Popcak in US News & World Report for “Holy Sex!”

US News and World Report did an article on Catholic sexuality.  They cited recent studies asserting that devout Catholics are more satisfied with their sexual relationships–both in quantity and frequency–than any other group.  Imagine my happy surprise to see my book, Holy Sex!, cited in the body of the article!

The notion that Catholics have better sex isn’t a new one, especially coming from Catholics. In 1994, Andrew Greeley, a Catholic sociologist and priest, published “Sex: The Catholic Experience,” which released a litany of new statistics: 68 percent of Catholics professed to have sex at least once a week versus 56 percent of non-Catholics; 30 percent of Catholics had bought erotic underwear versus 20 percent non-Catholics; and 80 percent of devout Catholic women approved of having sex for pleasure alone.

In 2008, Gregory K. Popcak, a Catholic pastoral marriage and family counselor, released a book with a similar theme, called “Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.”     Check out the rest of the story! 

Coming Wed on More2Life Radio: Bad Relationship Habits

Coming WEDNESDAY on More2Life: Bad Relationship Habits–We all have them.  Little ways we take each other for granted and undermine the connection that God wants for our homes.  We’ll look at the most common bad relationship habits and how to leave them behind.

Plus, Fr. Thomas Loya from the Tabor Life Institute joins us to talk about score keeping.

Call in at 877-573-7825 from Noon-1 Eastern (11-Noon Central) with your questions about overcoming the bad relationship habits that are robbing you of opportunities for joy and closeness.

Can’t get M2L on a Catholic radio station near you? YOU CAN STILL HEAR US!
~ Listen via our FREE AveMariaRadio IPhone or Android App (Check your app store!),
~ Tune in live online at www.avemariaradio.net
~ or catch our archived shows via the M2L Podcast (also at avemariaradio.net)

WIN A FREE BOOK in our SUMMER BOOK GIVEAWAY!  (Details below).

Q of the D:  (Answer one or both to win!)

1. What do you think is the most irritating “bad relationship habit” and why?

2.  When someone commits that bad relationship habit (that you wrote in response to #1), how do you respond?

*Win a free book!  Every day you respond to the question of the day your name will be entered in a radio drawing to win a free book from the Popcak Catholic Living Library (over 10 titles in all)!  Again, each day that you respond you will get another chance at winning a free book in the drawing held at the end of each week on More2Life Radio.

This week’s featured title is:  Beyond the Birds and the Bees:  Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids — Not just about “the talk.”  Beyond the Birds and the Bees is a book that helps parents teach their kids how to make good moral choices from toddlerhood to young adulthood.  You’ll discover practical ways to cultivate the 8 virtues your kids need to be whole and holy people and what it takes to raise kids who will make good and godly choices even when you’re not there to make sure they do.  This brand new, expanded and revised edition is even more deeply rooted in the Theology of the Body and the latest research on training “the moral brain.”  A must-read for parents who want to raise whole and holy kids.

Winners will be announced on air and contacted by FB message following the drawing this Friday  July 19th.


Catholics and Mental Illness (An Ongoing Series): Michelle–A Woman with Depression Suffers Alienation in the Church

St. Dymphna, Patroness of the Mentally Ill, Pray for Us.

A new post in our “What’s Your Experience?” Series,  in which People-of-Faith share their experience of depression, anxiety, and other mental illness as they relate to their parish and their Catholic faith.  Today, Michelle writes of her experience with crippling depression.

Dr. Greg,  I was amazed when I came across a link for your article on Facebook because I have spent the past few days wondering about “What is my place in the Church?” as a mentally ill Catholic.

I have been thinking a lot about my mental illness lately. I used to be mentally healthy but then I joined the military where I suffered repeated sexual harassment and assault, as well as the expected traumas of serving in a war zone. I left the military and was given a 100% disability rating by the Department of Veterans Affairs for PTSD, Major Depression Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder. So as far as I know I was not born with a chemical imbalance but instead my mental illness is the result of trauma.

I left the US Navy in 1996 and was given my disability rating in 1998. I have suffered for 15 years with crippling depression and also with oftentimes relentless panic attacks and severe bouts of paranoia/agoraphobia. In short, I can be ok to a certain degree or I can be a total human wreck. But no matter what, I am “weird” and this is not lost on basically anyone that is either my friend or is in my company for whatever reason.

