Unintentional Bedfellows: The Marriage of IFS and Catholic Thought

Mar 20, 2024

Dear Souls and Hearts Member,

I am so pleased and eager to bring you a guest weekly reflection by Michelle Gardiner, one of our Resilient Catholic Community members and a student in the Master’s in Counseling program at Divine Mercy University.

Michelle’s weekly reflection fits right in with the small but growing body of excellent theoretical work of grounding Internal Family Systems in a Catholic understanding of the human person, right alongside Christian Amalu’s dissertation (download that PDF here) and Dr. Gerry’s recent book Litanies of the Heart.

This conceptual work is not only important for our analytical managers who want to keep us on the narrow path to salvation, avoiding anything that is not consistent and harmonizable with our Catholic faith; this work is also essential to be able to draw the very best out of non-Catholic approaches to human formation and flourishing and appropriate it as our own, as St. Augustine told us in De Doctrina Christiana, Book II, Chapter 40:

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…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, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad.

St. John of the Cross in his Prologue of Ascent of Mt. Carmel:  “I will not rely on experience or science…[but] I will not neglect whatever possible use I can make of them.”

And this is all consistent with the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, paragraph 62  which reads:  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.

And with paragraph 32 of the Vatican II document Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity:

Furthermore, centers of documentation and study not only in theology but also in anthropology, psychology, sociology, and methodology should be established for all fields of the apostolate for the better development of the natural capacities of the laity-men and women, young persons and adults.

So with this encouragement from our Church to explore the best of human formation resources in the service of flourishing in love and for love, I bring you this step forward on the path from Michelle Gardiner.

Unintentional Bedfellows:  The Marriage of IFS and Catholic Thought

Michelle Gardiner

It is precisely this radical likeness to the triune God that is the basis for the possibility of the communion of creaturely beings with the uncreated persons of the Blessed Trinity.

—International Theological Commission, Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God

In the Catholic worldview, man is first and foremost a creature made in the image and likeness of his Creator, known in theological terms as the imago Dei. The Creator has revealed Himself to man through both nature and His Church, using the latter to progressively reveal details of Himself and His action in the world. In particular, he has invited man to know Him as the Blessed Trinity, a communion of three distinct persons who share in the one divine nature (Catechism of the Catholic Church, [CCC], 2000, § 253-255), and who are at once both “perfect unity and perfect community” (Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person, [CCMMP], 2020, p. 453). Elaborating on the mystery of the Trinity, the Catechism writes, “while they are called three persons in view of their relations, we believe in one nature or substance” (2000, § 255, emphasis added) in the relationships which relate them to one another…” (§ 255, emphasis added).

The mystery of the Trinity is a mystery of unity, multiplicity and relationality, concepts that equally define man as the imago Dei; man must, therefore, embody and be defined by these three realities. The Church, through the theology of the imago Dei, has, in effect, given man a means of knowing himself and of measuring how accurately he knows himself. That is, man can, as an image, compare his self-understanding to the “known” reality he is reflecting. God has, in essence, given man the puzzle box, complete with the finished picture and the number of included pieces. Does man’s understanding of himself reflect the essential markers of the Trinity and in all aspects of his being? Do unity, multiplicity and relationality permeate and structure both his interpersonal and intrapersonal realities? How accurately has this image been built and are any pieces missing?

Though millennia of thought and doctrine from both secular and religious sources have yielded deep and incontrovertible truths about the nature of man, for example, that man is a body-soul unity, that he is fundamentally relational by being created in a dyadic relationship with his mother, that he is made with a plurality of powers and is made for the plurality of the family, etc., it is the contention of this paper that Catholic thought has yet to discover the full expression of the Trinitarian dimensions in the intrapersonal realm.

I propose that a novel psychological model called Internal Family Systems (Schwartz, 2020; IFS), a theory founded on the marriage of multiplicity and relationality in the unified human soul, has formulated an understanding that could assist Catholic thought in more fully realizing the reflection of the Trinity in the imago Dei.

