“We are Called to Image the Love of God to All”: An Interview with a Catholic Psychologist


Mianna O’Dwyer, MODG News Reporter, interviews her father.

Mianna O'Dwyer, Reporter

James O’Dwyer is forty-nine years old and married to his wife Helena and together they have one daughter. James is a practicing Catholic who embraces the word of God. He is a qualified psychotherapist, with a post graduate degree in Mental Health and addiction studies and is also qualified in design and recovery user centre, and oriented systems implementation. He is currently employed by the Health Executive Service and obtains the role of regional development officer. In this interview we will discuss the integration of theology and psychology in his everyday life.

Can you tell me a little about your background in psychology?

I trained in general psychotherapy and specialized in addiction and mental health. I came to psychology through the desire to help people to overcome challenges, find meaning, direction, purpose and understanding. I presently design and implement services and supports for people with substance misuse and mental health challenges. I train professionals and also develop peer support services.

How do you understand psychology and theology? Is there a correlation?

I think they are definitely overlaps between the two fields.

Psychology is the study of the mind and theology is the study of God.

From the early onset of psychology, there were attempts to try to integrate the two fields. This has proven to be quite complex and until recently was pretty much left alone. The advent of Christian counselling in the last couple of decades has brought a greater focus in research on the topic. There is definitely overlap, particularly in the area of cognitive psychology and neuroscience and theology. Let me give you an example. If we look at the study of gratitude, Gratitude is mentioned one hundred and fifty-seven times in the Bible. We see it expressed in times of challenge like the leper in Luke 17: 11-19, the sinful woman (Luke 7 36-50), Hannah (1 Samuel 1: 1-28) and Paul (Philippines 4: 11 -12). We also see gratitude should be expressed in our daily lives (Thessalonians 5: 15 – 18). Gratitude is an important attribute to the believer. When we consider the non-scientific perspective, we now know that gratitude increases your connection to that which you are grateful for. It reduces our dependency on our fight or flight response anger, fear, regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate. In cognitive psychology, gratitude is associated with greater happiness, helps people experience more positive emotions, helps to deal with adversity and build a strong relationship. I would say this is a fascinating psychology perspective of the mind, and even more fascinating understanding of the mind of our Creator.

Do you integrate the two fields, psychology and theology, in your work? If so, how?

Where appropriate I do integrate both fields into my work.  There are quite a lot of people who would describe their addiction or mental health challenge as being a spiritual issue.  Generally, this perspective comes after repeated attempts to maintain wellness and sobriety. I would say that the opposite of addiction and the pathway to wellness is rooted in connection.  Many of the church practices of contemplation, sacramental life has had a profound effect on people.  I have also seen how when this has been forced or pressured as a recourse has caused wounds.  

I integrate both knowledge from psychology – for example how our environment impacts our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, the science behind behavioural change, the neuroscience in relation to addiction and mental health and trauma which is important to understand.  In addition to this, I also use biblical perspectives of cognitive tools e.g., gratitude, patience, forgiveness, suffering, loss, hope, charity, freedom, liberation, and love.  I encourage people to see God in everything, I have come to realise from my years of experience that most people who do not believe in God have not have an experience of unconditional love and acceptance.  When this occurs, Theology not only becomes possible but available for the person. This is why Jesus tells us to feed the poor, visit the prisoner, take care of the widow and orphan.  We are called to image the love of God to all.  We are called to be love.  The experience of connection or in the biblical term, charity, has an impact on the psychology, the self, which in turn opens a person to the revelation of theology – God our ultimate counsellor.