Lately I have been having very serious thoughts about myself. I wonder how much of my depression is the result of what I call “negative narcissism” on my part: being so self-centered that I am shocked and driven to a huge “poor me, life sucks” reaction when life is stressful, life is challenging, and/or things don’t go my way.

I also wonder how much of my mental illness is self-fulfilling prophecy, due to being told that I am mentally ill to the point that I no longer trust my ability to “handle stress.” In other words, at the first real sign of stress I run away, disconnecting and dissociating by abandoning my daily life and tasks and hiding in bed, hiding behind the Internet (distracting myself) and taking off for a walk with my iPod while abandoning my duties.

These personal musings have come about after these past two or three years spent moving deeper and deeper into the Catholic Faith. To my shock I feel that I have discovered something incredible, and possibly something that will prove to be the key to serious improvements in my mental health: modern psychology offers me exactly what the Faith and the Bible have taught all along. Not only that, but the Faith and Bible offer *even more*.

So at the present moment I find myself deeply questioning my own reactions to stress. I find myself comparing my  thoughts and feelings, my behaviors and my reactions against what the Faith teaches is the Christian way of life. I must admit that I find myself seriously lacking in many areas – and I am not saying this with self hate or scruples. I am seeking instead the truth, because although painful to my pride, the truth just might set me free. I doubt that my PTSD can ever be fully cured, but I am beginning to wonder if my depression and the emotional hyper-sensitivity of Borderline Personality Disorder are more the results of a life centered around Me and not Christ. I hope and pray that God will provide me with the tools (and people?) that I need to dig deeply into this idea.

Sadly I have found that the vast majority of those in the Church react to my “weirdness” with the same lack of compassion and understanding as those in the secular world. Sometimes even to the point of cruelty and aggressively destroying me socially via gossip: meaning that some people that get to know me within the Church will actually go out of their way to telephone and visit other people in order to gossip about me and ruin my reputation to the point of me being ostracized by church members, family, and many in the local community. Being socially destroyed by fellow Catholics is shocking to say the least. I am a convert, becoming Catholic in 1998. I did not expect to find the same injustices from fellow Catholics that one practically expects from those that reject Christ.

As for the rest of my fellow Catholics I am mostly met with inertia. In the moments when I am suffering the most there is an obvious need but no one is interested. They’d rather watch TV and they don’t want to be bothered with making the effort to connect and communicate, pray, etc.

I will do my best to answer your questions:

Was your pastor supportive?  

No, I have never encountered a fully supportive pastor. I think some of the problem is some are not interested, others dismiss mental illness, they find you annoying and a drain. Perhaps another part of the problem is that some pastors understand the “negative narcissism” I mention above and they expect that you will “get it” a lot faster then you actually do.

Were the people in your parish or bible study or women’s group understanding?  

Anything but. Even amongst fellow Catholics there is a Status Quo. If you are not able to engage in full time employment, your house is a wreck, you can’t drive, or any other “failing” due to the usual disruptions to life brought about by mental illness these are held against you. And this Status Quo extends even to your personal appearance: weight, style of clothes, ethnicity ~ add to that any cultural differences and it gets even more impossible to meet expectations. Being mentally ill, especially when you find yourself in the midst of a time of real mental struggle, helps you to fail to meet the expectations of the Status Quo. Oftentimes this Status Quo mimics that of the secular world, with its shallow judgmentalism and lack of compassion and patience and the desire to “get something in return” from any given relationship. No one can escape the fact that when you are in the midst of a mental crisis you take a LOT and give very little. It requires a seriously Christ-like heart to continue to love and support a mentally ill person during their particularly dark moments. 

Overall, how good a job has the Church done of attending to your needs? 