Internal Family Systems (IFS)

Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., founder of Internal Family Systems, is a marriage and family therapist who specialized in family systems therapy, a modality that targets the interpersonal dynamics of families.  Family systems therapy holds that healing will come not by attending to the internal dynamics of the individual, but by changing patterns of family relating. Schwartz described himself as a zealot for his chosen modality, so it is quite ironic that, despite his training, he came to develop a model that almost exclusively focuses on the internal reality of the human person. His resistance to his own discovery itself lends credence to his findings, divested as they were from his own initial pet theories and personal agendas.

The origins of IFS can be traced to Schwartz’s work with clients who were failing to recover despite textbook application of family systems therapy. In a moment of searing defeat with a beloved client, Schwartz surrendered his formulas and instead turned to his client’s experience with child-like curiosity. His mind and heart opened themselves to the plainest, but perhaps most overlooked human reality–the tendency of people to describe their inner experience as a conversation between “parts” of themselves.

As Schwartz listened, he could see that this inner conversation was the trailhead, if not the source, of the flourishing or languishing of his clients. A common interaction around food illustrates this point; a part of a person wants to eat the cake while another part wants to be thin, and yet another part steps in to criticize the first two parts for being either weak or rigid. It is not difficult to see how these inner tensions can continue to polarize into areas of profound division and torment, especially when the parts are responding to matters more serious than mundane choices, like serious trauma or abuse, though even seemingly small inner conflicts can enlarge into real challenges.

Schwartz could not help but recognize the similarity between the patterns of interpersonal dynamics he had learned in his training and the intrapersonal dynamics he was observing in his clients–the family system patterns he was so deeply acquainted with were being mirrored, before his eyes, in the intrapsychic life of his clients (Schwartz, 2020).

Letting go of conventional interpretations of the human person and his external focus, he allowed himself to begin to explore the phenomenological experience of his clients, to surprising results. By inviting his client’s parts to speak and engaging in active listening and dialogue with them, he came to see that these parts interacted like persons–he was not interacting with one monolithic personality, nor was he interacting with mere cognitive and sensory capacities or powers, like reason, will, emotion, or impulses.

Instead, he experienced parts as having attitudes, outlooks, feelings, worldviews and even differing beliefs about God; parts were demonstrating the distinct markers of personality. The strength of his experience allowed him to pioneer novel psychological ground by describing the parts as sub-personalities. Before going further into the developing theory of the “multiplicity of the mind,” it is important to understand that Schwartz understood this multiplicity as a natural part of man and not as a fragmentation resulting from sin or trauma. Man is born with an inner life whose template is like a family, it is embryonic but with proper growth and development, self-leadership will eventually emerge to replace the leadership of the parents who have stood in as proxy leaders of the system.

Parts do, however, suffer the effects of sin and trauma, perhaps taking the brunt of them, and react by taking on extreme roles that then manifest as fragmentation and mental illness, etc. In fact, fragmentation could be thought of as supporting evidence for parts, accounting for the experience of becoming inwardly split and fractured despite the man’s ontological unity. These sub-personalities, he discovered, naturally sorted themselves into three categories–exiles, managers and firefighters–named according to the distinct functions or roles they take on when responding to trauma and sin.

Exiles tend to show up in inner systems as young and vulnerable, carrying “burdens” of intense negative emotions, beliefs and memories, exiled because of their tendency to disrupt the homeostasis and peace of the inner system.

Managers, on the other hand, are protective guardians of the inner system, “locking up” exiles both to prevent them from overwhelming the person with the pain they carry, and to protect the exile from incurring any additional harm to itself. Managers work proactively by figuring out adaptive and compensating life strategies that keep the system functioning and under control. For example, a manager may control through perfectionism, always being right, by being feared, by an eating disorder, by avoidance, etc.

Firefighters, on the other hand, are just as their name implies–emergency workers who jump in if the exile breaches containment and “jailbreaks”, flooding the inner system with the flames of their pain. In this event, firefighters respond quickly, taking emergency measures to numb and alleviate the overwhelm, which could look like binge or comfort eating, drinking, sex, rage, dissociation, scrolling on a cell phone, etc.

The inner chaos caused by parts vying to each get their respective needs met–exiles seeking healing and attention, managers seeking control and firefighters seeking to soothe–will inevitably spill out and into the interpersonal realm, wreaking havoc in relationships and daily life. When this happens, the person will be met with the sobering and inescapable reality that the external realm is an accurate mirror of their inner experience.

