Big Future for Catholic-Christian Psychology

Could you imagine the world without Christian psychology or counseling? A world where a secular approach to mental health would ignore the spiritual importance of their clients? Or a world that would be uncomfortable about the mere presence of a crucifix hanging on a counselor’s wall? Before the integration of faith and psychology was largely favored by social scientists in the 1960s and ‘70s, Dr. Paul C. Vitz, a then-atheist, was working as a cognitive/experimental psychologist at New York University. It wouldn’t be until after reading literature by two British writers/lay theologians that he would explore the validity of fusing Christian principles with psychology. [caption id="attachment_661" align="alignleft" width="159"] Dr. Vitz during his early years in the field.[/caption] Nearly 45 years later, Dr. Vitz serves as a senior scholar for the Institute for the Psychological Sciences at Divine Mercy University, where his teachings and research focus on the integration of Christian theology and Catholic anthropology with psychology. His conversion to Catholicism in 1979 changed the trajectory of his career -- consisting of seven book publications, a shared stage with the late psychologist Albert Ellis and innumerable lectures filled with hearty laughter, unforgettable charm and the ability to recall historic psychology-related events at the drop of a dime. In an attempt to document his more recent ventures, he was interviewed in the comfort of his office at Divine Mercy University, located in northern Virginia. Here’s what he had to say: [caption id="attachment_662" align="alignright" width="298"] Dr. Paul Vitz, Sr. Mary Patrice Ahearn, R.S.M., M.S., and Dr. Gladys Sweeney celebrate Sr.'s successful defense of her dissertation "To Attach or Detach."[/caption] Q: How long have you been a faculty member at Divine Mercy University and how did you get involved? Dr. Vitz: “I’ve been here since the very beginning in 1999. I met Gladys Sweeney [former dean] and Bill Nordling [former dean and current professor] during a visit to Washington, D.C., to teach psychology at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, located on the Catholic University of America campus. We all wanted to give continuing education (CE) seminars to provide a Catholic-Christian perspective on psychology. This led us to establishing the Catholic Institute for the Psychological Sciences (CIPS) program*, which consisted of seminars and lectures that provided CE credit.” *CIPS is now known as Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS) at Divine Mercy University, which offers two accredited graduate degree programs: a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology and an Master’s in Psychology (online). Q: What has been your most impactful contributions to the field of psychology? Dr. Vitz: “I’ve written a number of books that have had some impact on the field. The first one I wrote was “Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship,” published by Eerdmans in 1977. That was the first kind of Christian critique of humanistic psychology. It made the most impact because, immediately, people outside of New York University (NYU) knew about my work. So all of a sudden, I ran into a lot of Christian intellectuals and academics (mostly Evangelicals and a few Catholic priests) who got in touch with me. The priests understood what I was doing, but they were more focused on theology and spirituality than psychology. [caption id="attachment_663" align="alignnone" width="961"] Book covers of Dr. Vitz’s three three most impactful books on psychology.[/caption] “For psychology, my next impact was a book ‘Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious.’ It put Freud in a very different perspective than that described by his secular biographers. It just got translated into Italian and published. My most recent impact is from ‘Faith of the Fatherless: The psychology of Atheism,’ revised edition published in 2013. There have been a string of articles also, on various other psychological topics.” Q: Who were the most influential “thinkers” of your life and why? [caption id="attachment_668" align="alignright" width="300"] Dr. Paul Vitz speaking with Archbishop William E. Lori (of Baltimore).[/caption] Dr. Vitz: “The most influential persons in my life were those who affected by conversion from atheism to Christianity -- C.S. Lewis (Protestant) and G.K. Chesterton (Catholic). They were both very intelligent and knowledgeable and very able writers, but particularly C.S. Lewis made it clear to me that being intelligent, educated and Christian were completely compatible. In fact I saw that Christianity was far more meaningful and powerful than any political philosophy I had ever come across.” Q: Have you faced any obstacles in your career or research? How did you overcome them? Dr. Vitz: “I had just become a tenured psychology professor at NYU and was working as a cognitive experimental psychologist. And then I became a Christian psychologist, which resulted in me stopping cognitive experiments and research for 45 years, until recently. [At this point in the interview, Dr. Vitz gently tossed a document on the desk. The title on the cover reads “A hierarchical model of binary pattern learning,” published in the Journal of Learning and Motivation (February 2019)]  “This [cognitive psychology] was the sort of research I was doing 45 years ago.” “I had obstacles at NYU. I had no colleagues in my department or in the university because there were no other