Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(3) August 2017

Careers in Medicine and Healthcare

A Career in Psychotherapy?

We received this query from a young (anonymised) Catholic

Dear Dr Thevathasan,

I am 19 years old and thinking of a career in psychotherapy. A Deacon suggested that it might be a good idea for me to contact you and seek some advice as to what route is the best to go down for someone striving to be a faithful Catholic, but wanting to become a professional counsellor!

I am considering applying for a degree but have been looking at various different options, including combined Psychology and Counselling degrees (there is one of interest at Roehampton University) or just going straight into counselling training.

I would appreciate any advice, direction, or warnings you might be able to give me!

Thank you for your time, God Bless



Our replies

Hello Alex

Thanks for this. As a general rule, I always ask Catholics to consider a vocation in health care. My own experiences of counsellors and psychotherapists- and I must emphasize that my experience is now limited to what goes on locally - is that they tend to be values neutral, which is great when they are dealing with anxiety or bereavement issues but not so good when they are dealing with human sexuality or abortion.

Perhaps things are better elsewhere.

All the best and God bless

Pravin Thevathasan


Dear Alex

There is real need for there to be a Catholic influence and view in psychotherapy and counselling. But that is a little more complex than you might think. Psychotherapy comes with some very clear philosophical views about the person and the way in which we think etc. For example, Freud was an atheist and a determinist, who believed that who we are is determined by our young experiences. That to a degree is true but he then concluded that in order to change you had to go back to those early memories and regress back to the earlier stage. That is problematic as it denies the possibility of personal growth and free will from the place we are at.

In the end Freud was in fact very antipathetic to Catholic theology and philosophy. Especially from the point of view that we do not have free will, and that we cannot be redeemed or develop from where we are. And it is clear that his methods did not work. His views receive little mainstream attention these days. But many other models (Jungian therapy, Rogerian, Kleinian and even Mindfull­ness therapy) also have structures which appear to be in opposition to free will and a Catholic philosophy.

Indeed many other psychotherapeutic models are also very limited or contrary to Catholic teaching. And yet those systems and structures do not set that out as part of the description of what they do.

It is good that nowadays we have some therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural therapies which appear to work with the patient where they are and to develop them towards a better place. They appear to be more effective and are most often used nowadays. But training may be tricky, as you will be expected to train in a number of models, some of which I have seen undermine the faith of good people, who did not see the ways in which the psychotherapeutic models were in error. I have often been told that quite a few religious orders underwent therapies in the '70s and appeared to lose faith afterwards.

That leaves Counselling. The fundamental philosophy of counselling is that it is non-judgemental. While of course we would never judge any individual, we do judge acts to be wrong. Counsellors often (perhaps normally in my experience) struggle with that issue. As they are required to be non-judgemental, they cannot in fact say, in a consultation that abortion is wrong, or even that murder or stealing is wrong. Often in such extreme examples they do, but the central non-judgemental structure of counselling does mean that the model of helping people is compromised insofar as it does not really allow for real discernment about what is right and wrong or good and bad.

The other problem with psychology degrees is that they do not lead to clinical practice. They only lead to the opportunity to train (after a very competitive selection process) as a clinical psychologist. So in fact the career you are thinking of may be a hard journey.

Which makes me wonder about nursing or another profession allied to medicine. There is so much to do and so many people who need care and support on their journey, as they explore what is right and wrong in their lives. Catholics can offer a genuinely sympathetic and helpful understand of the situations many people find themselves in. But they cannot do that by accepting that things that are objectively wrong can be right. Often enough, advice, listening and exploring will help people towards a good decision. At other times, especially when things that are legal are considered, we end up helping in many ways (of course), but we do not help with or do the things that we see as objectively wrong and to which we therefore conscientiously object.

That's not always easy and must be done with a great humility and gentleness. But it is needed. It is also much harder to deal with and manage that duty of conscience in a profession which claims to e non-judgemental and which rejects the concept of free will or structures of right and wrong.

I worry that this reply may steer you clearly away from a career in psychotherapy and counselling. It may just be that I would not have managed such a career. I hope I have not been unreasonable.

Do please ask further questions if you have them.

Dr Adrian Treloar