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The “How” for Your Human Formation

Dec 7, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Member,

In last weeks’ reflection, Human Formation in Purgatory? Yes, Indeed, we discussed the idea that Purgatory is the final stop on our human formation journey, a place to complete whatever was lacking, to order whatever was disordered. For nothing disordered can enter Heaven.

This week, we will explore human formation in greater detail, including addressing these very important questions:

  1. What is human formation?
  2. How does human formation happen?
  3. Who is responsible for your human formation?
  4. Where does a Catholic seek authentic human formation?

Human formation enters Church teaching

While the concept has been around for centuries, the term “human formation” only came into the official Catholic lexicon on March 25, 1992, in St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (PDV), “I Will Give you Shepherds,” which focused on the formation of priests.

Pastores Dabo Vobis was the first major Church document to expressly name and address human formation (specifically in paragraphs 43, 44 and 45) and PDV is the essential seminal text for understanding the mind of the Church on human formation. While specifically addressing seminarian and priestly formation, PDV’s discussion on human formation also applies to the laity and religious – there is not one kind of human formation for priests and another kind for laity. We are all human and are all in need of ongoing human formation.

Here are some of St. John Paul II’s central points in PDV on human formation:

  1. Human Formation, the Basis of All Priestly Formation [§ 43]
  2. The whole work of priestly formation would be deprived of its necessary foundation if it lacked a suitable human formation. [§ 43]
  3. Human formation, when it is carried out in the context of an anthropology which is open to the full truth regarding the human person, leads to and finds its completion in spiritual formation. [§ 45]

Our outreach at Souls and Hearts focuses on shoring up our members’ natural foundations, their human formation foundations for their spiritual lives. As St. Thomas famously said, “Grace perfects nature; it does not destroy it.”  Grace needs our human nature to perfect.

A lack of definition

Although Pastores Dabo Vobis brought this concept of human formation into the light of Church teaching, St. John Paul II never defined the term “human formation,” leading to confusion and ambiguity.  Twenty-two years after PDV was issued, Cameron Thompson stated in his 2014 book Handbook of Human Formation: A Resource for the Cultivation of Character,

“Since being brought into official usage in 1992, the term ‘Human Formation’ has been bandied about in various [Catholic] circles, with no clear and coherent sense of what it really means or how it works.” [p. ii].

For three decades the term “human formation” continued to be undefined in the Church, even though it was the “basis of all priestly formation,” including spiritual formation.  In 2022, the US Catholic Conference of Bishops’ document The Program for Priestly Formation (Sixth Edition) (PPF6) offered the first definition of human formation in this way:  “Following St. Thomas Aquinas, human formation should be understood as education in the human virtues perfected by charity.” [p. 204].

Human formation redefined

The PPF6 definition of human formation seems wanting to me.  I ask, “What does “education in the human virtues perfected by charity” really mean?  What does that education actually look like?”

Here’s a definition of human formation I offered in episode 63 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast titled Human Formation: The Critical Missing Element and in my weekly reflection from March 29, 2023 titled Catholic Understandings of Human Formation:

Human formation is the lifelong process of natural development, aided by grace, by which a person integrates all aspects of his interior emotional, cognitive, relational, and bodily life, all his natural faculties in an ordered way, conformed with right reason and natural law, so that he is freed from natural impediments to trust God as His beloved child and to embrace God’s love. Then, in return, because he knows and possesses himself, he can love God, neighbor, and himself with all his natural being in an ordered, intimate, personal, and mature way.

This definition I have offered harmonizes with the PPF6 statement that: In general, human formation happens in a threefold process of self-knowledge, self-possession, and self-gift – and all of this in faith. As this process unfolds, the human person becomes more perfectly conformed to the perfect humanity of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. [§ 188, p. 81].

So authentic human formation happens within our faith and has a process, an order.

The process of human formation

This process of human formation has an order implicit within it.  First, self-knowledge – the awareness of who I am.  Our initial understanding or awareness of who we are comes through the eyes of our caretakers. This self-knowledge can often be tainted or defective given the limitations and brokenness of our caretakers.  In solid human formation, a door opens allowing us to gain authentic self-knowledge and to understand ourselves as beloved littles sons and daughters of God and Mary.

With proper ongoing human formation, and self-knowledge based on our solid identity as a beloved child of God and Mary, we next come to possess ourselves in a way that is recollected and integrated, at least partially overcoming the fragmentation of living in a fallen world.  With self-possession we are then able to give ourselves to others in acts of love and service.

And it all sounds great!  But how, how do we foster human formation?  How do we move through the stages of an ordered human formation?