supportive Christian professors. So it was a lonely, isolating environment, which was difficult. But that’s why contact from Evangelicals at other universities was so important to me. Of course the department didn’t like what I was doing so my raises dropped off. But I was hired as a cognitive/experimental psychologist and so I no longer met the Psychology Department needs, except for what I could contribute with teaching and administration. Anyway, God provided outside financial help which made up for low raises.” Q: Are you a member of any associations or organizations that help enrich your knowledge? Dr. Vitz: I’m a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. [caption id="attachment_666" align="alignright" width="300"] Dr. Paul Vitz talking with a student while seated with his wife Evelyn (right) at the opening ceremony for Divine Mercy University.[/caption] Q: What has been the most rewarding part of teaching for you? Dr. Vitz: The most rewarding part is to teach intelligent, young Christians and Catholics the way in which psychology, and all of its scientific validity, can, in fact, be combined with the faith; and to see them understand it and then to develop it in new ways. It has also been exciting to be in contact with Christian psychologists, now, all over the world. Q: What do you predict will change in the field of psychology? Dr. Vitz: “A couple of things: 1) The hostility between most psychology and religion will decrease. 2) Religious integration with psychology will increase because there will be more evidence that religion can be a major help to people struggling with mental health problems. 3) And I believe this will lead to the development of more professional organizations with a pro-religious commitment, and these new organizations are likely to gain appropriate social and political influence. “Overall, I think there’s a big future for Christian psychologists and psychotherapists because the Catholic population has been the most neglected. In the United States, there are some disciplines that have too many professionals, in relation to the demand, but there are not too many Christian or Catholic psychologists.” Watch Dr. Vitz’s video presentation “Uniting Faith & Psychology” to learn the significance of the approach on psychology by the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. You can read Dr. Vitz’s full biography on Wikipedia or our university’s website. Sign up to learn more about the psychology programs offered at Divine Mercy University.

An Interview with the Dean: School of Counseling

Dr. Harvey Payne humbly acknowledges the gift of counsel as God’s use of mankind to help other people heal, grow and develop. As Academic Dean for the School of Counseling at Divine Mercy University, he helps position students to become licensed counselors who later provide therapy for people across the world. “My biggest joy as a counselor is having people contact me after 10 or 12 years since I worked with them and them letting me know how they’re doing and how they’ve continued to grow and flourish” said Dr. Payne. He has practiced as a mental health professional for 30 years in the U.S., Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan. He also has 11 years of academic experience, including years of service as the dean for a college of counseling. In the interview, Dr. Payne detailed his experience in the field and how it molded him into the academic dean for a Catholic-Christian graduate counseling program. Q: How did your experiences as a counselor differ from those as a psychologist? Dr. Payne: The thing that strikes me is how similar the two are. This is because both roles consisted of trying to understand the person that I was sitting with – their views, emotions, thoughts. This would allow me to help them dig deep into the good desires of their heart and figure out how to best flourish in the midst of whatever suffering or difficulty they were experiencing. The big difference for me is that my doctoral degree and training in clinical psychology had a specialization in working with children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental disorders and learning how to assess using psychological tests to better understand them and help parents and the school work with them. In 1984, I graduated with a master’s in counseling – similar to our degree at DMU – that really taught me the primary skills of how to sit with people, develop a working relationship, get a basic understanding of people, and use techniques to work with them. After getting my counseling degree, I developed a community counseling center and supervised other counselors. I then realized that I wanted more in-depth training and that moved me to getting my Psy.D. degree in 1990. I later completed my postdoctoral fellowship at a children’s hospital in 1991. Q: How is the curriculum of the Master of Science in Counseling program at Divine Mercy University tied to the Catholic-Christian faith? Dr. Payne: The way we understand people is from our Catholic-Christian Meta-Model of the person, so that’s the lens that we see everyone, which is foundational to all our courses. We emphasize that people are created for the good and that their desire and movement is towards the good – even with pain and disorder. A key  focus in our Catholic-Christian Meta-Model of the person is the deep need for relationships to grow. So when we look at someone who is struggling we don’t look at them as pathological, we try to look at the relationships that they need to heal and develop. Those