Restoring the image of God in our lives nourishes our mental health

'The Christian understanding of suffering is the only one which makes sense' (PA)

I have just been reading a fascinating book: Imago Dei Psychotherapy: A Catholic Conceptualization by GC Dilsaver, an American Catholic psychologist. It is about healing those who are mentally ill because of depression, borderline personality disorders and so on, by helping to restore the “image of God” within them that, through sin, human weakness or the sorrows of life, has become fractured. This is the briefest of summaries and the book well merits reading in full – not least because of the author’s insights on suffering: do we embrace it with Christ as a means of purification or do we flee from it or let ourselves be buried under it? Reading the book made me think that the Christian view of suffering is the only one that makes sense.

The author also shows that in mental disorders the struggle is the same as with healthy people, albeit more extravagant and intensified: do I choose to focus on myself or on others? Choice may be limited but it is not wholly absent; otherwise the possibility of change is diminished. The phrase “to die to self” takes on a specific meaning within Dilsaver’s thesis: the “self” here is the false or pseudo-self that is in direct and unremitting conflict with the true self, in which the “imago Dei” is imprinted.

What I particularly wanted to highlight in this blog is an appendix to the book entitled “The Psychovitiation of Catholicism”. By this Dilsaver means the techniques popular secular psychology has used to infiltrate and usurp traditional Catholic spirituality and ways of regarding the human person. “Humanistic psychology, most especially group therapy and sensitization training, was the Trojan horse” that brought havoc to Catholic religious orders in the US in the 1960s, he states. He cites a famous document of 1994 by William Coulson explaining how this all happened to a flourishing order of nuns in Los Angeles, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

“I met with the whole community, some 600 nuns…on an April day in 1967. We’ve already done the pilot study we told them. Now we want to get everybody in the system involved in nondirective self-exploration. We call it encounter groups…We said, we’ll help you look within. After all, is not God in your heart? Is it not sufficient to be yourself and wouldn’t that make you a good Catholic? And if it doesn’t, then perhaps you shouldn’t have been a Catholic in the first place. Well, after a while, there weren’t many Catholics left.”

Coulson goes on to relate that the Order had some sixty schools when they started the encounter groups. At the end they had one. Of 615 nuns when the psychology programme was launched, 300 had petitioned Rome to be released from their vows within a year. He adds that they did similar programmes among the Jesuits, the Franciscans and other women’s orders. All this has been well documented. As Dilsaver observes, “Humanistic therapies such as Rogers and Maslow’s opened the lid of a Pandora’s box within the Church”. He likens it to a weapon of mass destruction and concludes that “much of the urgency then for the establishment and promulgation of an authentic Catholic clinical psychology stems from the grave need to witness against, undo the damage of, and supplant such schools as that of Maslow and Rogers and their demonic psycho-spiritual spawns.”

If his use of the word “demonic” sounds far-fetched, it isn’t. You don’t need to read “The Screwtape Letters” to be aware that Satan will use every means at his disposal, including an entirely self-centred and secular psychological programme, to seduce people, including priests and religious, away from the image and likeness of God – the “imago Dei” – in their souls.