Parts typically develop these coping strategies when trauma comes into the system, an unfortunate reality that locks the part in the past with its young and maladaptive strategies that cause yet more damage, and often lead to mental and emotional illness.

Schwartz also discovered that a person’s system, like all systems, is governed by laws. One of the most exacting laws he encountered was the need to first gain permission from manager parts prior to being able to help a client change their inner system. Overriding managers often has serious consequences, as Schwartz himself experienced in his clinical work.

Thus, in order to access an exile and assist it in releasing its burden (the burden being the cause of the disorder in the first place), he and the client would have to create meaningful and trusting relationships with the protector parts, working patiently with the protectors that surround the exile. As he developed the know-how of working with protectors, helping them to soften back as he aided the client in approaching the exile, he made another unexpected discovery, one he felt eclipsed all of his other discoveries. Underneath all of these protective layers, Schwartz finally arrived at a place in the system that the client would describe as not being a part, “That’s not a part like those other voices, that’s who I really am, that’s my self” (Schwartz, 2020, p. 17). This part Schwartz called the core or innermost Self. It was the natural leader of the inner family of parts, emerging when the extreme roles of the protective parts could relax their fear and control. He observed that the Self always displayed certain characteristics, eventually naming them the “the eight Cs of self-leadership…: calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, courage, and connectedness” (2020, p. 276); he observed an additional profound reality–that the Self was always intact and in no need of healing or repair. Schwartz concluded that the foundation of mental health and spiritual wellness lay in the trusting relationship between man’s parts of man and his core Self.

The Imago Dei and the Bible, Church Fathers and the Magisterium

I am going to broadly survey interpretations on the imago Dei within the Bible, the Church Fathers and the Church, taking note of how robustly the Trinity is reflected in the intrapersonal and interpersonal realms. I will then explain how IFS could offer further positive development of how man, as an imago Dei, reflects God in all of His dimensions.

The Bible uses Greek and Hebrew words that denote and assume personal unity (ITC, 2004, §28); man “does not have a body but is his body” (ITC, 2004, §28) and the imago Dei is considered as existing in the “totality of man” (ITC, 2004, §15). The Bible’s emphasis on unity and its non-analytical approach to the nature of man does not, however, preclude an understanding of his multiplicity. Scripture describes man as a being inwardly composed of parts, “…and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30) and “the human spirit is the lamp of the Lord, searching every inmost part” (Proverbs 20:27).

The Bible clearly recognizes that man is both a unified being and a being of many parts. The Bible also approaches an IFS understanding of intrapersonal relationality, metaphorically characterizing relationality between man’s inward parts, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me” (Psalm 131:2). Here, the Bible is describing man as a being of related parts, speaking of the parts as distinct persons with deep relational bonds i.e. “a weaned child”. Although the Psalmist is writing metaphorically, it suggests an inner relating that goes beyond metaphor, yet without violating the unity of man.

Development of doctrine was the natural result of the deposit of faith and the Church Fathers answered the call to partner with the Church and the Holy Spirit to define and defend Her teachings. With their mind’s intent upon the drawing out and refinement of truth, many interpretations of the imago Dei arose. Early patristic theology went beyond the more straightforward views of the imago Dei found in Biblical anthropology, making distinctions between the image and the likeness rather than seeing them as one, inseparable reality.

St. Irenaeus, for example, saw the image as something man participates in ontologically and the likeness as part of man’s moral transformation (ITC, 2004). St. Augustine put forth a Trinitarian interpretation of the imago Dei, notably moving it into man’s intrapersonal realm, seeing the Trinity reflected inwardly in two possible ways: in the soul as spirit, self-consciousness and love or in the psyche as memory, intelligence and will (ITC, 2004); though commonplace now, at the time it was a novel move into the psychological space of the inner man. The structural powers of man’s soul (International Theological Commission, 2004; ITC) are weak reflections of the personal relationality described in the Trinity; they are related and they are distinct from one another, but they reside in the person more like tools to be used rather than parts to personal relate to.

St. Thomas took a wholly different perspective, seeing the reflection of the Trinity in the three movements of man’s travels on his spiritual journey, which begins with nature, moves to grace, and ends with beatitude, a journey taken both personally by individuals and collectively by mankind as a whole (ITC, 2004). Lastly, Bonaventure saw the image as a religious act of the will (ITC, 2004).

