Keeping Faith and Reason Alive

Interview by Jordi Picazo*. Reprinted with permission. PUBLISHED IN SPANISH IN REVISTAECCLESIA.ORG, the online magazine of the Conference of Bishops of Spain. Link to original.

“We are trying, not to simply protect the faith from being shriveled up from the influence of psychology, but rather to protect psychology from an impoverishing reductionism, from a certain narrowness of view.”

This is the statement of Rev. Robert Presutti, L.C., Ph.D., the Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs at a regionally accredited university and stronghold of the Catholic faith near America’s capitol: Divine Mercy University (DMU).

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Rev. Robert Presutti, L.C., Ph.D., conversed with me about the importance of the mission of Catholic universities in the world. He discussed freedom of inquiry, faith as light of knowledge, the relationship between mental health and psychology; and the need to think about the old dichotomies of faith vs. reason, science vs. religion, and psychology vs. spirituality in new ways. He also spoke of intellectual honesty, as well as the role of theology and philosophy in preserving these freedoms.

He used striking terms such as integration, volitional, intentional, directability, united, whole, holistic, health, relational, and goodness. Even if we talked as if we were in a scholastic get-together he begins praising “the digital technologies, how much further they have allowed us to extend communication!” In his office in Arlington, Virginia, he is proud of the work of Divine Mercy University and of how “it is an interesting story what is taking place here and in the Institute of Psychological Sciences before and within it; this project was born out of the realization that modern psychology could benefit from, and could contribute to the Catholic Christian view of the human person, with a desire of integration.”

“Admit it or not, the fact that we believe in one God who reigns above and provides a safe space in which we can inquire freely, allows ourselves not to be worried about the political pressures of conformism; so Catholic universities are very important to protect the University itself and I think in a certain sense theology and philosophy are very important to keep the possibility of a freedom of inquiry.”

From scratch

Fr. Robert Presutti – Historically, it all began in 1999 when a group of psychologists who were doing some work at Our Lady of Bethesda Retreat Center, offering counseling to couples who came for marriage renewal and were working together with a priest. At times, when they work with people, priests realize that some difficulties go beyond that which can be dealt with in spiritual direction and spiritual counsel, and there is a need for psychological work to deal with deeper issues.

And the psychologists thought, ‘how beautiful it is, to be able to work in an atmosphere where we can integrate our science in our profession with our faith’— as in a certain way, modern psychology has tried to separate psychology from the Faith; some have tried to separate it from any philosophical concerns regarding the human person, and that just isn’t correct from an intellectual perspective.

When you think about it, any psychologist approaching the human person is trying to help that person. Any therapy tries to go from point A to point B. And that directionality from A to B is implicitly saying this is a path towards health, towards wholeness, towards goodness.

And why is it? Is it simply because society says so? Is it simply because it is democratically established that certain characteristics constitute goodness? Obviously not… because, suppose the next generation comes along and says: ‘Well, now, what used to be thought of as good is bad, and what used to be thought of as bad is good’. No. Everybody has some implicit view of what the human person is: There is always some philosophy… There is always some anthropology which underpins our ideas, which you can see between the lines. It is tacit, and the Catholic intellectual tradition likes to be very intellectually honest, in terms of ‘This is our view of the human person, this is what we believe, and why’.

Transcending old dichotomies

Fr. Robert Presutti – So, the whole project of IPS has been to try to tease out, to try to elucidate, to try to make explicit this Catholic Christian view of the human person, particularly viz a viz mental health and psychology. And this is exciting on a number of scores. Number one: It allows the elimination of false dichotomies like faith vs. reason, science vs. religion, psychology vs. spirituality. It helps us to understand that it is not correct to say, ‘In order to be an upright and ethical professional, I can’t let what I believe in any way impact it my work’. What we need instead is a proper integration, which is deeply respectful both of the client and the practitioner.”

