The Problematic Relationship between Pastoral Care and Psychology

This article is based on a report given at the Psychology in Spiritual Education Conference held at the St. John the Theologian Russian Orthodox University on March 22, 2021. The video recording of this conference is available (in Russian) at

Archpriest Vadim Leonov Archpriest Vadim Leonov     

As I see it, attempts to reconcile pastoral care and psychology are like two travelers who wish to take the same road together, but they are separated by a large field covered by beautiful flowers and fragrant herbs. There are landmines concealed beneath this lush vegetation, however, so the travelers cannot approach each other without defusing them. My objective is to identify those explosive topics from a pastoral point of view. Naturally, the situation looks different from the other side, so someone else ought to do the corresponding work. It is difficult, however, to talk about a reconciliation without first identifying “danger zones” and “disarming the landmines,” because any rash contact without resolving existing contradictions will lead to serious harm. So, let’s identify some of the most obvious problems in the relationship between Orthodox pastoral care and modern psychology.

1. Inconsistency, redundancy and inherent contradictions of psychological teachings

If we are to establish a general coordination between pastoral care and psychology, this will imply that in the long run, rather than interacting with a limited number of psychologists with an Orthodox worldview, priests will have to deal with the science of psychology as a whole. If our objective were to establish a relationship with physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, genetics, cybernetics or any other traditional science, then despite the differences in understanding of the world and human nature, we would have more or less solid concepts of church teachings and scientific postulates that could be compared, juxtaposed, correlated, etc. Unfortunately, with psychology it is more complicated. Every prominent personality in psychology—and they were and still are many—tries not only to build upon existing concepts, but to develop something entirely new: a new system or a new school of thought that, once established, lives a parallel life with a multitude of other schools. Such endless fragmentation can be observed even within a single branch of psychology.

Let’s take Alfred Adler, a student of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, as an example. He branched out by creating his own psychoanalytical concept that was later denounced by Freud. Then Carl Jung went in a different direction, delving into mythology, spiritism and occult theories. Later, other neo-Freudians (Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Eric Berne, Harry Sullivan and others) also developed their own psychoanalytical schools of thought. This process of fragmentation, contraposition and mutual refutation is ongoing, and modern psychoanalysis comprises more than twenty concepts of mental development. Moreover, the therapeutic approaches in psychoanalysis differ as much as the theories themselves.

So, if our objective is to compare the ascetic teaching of the Church to psychoanalysis, then the question arises: Which of the twenty theories of psychoanalysis do we need to compare it to? Which of them is more or less credible? Nobody in the psychological community can answer this question. Granted, psychoanalysis is only a small segment of modern psychology, but in other areas of psychology we also see numerous contradictory or autonomous theories with different and sometimes contradictory explanations of the same mental phenomenon. And this serves as a basis for the development of even more contradictory psychological methodologies. Obviously, it is impossible to establish a meaningful relationship with all of these concepts at the same time, but if we decide to work only with selected concepts, then which criteria for selection should we use? Where is the truth?

2. Lack of an effective “immune system” in psychology

The Church and classic natural sciences have internal mechanisms that protect fundamental principles, values and ideas from being distorted. The use of such mechanisms allows the Church to reject fallacies and heresies and renounce theological digressions or moral offenses.

Traditional sciences use similar mechanisms whereby unproven statements and non-verifiable experiments are rejected, all attempts to introduce magic or empirically unjustified mystifications are classified as pseudoscience and suppressed, and authors of such works are branded as pseudoscientists. One cannot imagine a priest associating with a shaman, or an astronomer co-publishing an article with a professional astrologist in a scientific journal.

Psychology, however, is quite tolerant in that respect. A well-known internet psychology portal offers such methods of psychological help as hypnotherapy, neurolinguistic programming, systemic constellations, integral neuro-programming, transpersonal psychology and many other methods that are scientifically questionable and, from a Christian point of view, absolutely unacceptable. Moreover, a great number of such psychologists (more than 40,000 certified specialists are registered on the site) openly practice astrology, astro-psychology, Vedic astrology, various types of hypnosis, Tarot readings and other occult techniques. Often one certified specialist practices all of these methods. The same disarray and syncretism can be observed in the Psychology section of any bookstore. The books on scientific psychology are few and inconspicuous. Most of the shelf space is taken up by books that to a varying degree deal with occultism, magic and populism, lacking peer review.