The diversity of perspectives among the Fathers, beginning in the early Church and spanning into the Middle Ages reveal the imago Dei as a subject under continuing contemplation and open to development even up to this day. These meditations are true and beautiful and can certainly contribute to a wide vision of man as an imago Dei, but on their own they do not achieve a full reflection of the perfect unity and community of the Trinity.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, 1994/1997/2022) also confirms that the imago Dei is the subject of manifold interpretations, teaching that the image of God confers the dignity of personhood, the capacity for self-knowledge and self-possession and the freedom to give oneself to others (CCC, § 357), the soul is “that by which [man] is most especially in God’s image” (CCC, § 363) and contemplative prayer as considered as “a communion in which the Holy Trinity conforms man, the image of God, ‘to His likeness’” (CCC, § 2713). And most germane to our discussion, The Catechism writes that “by virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an ‘outstanding manifestation of the divine image’” (CCC, § 1705). The International Theological Commission further explored the rich depths of the imago Dei, seeing it as constituting “almost a definition of man” (2004, § 7) and as a “fundamentally relational” reality. It also sees in the imago Dei a reality yet to be completed, awaiting the restoration of its likeness in the imago Christi in the end of time (2004, §12). Thus, like the Church Fathers, we see the Church herself validating diverse ways of interpreting the imago Dei, leaving open the possibility of development and novel insight, with the potential to arrive at a more robust and complete account of the imago Dei.

Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person and the Imago Dei

The imago Dei has been further expounded in the Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person (CCMMP), the foundational text of the program of psychological sciences offered at Divine Mercy University in Sterling, VA. It provides a fresh, contemporary synthesis of traditional and modern Catholic thought on the human person by combining the insights of theology and philosophy with the additional lens of modern psychological research and theory. It is grounded in the mystery of the Trinity and draws heavily upon John Paul II’s nuptial vision of the person found in the Theology of the Body. The CCMMP carefully studies the whole of man, considering how the relationality of the Trinity reveals itself in the interpersonal and intrapersonal realms:

St. Augustine (426/1991) affirms that the Trinity (and consequently the human person, who is created in God’s image), is relational (V.5.6). This relationality is in one respect intrapersonal (as reflected in the interaction that occurs between the human person’s capacities of memory, intelligence, and will) (Augustine, 426/1991, X.11.18). It is in another respect interpersonal (as reflected in the human person’s love of one another). (CCMMP, 2020, p.450).

Building on Augustine, the CCMMP first establishes that man is a relational being, a truth affirmed and reaffirmed throughout the whole of the text: “If substance dominates our thinking about persons, we may lose the earlier Christian insight that personality also essentially involves relationship” (2020, p. 72), “In the language of Karol Wojtyla, a person is constructed on the ‘metaphysical site’ of substance, but the process of construction involves the dynamics of relationships” (2020, p. 73) and quoting Norris Clarke (1993), “All being is…dyadic with an ‘introverted’, or in-itself dimension, as a substance and an ‘extroverted’ or towards-others dimension, as related through action…to be is to be substance-in-relation.” (2020, p.74). The degree to which the CCMMP appreciates man’s relationality and its correlating realities cannot be overemphasized.

It then considers how this relationality expresses itself in man’s inner and outer worlds. Interpersonally, the person is seen to mirror the Trinity through loving relationship; “…the human person is created in the image of God and made by and for divine and human love“ (2020, p. 20), and said another way, “in interpersonal relationality and for interpersonal relationality” (2020, p. 454). For this reason, human persons are called to continue and repeat this gift-giving process: to give the gift of themselves to others and to be open to receiving the gift of others in return; a perpetual, generative cycle that creates growing interconnected layers of persons, unifying and multiplying outwards.

Seen in light of the Trinitarian template, the interpersonal imago Dei is dimensionally complete, with all dimensions present and accounted for: unity, relationality, and multiplicity of distinct persons; the reflection of the Trinity is strong and clear. Unlike the earlier sources discussed, largely under the influence of John Paul II, it pays worthy and due attention all aspects of the interpersonal realm.

