Psychiatry & Catholicism: Part 1


The term “psychiatry” was first coined by the German physician Johann Christian Reil in 1808 and literally means the ‘medical treatment of the soul’ (psych- “soul” from Ancient Greek psykhē “soul”; -iatry “medical treatment” from Gk. iātrikos “medical” from iāsthai “to heal”).

“But even today human reason and free will are often still denied by many neuroscientists or scientific popularizers. Their conclusions are in fact bad philosophy masquerading as science. The so-called New Atheist writers, including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, try to convince us that all things distinctively human, including religious faith, can be (or someday will be) shown to be reducible to chemical discharges in the brain.

According to this ideology, all that we are, all that we think, and all that we do are completely determined by our biology. (We should note, however, that these writers implicitly appeal to our reason and free will in asking us to rationally consider and freely accept their arguments.) Today, brain science has made tremendous advances in exploring biological aspects of human behavior and mental illness. Yet for all this scientific progress, psychiatry still often misses what is highest and most noble in its human subject.

As one psychiatrist put it, “Today, psychiatry has rejoined mainstream medicine and holds empirical science sacred. Psychiatry focuses on the observable, and at least implicitly, debunks the mysterious. Therefore, psychiatry has lost depth even as it has gained precision.” 9

Is this trade-off necessary? I would suggest that the answer is no. We can gain precision and yet maintain a sense of mystery in the face of our subject — the human person — who, in the end, always remains beyond our complete grasp. The psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote, “The object of psychiatry is man . . . When we know him, we know something about him, rather than himself. Any total knowledge of man will prove to be a delusion brought about by raising one point of view to the status of an only one, one method to the status of a universal method.” Jaspers reminds us that, “like every person, every patient is unfathomable.”10 As mentioned earlier, the word psychiatrist literally means “doctor of the soul.” But as you can see from this brief history, modern psychiatry and the other psychological sciences have in one fashion or another often lost sight of the human soul.

Psychiatry has often ignored man’s dignity, his freedom, his rationality, and his orientation toward God. Recent surveys show that among the various medical specialties, psychiatrists are the least religious physicians. Another study showed that Christian physicians are more likely than non-Christian physicians to refer patients with mental-health problems to a member of the clergy or a religious counselor, and less likely to refer them to a psychiatrist. The researcher Dr. Farr Curlin commented:

“Something about psychiatry, perhaps its historical ties to psychoanalysis and the anti-religious views of the early analysts such as Sigmund Freud, seems to dissuade religious medical students from choosing to specialize in this field. It also seems to discourage religious physicians from referring their patients to psychiatrists. Previous surveys have documented the unusual religious profile of psychiatry but this is the first study to suggest that that profile leads many physicians to look away from psychiatrists for help in responding to patients’ psychological and spiritual suffering. Because psychiatrists take care of patients struggling with emotional, personal and relational problems, the gap between the religiousness of the average psychiatrist and her average patient may make it difficult for them to connect on a human level. Patients probably seek out, to some extent, physicians who share their views on life’s big questions.“11

This book attempts to help close this gap by bringing good medical and psychological science into contact with sound philosophy and theology. It is my firm conviction that Catholics need not fear or be suspicious of sound science. (Fides et Ratio) For science is simply a set of methods for exploring and discovering truths about the natural world — the very world that God created. As St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, since God is one, all truth — whether natural or supernatural, whether scientific or religious — is also one. Where there appears to be a contradiction between a discovery of science and a truth of faith, this is only an apparent conflict, based either upon inaccurate science or upon a misapplication of religious truths. It is important to note in this context that much of what passes for “science” in the popular media, or even in some apparently scientific circles, is not science at all, but theory or ideology masquerading as science.

Many today would have you believe that there has been a long-standing war between science and religion. This is nonsense; it is a myth that has been mindlessly repeated since the Enlightenment with little evidence then or now to support it. Modern science itself developed only in the Christian West. Science as we understand it today emerged in human history within the cultural context of Christian faith. This is not surprising, since the very practice of scientific inquiry presupposes that the world is fundamentally lawful, rationally ordered, and therefore knowable by the human intellect. But this is precisely the sort of world that a God Who is logos — word, reason, truth, intelligence — would create. Modern science grew from the soil of a Christian culture and flourished among Christian believers. There is no war between science and religion — only misunderstandings, perhaps, or skirmishes among the ill-informed or overzealous on both sides. But these need not detain us. So also, the historical tensions between psychiatry and religion described earlier were ill conceived and unnecessary. It is time for theologians and scientists, priests and doctors, patients and physicians to learn from one another. It is my hope that by examining depression from a Catholic perspective, this book can make a contribution to that dialogue.”

9 Blazer, The Age of Melancholy, 143.
10 Karl Jaspers, Philosophy and the World: Selected Essays, trans. E. B. Ashton (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1963), 213.
11 Quoted in University of Chicago Press Release, September 3, 2007:

-Kheriaty, Aaron; Cihak, Fr. John (2012-10-23). Catholic Guide to Depression (Kindle Locations 399-481). Sophia Institute Press. Kindle Edition.


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