is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1995 Paul C. Vitz

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