In the intrapersonal realm, the CCMMP sees divine relationality in the interaction between man’s powers and capacities of soul: man’s tripartite powers of memory, intelligence, and will. The CCMMP, along with St. Augustine, has trained its mind on man’s inner powers. Building upon both Aristotle and the painstaking work of St. Thomas Aquinas, it beautifully and meticulously articulates the complexities of the body/soul unity that make up the human person: his intellectual capacities of cognition and will, and his sense capacities of sensory-perceptual cognitions (including his evaluative and synthetic capacities, imagination, memory and five senses) and emotions. (see Table 16.1 Structure of Human Capacities as Found in the Philosophical Premises of the CCMMP, 2020, p.440).

The human person is truly a symphony of many related parts. In this intrapersonal account of the imago Dei, the inter-related powers coordinate, work together, and function as a unified system, like a symphony. Unity, relationality and multiplicity are all present in this account, and in a way personhood is as well, since the powers reside in the person; they are powers of a person. However, how are the divine Persons directly reflected in the powers themselves as powers? Is it possible for personhood to be more fully present in the powers, not just generally, but in the powers themselves? If relationality in man’s interpersonal world manifests primarily in the nuptial relationship of marriage, could there also be a way to interpret man’s inner relationality nuptially? Further, if man’s inner and outer worlds interface with and also reflect one another, should not a more perfect reflection of the Trinitarian dialogue of mutual love (2020, p.70) be found in man’s intrapersonal reality? It is precisely here that I turn our attention to what I contend is the missing piece of the puzzle.

The index of the CCMMP, an unusual place to find support for this contention, is telling. The index suggests more attention is needed in man’s intrapersonal realm: the entry for “interpersonal relationality” and all its subsets amount to 79 pages of representation while the entries for intrapersonal relationality are exactly zero (2020, p. 702). Though intrapersonal relationality is a key distinction featured in the text, as shown above, nonetheless, these words are absent in the index. This could be seen, perhaps, as a sign of an unintentional but meaningful imbalance of consideration given to the intrapersonal aspect of the imago Dei by Catholic thought, or at minimum in the CCMMP. However, it could also be a sign that the fullness of time has not yet come for this reality:

…with this renewed understanding of the link between Christology and anthropology comes a deeper understanding of the dynamic character of the imago Dei. Without denying the gift of man’s original creation in the image of God, theologians want to acknowledge the truth that, in the light of human history and the evolution of human culture, the imago Dei can in a real sense be said to be still in the process of becoming.” (ITC, 2004, §24).

The image of God is an incomplete reality, moving through time towards its final restoration in the imago Christi (ITC, 2004, §22), when the divine likeness will be restored in those attending the wedding feast of the heavenly Jerusalem, “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2). For, unlike the dogma of the Trinity which is permanent and immovable, distilled into simple language and “guarded by an angel with a flaming sword” (Gen 3:24), the multi-faceted understanding of the imago Dei will continue its development, as theologians and lovers of God alike contemplate and penetrate the richness of this mystery. Thus, it is with dumbfounded surprise that I contend that Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems offers a relational view of man that contributes to the restoration of the imago Dei to the imago Christi.

Next, I will re-visit IFS theory and then attempt to show that a happy marriage between IFS and Catholic thought is possible.

A New Vision

As detailed earlier, Richard Schwartz observed a family-like multiplicity of parts in the internal world of his clients, which slowly and organically came together before his eyes. His clients naturally spoke of their parts dialoguing with one another, often warring, revealing that they had relational minds that functioned as a family of personalities. Initially, he resisted the concept of “parts.” On the one hand, it seemed to violate his own and others instantiated beliefs in the unitary mind, what he calls the mono-mind or monolithic personality, a belief that seems as true as anything that humans believe. And on the other hand, the idea of a plural mind seemed to normalize a pathological multiplicity, at the time ripe in the popular imagination through the book Sybil (Schreiber, 1973), an account of a woman suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder, now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder.

But Schwartz insisted that this multiplicity was normal and not the result of trauma and brokenness, that health looked more like an internal happy family than an actualized individual. Sharing his new vision would be an uphill battle against the ideological skepticism towards the concept of internal multiplicity–a person being one thing is self-evident and manifestly true. How then could a person be both one and many, as Schwartz contends? Schwartz, through his open heart and careful attention to reality, unknowingly found himself in the heart of the mystery of the Trinity and the imago Dei, a staggering irony given Richard Schwartz’s deep misconceptions about Catholic belief, and his expressed bias against it (Schwartz, 2020). Internal Family Systems and Catholic thought are indeed unintentional and strange bedfellows.

