As a Catholic psychologist, I have found that secular people resist the idea of their problems being spiritual, while Christians often resist the possibility that our problems are psychological. Why is this? It is an unfortunate part of human nature for us to resist vulnerability. We are afraid of others seeing our weakness, and especially in our Catholic culture, admitting that we are having mental health problems makes us feel particularly weak. I also suspect that for some people, saying that their problems are only spiritual frees them from the responsibility of actually doing something about it. These people may try to just “pray away” their problems rather than strive to take a more active part in their own healing.
Most of us have heard of “defense mechanisms,” which are behaviors we all at times employ to keep unpleasant thoughts, feelings, or situations at bay. For example, you may have heard about “repression,” in which we avoid painful memories by basically forgetting them. In my practice, I’ve found over-spiritualizing our problems to be a defense mechanism many devout and well-meaning Catholics use to avoid the reality that they are just as prone to mental health struggles as anyone else in the world.
We easily forget that we are composites of mind, body, and spirit, so any problem we have in one area almost certainly affect other areas. So, if you are experiencing depression, it of course affects your mind with sadness and negative thinking, but it also affects your body – namely, your brain. But can depression be spiritual as well? Of course, it can; depression affects your own beliefs about yourself and how you see yourself before God. If you are struggling with depression, it will be hard to see yourself as unconditionally lovable, even by God.
A more complicated issue is that the role of the demonic. For the record, my personal and professional opinion is that spiritual warfare is real and takes place on a daily basis. We have to remember that we are in the midst of a spiritual battle, and that the battleground is in our very hearts. Both over-spiritualizing and under-spiritualizing our problems is dangerous. Father Chris Hellstrom gives the analogy of how infection enters the body. He says that like germs, evil often tries to enter through our wounds. Germs enter in through our physical wounds and demons enter in through our psychological and spiritual wounds. So, true healing consists in renouncing evil, but it also requires us to find work through the wounds that let evil enter in the first place.
On the other hand, we must remember that it is God alone who does the healing. Just as a physician only helps create the conditions that allow for the body to heal itself, a good therapist only helps create the conditions that enable the soul to accept God’s love. Ultimately, both spiritual and psychological growth occur when we are vulnerable. Any moment of healing or conversion in the Bible comes in a moment of vulnerability and docility to God, while any failing takes place in a moment of “hardening of heart.” Contrast St. Paul, who went from a prideful conviction of his own uprightness being “knocked from his horse” at his conversion, going blind, and having to surrender himself in true vulnerability to the sustenance and teaching of Christians, his former enemies.
Of course, these words I offer here only are the tip of the iceberg on the subject. If you’d like to learn more, check out the Hope and Healing conference at St. Thomas More on September 26. You can register for the conference here.