Awful. I have found, after being a member of multiple parishes across the USA and overseas, that if you are mentally ill you end up on your own. Your pastors are always “too busy” helping other people. Your fellow Catholics have a tendency to either outright reject you, or basically ignore you and leave you wallowing in the fallout caused by episodes of mental crisis. On the other hand Protestants are AMAZING. They not only love you and support you even at your worst, they are so Christlike in their lack of judgement and in their service. Christ washed the feet of His disciples, Protestants scrub your toilet and cook your meals and help you to remember to bathe and assist you with keeping up with daily tasks while you are at your absolute worst. Protestants will pray with you, read the bible with you (even when all you can do is sit there, stinking, hair wild, eyes glazed, and listen) and will take you to-and-from their homes, their churches, anything that is needed. By contrast your fellow Catholics don’t even pick up the phone and give you a call. I feel that the majority of my fellow Catholics react more like Secular people that don’t know Christ: as soon as you are an inconvenience, a burden, they abandon you. Even the Priests fail to call you or visit you or minister to you, and they do nothing to ask the parish to reach out to you. Holy Mother Church herself… I’ve never been offered any kind of pastoral mental health help in any form ever. This abandonment by the Church is something that I am struggling to come to terms with so that I can stop allowing this rejection and abandonment to throw me into a poor-me party. Far more then once I have been severely tempted to abandon the Church and join a Protestant church instead. 

I hope this helps! I have to go now, time to do something productive. I am testing my “how much is my depression  actually self-fulfillment” by trying to force myself to do at least one daily task from beginning to end. Have I become lazy due to self-fulfilling prophecy? Or am I truly incapacitated when a depression wave hits?

God bless!!  ~Michelle

Do you have a story of a struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental/emotional illness?  What has your experience in the Church been like?   Share your story to help others.  I promise anonymity.  Please email me at gpopcak@CatholicCounselors.com

No, She Can’t Play That Game Either

The NYTimes has an article about the effect of the college hook-up culture on young women and their potential for happiness in life and relationships.  It is a poignant and painful look at what happens to a culture when it defines itself by its ability to produce instead of the quality of its character and depth of its relationships.

The title of the article is, “Sex on Campus:  She Can Play That Game Too.”  The implication, of course, is that men have been having casual sex for centuries and its worked out OK for them, certainly women can succeed at the same game.  The problem is, it never really worked for men and it isn’t working for women either.  The incidence of casual sex is inversely proportional to the strength of attachment you experienced in childhood.  The less attachment you had as a kid to your parents, the more likely it is that you will exhibit promiscuous behavior in adolescence.  The reverse is also true.  The stronger and more secure attachment you had to your parents the more likely it is that you will avoid promiscuity in adolescence (as well as many other high-risk behavior).  We can now predict the level of life and relationship satisfaction toddlers will have in adulthood based upon the amount of affection they received as toddlers.  Extravagant affection in toddlerhood predicts healthier life and relationship skills in adulthood.

As I argue in Beyond the Birds and the Bees:  Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Children, the reason men have historically been more sexually promiscuous was that, traditionally, parents were afraid that attachment would sissify boys.  Girl and boy babies would receive about the same amount of affection, cuddling and coddling, until toddlerhood, after which girls continued to receive about the same amount of care and boys would be weaned from much of that for fear of impairing their masculinity.  The effect, of course, was to cause men to repress those touch needs until they reached adolescence when they could get all their touch needs met–as long as they met them through manly displays of sexual promiscuity.

And then a funny thing happened on the way to the nursery.   Suddenly, moms started going back to work at the same rate as dads.  Girl and boy babies both found themselves in daycare as early as 6 weeks.  Girl and boy toddlers found themselves both struggling to maintain attachment with parents who were too busy, or too absent, or just divorced and not present.  Flash forward to young adulthood, and the narrative of the male pursuer and the virginal female no longer holds.  Femininity doesn’t favor virginity.  Attachment does.  As girl and boy children became similarly detached, they both became similarly inclined to meaningless sexual relationships and the pursuit of accomplishment over actualization.  For years, men have paid the price of this inheritance with a poor ability to connect with others and early death.  Now women get to share the joy too.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

Read the article. As you do, see if you can’t hear  Jesus’ words on the road to Calvary.  “Weep not for me, but for your children.”

If you would like to discover how to raise children who have the strength to resist the cultural tide, check out Beyond the Birds and the Bees:  Raising Whole and Holy Kids.


Catholics and Mental Illness (An Ongoing Series)– W. A Woman with Anxiety/Intermittent Explosive Disorder

A new post in our What’s Your Experience?  Series,  in which People-of-Faith share their experience of depression, anxiety, and other mental illness as they relate to their parish and their Catholic faith.  W.  a young woman in her 20’s writes of her experience with a disorder that leads to overwhelming and violent bouts of anxiety and anger.

