The Church’s next big battle is to offer hope to the hopeless

Neither Confession nor psychotherapy 'should try to replace the work of the other' (Photo: CNS)

The newspapers are full of January blues right now: the general depression that settles on all of us as we bunk down waiting for the spring, and references to the seasonal rise in divorce applications. Most of us also know someone who has committed suicide and others struggling with long-term depression. As I mentioned in my last blog, a friend has contacted me about someone she knows who is planning to end her life at the Swiss clinic, “Dignitas”; this person is old, lives alone, is afraid of increasing debility and has no faith. All the more reason to remind ourselves that the Gospel isn’t pie in the sky; it really means “Good News”.

This week’s Catholic World Report certainly buoyed up my own spirits. It included an article about a new book entitled The Catholic Guide to Depression, co-authored by a psychiatrist and a priest, which offers “faithful wisdom and learned guidance in dealing with depression and anxiety”. The authors are Dr Aaron Kheriaty of the University of California and Mgr John Cihak, a priest from Portland in Oregon, who is working in the Vatican. It is published by Sophia Institute Press and I am going to order a copy right now.

I have been blessed not to have been afflicted by depression but I have friends who are burdened with it or other forms of mental illness. As a Catholic I tend to see all mental problems ultimately as symptoms of a “sickness of the soul”; I quoted the Holy Father only recently in a blog as saying, in a telling phrase, that “sin leads to sadness”. Yet one must also recognise the many human factors that contribute towards depression, as well as the various sensible and constructive psychological and medical methods for dealing with it. Interviewed by CWR, the authors of this new book are at pains to acknowledge these other factors, such as “biological factors, genetic predispositions, familial and early attachment problems, interpersonal loss, traumatic experiences, early abuse, neglect and so on”. This is a long list of recognisable human elements even before spiritual and moral elements are factored in.

The two men wrote the book, as Mgr Cihak explains, to reflect a “Catholic approach by integrating the truths of medicine, philosophy and faith.” He adds: “We should keep the whole [person] in mind, as well as the deep connection between the body and the soul… Our Faith has profound things to say about depression, its deepest theological origins, its redemption by Jesus Christ and its transformation in His Church.”

Dr Kheriaty emphasises in the interview that sound medical and psychological science and Christian faith, rightly understood and interpreted, “are not and never have been in opposition”. Where he is critical is when statements are made in the name of “science” that are entirely unscientific. He quotes Freud, who famously described religion as “the universal obsessive neurosis of mankind” – evidence of Freud’s own bias against religion. The same could be said of various emotional and anti-religious statements of Freud’s heir, Richard Dawkins. As Kheriaty points out, scientific research has shown that spiritual practices such as attending church regularly have positive benefits for people’s mental and physical health.

The two men also discuss the relationship between psychotherapy and the Sacrament of Confession. “Neither one can nor should try to replace the work of the other,” they say, adding that psychotherapy “cannot cure our deepest wounds but it can still play an important role in the lives of many people in need of psychological healing”. They further address the modern drive for euthanasia; in Dr Kheriaty’s words, “a person [who] faces his own mortality, yet lacks a transcendental hope… will often resort to desperate attempts to control the timing and circumstance of his death, or to avoid suffering at all costs”. I see this as the next big battle (after abortion) we will be facing: how can we offer hope to those who are “hopeless”?

As a Catholic guide, the book includes the help we can receive by prayers to the saints – some of whom wrestled with problems such as depression in their own lives – and regular reception of the Sacraments.

When I have actually read the book I will blog about it again. Keep tuned.