Second, we need the intellectual honesty of ‘This is what I believe about the human person and why’. So, what we have developed over the years is a very clear vision of what we call philosophical and theological anthropology, which doesn’t follow any particular philosopher or theologian but in a certain sense tries to articulate in a very objective way what so many schools of philosophy and philosophers reflect.

The brokenness of the human being does not negate the original goodness.

Fr. Robert Presutti – Thus, we have the theological premises of the human person, what we know from Revelation: that the human person is created by God, created good, has an intrinsic good, an intrinsic value, is lovable, is worthy of all admiration and respect and at the same time the human person has fallen. There is a brokenness about that human person but it’s a brokenness that doesn’t in any way negate the original goodness. And then there is redemption. The human person has been redeemed in Christ and there is then a pathway to growth, a pathway towards perfection, from our current brokenness towards perfectibility of human nature and even eternal beatitude.

We are an integrated whole: implications for social sciences

From the philosophical perspective, such a simple thing that the human person is not a mind and body that is just juxtaposed, like a hardware and a software that have somehow been put together: Rather, we are an integrated whole, we are an embodied spirit.

Jordi Picazo – What does that mean for the human person? Does that have direct implications in all of the human and social sciences?

Fr. Robert Presutti – You know, the fact that the human being is essentially relational means that we are made to interact with others. What does that mean? It means that you can’t anymore artificially consider a person as a non-related subject of investigation. Relationships are important. We are volitional. We have a certain self-directability. We are not simply the result of our environment. There is a certain starting point which we receive that we can’t change, but what we do with that—in a certain sense and to certain degrees—is in our own hands.

There is the fact that we are intellectual. That is, we have cognition, we have rationality, which means we try to make sense of things, we can order things: that is an important part, the fact that we are also ethical, the fact that our moral behavior in a certain sense can also direct us so, is elucidating this kind of things that we understand what the human person is.

How does this affect how we do psychology? This gives us a great paradigm, a great model with which we can look at different schools of psychology, take what’s good in them and in a sense maybe understand the limitation of each one”.

Our Catholic identity

Fr. Robert Presutti – I find this particularly exciting for two reasons. In Ex Corde Ecclesiae John Paul II makes a number of points about Catholic universities and about Catholic identity but there are two that have always stood out to me. One is the integration of the sciences: when we think about it, we see that we have grown in knowledge, and we have grown in the sciences, and that it is an incredible human achievement; but we have grown so much that at times we are caught in little islands and we forget what the entire landscape looks like. We know more and more about less and less; and the specialization is great because we really drill in deep but at a certain point we are losing the ability of breath, of understanding what the Renaissance men has been, of what has been a kind of encyclopedic knowledge. This encyclopedic knowledge is now impossible because of the amount of data but does makes it desirable to ensure there is a dialogue taking place, and the integration. So, there is the analysis, which is important, but how do you put it together, what does it all mean?

The different sciences have to be talking. Not only physics needs to be talking with chemistry, and needs to be talking with biology, because they shed a lot of light upon one another but, but Philosophy needs to be talking with science too. Because the sciences themselves are enriched when they are set into a larger context”.

The synthesis

Fr. Robert Presutti – John Paul II speaks about the synthesis of knowledge, what does this all mean about the world, what does this all about the ultimate reality, what does this all about the human person mean! And this is important because otherwise the sciences can become very myopic. They kind of lose a little bit of context, they become an end in themselves.

So, we see that that synthesis, that integration of the sciences is so intentionally done here in IPS! In this case between the philosophical and theological sciences, and the psychological sciences and with counselling.

The unity in everything, the united whole

Jordi Picazo – Even if I studied Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics all through my high school, I have always retained from my Philosophy courses the definition of science as the pursuit of knowledge about the things through their causes, and have learnt that God being the Cause uncaused, there is no possibility of conflict between religion, the believe in God, and rigorous science. Of course, we know that from a philosophical stand point conflict is always needed as it creates the superficial tension which creates live and movement. How could we then believe that science can find anything in contradiction with God Who has created it!

