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Psychology: Good vs. Bad

In a recent article I critiqued what I called “bad psychology” which “says that suffering is a result of outmoded rules which hamper sexual and emotional desires.” This psychology was a “false gospel” in the 1960s and 70s, blooming into the Human Potential Movement which has had a massive impact on the Church and the world. This type of psychology is characterized above all by its rejection and avoidance of suffering in favor of pleasure. Due to my own imprecision, it was implied in this critique that all psychology was necessarily erroneous or evil. This is not true. In this article I will attempt to clarify the Tradition in relation to modern psychology and highlight the efforts of good psychology as opposed to the bad.

For context, let me begin by stating that I have experienced mental illness in my own life and the lives of those close to me, as well as the help of psychologists and medications which have been effective means of therapy. Therefore I can say first that psychology as such (whose scope will be defined below) is certainly not erroneous or evil, but rather good and true. The difficulty is in distinguishing between good and bad psychology.

The Field of Psychology and Science

From my view, the most important resource on this point is Fr. Chad Ripperger’s 800 page treatise on psychology, Introduction to the Science of Mental Health. This work bears the imprimatur of Bishop Bruskewitz of Lincoln. In his opening pages he discusses the complexities we face in this area:

[P]sychology did not start down the road which led it to a view which is incompatible with any sound understanding of man. Franz Brentano, who is considered by some to be the father of modern psychology, used Aristotle as the basis of his psychology. However, shortly after Brentano did his work, the psychological community went another direction by embracing an anthropology and method which had a very different view of the nature of man. The psychological community embraced writers such as Freud, Jung and Watson whose view of man was not much more than materialistic and whose theories, even though often touted as “scientific,” had very little basis in an empirical method or in sound philosophy[.]…

The difficulty was, particularly in the Catholic community, a lack of a systematic approach to a fully developed science of mental health. The historical result of this, in the Catholic community, was a later invasion of modern psychologists into virtually every area of Catholic life, which were at variance with an authentic Catholic anthropology. While there are some Catholic psychologists working on a psychology which is compatible with an authentic view of man, the work seems to be progressing very slowly, if at all, even though the desire to advance the science of mental health is not lacking.[1]

The issue, Ripperger says in another place, is that much of modern psychology is based on modern philosophy which “denies the senses,” and thus can “actually lead to mental illness.”[2] Ripperger explains this point by defining the scope of psychology and its necessary principles:

[T]he goal of any science of psychology must, by its very nature, be to arrive at the causes of mental health and illness. But this presupposes knowledge of the intellect itself as well as those faculties which may have some influence on the intellect. Moreover, it is apparent that modern psychology has not fully grasped the nature of the intellect itself since it has not been able to provide an accurate or complete definition of mental illness.[3]

Therefore in order for a science of psychology to be valid, it must accept certain basic philosophical truths about what the intellect is.[4] These are precisely the truths that modern philosophy calls into question. Moreover, judging by Ripperger’s bibliography of more than a dozen Latin texts of St. Thomas, very few have the necessary philosophical training, much less the knowledge of Latin, to truly grasp the nature of the soul as it relates to the intellect, will and appetites. Thus Ripperger begins his treatise with 245 pages explaining in detail the nature of the soul and body as it relates to mental health before arriving at a definition of mental health and illness. Here we will attempt to summarize Ripperger in a very short introduction to the topic.

The Nature of Man

The most important faculty to begin with is the intellect. This faculty is ordered toward knowing the truth. It is divided into the possible intellect and the agent intellect. Both are immaterial. The agent intellect takes the information from the four internal senses (common sense, memory, imagination and the cogitative power) and the five exterior senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch), and extracts a mental concept to give to the possible intellect.[5]

The possible intellect is “the highest cognitive power in man” because it is “that by which man or the soul knows.”[6] It is also the subject of virtues and the power that moves the will. The possible intellect takes what is gathered from the agent intellect and comes to understanding, judgement and reasoning. This means that the possible intellect comes to conclusions about universal truths.

Here is an example: a jury hears evidence in a murder trial. The evidence is presented, which the jury members take in with their external and internal senses. The agent intellect then extracts the concepts in this evidence to correspond with the universal truths of justice and law. This allows the possible intellect to make a judgment about the evidence and to what degree it corresponds to the universal truth of justice.

Next we come to the will, also immaterial, which is moved by the possible intellect when it forms a judgment.[7] This faculty is ordered toward doing the good. The will is a “blind faculty” which needs the possible intellect to give it direction. It is only when the will acts that moral actions come into play, as we have discussed in another place regarding scruples.

Continuing our example, we may say that a jury member comes to a judgement about the evidence using his possible intellect. His will is then moved using this judgement toward an action of giving the judgement and advocating for the same.

