A Systematic Framework for Understanding the Human Person
A Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person: Integration with Psychology & Mental Health Practice
By Edited by Paul C. Vitz, William J. Nordling, and Craig Steven Titus
Publisher: Divine Mercy University Press
Review Author: Deborah Savage
A Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person: Integration with Psychology & Mental Health Practice is as multifaceted as its title implies. Perhaps the reader approaches it with a little trepidation. But to open this book is to encounter a rare example of that most difficult of academic exercises: collaboration between distinct disciplines with an eye on arriving at a new synthesis of their shared insights. What is rare about this effort is that it is successful. A Catholic Christian Meta-Model is a monumental achievement, one that reflects the best of what the scholarly community has to offer.
This volume is the fruit of over two decades of steady, continuous effort by an impressive group of scholars and practitioners whose purpose is to forge a meaningful synthesis between three distinct “wisdom traditions” that for centuries have sought to arrive at a full understanding of the human person: psychology, the Western philosophical tradition, and the Judeo-Christian theological tradition. The authors’ stated intent is to present “a synthetic and systematic, realist framework for understanding the person,” one that provides a fully integrated account of the human person as well as the scaffolding for effective therapeutic and mental-health practices. Their work illuminates the self-evident fact that none of these disciplines, laboring independently of the others, can arrive at such a sought-after prize. But it also reveals the need for a vision, a principle of integration, that transcends each of them. And here that integrating principle is provided by a specifically Catholic vision of the person, grounded in Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium.
In an introductory chapter, the authors lay out the premises of the “Catholic Christian Meta-Model,” making it clear that their account is firmly grounded in the conviction that “the human person is created in the image of God, and made by and for divine and human love.” Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be pivotal for their entire analysis. Because once you open the door to the proposition that the human person is literally made for love and is the reflection of a God who is, in His essence, relational, the shackles of the materialist assumptions that arguably have constrained our understanding of the person for centuries are lifted. And the way is then clear for a systematic treatment of the full range of human possibilities.
The authors proceed to spell out the further premises at work in the volume; they are clear that all the disciplines included in their analysis — psychology, philosophy, and theology — are “sources of truth” about the person, and that each makes “complementary” contributions to the pursuit of a “realist understanding of the person.” Here we encounter the second factor contributing to the success of this synthesis: the commitment to a “realist” framework. This term is a signal to the reader that the method at work also will be grounded in an investigation of truths accessible to human reason. The theological vision may provide the starting place — it may serve as the primary lens through which the analysis proceeds — but the systematic treatment of the person underway will include the data of science and the discoveries of philosophy.
True to their word, after introducing the basic elements of this tripartite framework, the text in Part Two turns to the implications of the Meta-Model for psychology and the support it provides for the validity of the model. Part Three is a sustained philosophical treatment of several dimensions of human personhood — from the wholeness that emerges from the union of body and soul, instantiated both in man and in woman, to the meaning of vocation and the pursuit of virtue, to the uniquely human capacities for reason and freedom. Though the lens here is distinctly Catholic, the analysis reveals the undeniable contribution made by the tradition to the substantive understanding of the human person that has undergirded Western civilization for centuries. Part Four completes the picture with a theological exploration of the person as created, fallen, and now redeemed. The result of this investigation is a profound synthesis of centuries of thinking that, in the final part of the book, provides the practitioner with a therapeutic model of enormous importance for the future of psychology and for those engaged in clinical practice.
As a practical matter, it would be an understatement to point out that mental health has become a matter of worldwide concern. Anyone concerned about the future of mankind and that of Western civilization — and who understands that it is the human person himself who is at risk — will recognize this contribution as a lifeline thrown to a drowning man. And this brings us to a second, more hidden contribution to be found in this volume: the historical achievement it represents. Here the authors recover centuries of lost ground and recapture territory taken hostage by the tragically flawed and reductionist account of the person that provided the philosophical ground for the field of psychology from its inception. Indeed, it is possible to trace the dismal state of mental health, particularly in Western countries, at least in part, to the intellectual architecture that has served as its framework since the latter half of the 17th century.