Psychological organizations have attempted to develop an “immune system” to ensure self-cleansing and protection from quackery and unscrupulous people. However, even when such protective mechanisms are created, they are only effective in local groups and do not have a “cleansing” effect on the psychological community in general.

It is indisputable that some areas of clinical psychiatry and the general, developmental, clinical or pedagogical psychology have been thoroughly and scientifically developed. Yet the specialists working in these areas do not openly distance themselves from non-scientific and openly occult methods used by other psychologists, which is the main sign of an ineffective “immune system.” An occultist rejected in one establishment can easily find support in another, without losing the status of “psychologist”—which is why opening the Church’s doors to the entire psychological community, with all of its disparate branches, would be unwise at this time, at least until their self-cleansing mechanisms become effective.

3. Differences in essential values between Christianity and psychology

Every psychological concept is based on certain values directly or indirectly communicated during its application. It goes without saying that the creators of psychological teachings, theories and methodologies are moved by the best intentions. They strive to make people happy and their lives fulfilling, but this is where significant differences come to light, as essential values, such as “happiness,” “completeness,” “personality,” “individual,” “naturalness,” “self-development,” “good,” “bad,” “normal,” etc. have very vague meanings in humanitarian discourse. As such, detailed study of these methodologies immediately reveals that they can lead the individual in different, and even opposite, directions. When we compare these approaches to the pastoral experience of the Church, a well-known saying comes to mind: One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Here are some examples.

3.1 Attitude to interlocutor

In the pastoral tradition of the Orthodox Church, a priest sees any person as:

  • an image of God

  • a brother or a sister in Christ

  • a spiritual child.

A professional psychologist or psychotherapist sees a person as:

  • a client

  • a patient.

Obviously, in the Orthodox tradition the goal of communication is to form a spiritual kinship between the priest and his interlocutor, which is achieved through God’s grace and mutual love in Christ.

The psychological approach is based on different values. As clearly follows from the use of such terms as “client” and “patient,” a person is viewed 1) as the subject of a commercial relationship in which he or she requests a service provided by the psychologist based on (written or verbal) financial contract, or 2) as a patient who comes to see a doctor, though it is not really known whether the person is actually sick. In any case, an individual is conceptually reduced from an image of God to a consumer or a presumably unhealthy person. And, of course, love as the basis of communication is not only absent in the psychologist-client/patient relationship, it is strictly forbidden to ensure the detachment and impartiality of the psychologist and to avoid codependency and other negative consequences.

In their individual practices, many psychologists attempt to get away from this ethically deficient paradigm that views people only as clients or patients, but conceptually this problem is still unresolved. It is obvious that such an approach is unacceptable for Orthodox priests.

Individuals are viewed as “clients” or “patients” not only by psychologists, but also by dentists, pediatricians and many other specialists. However, there is no need to get them to work together with a priest, and priests do not use these specialists’ methods of interacting with people. Therefore, the fact that priests and such specialists view people differently does not affect pastoral care. With psychologists, it is another story altogether. If we borrow their methodologies and carry out joint activities in parishes, we won’t be able to avoid using different approaches to people within one common activity and within one church, which constitutes a serious problem.

3.2 Relationship in dialogue

In pastoral care, the relationship is free and flexible. You can talk to a priest during Confession or in a private conversation or you can simply approach a priest in a church. If you never see the priest again after the conversation, there is no feeling of remorse. You are not obligated to enter into a contract with a priest, pay him for Confession or personal consultation, or report to him if you don’t wish to. The main basis of the long-term relationship between a priest and a parishioner is the real help that the parishioner receives (in some cases, other external circumstances play a role, e.g. when the next priest is located more than a hundred kilometers away in another parish).

The situation is very different in psychological practice. All types of psychological assistance require a written or verbal financial contract between the psychologist and the client (patient) that clearly defines the financial obligations of the latter.

Contractual relationships exist in many social environments and their existence there is fully justified. However, the effectiveness of contractual relationships in the secular world does not justify its application in the church setting and even less so in pastoral care.

