To Fr. Michael D.

I was watching a French TV channel and they were talking about some recent statistics that have come out about depression in France. The journalist was commenting on the fact that, in olden times, if people felt unwell, they used to go to the Parish Priest (le curé). But now, in recent decades, people go to see the psychologist. This shift occurred in the 1970s under the immense pressure of the sudden growth of Psychology. They were even talking about the fact that social security now will pay for the consultation with the psychologist.

One can find plenty of rational explanations for this phenomenon. I am happy to consider them all. But there is one consideration that I would like to make that sounds to me very important: the Priest has been overtaken by the Psychologist. This is a fact. In former times, the Priest was the specialist of the human soul and spirit. The sole one. Today, in this specific field, he has been completely overtaken by other specialists: the fact is that people have made up their minds that the psychologist is the one to see when depressed.

The journalist underlined one of the causes of depression as being the loss of the meaning of life. But isn’t the priest a specialist of the human soul? Isn’t the priest the one who is supposed to offer meaning in life, better than the psychologist? Why would people trust the professional Psychologist more than the Priest? This raises very deep questions regarding the identity of the Priest in our times. If he is totally overtaken by the Psychologist, professionally, if he can’t explain many things about the human soul, or if his reading and solutions are too simplistic, we have a problem. Why is the Psychologist more of a specialist of the human soul than the Priest? For a start the average parish priest is not really prepared to be a spiritual director, and very often finds himself out of his depth in this field. It is true that traditionally spiritual direction has been rather left to the religious orders and monks who belong to the prophetic side of the Church. But still, shouldn’t one of the main competences of the priest be the knowledge of the human being? Isn’t he the professional of the soul? Of spiritual life? Spiritual life is what the Holy Spirit does in our soul and spirit. Isn’t the priest normally the man in the city whom we should consult to have answers to the difficulties we experience in our soul and spirit? The fact is that society has made its choice – to trust the psychologist.

This issue raises a much more important issue i.e. the relationship between Psychology and Spiritual Theology. How do we see Psychology? How do we see Spiritual Theology? After so many decades of the many amazing advances in Psychology, we feel, that it has stolen the human soul from the Church, from Spiritual Theology, because it is offering new explanations, new analyses, new tools that we have never thought of and never had! We need to catch up seriously: learn what Psychology says, have the knowledge of Spiritual Theology at our fingertips, compare what both say and see how they can work hand in hand, under which conditions; to realise when one takes priority over the other, and not feel sometimes threatened by each one of the other competences.

Spiritual Theology, it must be said, is a module in Theology full of paradoxes: compared with Bible or Dogmatics or even Moral Theology it is a tiny module within Theology. It is still a relatively new module in the history of theology, but despite that, it is one of the most complex and difficult ones because it involves so much expertise and years of experience and discipleship. Psychology is not a topic one studies in Theology; it is rather a small module – if offered – within the curriculum of Philosophy. Consequently, the future priest, willy-nilly, finds himself unprepared in both fields.

He might know, intellectually, things about God, about the Bible, about Dogma, about Christian Morals, but the great paradox is that he has very little knowledge (even amateur knowledge) of the human soul and spirit. He is supposed to connect people to God, to lead them to Him, to have an experience of Him. But in order to do so he needs to have a great knowledge of the human being (Psychology), and also a professional knowledge and experience of how the Grace of God works in the human soul and spirit (Spiritual Theology). He has no knowledge or tools for either. How can he relate to people? How can he understand them? How can he connect them to God? Serious questions! Isn’t this an essential part of his mission? Truth to tell, in practice it has been abandoned.

People used to go to Confession, but Confession is not the first thing to do. What should come first is either to listen to the human being in a friendly way initially, or to listen later on a more professional level by offering some Spiritual Direction.

The Priest’s message should convey the real practical meaning of life and the real Hope to offer to people. The experience of the Risen Lord and how to communicate with Him should be the essential part of what the Priest offers. Unfortunately, he is not trained in these fields. In this regard, he feels out of his depth. In practice the bottom line lies in the fact that people  have understood this in France and, for years now, visit the Psychologist; now, he will be even paid by the healthcare system. His competence is totally recognised! And the Priest’s one? Gone! In France.

Where Did Hope Go?