It should be lost on no one that the philosophers of the so-called Enlightenment period provided the philosophical foundation of modern psychology. It would be well beyond our purposes here to provide a thorough review of the prominent thinkers of the time. There are just two historical facts of special interest to us here. The first is Pope Leo XIII’s promulgation of his landmark encyclical Aeterni Patris, on the restoration of Christian philosophy, in 1879. The second is the formal inauguration of the field of psychology that same year: Wilhelm Wundt’s founding of the first laboratory dedicated to psychological research in Leipzig, Germany.
The convergence of the birth of psychology with Pope Leo’s purposes in Aeterni Patris is no doubt already clear to the reader. The intellectual milieu into which psychology was born was characterized by an almost complete immersion in the “innovations” proposed in the philosophical writings of René Descartes, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. Psychology was and has been deeply informed, if not always self-consciously so, by the materialist assumptions that threaded their way through the entire philosophical edifice constructed by the modernists. Such foundations could only lead to the confused account of the person that plagues us in contemporary times. When considered in light of Auguste Comte’s dictum that “the only way to destroy something is to replace it,” the terrain suddenly becomes clear.
Pope Leo’s encyclical must be seen as the next step in a battle the Church had already formally engaged with Pope Pius IX’s promulgation of the Syllabus of Errors just 15 years earlier. While Pius laid out the errors of the modernists, Leo proposed a solution. He called for the philosophers of his time to recover the true purpose of philosophy — to serve as a protective hedge around the truths of the faith — and to reconcile the imaginary conflict between faith and reason, theology and science. He implored a stop to the onslaught of “false wisdom” and a return to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.
The neo-Thomist revival that followed Pope Leo’s great encyclical was a response to this call to arms. The disputes over what Aquinas actually meant are well documented and persist to this day. But Leo’s instructions were clear: Follow Aquinas’s lead, not only in his conclusions but in his method. Seek wisdom and receive it with gratitude wherever you find it, then correct it, reorder it, and synthesize it “for the advantage of all the sciences.” Leo envisioned a Thomism that was open to all of reality and to engagement with every discipline. Some of those who took up this mission turned the Thomist lens on the science of psychology.
In his landmark study Catholics in Psychology: A Historical Survey (1954), Fr. Henryk Misiak refers to Désiré-Joseph Cardinal Mercier as the pre-eminent “Catholic pioneer of scientific psychology.” And rightly so. Cardinal Mercier, a prominent Thomist himself, is the author of The Origins of Contemporary Psychology (1918). This classic text provides a thoroughgoing and precise critique of the influence the modern philosophers had on the development of psychology.
Cardinal Mercier argues that the “first benefit” that neo-Thomism must “confer on modern philosophy” is a deeper and more substantial critique. But its second benefit will surely be “a closer application to the scientific observation and methods in psychology.” Above all, declares the cardinal, it is important that the neo-Thomists should take up a more prominent position in the intersection between the “psychology” proposed by Aquinas and the scientific investigation just getting underway.
Unfortunately, not everyone was convinced that the field of psychology had anything to recommend it to the project of the Thomistic revival. “We do not deny the benefits of science,” said Cardinal Mercier’s colleagues, “only we do not perceive the raison d’être of psycho-physiology in philosophy.” And so, history shows that the scientists, encountering no opposition from the philosophers and finding nothing to merit their attention in the discipline of philosophy, simply moved on.
The theoretical significance of A Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person is that it goes to the root of this situation. The authors radically resituate the person in his proper context as a composite creature who is a profound union of body and soul, and whose powers surpass and transcend the limits of the material world. But the historical significance of this volume is that it finally accomplishes what Cardinal Mercier envisioned. Instead of a narrow interpretation of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, it offers a comprehensive synthesis of centuries of wisdom on the meaning of the human person and his encounter with the world, as well as a profound analysis of the therapeutic significance of this vision of the person for the task of healing humanity.
If properly recognized, A Catholic Christian Meta-Model has the potential to address the most significant health crisis of our day. It is to be hoped that the contribution it represents makes its way into the common sense of the culture. Our future hangs in the balance.
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