ASK IPS: What does mental health have to do with our faith?

Advice from psychological experts, drawing on Catholic faith and modern psychology

QUESTION: What does mental health have to do with our faith?
William McKenna, M.S., Clinical Extern at the IPS Center for Psychological Services

For years psychology and theology were like two squabbling siblings.  Always ready to fight, but actually always seeking the same end.  Theology’s end is the deeper meaning to life along with how to navigate life, and psychology’s is how the human being processes the world around him so that he can also navigate life.  Catholics may know the names of Freud, Skinner, and Jung and how their theories can be dangerous to their spiritual life.  Some of their theories question the nature of Truth, human nature, and even the place of God in our lives.  At the same time you may have seen the vintage videos of the Servant of God Fulton Sheen condemning the psychiatrists and warning us that modern psychology is malicious secularism that will destroy society.

I have to admit that the late bishop did have some valid points about modern psychology, but what if I told you that the tide is turning in modern psychology?  What if I were to tell you that there is a growing movement within psychology to link the spiritual with the psychological?  Over the past thirty years there has been a steady movement to connect psychology to the virtues, forgiveness, the need for an intact family home, and the welding power of religion within a relationship.  This movement is both exciting and promising; however, the word still needs to get out.

That brings me to our current concern for this introductory column to a new series: what does mental health have to do with Catholicism?  In order to answer that question let me first share an exchange between a friend of mine and myself.  My friend was staying with my wife and me while she was interviewing for a job.  That night over dinner we were discussing the human condition when my friend claimed that every problem is rooted in the spiritual.  Therefore, my friend claimed that more prayer, penance, and patience could solve everything.  While my friend (like Fulton Sheen) did have a valid view, I pointed out to her that her approach was synonymous to telling the medical profession that there is no need for specialists since everything in the body is connected.  The human person can have spiritual problems, but that does not mean that the source of the problem is spiritual.  Indeed, the root could be psychological.

This is where Catholic psychotherapists enter down center stage.  We specialize in helping people tackle their psychological problems that are inhibiting them from living a full and happy life (which includes a flourishing spiritual life).  Mental health professionals can, and should, serve the Church with the aim of helping people who are struggling to get back up, and live out their God-given vocations.  Thus, psychology and theology truly are like two siblings who seek the same end: to help people.

Editor’s Note: Check back in future issues for answers to practical questions about everyday scenarios involving faith and psychology.

For more information about IPS (The Institute for the Psychological Sciences), a graduate school that grounds psychology in a Christian view of the human person, visit