Within the Catholic Faith

I firmly believe that our Catholic Church offers everything we need for our spiritual formation and expertly holds the ordinary means of our sanctification – prayer and the sacraments, embracing the Word in Scripture, all the devotions, spiritual direction, and so on. We have two millennia of Tradition; we have the experience of the saints.

But one enduring criticism of Christianity from outsiders who are heavily invested in human formation is that while Christianity encourages lofty ideals and aspirations, the Church comes up short on the practical means of helping men and women get there.

I hold that one of the reasons it is so difficult to evangelize secular psychologists and draw them toward faith is because they see Catholics spiritualizing and spiritually bypassing our human formation work so often.

Theodore Nottingham writes in his chapter of Kinney’s book The Inner West: An Introduction to the Hidden Wisdom of the West that “Throughout Western history, Christianity has emphasized the [spiritual] goal of human life and neglected the means by which this goal may be reached.  The result is a certain recognizable personality and behavior that is an imitation rather than the outcome of real inner transformation.” [p. 75].  While I don’t recommend Kinney’s book, the point Nottingham makes is worth considering.  In fact, this distinction between authentic inner transformation vs. a façade mentioned by Nottingham is also mentioned in the USCCB’s PPF6:

So that the seminarian might act with interior freedom rather than simply demonstrating a “veneer of virtuous habits,” human formation seeks to help the seminarian grow in interior maturity. [§ 182, p. 77].

There is a strong inclination among many serious Catholics to address human formation by spiritualizing.  As I discussed in my February 15, 2023 reflection titled Naturalizing and Spiritualizing: Two Errors Catholics Make, spiritualizing the natural is elevating to the spiritual realm that which is properly in the natural realm, attempting to make the natural into something spiritual.  Examples include:

  1. Mischaracterizing one’s clinical depression as “a dark night of the soul”
  2. Considering one’s own enabling behaviors and failures to set appropriate limits and boundaries with a chemically dependent spouse as the best way to love the spouse
  3. Misidentifying repressed impulses or desires that spontaneously come up from your exiled parts as demonic temptations

Spiritual bypassing is a particular form of spiritualizing, very common among devout Catholics.  In my weekly reflection from February 22, 2023 titled Spiritual Bypassing: Catholic Style, I offered three definitions of spiritual bypassing, including this one from psychologist Ingrid Clayton from her Psychology Today article Beware of Spiritual Bypass which classifies spiritual bypassing as a defense mechanism. She writes:

Spiritual bypass is a defense mechanism. Although the defense looks a lot prettier than other defenses, it serves the same purpose. Spiritual bypass shields us from the truth, it disconnects us from our feelings, and helps us avoid the big picture. It is more about checking out than checking in—and the difference is so subtle that we usually don’t even know we are doing it.

The shorthand for spiritual bypass is grasping rather than gratitude, arriving rather than being, avoiding rather than accepting. It is spiritual practice in the service of repression, usually because we can not tolerate what we are feeling, or think that we shouldn’t be experiencing what we are feeling.

In Spiritual Bypassing: Catholic Style, I offered 22 specific examples of spiritual bypassing, and then in the next four weekly reflections through all of March 2023, continued to discuss it in depth.

The elusive “how” of human formation

There are 19 pages in the PPF6 devoted to the “human dimension” [pp. 77-95]. These pages provide detailed descriptions of the results of solid human formation, with benchmarks of human formation for each stage of seminary formation and developmental markers; descriptions of the goals and aims of human formation.

But the PPF6 contains very little on the “how” of human formation – what are the specific steps in the process of fostering human formation?  The closest the PPF6 gets to addressing this is in the last paragraphs of the chapter “Resources for Human Formation” where the USCCB leaves the “how” up to seminary formators:

The community of formators should provide the guidance and direction necessary to help seminarians meet the challenge of emotional and psychosexual growth. In the area of emotional and personal development, the best guidance the seminary formator can give is the wholesome witness of his own life. Seminarians need the example of outstanding priests who model a wholesome way of life in the challenging circumstances of contemporary society. Regularly coming together for prayer, recreation, and theological reflection encourages growth in priestly fraternity and enables priests to act more effectively as authentic role models. The entire seminary staff—composed of priests, consecrated men and women, and lay men and women—constitutes another significant group who can model collaboration for the seminarians. Ways to foster the unity of this larger circle should also be developed. [§ 223, p. 94]

I heartily agree that it is vitally important that formators have solid human formation and give a wholesome witness by their lives.  We all need good models, and those with solid human formation can and do help form others well, just by being in relationship with them.  But it’s naïve to think that relationships with solid role models will offer enough formative material for many people with wounds and deficits in their human formation to grow in interior maturity.