aspects are woven through all of our courses. Q: Unlike other Master’s in Counseling programs, the one at Divine Mercy University places an emphasis on moral character and spiritual flourishing, crisis and trauma, a systemic model of the person, and addictions. What influenced you to include these counseling principles and why do you think it’s important for students to have this knowledge? Dr. Payne: There is a distinct reason we included each of these principles in our curriculum. Moral character and spiritual flourishing: We believe who the counselor is and how they relate to others is the most critical variable in helping people. So making sure that your own spiritual and moral life is flourishing is vital to help other people. The saying “Transformed people, transform people” is the way we like to think about this relationship dynamic. We also recognize that people, especially those in America, who are religious and spiritually minded is very high.  Researchers report that 96% of individuals living in the United States believe in God; more than 90% pray; 69% are church members; and 43% have attended church, synagogue, or temple within the past 7 days (Princeton Religion Research Center, 2000). With this knowledge, we are able to understand the perspective of people who seek counsel, effectively develop our program and properly train students. Crisis and trauma: We know that there’s a very high rate of trauma (e.g. sexual, physical abuse, natural disaster, domestic violence, etc.) that people go through on a daily basis. Without an understanding of crisis and trauma we would be missing a big component of understanding people. Systemic model of the person: This model is an understanding of people based on their relationships, such as family and friends, and their attachment to others. As social creatures, it is important to know the history of relationships and how they are attached to understand the behaviors of a person. Addictions: As a Catholic-Christian university, we understand that in our faith people work on developing habits of virtue. However some people adopt habits, or addictions, for coping that end up being more harmful than helpful.  So we work to help them flourish with better ways of resolving of handling their struggles. Q: Aside from academics, which qualities make someone a strong candidate for the M.S. in Counseling program at DMU? Dr. Payne: We’re looking for people who have basic interpersonal skills. Also, people who have a heart and passion for other people and feel comfortable working with them. But if the individual doesn’t come in with those skills it is very difficult to develop them. Another thing we look for is grit: the ability to keep plugging even when the going gets tough. This quality is important because the coursework, training and ongoing work will be challenging. So people need to have a sense of perseverance. We also want them to understand that they’re not out there drowning on their own; we’re in the water with them to guide and support them. We also look at a sense of compassion for people, regardless of their situation or state. We’re really looking for students who want to help a wide variety of people. Q: Any advice you’d give to a newly licensed counselor that you wish you knew when you started? Dr. Payne: I’d tell them that it might feel like you have finally arrived and now you don’t legally need supervision, but my advice would be to find a group of like-minded counselors and mental health professionals for clinical, professional and personal support. Counseling is not something that you want to do on your own – especially when you have a challenging case. There will be times when you need to get information and help from other people. Q: How are students able to gain clinical experience from an online program? In other words, how do the online learning platform and three on-site residencies adequately prepare students to become licensed professionals? Dr. Payne: At Divine Mercy University, we use innovative technology and break students up into a triad (counselor, client and observer) in a virtual classroom. We are able to view and videotape students as they participate in “role plays.” While they’re practicing the skills, their instructor virtually enters into the room to observe, give feedback and even provide additional feedback after watching recordings. We also have three on-site residencies where students come to the campus in person. That’s a time of intense hands-on training and meeting students to see how they’re doing. All students also have a year-long practicum and internship in their local area before they can graduate. Q: Lastly, what has been your most fond experience as a counselor or as the dean for the School of Counseling? Dr. Payne: My most fond experience as dean is watching the profound growth and change of students throughout the program – from interviewing them as applicants, seeing them at the residencies and seeing them flourish in this vocation of counseling. I enjoy following the personal, professional and clinical development of our students. Learn more about the Master of Science in Counseling program at Divine Mercy University.
About DMU
Divine Mercy University (DMU) is a Catholic graduate university of psychology and counseling programs. It was founded in 1999 as the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. The university offers a Master of Science (M.S.) in Psychology, Master of Science (M.S.) in Counseling, Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology, and Certificate Programs.