A priest may enter into a contract with an electrician to repair the wiring in the parish house and not worry that this will affect his pastoral care or his parishioners because although the methods of the electrician’s work may affect physical aspects of the parish life, they do not impinge on the spiritual development of the parishioners. Dealing with a psychologist is totally different, as the psychologist’s methods are based on financial and contractual obligations of the clients (patients) and are directly related to people’s spiritual/personal development. If a priest decides to use psychological methods, then such a priest would face a difficult dilemma as to which form of personal relationship with parishioners to choose: love in Christ or a service contract. Obviously, the latter is absolutely unacceptable for the relationship between a pastor and his flock.

3.3 Developing “self-love” and “healthy egotism”

This topic is quite common in psychological literature.The concept of “self-love,” in the sense it is used in modern psychology, is never used in a positive sense in any patristic literature. On the contrary, the holy fathers viewed self-love as something negative. St. Caesarius of Arles, for example, who lived in the sixth century, wrote:

“Just as we are lost through loving ourselves, so we are found by denying ourselves. Love of self was the ruin of the first man” [1].

It is easier to understand this thought, if we remember the words of Christ the Savior:

He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. (Jn. 12:25).

In another verse, God calls upon His disciples:

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. (Lk. 9:23).

That is, love for one’s soul (in this case, one’s life) is condemned by God, as we are expected to hate it and deny ourselves to follow Christ. What is this about?

In patristic literature, the answer to this question is usually based on the anthropological differentiation between man’s original character and his “externally introduced” sinfulness. The Gospel verses about hatred and self-denial above refer to renouncing sinfulness and vices. Since they have taken root in man and became habitual and natural for him (one can recall the Russian saying, “habit is second nature”), getting rid of such habits requires great effort and determination. And even though we speak of removing sinful appendages to man’s nature, subjectively this is a very painful process, sometimes viewed as self-destruction and even as a matter of life and death.

Often, to find a theological justification for “self-love” and “healthy egotism” psychologists quote Christ’s words, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Mt. 22:39), alleging that we must first learn to love ourselves before learning how to love our neighbor. We can immediately say that the holy fathers never mentioned this idea or this interpretation of the Gospel verse. The origin of this interpretation is in psychology. It was introduced by the neo-Freudian Erich Fromm. This is what he wrote in his book The Art of Loving, published in 1956:

“The idea expressed in the biblical ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself!’ implies that respect for one's integrity and uniqueness, love for and understanding of one's own self, cannot be separated from respect and love and understanding for another individual. The love for one’s own self is inseparably connected to the love for any other being.”

The important difference between the opinions of contemporary psychologists and E. Fromm’s position on this matter is that Fromm viewed self-love and love for others as an integral and indivisible phenomenon (in contrast with Freud, who believed that these concepts are opposite and incompatible). The current dominant approach in psychology is that one needs to first love oneself and then learn how to love others; i.e. these two aspects of love are aligned chronologically. Yet, no clear answer is given to the question about at which phase of self-love a person becomes capable of loving others. It is also possible that self-love will become so engrossing that the person will have neither the time nor the strength to love others. This risk was aptly noted by Oscar Wilde who said that “to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”

Coming back to the Gospel verse, even without referring to the patristic interpretations, we can see that a call to develop self-love is absent. Imagine that someone told you to learn to fly like a bird or learn to swim like a fish. Does that mean that we first need to teach the bird to fly or the fish to swim, and only then learn how to do it ourselves? Obviously not. The same is applicable to these words of Christ. He does not say, “first learn to love yourself and then love your neighbor as yourself.” He refers to self-love as an obvious certainty, as an indisputable fact.

Can it be proven that great self-love is in each and every one of us? Easily. Let everyone answer the following questions honestly: Whom do I take the most care of in my life? Who is the person that I feed and clothe the most? Whose comfort and health are most important for me? Whose successes make me most happy and whose failures worry me the most? Who is the person I think about most? The answer would be obvious: The center of my life is me. My closest relatives and children, my friends and acquaintances don’t get even a small fraction of the care that I give myself. This is typical for practically all people, with few exceptions. The difference between people is only in the degree of their self-love. So, the Gospel verse tells us to take care of our neighbors in the same way we take care of ourselves. We should be happy for their successes and worry about their failures, we should feed them, clothe them, tend to them when they are sick and take care of them. This is what “loving your neighbor as yourself” means according to the Gospel.