I’m a young adult, in my early 20s. It was only in college that major emotional wounds inflicted by my father manifested in what certain Catholic psychologists term “frustration neurosis” — a condition in which emotions aren’t repressed but certain emotions are rather totally underdeveloped. An adult suffering from frustration neurosis may react like a child under conditions in which a healthy emotional palette would take completely in stride. It was even more complex for me because I understood so well — too well, perhaps — that my reactions were totally contrary to what they ought to be, and so my frustration manifested themselves in overpowering hysterical “episodes” that were the only medium by which the energy that built up from the stilted emotional growth and my desire for completeness rubbed against each other. These episodes were terrifying — brutal, animalistic, violent, and totally unexpected.
The Lord drew me after Him through the entire process. I consider it a stage of deep purification, for not a single person understood what was going on interiorly until I stumbled — quite providentially, of course — into the path of a spiritual director who understood the ways in the Lord was working on my soul and heart by means of my past and my emotional being. It was very humiliating, very frustrating — and continues to be, to some extent, as this healing takes time, and there are still manifestations. (The particular extremity of my experiences, sometimes relatively public, were totally foreign to my chaplains and those at my university’s ministry. They could only surmise that it was X or Y, depression, for example, but not a single person was able to see everything, understand everything, etc. And the one thing I would say to those souls is that for an individual in my situation what is needed is heroic support — 100x more than they might imagine is necessary. At its worst moments, these kinds of mental illnesses might very literally feel like the end of the world, a black hole, during which faith and hope and charity are strongly tested.)


I think that persons in situations like mine — be it the condition, or the sense of total darkness and desperation that overwhelms them — should remember a few things: The Lord is present always; even Christ, who offered His Spirit into the hands of His Father, did it in anguished darkness. We must offer everything into His Hands and the the hands of His Mama. We must consider this an opportunity for great purification and for an opportunity to imitate Our Lord; there is no greater grace than to understand the passion from within. More practically, I think we must fight to find the right counselor. The counseling world is large, complex, and can be deeply imperfect. I was diagnosed in a multitude of different ways, with many recommendations, and having really no idea what was happening, I did the only thing I could — I laid it out before God, I prayed my fiat, and I waited. It took much humiliation, much frustration, many dark nights before I found the right therapist (and I do think something, somewhere, needs to click to make the arrangement right), but I can say with deep thanks now that I wouldn’t change a thing: I love the Lord with a much purer faith and hope now, and by the time I found this therapist, I didn’t know how to keep anything back. I was in a state of total nakedness and poverty, desperate for healing and clarity, and in the midst of this painful faithfulness, the Lord granted me light.

 Blessings,  W

Do you have a story of a struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental/emotional illness?  What has your experience in the Church been like?   Share your story to help others.  I promise anonymity.  Please email me at gpopcak@CatholicCounselors.com

Catholics and Mental Illness (An Ongoing Series)–Spouse of Man with Bipolar I Disorder

A new post in our What’s Your Experience?  Series,  in which People-of-Faith share their experience of depression, anxiety, and other mental illness as they relate to their parish and their Catholic faith.  In this post, Kate, the wife of a man with Bipolar I shares her experience with how priests, the Church, and her faith have been intertwined in the drama of her life.

My DH has been diagnosed in the past year with Bipolar I.  He is 42 years old and a cradle Catholic.  I am 39 and a convert to the Faith.  We have seven children that are homeschooled.  

 My husband’s first mental break occurred when he was an undergrad at Franciscan University in the early 90’s.  He relates the story that he was in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, alone, begging God for help.  A priest entered the chapel at the sounds of his pleas.  My husband begged him for help as well, anguished.  The priest called 911 and he was hospitalized for a week.  He then graduated and moved on, but he still talks about that day and that he wishes the priest would have just prayed with him.  

 Several years later, he was able to join the Army.  We met and married shortly after that.  We had many years of ups and downs along with infidelity.  We were married for 6 years when he sought help and was diagnosed with severe depression and put on a combination of Zoloft and Wellbutrin.  For several years, this was adequate to maintain him.  Through all this, he was able to earn two Master’s degrees and become an officer in the Army.  In February of 2012, things took a turn for the worse.  He was suicidal and homicidal.  His medicines were changed to include depakote and  Celexa, but he only spiraled further out of control.  He was hospitalized.  They continued the same drug regimen and he was sedated and restrained almost daily for the first week until they changed the meds to include Lamictal, naltrexone and Seroquel.  Through the help of a few close church friends and one priest, I was able to conceal this hospitalization from everyone, including the children.  After three and a half weeks, he was discharged on Good Friday.  From there, everything changed.  After a year long process, he was medically retired from the Army two weeks ago.  He still cycles, but not to the extremes as before.  I am hopeful that with medication, therapy and time, he will become more stable. 