IFS and Catholic Thought

IFS and Catholic thought may find themselves both intensely interested in the inner life of man, but it does not follow that they are ready to be married. Could IFS really have anything to offer Catholic thought? Should not it be the other way around, with Catholic thought being the one to enlighten an untethered psychological theory, like IFS, which lacks theological and philosophical grounding? Remarkably, IFS, without having made the claim to do so, does indeed have a great gift to offer Catholics, but it will take some work to uncover the reality underpinning this bold claim.

IFS offers a conception of man’s internal relationality in a new, more personal way, opening a vista and path to the restoration of man’s impaired and disfigured likeness to the divine image (ITC, 2004, §46). By using words like family, community and core self to describe man’s experience of his internal relating parts, parts that I believe are referred to in the CCMMP as powers and capacities, Schwartz mirrors the language and concepts used by Saint John Paul II and the Church.

John Paul II spoke of sexual union as a reflection of both the communion of Persons in the Trinity and of the communicant’s union with the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. He also spoke of the nuptial meaning of the body in its generative organs, seeking and giving life through marriage, family, and society. As can be seen, John Paul II understood the body’s meaning primarily through interpersonal realities.

In a strikingly similar move as John Paul II, Schwartz brought interpersonal language inside of man, “interpersonalizing” man’s internal experience of multiplicity, just like John Paul II had done with the body. The Church and IFS use the same language to explain these interfacing realities: IFS to explain the intrapersonal world which is joined to the body and the church to explain the body which is man’s means of joining to the interpersonal world that surrounds him; the common language can be seen as a sign of their shared perceptions and perhaps the beginning of their friendship.

The contention is not that the Church, or even mankind in general, has never extended this concept inside. As seen earlier in this paper, scripture describes man’s care for his soul as a mother caring for her weaned child. In the same vein, St Gregory of Nyssa in his Homily on Ecclesiastes, declared that “We are in a sense our own parents” (Gregory of Nyssa, c. 335 – c. 395). Lastly, Wordsworth capturing the same sentiment in his poem My Heart Leaps Up, wrote “The Child is father of the Man” (1802). All men to some degree are aware of their inner relationality, understanding it in at least a seminal or poetic way. However, the degree to which Internal Family Systems has embraced and enlarged this vision is truly groundbreaking.

My contention is also not that the Augustinian interpretation of man’s powers as reflections of the Trinity is wrong, but rather that further development is possible. With fresh eyes and fresh insights from Schwartz, inner-functioning can be seen as the movements, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, impulses and drives of inner quasi-persons, imbuing man’s complex inner symphony with personality. Seeds of agreement with this view already echo in the CCMMP, “however, reason and will possess only partial control over emotions. Like free citizens, the lower powers are subject to rule, but also can resist commands” (CCMMP, 2020, p. 362) and, “Gondreau describes this limited freedom of the lower powers as a kind of quasi-autonomy” (CCMMP, p. 362). Here the CCMMP describes the action of the powers behaviorally, perhaps meant metaphorically, but its description of man’s inner operations sounds more person-like than the operations of impersonal powers, sounding surprisingly similar to Schwartz’s interpretation.

Through the more personal understanding of man’s inner world brought by IFS, the intrapersonal realm can be understood to more perfectly mirror the already established personal relationality of man’s interpersonal world, making the two realms more congruent and unified. If it is true that these insights create a more unified vision of man, then they have necessarily improved our understanding of the imago Dei which exists in the totality of man and in the very fibers of his being.

When observing others and one’s own behavior through this lens, inner experience comes into focus and grows in intelligibility. It is as if one suddenly has the chessboard and pieces, when previously one had only a partial booklet of rules of the game. The Church and all wisdom traditions, including psychology, are in pursuit of playing this game well, and seeing the interior of man as a cast of characters changes everything about how to play the game.