Also, the use of prayer as a primary means of human formation runs the risk of spiritualizing and spiritual bypassing.  Prayer is a spiritual means.  Human formation, while not neglecting spiritual means, requires the use of natural means.

Let me give an example to clarify – if you are in a car accident and are injured, experiencing arterial bleeding, it’s good to pray.  But to remedy this severe natural injury, prayer would not be the primary means of healing.  One needs natural means – first, pressure above the wound to stanch the bleeding, then expert medical care to repair the artery, cleanse the wound, and stitch up the muscles and skin – all of those primary means of healing are in the natural realm.

Deeply hidden wounds

Many, many serious Catholics are not visibly injured or bleeding physically, but they are hemorrhaging psychologically. Their psyches are internally fragmented and wounded because of what they have experienced in the natural realm, in natural relationships, at the hands of other people.  Many Catholics are suffering significant developmental arrests and getting stuck in negative cycles.  This all falls in the natural realm, and critically needs a natural remedy grounded in faith.

I am unconvinced that the USCCB’s recommendation’s for coming together for prayer, recreation, and theological reflection necessarily resolves human formation needs and wounds.  What ultimately heals and forms us as human beings is love — love that meets the deep underlying attachment needs and integrity needs that we all have.

Human formation and human needs

Successful human formation needs to specifically address the six attachment needs and the six integrity needs that we all have.  My reflection from October 4, 2023 titled The Eight Steps to Understand Your Parts Through Exploring Your Daydreams, outlined these needs as follows:

Attachment needs: The first five of these are adapted from Brown and Elliott’s (2016) Attachment Disturbances in Adults with a sixth I’ve added:

  1. Safety: My need to feel a sense of safety and protection in relationship — self-protection
  2. Recognition: My need to feel seen, heard, known, and understood
  3. Reassurance: My need to feel comforted, soothed, and reassured
  4. Delight: My need to feel cherished, treasured, delighted in by the other
  5. Love: My need to feel that the other has my best interests at heart, holds a position of benevolence and beneficence toward me.
  6. Belonging: My need to feel included, of being a valued member of a community with an important role

The six integrity needs:

  1. Survival: My need to exist and to survive
  2. Importance: My need to matter in the world, to be significant
  3. Agency: My need for autonomy, to be able to exert influence on others and to make at least a small difference the world
  4. Goodness: My need to be good in my essence, in my person, to experience a sense of ontological goodness, not just that my actions are functionally useful
  5. Mission: My need for mission, purpose, and a vision to guide my life
  6. Authentic expression: My need to share and communicate with others what feels true and real within me rather than pretend otherwise

To meet these needs in our human formation, we need natural means in addition to spiritual means, as the Church commands us. In the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes (translated as The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World) the Church teaches us:  In pastoral care, sufficient use must be made not only of theological principles, but also of the findings of the secular sciences, especially of psychology and sociology, so that the faithful may be brought to a more adequate and mature life of faith. [§ 62].

We are not only invited, but commanded to bring in the natural disciplines as St. Thomas Aquinas did:  As Carmelite Abbot Marc Foley, OCD wrote in his book The Context of Holiness, As St. Thomas wrote of St. Augustine’s use of Platonic philosophy in the Summa: “whenever Augustine, who was imbued with the doctrines of the Platonists, found in their teaching anything consistent with the faith, he adopted it and those things which he found contrary to the faith he amended.” (ST I, q. 84,a. 5) [p. 4].

Trusting experts with faith

I do not expect the pope, the bishops, the Church hierarchy to be experts in clinical psychology, developmental psychology, attachment theory, neurology, neurophysiology, traumatology, endocrinology, interpersonal neurobiology, or any of the several other branches of natural knowledge that are central to understanding human formation.  That would be unrealistic – those disciplines fall outside their area of expertise.  It’s the role of the Catholic lay professionals in these domains to bring their gifts to the Church.

As St. Augustine taught in De Doctrina Christiana on how to interpret and teach the Scriptures:

  1. Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said anything that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use.
  2. …all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which we ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves… [Book 2 Chapter 40].

St. Augustine invites us to take all the good from all disciplines and harmonize it with the faith. To claim what is good and true for our own use.  That’s what we do in Souls and Hearts, consistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.” “Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.  [§ 159].