 We have a lot of help from a few friends and our priest (who has since deployed overseas), but we are both embarrassed and feel the stigma of mental illness.  One of our fellow parishioners discovered his diagnosis and posted on Facebook a long discussion on how we shouldn’t ‘hide’ behind a diagnosis and he should just change.  Our priest, who was new to our parish, was aware and said nothing.

 Through it all, he remains faithful.  He remains hopeful that God will assist him.  Praying the Litany of the Hours gives him a schedule that he finds calming.  Even with the hectic life raising children, we try to at least say Evening Prayers together before bed.  I find solace in turning to the intercession of St Dympna and Our Blessed Mother.


The most difficult thing for me, as a woman of Faith, is my husband’s role as the head of our home.  When he cycles into mania or depression, I have to find the balance of taking care of things that he can’t without taking away from his role, and maintaining his authority with the children.  I consider myself a strong woman, but discovering myself over the years as a submissive wife and honoring my place in our covenant has been so rewarding.  That being said, I am trying to gracefully maintain the order of our home without the detriment to my DH.  How does one stay true to the vow to honor and obey when their spouse is in full blown mania?  

The Church, as all of society, has a long way to go in dealing with mental illness.  I don’t know what I expect or what should be done.  I do know that we should be able to sit in the pews on Sunday without feeling looked down upon or have our ideas/efforts dismissed because he is bipolar.  Priests have many responsibilities handed to them.  I think it is easier to deal with the visible problems because mental illness can be so hard to identify.  I am hoping and praying that now that we are done with military life, we will find employment and return to OH, where we have friends, relatives and priests that know us well and can give us support that we need.

 I look forward to looking into your readings on mental illness and continuing the discussion.  I just thought you might like to hear from someone like me.

 Blessings,  Kate

Do you have a story of a struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental/emotional illness?  What has your experience in the Church been like?   Share your story to help others.  I promise anonymity.  Please email me at gpopcak@CatholicCounselors.com

Six Types of Atheists?

According to the University of Tennessee, in what is, reportedly, the first-ever attempt to classify different types of atheism, researchers have identified 6 types of atheists.  If you are an atheist, what flavor are you?  Is there a category they didn’t think of?  If you are close to someone who is an atheist, do you recognize them in these types?

1. Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic–The true believer (er, non-believer) who seeks to develop his non-belief through reading and other intellectual pursuits related to atheism.

2. Activist– The evangelists.  It isn’t enough to reject God.  They need to convert others.

3. Seeker-agnostic– They embrace uncertainty.  They’re pretty sure there is no God, but they are open to the possibility.

4. Anti-Theist– Antagonistic to religion.  Equates religion with ignorance.

5. Non-Theist– Not concerned with religion at all.  Just don’t think about it.   Apathetic.

6. Ritual Atheist–Doesn’t believe in God, but thinks religious rituals serve a healthy role for personal growth and social stability.

Read the article.


Catholics and Mental Illness–What’s Your Experience? (An ongoing series)

A new post in our What’s Your Experience?  Series,  in which People-of-Faith share their experience of depression, anxiety, and other mental illness as they relate to their parish and their Catholic faith…

St. Dymphna, Patroness of those with mental illness,   Pray for Us.

Dear Dr. Greg,

I’m writing in response to your series entitled “Catholics & Depression, Anxiety, & Mental/Emotional Illness. What is Your Experience?”


As a Catholic Christian woman who has struggled to cope with mental and emotional illness for nearly 25 years, I am grateful for the time, energy, and expertise you shar

e through your blog Faith on the Couch.  Your ministry to those of us who exist on the emotional and psychological margins of society is, as I see it, a brilliant example of obedience to Pope Francis’ recent teachings.