Man lives in his own story, his mind generates story after story about his life, he learns through others’ stories, through literature, drama and friendship. The Bible is not a work of philosophy nor the conclusion of a study, it is a story; a story that is grand and vast, but that includes every soul that was ever filled with the breath of life.

Richard Schwartz has breathed new life into man’s inner story, a landscape man has been treading with some degree of blindness since creation. Man will still suffer blindness, but Schwartz has turned a light on inside of man. Inner experience is no longer a matter of simply relating to inner feelings, thoughts, desires, and ideas, but to parts that have feelings, thoughts, desires, and ideas, and who need relational love and guidance.

Inner battles are now more about rescue and love, like the hero tales of old, or, like the work of the good parent who wisely and benevolently forms a child, not dominating or overpowering, but rather steering and disciplining in love. The inner story now joins with Salvation History, inviting man and all his parts to join in the drama of redemption.

IFS theory also encompasses novel ways of articulating man’s inherent goodness and the nature of sin. IFS, in another area of congruence with Catholic theology, perceive all “parts” of man to be intrinsically good. In the perspective of IFS, man’s normal, natural, and intrinsically good parts having been, as parts of the whole self, harmed by the sins of others and participated in personal acts of sin that have forced the parts into unhealthy roles, bringing disorder to the internal system.

Spiritual healing can be understood as reconnecting wounded parts to the innermost self, unburdening them and bringing them into loving relationship with the core Self, freeing parts to live in harmony and order, thereby beginning the restoration of man’s likeness to God. Indeed, the innermost Self could be understood as man’s “holy of holies” where the imago Dei within encounters the living God. Like a priest, the Self’s purpose is to bring all parts of the person into worship, mirroring the embodied worship done in the community of the Church.

A consistent, error-free understanding of these dynamics may yet be far off, but the investigation is well underway. Dr. Peter Malinoski, Catholic thought-leader and therapist, has taken on the work of harmonizing IFS with Catholic thought, even considering parts according to classic philosophical terms. Through study and collaboration with Catholic philosophers, he has come to understand parts as having accidental form, not substantial form (De La Torre, 2023). This understanding allows man to be “a many” while still preserving his ontological unity, making the imago Dei gloriously reflective of the Blessed Trinity. Continued study and contemplation will no doubt uncover further metaphysical congruence between IFS and Catholic thought, perhaps one day making the marriage complete.

In this paper, I have explored the cultivation of Catholic thought on the imago Dei, with particular attention to the development of the intrapersonal dimension. Surveying ancient to modern sources, I found an area that merited further exploration, namely the intrapersonal reflection of God’s communion of persons within man. I showed that Internal Family Systems (Schwartz, 2020; IFS) offers a possible solution to a gap in the imago Dei that was not fully evident prior to Schwartz’s findings. The previous understanding of the reflection of the multiplicity of the divine persons in man’s intra-psychic dynamics had only been expressed as a multiplicity of inter-relational powers and capacities. Without the lens of IFS, the hidden potential for development may have been left dormant.

In a posture of profound receptivity to human experience, IFS witnessed the marriage of the multiplicity of the human soul with the nature of the family. Richard Schwartz could not have realized that he was pioneering territory that had been the subject of Catholic contemplation for centuries.

His vision of the inner life of man, though a simple connection of realities already foundational to Catholic teaching, represents a potential development of revolutionary proportions. Without the benefit of theology, he profoundly agreed with Catholic teaching that man is inherently good in the totality of his being and that his interconnected parts are realities of a unified inner system.

Schwartz took things one step further, bringing the family inside, further enlightening our understanding of how man is deeply reflective of the “perfect unity and perfect community” of the Trinity. Naming, as seen in the creation story (Gen 2:19-20), is an action fundamental to man and his relationship to the world, so it is no surprise that Schwartz’s small move that named man’s inmost parts in a personal manner was cataclysmic. Naming man’s parts in the context of family expanded the nuptial reality of the human person into man’s intrapersonal realm, bringing it to the depths of his interior life.

There is no question that Catholic thought gives IFS the metaphysical and philosophical roots it needs, but as I have proposed, IFS is offering something to Catholic thought: a new way for man to live out his vocation and reach the arms of his whole being up in prayer and flourishing. Catholic thought, through IFS, finds a new vision of the incarnation, “fleshing out” man’s inner life. Now, man’s inner journey is realized as dynamically mirroring his life in the world, his inner story a reflection of his outer story and his outer story a reflection of his inner story.