If we decide to develop self-love, rather than love for our neighbors, the gap between us and the others will widen. To follow the aforementioned commandment of Christ, the movement must be in the opposite direction. With God’s help, we must deny ourselves for the sake of Christ, renounce our sinful wishes and our corrupted will and follow the commandments given in the Gospel. Then God’s grace can enter us and transform both us and the people around us. In any parish today, you can find transformed people who, to a certain extent, have gotten rid of their sinful infirmities by following the Gospel principles above. Of course, this is a challenging process, and failures, relapses and fallacies happen. But the effectiveness of this approach is obvious.

As such, the differences in values and concepts of Christianity and psychology contribute to the development of different methodologies that are sometimes contradictory, so finding common ground here seems problematic.

3.4 Techniques for “boosting self-esteem”

From a Christian standpoint, these techniques are nothing but means for developing hubris, self-love and egotism, which is contradictory to Christian teachings of humility, meekness and love. The Internet is full of ads for psychological training courses offering to boost participants’ self-esteem, yet there isn’t a single course on lowering self-esteem, even though there is a great number of people with unjustifiably high esteem of themselves.

A quick Internet search for self-esteem boosting workshops found 221,000 links on Google and more than four million links on Yandex. Then I tried to find workshops for lowering self-esteem. Both search engines insisted that there was a mistake and offered to replace “lowering” with “boosting.” When we confirmed that our query was correct, the search engines found 113,000 and two million links respectively, but all of them still offered workshops and techniques to boost self-esteem. There was absolutely nothing on the Internet about lowering self-esteem, which makes it seem as if people suffer only from low self-esteem, and never from high self-esteem. However, everyday life and Christian pastoral experiences show that this is not quite so. There are in fact many overly confident people but nobody plans to treat them.

The search to find humility and meekness workshops was also unsuccessful. We did not search for workshops to find love as the search engines would have definitely displayed links to millions of pornographic or dating sites.

It is clear that the existing psychological self-esteem boosting techniques cannot be reconciled with the Christian teaching on humility and meekness. This problem should be the subject of a very serious discussion between psychologists and theologians.

3.5 Self-sacrifice and altruism

Psychologists are constantly playing up such terms as “victim’s complex” or “victim mentality.” They view self-sacrifice as a neurotic state that requires psychological correction or treatment. One of the articles on this subject stated that one of the signs of this allegedly deviant behavior is the client saying, “this is a cross I have to bear.” The article claimed that “propaganda of self-sacrifice” by some religious and moral-philosophical teachings is one of the causes of the victim mentality, as these teachings consider suffering as something positive, i.e., as a method for purifying one’s soul. They view the ability to endure hardships as a positive quality, and encourage their followers to play the role of a victim.”

This particular article did not reference Christianity, but it fits this description one hundred percent.

Indeed, self-sacrifice plays a key role in the Christian worldview and this term has a positive connotation. Let us imagine for a moment what would have happened if our Savior shared the psychological approach. Would he have gone up to the Cross? Christian love is inherently sacrificial. The Scripture says that It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (Jn. 15:13). There are many such quotes. If we agree that self-sacrifice has a negative connotation, we risk misunderstanding Christ’s podvig and missing the main point of Christianity. This is a serious problem of values that inevitably arises when we attempt to reconcile psychology and Orthodox pastoral care.

4. Difference in underlying anthropological models of Christianity and psychology

Orthodox theology offers a fairly consistent and fundamentally well-grounded anthropological concept. This is not the case with psychology, as practically every major psychological school offers its supposedly axiomatic perspective on man which only partially correlates with other psychological anthropologies and often contradicts them.

Obviously, any common ground between pastoral and psychological practices can be found only if their basic values and original anthropological models are in agreement.

