By William T. McKenna
Q: I keep hearing how a Catholic therapist makes a world of difference, but I’m not sure how a therapist with a Catholic-Christian worldview would operate differently from a secular therapist. Can you help me understand the difference?
Excellent question! While the answer to this inquiry is somewhat complex, I will attempt to be brief. All therapists have some philosophical foundation, no matter how scientific they claim to be in their practice. Some may claim to focus more on self-actualization in life, while others may follow a more utilitarian worldview; still, others may believe that the goal in life is to maximize personal power and prestige about all else. In all of these cases, the therapist’s philosophy will affect how they both conceptualize and then treat a patient. A Catholic therapist who is guided by the Church’s philosophy and anthropology views the human person in a radically different way than most therapists. They understand that the human person is made for loving communion with others, the attainment of virtue, and to find reasonable happiness within a particular vocation.
The Catholic therapist’s first impulse is also to develop a genuine human encounter with the patient. Yes, secular therapists understand that the therapeutic relationship is the number one predictor of therapeutic success, but what they lack is the idea that relationships are meant to lead us to salvation and not self-actualization. How does such a concept play out in therapy? The Catholic therapist seeks to help the patient understand that relationships are meant to be encounters where they are uplifted instead of brought down. For example, within the therapy process, the therapist seeks to provide a corrective emotional experience for the patient. This experience, though, is more than just being nice to the patient, it requires the therapist to sometimes be stern and firm with the patient out of love for them. Without love and truth, a Catholic relational approach is not possible.Implementing the Christian understanding of the virtues into a treatment plan is another clear difference between the Catholic and secular therapist. The Christian understanding of virtue takes its root first in the Aristotelian notion of virtue (e.g. fortitude, justice, temperance, and prudence), and then adds the explicitly Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity to the treatment process. In practice, the Catholic therapist helps to guide the patient (especially via relationships) towards virtuous
Implementing the Christian understanding of the virtues into a treatment plan is another clear difference between the Catholic and secular therapist. The Christian understanding of virtue takes its root first in the Aristotelian notion of virtue (e.g. fortitude, justice, temperance, and prudence), and then adds the explicitly Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity to the treatment process. In practice, the Catholic therapist helps to guide the patient (especially via relationships) towards virtuous actions, and to help the patient to see what virtues the already possess. For example, if the patient struggles with acting only on emotional impulse, the Catholic therapist will assist the patient with developing greater distress tolerance. However, the Catholic therapist will help the patient to understand that they are more so developing the virtue of prudence instead of just distress tolerance. Remember, words have meaning, and therefore framing therapeutic tasks in terms of virtue development very much changes how the patient views and responds to therapy.Finally, and in many
Finally, and in many ways the most novel, is that Catholic therapists believe both in the existence of a person’s vocation and that the human person will only find fulfillment in this life by living out their vocation. It can be tempting within the marital therapy field to suggest to very distressed couples that they would be better off divorced; however, such actions would be contrary to their vocation and thus not helpful for their flourishing.
The Catholic therapist understands this, and thus acts to fight for the marriage instead of for the individual spouses. In this manner, the Catholic therapist helps the couple to focus outward towards each other and their vocation, instead of towards themselves. The Catholic therapist also understands the threefold nature within vocation: in that we are all called to holiness, to a particular state in life, and a particular work. By helping the patient to focus on the idea of vocation, the Catholic therapist helps the patient to create meaning in their life, and to fight the desire to always seek stimulation within monotony.
In all, Catholic psychotherapy is an interpersonal approach that is rooted in a genuine human encounter, founded on Christian virtue, and grounded in helping the person to discover and flourish in their unique vocation. While some therapists may claim that they offer a similar approach, they cannot claim that they also follow the Catholic understanding of flourishing within their work. A Catholic therapist seeks to not only alleviate symptoms, but to also help you excel in your work and home life in such a way which makes you a credit to your family and community. Finally, Catholic psychotherapy is different from its counterparts since it seeks your salvation, and not just worldly happiness. When you entrust yourself to a Catholic therapist, rest assured that we are not just thinking about your temporal good, but more importantly about your eternal welfare.
William T. McKenna, M.S. is a Pre-Doctoral Resident in Clinical Psychology at Catholic Charities with the Diocese of Arlington. He recently completed his coursework for his doctorate at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, now Divine Mercy University. Divine Mercy University offers graduate programs in psychology and counseling, both online and onsite in the greater Washington, DC area. Visit divinemercy.edu for more information.