D’Ambrosio, M. (2017, February 21). Birth and Death – Gregory of Nyssa. Crossroads Initiative. https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/media/articles/birth-and-death-st-gregory-of-nyssa/

De La Torre, M. (2023, April 26). On the metaphysics of the human person. Souls & Hearts. https://www.soulsandhearts.com/blog/on-the-metaphysics-of-the-human-person/

International Theological Commission. (2002). Communion and stewardship: Human persons created in the image of God (nn. 1–55) [PDF]. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20040723_communion-stewardship_en.html

Khurana, S. (2020, August 28). Wordsworth’s “The Child Is Father of the Man”. ThoughtCo. http://www.thoughtco.com/child-is-the-father-of-man-3975052

New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. (1989). Bible Gateway. https://www.biblegateway.com

Schreiber, F. R. (1973). Sybil. Henry Regenry Company.

Schwartz, R. (2021). No bad parts: healing trauma and restoring wholenesswith the internal family systems model. Sounds True.

Schwartz, R. (2023). Introduction to Internal Family Systems (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.

Sharf, R. S. (2016). Theories of Psychotherapy and Counseling (6th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Titus, C. S., Vitz, P. C., & Nordling, W. J. (2020). A Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person. Divine Mercy University Press.


Thank you, Michelle, for such an in-depth discussion of our imago Dei.

New episode:  Interior Integration for Catholics

Episode 134 of the IIC podcast was released earlier this week, titled Looking at Integrated Personal Formation Through a Mathematical Lens. In this episode, we discuss how models help us more fully understand Catholic personal formation by showing distinctions and relationships among the domains of human formation, spiritual formation, intellectual formation, and pastoral formation. Next, we examine my new model that views formation through a mathematical lens. I explain these each dimension of formation, likening it to a branch of mathematics, and draw from Pastores Dabo Vobis and other Church documents to illuminate the inter-dimensional relationships in personal formation. Finally, I tell a fictional story that illustrates how deficits in one domain of formation can negatively impact all the other dimensions of formation.

What’s new is that I recorded this episode not only in our traditional audio format, but we created a video version as well, so that you could be with me as I draw the model.  Moving forward, we will be creating new episodes in both the audio-only and video formats.  If you love the audio-only version, no worries – in these episodes, I will be explaining everything so you don’t need the video. But if you have visual parts who want to see me draw and see the additional imagery or if you want to publicly comment on the IIC episodes, check out the podcast on our YouTube channel.  If you comment on this episode in YouTube, I promise I will reply! And subscribe and like and all that business that YouTubers always go on about.  Hmmm.

A big thank-you to Pat Molyneaux of the Human Formation Coalition for underwriting the cost of producing the transcripts for episodes 62 and 133-144 of the IIC podcast, our series on the integration of personal formation in the four dimensions: human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral.

Dr. Gerry on the air…

Dr. Gerry joins Bear Woznick on the Bear Woznick Adventure for an episode titled Open your Heart to Love where he discusses his book in the context of manliness.  For a trip to Middle Earth, check out Dr. Gerry’s episode with Conner of Plotlines titled Lord of the Rings and the Inner Self.

And also check out the review of Dr. Gerry’s book, Litanies of the Heart, titled Your Inner Lost Sheep, Prodigal Son, and Older Brother at the Trinity House Community website.

Be with the Word for Palm Sunday

Check out Dr. Gerry discussion of the Palm Sunday Mass readings in his 12-minute Be With the Word episode titled Overcoming Shame Despite Loss and Suffering. In this episode, Dr. Gerry discusses the biblical path to overcoming dissociation, surviving suffering, and not being overwhelmed by shame. We are called to name and express emotion and recall our true identity.  He reads the Palm Sunday readings with a meditation in this 39-minute episode.

Pray for us…

Given that yesterday was the feast of St. Joseph, our new patron, please pray for his intercession for Souls and Hearts, especially in our mission of human formation.  St. Joseph, please pray for us.  Prayer is the fuel that moves all our endeavors forward, so please keep us in your prayers.  We are praying for you.

In Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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