5. Such basic Christian concepts as “God”, the “image of God,” the “soul,” “sin,” “good,” “evil,” etc. do not exist in psychological terminology

It is impossible to imagine Orthodox theology and pastoral care without these concepts. These are the major Christian values, so in terms of people’s spiritual development, productive interaction between Orthodoxy and any humanitarian teaching that questions the existence of such concepts is quite problematic.

The above theological concepts are not used in non-humanitarian sciences, but there are no a priori anthropological concepts either, so interaction with them and use of techniques used in, for example, mathematics, physics or chemistry, cannot affect the pastoral relationship to a person.

In contrast, psychology has a great number of axiomatic anthropological models that are extremely controversial. The use of psychological techniques inevitably results in communication of the corresponding anthropology to people, which constitutes a serious problem for interaction between pastoral care and psychology. Some techniques, for example, implicitly suggest and promote the idea that man is a self-sufficient creature and that people’s pursuit of perfection and happiness has nothing to do with God.

6. Atheistic and anti-religious tenets in many psychological teachings

Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of psychological teachings are more than simply atheistic. They view religious people as an unhealthy community in need of treatment and consider religion a source of illness. For example, if a psychologist who strictly follows the psychoanalytic paradigm meets a believer who recognizes man’s sinfulness and infirmity without God, who is capable of sacrificial love and is willing to endure humiliation and tribulations for the sake of Christ, the psychologist will view this person as sick.

Strangely enough, psychology is very forgiving to Buddhists, Daoists, Kabbbalists and, to a certain extent, Hindus and occultists. It can be closely integrated with these religious teachings because they are primarily based on the use of human resources.

Some attempts have been made to create a Christian, Orthodox and Patristic psychology. This is welcoming news but since these approaches have not been conceptualized yet, interaction with them is still at the developmental stage.

7. Lack of deep understanding and effective use of the Orthodox Church’s ascetic heritage in modern pastoral care

Since previous sections mostly described problems in psychology (we know that it is easier to see a speck in your neighbor’s eye than a log in your own), now let us dwell on an internal church problem that prevents constructive dialogue between Orthodoxy and psychology.

Our problem is that we know little about the spiritual treasure passed on to us by previous generations of ascetic fathers, and we embrace it even less. We can more or less theoretically describe some elements of man’s spiritual life and inner world, but when it comes to practice, there are few things that we can do effectively and extensively. There are few Orthodox priests who can teach people the right way to pray, help them uproot their passions and plant the seeds of virtue. Few Christians have mastered this art of arts and science of sciences.

This is not a conceptual Church problem, this is a problem of all of us, living right here and right now; a problem of our negligence. Many Orthodox Christians do not realize the value of the spiritual treasure of Orthodoxy that we have received from previous generations, so they start looking for something on the side, trying to run off to fill their stomachs with unhealthy food. It is as though we’re sitting on a treasure chest and begging for copper coins. In doing so, we shame not only ourselves, but also the holy fathers who entrusted this treasure to us.

8. Substituting pastoral care with psychological techniques

This is an internal problem of the Church. It is growing exponentially because some priests are literally spellbound by the magical opportunities of the psychological techniques that are widely advertised in popular but for the most part low-grade literature. Such priests are not aware of the scientific criticism of those techniques or intentionally ignore it for the sake of having the opportunity to wallow in the sweet illusion of joy, happiness and self-righteousness. They start with comparison of pastoral and psychological methods, quickly decide that they are identical and then conclude that in contemporary church life, psychotherapy is more effective than centuries-old pastoral care. In the eyes of such priests, repentant sinners turn into insecure neurotics, while priests play the role of psychotherapists or, worse, assistant psychotherapists. Such priests diagnose everybody as neurotic, including the saints canonized by the Orthodox Church.

These spellbound priests do not listen to any arguments. For example, they ignore the fact that the rapid increase of the number of neurotic disorders in the last fifty years is associated with the incredible growth of the number of psychologists, psychotherapists, psychological trainings, mental hospitals and psychology-related media resources that offer various types of assistance to people suffering from neuroticism. Such priests cannot understand that psychoanalysts consider religious people neurotic not because of certain symptoms but by definition—because according to the founder of psychoanalysis, “Religion is a collective neurosis.” In other words, they view believers as people who are neurotic by definition, irrespective of their actual condition. According to them, such neurotic persons cannot be treated unless they renounce the source of their neurosis, i.e., religion; or, to be exact, unless they renounce their faith in the true God.

