Naturalizing and Spiritualizing: Two Errors Catholics Make

Feb 15, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

As you already know, my primary purpose is to help you discover any barriers you may have on the natural level that compromise your closeness with our Lord, your ability to love your neighbor and to love yourself in an ordered way. To that end, I discuss two primary and serious errors that we Catholics make and which encumber our lives on both the natural and the spiritual level.

These two serious errors that Catholics make are 1) to naturalize what is properly in the spiritual realm; and 2) to spiritualize that which is in the natural realm. Let us explore these errors together.

Definitions of naturalizing the spiritual and spiritualizing the natural

What does it mean to naturalize the spiritual? It means to reduce what is spiritual down to the level of the natural realm, attempting to make the spiritual into something natural.

What does it mean to spiritualize the natural? It means to elevate to the spiritual realm that which is properly in the natural realm, attempting to make the natural into something spiritual.

Spiritualizing and naturalizing in the Gospel

When we confuse the spiritual and the natural, when we obscure the sacred and the profane, we create problems for ourselves. Our Lord pointed this out on several occasions in the Gospels. In Mark 7: 1-13, he contrasts the “traditions of the elders” with the Commandments of God:

Now when the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees, and the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’; but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God) — then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”

The Pharisee were spiritualizing their natural traditions, attempting to elevate them to the level of the sacred, that which is Corban, or dedicated to God. At the same time, they were diminishing the sacredness of the Fourth Commandment – to honor your father and mother — naturalizing that spiritual obligation, setting it aside.

In Matthew 22, when the Pharisees and Herodians come together to try to trap Jesus in the politically-charged issue of whether the Jews should pay taxes to the Roman Empire, Jesus responds in verse 21 by telling them “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri in their commentary on this verse state: Just as Jesus exposed his questioners as hypocrites, so now he exposes the question as a false dilemma. He is saying that political and religious obligations can both be legitimately met. Paying taxes is not a compromise of one’s duty toward God, nor does serving God exempt one from supporting the civil government. There is an important distinction and a hierarchy between the natural and the spiritual realms.

Mitch and Sri continue, But this is not all the statement reveals, for Jesus implicitly subordinates the claims of Caesar to the claims of God. If the Roman coin bears Caesar’s image, then it belongs to him and should be given back to him. But what is it that “belongs to God”? It is the human person, who bears the image of the living God (Gen 1:26-27). So our highest obligation in life – and one that is imposed on every man, woman, and child, regardless of nationality or citizenship – is to give ourselves back to our Maker. (p. 286).

But let us get more specific about naturalizing and spiritualizing in our lives.

Examples of Naturalizing

Naturalizing may be more prominent among Catholics who are less committed to the Faith than Catholics who are devout. Let us look at some specific examples of naturalizing, to aid in our understanding of how this might work in some major life issues:

  • A woman’s heart is restless, because her heart is not resting in God. She is experiencing an existential crisis of meaning and purpose in her life. She turns to shopping and movies to try to fill the void, to no avail. She seeks psychiatric help, her existential angst and distress is misdiagnosed as Generalized Anxiety Disorder and the psychiatrist recommends exercise, visiting with friends more, and prescribes her anxiolytic medications, to help “take the edge off.” Her spiritual deprivation is not only discounted, it is ignored. The psychiatrist and the woman are both naturalizing a spiritual reality.
  • A newly-married Catholic couple are experiencing common financial difficulties and decide to use artificial contraception to avoid pregnancy, “until we get ourselves established.” They understand the Church’s teaching, but the difference between using Natural Family Planning and oral contraceptives does not make much sense to them at first glance. But they do not study the Church’s teaching at all, nor do they pray and discern about contraception use. They assert to themselves and each other that their consciences are fine with artificial contraception and they are free to use their sexuality as they see fit now that they are married — God would not object. The husband and wife are trying to take their sexual intimacy out of the spiritual realm, denying that their physical union is a sacred bond between husband and wife and should be open to procreation, and diminishing their sexual union to the natural realm.
  • A Catholic man seeks to find his security in his own efforts and industry rather than in God. Increasingly worried about cultural, social, economic, and political forces at work in society, he begins spending heavily on supplies and equipment for “prepping” for anticipated hard times. He stops tithing in order to purchase more MREs and ammo and his prayer life falls away in lieu of reading about apocalyptic scenarios. He does not see himself as a beloved little son of a God who will care for him – rather, he relies on his own strength to try to find safety. He has naturalized his search for safety and protection, taken it out of the spiritual realm.
  • A teenager’s conscience is troubling her about cheating by using Chat GPT to write an essay for her high school English class. She dismisses her conscience by say “That’s just Grandma Klejn’s rigid old German morality. Everybody is doing it now.” She has naturalized the graces of her conscience by diminishing them to the realm of just being due to her introject of her stern, judgmental grandmother.
  • A young man is tempted by a demon to watch a movie with sexually explicit scenes with his buddies. He chooses to interpret the temptation as just a message coming from an overly strict part within him – a part ruled by “Catholic guilt.” He decides watching the show with his buddies is normal and natural, rejecting the spiritual warning of his conscience.
  • A Catholic neurologist omits any consideration of the soul in her research, reducing all internal experience down to the level of neurochemical reactions in the central and peripheral nervous systems, in accordance with current practice in neurology.
  • A Catholic, knowing himself to be in mortal sin, attempts to deal with his sense of guilt by reading psychological self-help books, and listening to secular podcasts rather than repenting and seeking Confession.

