Life, Culture, The Faith

How Addressing Psychological Disorders Opens the Soul to God’s Grace

When Adam and Eve separated themselves from God by committing the first sin, great disorder entered their lives. We can see very clearly the devastation wrought in the human body by the fall in the Garden of Eden. Illness, physical suffering, death, the bodily costs of manual labor and pain in childbirth are now part of the human experience. It is clearly evident that the effects of original sin on the body were catastrophic.

What is less obvious to us are the psychological effects of original sin — the disorder and harm that sin brings to us in our psyches. As a Catholic depth psychologist, I argue that the disorder and harm caused by original sin to our psychological structure and functioning is as great as the harm to our bodies. However, it’s less evident to us because it’s easier to imagine a perfectly ordered body than a perfectly ordered psyche.


Grace Builds on Nature

St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that “Gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit,” which is translated as, “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.” This means that our natural structure and functioning serve as a starting point for the spiritual life.

In order to a live full, rich, generous and loving spiritual life, we must have order in our psychological structure and functioning. Grace perfects our nature, insists the Angelic Doctor. Grace doesn’t cover over human nature; it doesn’t deny our natures; it doesn’t somehow negate or “work around” our nature. 

Thus, each of us needs a solid natural foundation for the spiritual life. Any psychological difficulties we have in the natural realm are going to manifest themselves in the spiritual realm — it’s inevitable. You can’t build straight, solid walls on a warped, uneven foundation.

In order to illustrate this point, let’s consider the following examples.

God as Mother: Not Just a Theological Misunderstanding

When an enthusiastic Catholic missionary encounters a self-identified Christian woman who insists on referring to God as “mother,” the impulse to correct, instruct and show that God has revealed himself as Father can be difficult to resist.

However, the well-intentioned theological arguments put forth by the missionary fall on deaf ears because the issue is not primarily a theological or spiritual problem. In these situations, I have invariably found deep wounds in a woman’s relationship with her natural father. The woman may have such a toxic image of “father” that, to preserve a sense of God’s benevolence, compassion and care, she identifies God as “mother.” She avoids grappling with God’s revelation of himself as Father in order to avoid losing her faith. A more effective approach is to heal the psychological wounds around her natural father, thus detoxifying the father image and opening up possibilities for her to be loved by God as Father.

Scrupulosity as a Way to Cope with Underlying Anger

Another example of the way by which psychological healing can allow for spiritual healing and growth is in some individuals’ struggles with scrupulosity. Scrupulosity has long been identified as a challenge for confessors and spiritual directors in their service of helping others progress in the spiritual life. Underneath scrupulosity in the spiritual realm is often obsessive thinking or compulsive behaviors in the psychological realm, and these usual precede the spiritual problems.

As a depth psychologist, I ask, “What drives these phenomena in the natural realm?” Often, I find that unconscious, unacknowledged anger at God drives scrupulosity. How might that work in a specific case?

Let’s say a young man has a more intellectually oriented temperament, and he misperceives God in some way (which is very easy all of us to do). A part of this man suspects that he has been unjustly treated by God. However, he is unable to respond by being angry at God for the perceived injustice. Perhaps human authority figures like parents or teachers did not tolerate anger from him in the past. Maybe those authority figures punished the young man harshly and without warrant for simply being angry when such an emotional reaction was ordered.

As the young man grows up, he generalizes this experience to God in his unconscious, believing that God will not tolerate his anger. At the same time, he still senses at a deep level that there is anger somewhere in the relationship between him and God. However, it would be too threatening to tolerate the idea that he could be angry at God; therefore, God must be angry with him.

Scrupulosity then results as a response to this young man’s projection of his own anger onto God. Since he believes that God is angry with him, scrupulosity is a frantic attempt to find out why God is upset with him and to reduce his anger. Much of this pattern is not primarily spiritual at the core – it’s psychological.

Spiritual Problems are Preferred to Psychological Ones

Further complicating these kinds of scenarios is that the majority of practicing Catholics prefer having spiritual problems over having psychological ones. It seems more virtuous to be suffering from the “Dark Night of the Soul” than from clinical depression. It seems more meritorious to be struggling with “spiritual dryness” than from psychological problems in connecting deeply with God or others.

In clinical psychology, this is called “spiritual bypassing,” which John Welwood originally defined as“using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional unfinished business.” Spiritual bypassing is often used to shore up a shaky sense of self or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks.”

I see this all the time as a Catholic clinical psychologist. The problem with spiritual bypassing is that spiritual remedies are not the best solutions for natural problems. This is again clearer with the human body. Few among us would treat a severed artery primarily by prayer. We would stanch the blood flow with a tourniquet and seek to have the blood vessel repaired.

Another complication is that most people have never experienced a solid psychology firmly grounded in a Catholic worldview in practice. Thus, among serious, practicing Catholics, there can be a jaded, suspicious attitude toward the whole field of psychology. It’s understandable, given how infrequently psychology is grounded in Catholicism, or even natural law; but the neglect of psychological factors in one’s struggles can still stunt spiritual growth and the depth of relationship with God. 


Addressing Both the Spiritual and the Natural

Many people ask whether it’s worth the time to resolve a psychological disorder, rather than to focus on the spiritual life. In addition to the need for a solid psychological foundation to ground the spiritual life, there is another factor: nothing disordered enters heaven. Nothing disordered.  That includes disorder in the psychological realm. In addition to atonement for sin, I do believe that some of the purifying function of purgatory is to resolve psychological disorders.  

I am here to encourage you to bring in the Catholic “and.” The spiritual and the natural. Grace and nature. When you look at yourself and those you serve, are there psychological issues that need to be addressed in the difficulties and the suffering? What can you see in your natural foundation that may be setting an uneven footing for your spiritual life? Consider bringing these questions into your examination of conscience, your prayer, and your reflection, and see what happens if you deliberately seek the answers. There is good authority to say that if you seek such answers, you will find them.