Our Souls and Hearts founders are experts in human formation.  We are laser-focused on harmonizing the best of the secular disciplines (psychology, neurology, neurophysiology, sociology, etc.) with the Church’s perennial wisdom and tradition, the best of her theology, philosophy, and metaphysics.  Thus, we follow Abbot Marc Foley’s recommendation that: In short, we should never swallow the [secular] school of thought whole; we should sift the wheat from the chaff, separate truth from falsehood. [p. 4].

We are offering our expertise in human formation to the Body of Christ, to each and every member of the Church. We are modeling new and highly effective processes for your human formation, and we firmly believe that what we offer at Souls and Hearts is badly needed in our Church today.  The thought that decades could pass without the gifts of our expertise bearing fruit is unbearable.

Historical precedent – the unconscious

Let me give one clarifying example – the unconscious.  We all know something about how important the unconscious is to understanding our humanity.  Historian Lancelot Law Whyte in his 1960 book The Unconscious Before Freud offers a succinct history of the unconscious prior to Freud’s work in this paragraph:

The general conception of unconscious mental process was conceivable (in post- Cartesian Europe) around 1700, topical around 1800, and fashionable around 1870–1880. It cannot be disputed that by 1870–1880 the general conception of the unconscious mind was a European commonplace and that many special applications of this general idea had been vigorously discussed for several decades.

Intellectual circles were beginning to grasp the concept of the unconscious in 1700, and conversations about the unconscious were becoming common in 1800.  By 1880, the unconscious was commonly known and applied.

But here’s the rub.

My extensive searches through all Church documents reveal that it wasn’t until 1952 that the phenomenon of unconscious was mentioned in a Church document.  It wasn’t until 72 years after it was commonplace to discuss the unconscious in secular society that the Church even mentioned it!  In 1952, His Holiness Pope Pius XII first mentioned the unconscious in his September 14 address titled The Moral Limits Of Medical Research And Treatment to the First International Congress on the Histopathology of the Nervous System.

Behind the times

Depending on what yardstick you use, the hierarchical Church was three to six generations behind the secular world – 75 to 150 years behind the culture in considering the unconscious within her ordinary magisterium.

I do not want that kind of time lag to happen with the discoveries of Internal Family Systems – understanding parts and systems, the multiplicity and the unity within the human person.

As the Body of Christ, our Church cannot afford such delays this time.  Without an ordered, organized way forward in our human formation within the faith we will continue to hemorrhage members who do not see the Church offering answers to their attachment needs and integrity needs. If we lag decades behind in understanding human formation not just from a spiritual dimension, but including all the legitimate areas of human knowledge, we will see devastating results.

Leading edge

Our current explosion of understanding in neuroscience, the multiplicity of personality and the knowledge of the key factors needed for ongoing authentic human formation ought to be shouted from the rooftops.

So many of us sense the acute suffering of psychological hemorrhaging in our fellow Catholics, and within ourselves, and the ramifications of these untreated wounds continue to plague our faith communities, our families, and our inner sense of well-being.

A true glimmer of hope can be gleaned by bringing a secular understanding of the human person through an Internal Family Systems approach into the faith and offering IFS as a foundation for our human formation work. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself… [CCC § 159].

Catholic psychologist Greg Bottaro and I discussed in IIC episode 126 Borderline “Personalities”: Your Questions Answered by Dr. Greg Bottaro how we Catholic professional have such a huge advantage in our work because the Church shares with us the truth about human nature in divine revelation.  Because of that advantage, Catholics should be on the leading edge of developments in human formation in the different natural disciplines.

And human formation is coming into some Catholic areas in fascinating and creative ways.  One example is how the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has incorporated very developmentally attuned teaching approaches, informed by Montessori methods to help youngsters absorb the faith.  And St. John Paul himself considered human formation extensively at different points in his Theology of the Body.

You are responsible for your human formation

Who is primarily responsible for your human formation?

As I noted in my weekly reflection from April 12, 2023 titled Who Forms Your Clay?:

The answer is you, you as the living clay.  You are primarily responsible for your own human formation.  The U.S. Catholic bishops make this clear in the Program of Priestly Formation, 6th edition (PPF6) where they write that “Seminarians bear the primary responsibility for their human formation. The role of the seminaries is to assist them in achieving the integral human maturity.” [p. 206]. This is not just true of seminarians, but for all Catholics of sound mind.    

Make the move

I invite you to take His hand, and come along on a journey – a pilgrimage – of authentic human formation.  I invite you, as we now are in the new liturgical year, and as we approach the secular new year to make a resolution to further your own human formation.  You might get into therapy or counseling, or connect with a coach; you might consider some of the offering at the CatholicPsych Institute or the John Paul II Healing Center.