Finally, we come to the appetites, which are both material and immaterial.[8] The appetites are divided into the concupiscible and the irascible. These are natural powers which are simply an inclination toward something.[9] The concupiscible appetite desires pleasure, particularly food and the conjugal act, considered simply. The irascible appetite desires the “arduous good,” ordering it toward overcoming difficulties and taking action.[10]

From these two appetites flow all the emotions. The concupiscible appetite desires good and avoids evil as it is simply and easily apprehended or avoided. Thus the concupiscible appetite feels the emotions of love, desire, and joy related to the immediate good, nd hatred, aversion and sorrow in relation to the immediate evil.[11] Since the irascible appetite desires good or evil as it is difficult to obtain or avoid, it feels hope and despair in relation to the arduous good, and courage, fear and anger in relation to the threat of evil.[12]

Continuing our example, a jury member may feel emotions when he hears the evidence presented, and this may influence his judgement. He may feel aversion at some evil presented in evidence, and may feel despair at the accused amending his ways or may feel anger. Conversely, if he believes the accused is innocent, he may feel anger at an injustice which may spur him to action by having the courage to defend the innocent.

The Definition of Mental Health

Once we have a proper definition of basic properties of man in his governing faculties, we can then come to a proper definition of mental health and illness, which Ripperger gives on page 251:

“Mental health is a quality residing in the possible intellect which renders the faculty capable of acting according to its proper nature, i.e. rationally.”[13] Therefore, mental illness is “a lack of due quality or a defect residing in the possible intellect which renders the faculty incapable of acting according to its proper nature, i.e. the intellect cannot act rationally.”[14]

Ripperger goes on to elaborate that mental health requires a proper ordering of the intellect, will and appetites. Each one affects the others and must be used in a properly ordered way so that the intellect can make proper judgements about truth, and then the will can do the good.

If a jury member is too attached to pleasure in his appetites, he may allow his emotions to influence his judgment in an undue way, causing him to make a false judgment. The emotions can fuel action, but they must do so in an ordered way and not an undue mode. In short, the emotions have a role to play but they must be properly formed and subordinated to the intellect.

One of the effects of Original Sin is the disordering of the human faculties, so that the appetites rule the soul, and the intellect falsely “reasons” that whatever the appetites want is true and good. Actual sin also darkens the intellect so that it cannot form proper judgments about the truth. But besides this, the actions of others (like family members) have a significant effect on mental health, besides other spiritual causes like angels and God.[15]

A good Catholic psychologist will have a solid philosophical grounding in the Tradition which will allow him to properly understand the relationship between the intellect, will, and appetites. This will allow him to identify the cause of mental illness and direct a person to the proper solution to help him gain mental health.

If however, psychologists follow the errors of modern philosophy, their psychology may not be grounded in reality, which can cause significant harm both mentally and spiritually. Some non-Catholic psychologists may operate on Catholic principles unconsciously, and simply give the needed charity to their directees, allowing them to do some good for Catholics. Others, however, may be corrupted by philosophical errors or even bad faith, preventing any good and creating much evil.

With many issues today, the situation is very complex and requires a great deal of the virtue of prudence. Parents, especially, must seek to be formed according to the Tradition so that they can raise their children with truth and charity. Those struggling with mental illness can find clarity and healing in this truth. Ripperger’s treatise is, in my view, the best place to start.

St. Dymphna, patroness of the mentally ill, pray for us.



[1] Fr. Chad Ripperger, Introduction to the Science of Mental Health (Sensus Traditionis: 2013), xvi-xvii.

[2] Ibid., 101.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Ibid., 8.

[5] St. Thomas, Summa Contra Gentiles, II c. 82 n. 3; St. Thomas, Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate, q11 a1 ad16; cited in Ripperger, 51.

[6] Summa Contra Gentiles, II c. 62 n.7 ; c. 73, n. 17 and 37 ; cited in Ripperger, 59.

[7] St. Thomas, Quaestiones Desputatae de Malo, q6 a. un.; Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate, q22 a4 ; Summa Theologiae, I q82 a4; cited in Ripperger 104, 105.

[8] Ripperger, 127.

[9] Summa Theologiae, I-II q8 a1; cited in Ripperger, 129.

[10] III In Quatuor Libros Sententiarum, d26 q1 a2; Summa Theologiae, I q81 a2; Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate, q25 a2; cited in Ripperger 131.

[11] Dominic Prümmer, Handbook of Moral Theology (Roman Catholic Books: 1957), 17.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ripperger, 251.

[14] Ibid., 252.

[15] Ripperger distinguishes three causes of mental health and illness in exterior causes (nature, technology and human relations), ourselves and angels and God. See Ripperger, 256ff.

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