What the Priest offers as the meaning for life here on earth is still not clear. A few decades ago, we took the decision to no longer refer to the beatitude of life after death, or to defer “happiness” after death. Instead, we decided that we needed, as Christians, to busy ourselves with life here on earth and contribute to it. Christian hope has been seriously obliterated from its essential nerve; the working of the Grace of God has lost its purpose.

Before, we used to say: “our aim in Christian life is to reach eternal beatitude”, i.e. to be with God in Eternity, to contemplate Him eternally, to “avoid mortal sin and hell”. Then we decided that being projected toward our eternal future, having our heads somewhere other than in this life, resulted in our not being involved in human life, made us not involved in human life, so we said: this should change. We thought it right that we only needed to get more involved in human life here on earth and that that was a better spirituality. Wrong – hope, the ingredients of the Act of Hope were, thus, totally despatched to the after-life, and as a consequence, now, we are not thinking at all about it and it is no longer feeding us spiritually, for now we have become merely busy doing good charitable things!

We don’t even want to acknowledge that the world has overtaken us and is doing even better and more professionally charitable things, in all fields, for we still continue in this direction, often in an amateur way. Ok, fine. So be it. But we are not aware that in fact we have literally emptied the theological Act of Hope of its intrinsic contents. The meaning of what we are meant to be doing here on earth has started to lose the appeal and essence of its drive and motivation because life now has become long-lived and thinking of eternity is not something that we do every day! In this manner, an act – i.e. the Act of Hope – that is supposed to raise our awareness of what God wants to give us here on earth has been totally damaged. Why do Christians join in the depression brigade? Because the real object of the Act of Hope has disappeared! Nobody talks about it! No-one has updated it! Nobody is specialised in it. The best and most accurate Act of Hope should now be realised as being that Jesus wants to unite himself to me here on earth. Thus, it is not something that I defer to the end of my life; it is something I am invited to live today and can realise here on earth, during my lifetime – before dying, to be united to Jesus, and even to serve Him better! This is the meaning of my life: to reach what St. Paul said once: it is not me who lives but Christ who lives in me. It is not the total immersion of self, hands, feet and head in human projects and charitable work. It is something that powerfully animates me, impels me, drives me onward and makes me wake up in the morning, jump out of my bed saying: what am I supposed to do so as to draw closer to this fullness of union with Christ here on earth – with all that it brings with it?

We have become dissociated from God. He is being kept at bay until eternity. Meeting the Risen Lord on earth is not really our real project, we are not experts in this. We are experts in Dogma, Liturgy, Morals, but meeting the Risen Lord, and living united to Him is not really our area of expertise! I don’t know to whom we have consigned it! We have become dissociated from our brothers and sisters because we are serving them only with our own means, not with the means of the Grace of the Risen Lord! Hope, as a Theological Act is gone! Welcome depression and emptiness! We have become a shell, maybe a beautiful one, but it is empty of its essential ingredient: the essence of the theological Act of Hope!

The ingredients we have surrendered, to be rediscovered by future generations, are the following: that Jesus, on the Cross, is offering to give himself totally to me during this life-time, to be in union with me! Do you want this?

We need experts in this field, because psychology cannot make us Hope theologically, i.e. according to our deepest thirst for the divine. It will try, it does try, but it is not its area of expertise, it is ours!

The Formation of Priests should outsmart Psychology, not by denigrating Psychology, but by developing its specialisation: Spiritual Theology. Add to this the necessity to study Psychology and above everything else to know exactly how the two sciences interact. It is important to respect the “autonomy” of each science, and its real professional competence, but also to acknowledge what differentiates Spiritual Theology from Psychology, i.e. what the action of the Grace of God in the human being is, what it can achieve and what it won’t achieve!!

Spiritual Theology is the heart of any study in Theology. It is the pearl encased within the shell. It is a vast module. It requires all our attention, especially today, more than ever before where our brothers and sisters are thirsty and need this substantial food. Jesus would like to call them, but they need to have the right tools in order to grow spiritually. Real Christian Hope should be offered again! Spiritual Theology is also the science of this Hope.

Jean Khoury

Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Archangels, 2021

Read Also:

The Forgotten Theological Act of Hope

St. Teresa of Avila: Mapping Spiritual Life

Articles on the Spiritual Journey

Articles on the Call to Holiness