If you’d like to journey with us, with me, considering applying for our Resilient Catholics Community with this link.  In the RCC, we grow together in self-knowledge, self-possession, and self-gift within the faith.  Follow our ordered process for human formation designed to help each one of us become more perfectly conformed to Jesus Christ. Learn to go beneath your façade for the purpose of becoming your authentic self and giving a wholesome witness to your loved ones, your neighbors, your parishioners, your enemies and to the whole world.

Let us not neglect these means by which such a lofty goal can be reached.

Let us become the ‘real deal’ and not imitations.  Apply to join us as we seek real inner transformation through a structured, ordered, strategic path for human formation in the RCC.  You can apply to join with this link.


Fr. Boniface Hicks and Matt Fradd discuss how Internal Family Systems helps us

At several points in their wide-ranging 3-hour interview titled Father Boniface Gives Matt Spiritual Direction for 3 Hours, our dear friend and spiritual mentor Fr. Boniface Hicks discusses Internal Family Systems, getting into parts and systems with Matt Fradd on Pints with Aquinas.  Some of you may remember that Fr. Boniface was the retreat master for our RCC human formation retreat last August in Bloomington, Indiana.  Check out this episode to see how Fr. Boniface weaves in parts and systems conceptualizations into the spiritual life.   Matt Fradd also gives our own dear Dr. Gerry such a spontaneous and sweet shout-out compliment at the 1:05 mark.  You can listen to the audio only here.

The Resilient Catholics Community

The RCC is the tip of the spear – the leading edge — for grounding the parts and systems approaches Internal Family in a Catholic understanding of the human person.  We are way out on the cutting edge bringing together the earliest adopters of this step-by-step structured way of the “how” of authentic Catholic human formation.

We have our first followers in the RCC, we’ve hit the tipping point like in this Derek Siver’s 3-minute video First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy, and we are treasuring those first followers who joined us in these first pioneer stages.  We are the ones bringing parts and systems thinking to the Church in the 21st Century in a grassroots movement – just like other Catholics brought the unconscious to the Church in the last century.

Eventually, I think nearly everyone in the Church will think of the human psyche in terms of parts and systems, just like everyone in the Church accepts and believes in the unconscious.  The RCC is about to hit 300 members – which reminds me of the 300 soldiers that followed Gideon and routed the Midianite army in Judges 7 – such a small force, but punching way above its weight, because of the grace and love of God.

Learn more on a RCC landing page.

New episode of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast – all about “borderline” dynamics

IIC episode 127 titled Understanding “Borderline Personalities” through Internal Family Systems was released last Monday and it has experienced by far the most downloads in the first two days of all our episodes.  In this 81-minute episode, I take you inside the experience of Tina, a 32-year-old Catholic woman with “borderline personality” and introduce you to seven of her parts and how they switch inside her.  These switches involve not only emotions, but all of Tina’s internal experience, so her parts are not merely transient mood states.  We review the IFS understanding of innermost self, exiled parts, manager parts, and firefighter parts.  And then we break down everything that happened in the restaurant in her conflict with her fiancé, Phillip, walking through each DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for BPD and seeing how her parts contributed to the symptom, getting to the “Why” of borderline behaviors.  If you want to really understand “borderline personalities,” and not just the what, but the why behind the behaviors, check out that episode here, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you liked the description of Tina’s parts, you’ll really like the PartsFinder Pro, which is part of the RCC application process.  In the PartsFinder Pro, we identify 9-15 of your parts with their interrelationships.  You can download a PDF for a sample fictional PFP report for a man and a woman.

Be with the Word for the Second Sunday of Advent

In this 38-minute episode Transform Advent without Becoming a Curmudgeon! Dr. Gerry talks with Mac Barron about the commercialization and consumerism of Christmas and the loss of the true spirit of the Advent season. They discuss how a family can make Advent more meaningful and doable. Dr. Gerry shares the Mass readings with commentary and reflections with us here.

Looking ahead – book reviews

Over the next few weekly reflections, I will be offering you reviews about different Christian books about Internal Family Systems and other books that address inner multiplicity and systems.  The goal of these reviews is so that in reading the reviewed books, you can draw the best and most helpful elements from them, and leave anything that is not conformable with the Catholic Faith behind.  This is one more effort from us at Souls and Hearts to help you with your human formation.

Pray for us – we are praying for you, too

As always, please keep the Souls and Hearts members, staff, and me in your prayers.  Our whole endeavor is fueled by prayer, lifting up our efforts to our Lord and our Lady.  Thank you.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S.  Please share this weekly reflection with anyone you think might benefit – personal sharing and recommendations are the number one way we  spread the word about Souls and Hearts.

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