The dangers of naturalizing include becoming blind to the spiritual world. This has become so common in modernity – especially with the materialism of the modern day.

A much bigger problem among devout Catholics and with even greater ramifications than naturalizing, is spiritualizing.

Examples of Spiritualizing

Now let’s take a look at the other side of the coin – spiritualizing. Spiritualizing is very common among Catholics who take their Faith seriously. Catholics who are serious about their faith often seem to prefer having a spiritual problem to a natural-level problem, especially a psychological problem. For example, it seems more noble and meritorious to be going through a “dark night of the soul” rather than a major depressive episode. Catholic psychologist Jim Langley agrees. In a September 2020 article in the Denver Catholic, he wrote:

As a Catholic psychologist, I have found that secular people resist the idea of their problems being spiritual, while Christians often resist the possibility that our problems are psychological. Why is this? It is an unfortunate part of human nature for us to resist vulnerability. We are afraid of others seeing our weakness, and especially in our Catholic culture, admitting that we are having mental health problems makes us feel particularly weak. I also suspect that for some people, saying that their problems are only spiritual frees them from the responsibility of actually doing something about it. These people may try to just “pray away” their problems rather than strive to take a more active part in their own healing.

Examples of spiritualizing include:

  • Not taking care of one’s physical health, especially chronic medical conditions with the justification that “When God wants to take me, He will just take me. There’s nothing much I can do about it.” Such a position often expresses underlying depression and a sense of hopelessness.
  • A young woman suffering from bulimia, pursues solutions to her condition through studying the writings of the Early Church Fathers, framing her condition as sins against temperance.
  • A mother copes with her teenage son’s strong suicidal impulses primarily by praying the Rosary for him, quoting Sister Lucia, the oldest of the Fatima children who said “There’s no problem, no matter how difficult, that the Rosary can’t solve” denying the suggestions of her close confidants that her son could greatly benefit from psychological help.
  • A mother deeply grieved over the death of her toddler son, considers her mental anguish as demonic possession. Her continued attempts to rebuke the spirit of grief keep her locked in a place of depression, holding deep and unresolved anger at God.
  • Sometimes Catholic therapists, sensing that they are destabilized, confused, or struggling with a particular client’s current state, may turn to prayer with the client as a way of trying to do something helpful or useful. If such prayer in not attuned to the client, such a move can signal to the client that the therapist is casting about for spiritual solutions in desperation — this can undermine the client’s confidence in the therapist and signal that the client is “too wounded,” “too broken,” or otherwise “too much to handle,” leading to a sense of shame.
  • A middle-aged man with a strange new rash in his genital area assumes that he has been struck by God with syphilis or genital herpes as a punishment for sexual sins in his youth, 30 years ago.
  • A man suffering from panic attacks after a car accident seeks out a deliverance ministry to “cast out the demon of panic.”

Discernment is necessary to sort through what is spiritual and what is natural. Throughout my career, I have had many unwilling clients come to my practice, sometimes commanded under obedience by their spiritual directors who suspect psychological trauma is at the root of their difficulties. Earning such clients’ trust creates a space for the vulnerability required to look inward and see themselves as they are, for the first time, in their weakness and distress.

Taking action:

I offer the following reflection questions for you to consider regarding this habit of naturalizing or spiritualizing various struggles or problems in your life:

  1. Have you considered a particular problem or struggle to be primarily in the natural realm or in the spiritual realm of your life? If so, consider it from the other realm.
  2. Allow yourself to doodle, draw, and write down whatever comes to mind as you consider your problem. See if you can be open to new possible ideas about your problem from inside yourself.
  3. Discuss your situation with someone you trust, who can listen and serve as a sounding board to help you discern.
  4. Take your problem to prayer, choosing a Person of the Trinity or our Lady, or a saint or angel who seems the most comforting and least judgmental to you – and, with an openness to grace, listen for answers from outside yourself.
  5. Pray to Our Lord the Litanies of the Heart in English or Spanish. You can find downloadable PDFs, audio versions, and our Guide to Praying the Litanies of the Heart on our Litanies of the Heart page. These prayers were created to help you with intense emotions, to help you connect in both the spiritual and the natural realms in prayer.

Spiritual bypassing

Next week, we will get into a particularly common form of spiritualizing for Catholics – spiritual bypassing. Stay tuned for that.

Please share these weekly reflections

I rely on you to help others find out about these reflections and about Souls and Hearts, so please help spread the word. Forward the email, or share them on social media from our archive. Thank you.

Be With the Word for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Join Dr. Gerry and me for our podcast Be With the Word for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. We reflect on the Mass readings through a psychological lens, grounded firmly in a Catholic understanding of human formation. In our 34-minute episode titled Emotions Are Morally Neutral, Dr. Gerry invites you to consider how the path to holiness is through love, and I explain how what you do with your emotions carries the moral weight, offering examples of virtuous and sinful responses to intense emotion.

Interior Integration for Catholics

Our Be with the Word discussion from three years ago dovetails very well with the last Interior For Integration for Catholics episode How You Hide from Your Anger at God which was released on February 6, 2023, describing a variety of problematic ways that we respond to intense anger at God that further isolated us from His love for us. For better ways to handle your anger at God, join us for IIC episode 106, God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S: I am available to talk with you about anything in these weekly reflections or the IIC podcast during conversation hours, every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern time on my cell phone: 317.567.9594 – let me know how these resources are landing with you!

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