Naturally, no psychoanalyst will directly call on his or her patients to become atheists. The patients will come to this decision seemingly on their own after a few sessions where they will be told about their alleged childhood traumas, complexes and ways to sublimate them. According to the psychoanalysts, the patients’ unconscious wish to be with God will be gradually replaced with rationalized awareness. The patients will understand the illusory and useless nature of religion that, according to Freud, is “a sweet or bittersweet poison.”

Freud was not the only one engaged in antireligious rhetoric. For example, Karen Horney, the founder of her own branch of psychoanalysis, fostered the same ideas about religion but used different arguments. According to her, religions force their followers to live in accordance with an ideal. If the believers follow the requirements, they are promised glory, and if they don’t, they are punished. The endless pursuit of the ideal inevitably forces the followers into a neurotic state where their “real” egos live in constant stress, separated from or conflicted with the “ideal” unachievable ego, which is illustrated by Christ’s words, Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Mt. 5:48). Horney’s conclusion is obvious: religion is the source of neurosis.

It is possible to understand the psychoanalysts who, having accepted this faulty concept, implement its antireligious ideas in accordance with the teaching programs that they have adopted. But it is much more regrettable when priests, blindly following widely advertised psychological teachings, not only renounce their calling but turn into a source of temptation for their laity. Unfortunately, a fairly large number of such priests who delved into trendy psychological techniques have already renounced their priesthood and become full-time psychological consultants.

There are many reasons for this, but the most important of them is the lack of a deep faith in God and lack of real and grace-filled pastoral experience. I am sure that priests who have seen many times with their own eyes people transformed by God’s grace, through a Gospel-inspired life and the Church’s Mysteries would never exchange their birthright for a pottage of lentils (cf. Gen. 25:28-34).


At this time, positive psychological knowledge within the framework of the spiritual education of priests must include the following disciplines:

1. History of Psychology that critically reviews various psychological concepts, including their development and controversial (from a Christian standpoint) essence, as it is already being done in courses on the history of philosophy and the history of world religions.

2. Pastoral psychiatry where future priests could receive a basic understanding of mental disorders, symptoms and methods of communicating with psychiatrists to help mentally ill people.

3. Fundamentals of pedagogy. Pedagogy is the projection of psychological knowledge into the field of the education, upbringing and development of children. There are some problems here too, but they are not as urgent, because real life and tremendous accumulated experience essentially correct faulty pedagogical ideas. Pedagogy seems to be a significantly more reliable science in the general area of psychology, and that is why we believe that the results of its application are more useful and more meaningful for future priests. All the more so, as many priests have to organize Sunday Schools in their parishes. Besides, this knowledge can come in handy as they raise their own children.

Interaction between pastoral theology and psychology in other areas will be very difficult without any advances in solving the previously mentioned problems. Teachings of different branches of psychology that are controversial, insufficiently studied or not backed by science should not be directly offered to untrained future priests, one must be extremely careful here. However, the aforementioned problems represent an important reason for joint discussions, scientific and theological workshops and conferences. Communication is essential.

In the area of the education of priests, we believe that the most promising approach in theological schools is not only theoretical but practical study of the insufficiently studied ascetic legacy of the Orthodox Church. This is the key to solving many current pastoral and ecclesiastical problems. Practical study of the spiritual treasures of the Church inevitably reveals an amazing discovery: The best psychological techniques offered to Orthodox priests are just meager imitations of that which has already been available in Orthodoxy for many years.

Archpriest Vadim Leonov
Doctor of Theology, Assistant Professor, Provost of Scientific and Theological Studies,
Sretensky Theological Academy
Translation by Talyb Samedov


Fr. Leulekal2/24/2024 8:46 am
Thank you father for this inspiring and insightful article. Long life and happiness!
Paul9/30/2021 3:08 pm
Thank you for this outstanding article. So much of modern psychology is based on shaky spiritual foundations. It amazes me how much of it infiltrated the Church. May God bless Fr Leonov.
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