Fr. Robert Presutti – That is a beautiful vision, that is the vision of the united whole, it’s the unity. A holistic view would be this view of integration, and I think that scholasticism did put it so beautifully! why would they otherwise say that theology is the queen of the sciences! And it is that framework which allowed the empirical sciences to grow, because there is meaning in the world, which comes from God, there is something to uncover, beauty, knowledge, truth. Unfortunately, it’s all a philosophic problem now, not a scientific one. We have lost the appreciation for metaphysics, which is the science of being, if you will, about things in themselves. Modern culture considers this is irrelevant, but when you lose this context you must absolutize something. And science has now become a type of philosophy.

‘From the Heart of the Church’ by John Paul II, what an amazing insight!

Jordi Picazo – In the May 2016 opening ceremony of the Benedict XVI Center for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University in Twickenham, London, which I attended, the guest speaker, Fr Friedrich Bechina, undersecretary to the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education in his talk mentioned that Catholic Universities were perhaps the last and only places from where we could teach the truth without being afraid, as you cannot attack Universities in a democracy. You have already mentioned the importance of Catholic Universities…

Fr. Robert Presutti – I think it is important to remember that the Western university system as we know it grew out of the Catholic University, and I always found John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae interesting: ‘From the Heart of the Church’ … and it is so insightful! meaning that education for all was no idea of a government, of any prince, of any nation that said ‘we have to found centers of higher education’; rather it was individuals who have received the gospel message and the truth, Revelation.

Jordi Picazo – The document was mentioned several times in that opening…

Fr. Robert Presutti – And Revelation shows so much light into human reality, that you have to study it, it causes wonder, it causes amazement, it causes that kind of urge that makes you want to unpack this creation that we are in. So Catholic universities, Catholic philosophy and theology gave birth… Newman’s famous paper was on natural philosophy; modern science grew out of natural philosophy, the desire for wisdom, of the things, nature, so Catholic universities are very important to preserve the culture of scholarship, the culture of investigation, the culture of wonder, the culture of trying to gain understanding.

State-run universities will always have a pressure towards a pragmatic end, so much so that they need to produce degrees that are useful, which is an important thing, but that’s not the only reason why Catholic universities exist».

Jordi Picazo – It’s amazing though how in the church we have been afraid of freedom for centuries, perhaps not anymore after Saint John XXIII but especially I’d say with Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the champions of truth and of the marriage of faith and reason.

Fr. Robert Presutti – Blessed Paul VI used to write encyclicals about doctrine, Saint John Paul IIwas the first to write one about reason: basically, he says, ‘trust human reason’; and he was the first to write about married life and to say that human sexuality is good.

Jordi Picazo – Science and Religion: friend or foe?

Fr. Robert Presutti – I said before that Science has become a type of philosophy. Even if not among all, in European as well as in North American universities; so, in science departments there is often this false juxtaposition. The advent of the new atheists as that is called, people like Christopher Hitchens and Dawkins and others really made that point so poignantly: that science is better without any faith, any religion, and in fact, they say, one destroys the other.

I think that, to a certain extent, our culture, at least as seen here in the United States, has lost its ability to engage in reason discourse. So much about discourse is so based on feelings and not based on reason that somehow to go against somebody’s opinion means that you are not accepting them as a person, so I can go. And that is really unjust.

The classical formation and the logical discourse

Jordi Picazo – A prominent American Psychiatrist was telling me this in a recent personal interview in his office in Baltimore, that “we will become very opinionated, but we do not accept the facts”.

Fr. Robert Presutti – And the fact that part of the understanding of what the human person is much more that their opinions, that there is something good; there is, you know, ontology, for example, which allows us to be engaged in good debate, in this type of discourse. In this regard, I think the scholastic method was incredible: the disputatio. Wow! We have lost the ability to do that. Aquinas is so intellectually honest, and there is nobody that does so greater job of portraying his enemies quote in quote out as his interlocutors would. It is amazing: He takes other people’s opinions and makes them stronger before he examines them. Classical formation in humanities, scholasticism is important …

*Jordi Picazo is a philologist and journalist