It would be easy for me to go into great detail about my story, the journey I’ve been on for so long, but I am not sure if most of it would have any relevance to your questions. Having said that, I will try to summarize my history into bullet points of the kind of treatments I have undergone/sought for the major depression and anxiety disorder I have been diagnosed with:

  • Drugs – tricyclics in      the early 90s, then when those didn’t work, MAOIs. Trials of almost all the SSRIs. Currently I take Wellbutrin 150mg daily, and have for a number of years gotten varying degrees of relief. Lorazepam as needed for anxiety, which happens to be about every third or fourth day.
  • ECT – during the mid to late 90s I had (to the best of my recollection) several regimens of ECT.      As evidence by the fact that I am writing to you 15 years later, they      worked.
  • Hospitalization – both inpatient and outpatient partial hospitalization during the worst of the illness in the 90s.
  • Psychotherapy – currently I see a (Christian, but not Catholic) psychiatrist every other week for an hour of therapy, which at this point consists of me talking to her about whatever issue is causing me the most emotional turmoil in my life at the moment. We spend a lot of time challenging my thought processes.  I met this young doctor when she was just beginning her practice and have been with her for 8 years now. 
  • Seeking help in the Church – most of the help I have sought has been in the form of the  Sacrament of Confession. There was a newly ordained priest assigned to my      parish several years ago, with whom I had spoken outside the confessional  a number of times. At first my visits were of some benefit, but when he got transferred to another parish it was more difficult to get an appointment with him. Then his willingness to see me in person evolved into a brief phone call. Recently transferred again (typical diocesan activity with our young priests) and due to his ever-increasingly-busy  schedule, I no longer feel he has time to help me. I currently have no      priest with whom I can discuss the spiritual aspects of this illness.  Several times over the years I have requested and received the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. It would have been good to hear a priest voluntarily suggest it, but the fact is that I requested it every time. I was left with the impression that I just wasn’t “sick      enough to qualify”.
  • To combat my strong tendency to isolate myself when I am feeling particularly depressed, a year ago I  joined a prayer group at my church. This group of 15 women meets every other week to study St. Faustina’s book Divine Mercy in My Soul and to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.       There are a few women in the group who are supportive, but my  deeply-seated difficulty trusting others has caused me to withdraw from  regular attendance.  My emotional meltdowns are unpredictable   and embarrassing, and the group setting causes me discomfort. 
  • I have come to the  conclusion that, for me,  it is far too easy to place unreasonably high expectations upon people in the Church. It has been rare for  someone, priest or laity, to do or say something that effects  a permanent healing of my body, mind, and spirit. I  recognize that the fact that I am writing to you means that I have not      completely given up hope in some kind of healing from God through His  people, the Church. I beg your prayers.
  • The most helpful books I   have ever read were written by the late Conrad Baars, MD and his daughter. Born Only Once struck me to my very core and has a permanent place in my library.  Feeling and Healing Your Emotions provided the comfort of a meaningful explanation of the emotional wounds that have probably      been a part of me since childhood.
  • I have one Catholic  

    female friend who I can occasionally call upon for support and encouragement. She is the mother of six children and one grandchild and so      I try not to lean on her heavily, because she is quite busy.

Again, I am grateful to you for existence of your blog that I can turn to for support. Thank you for listening to me.

Do you have a story of a struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental/emotional illness?  What has your experience in the Church been like?   Share your story to help others.  I promise anonymity.  Please email me at gpopcak@CatholicCounselors.com

Emotional Security: Do You Know What YOUR Emotions Are Trying to Tell You?

Most Christians have a pretty ambivalent relationship with our emotions.  We just don’t know what to feel about our feelings.  Sometimes, emotions can be the source of a great deal of joy, satisfaction, and well-being.  Other times they can wreck us with anxiety, despair, anger, and angst.   Of course,  there are still other times when we get upset with ourselves for being upset, angry at ourselves for being angry, or depressed about how sad we feel.

Emotions are a part of our body, of course, and, as such, the Theology of the Body tells us that–just like the rest of our body–emotions are intended by God to work for our good and the good of others.  But what about the times they don’t?  What is the best way to think about our emotions and how can we do a better job managing them?

Emotion:  What is it…Really?

It is surprisingly difficult to get consensus on what an emotion actually is.  Biologists will tell you that emotions are just neurochemistry.  Psychologists will tell you that emotions are the results of the thoughts that run through your head.  Anthropologists will say that emotions are the way individuals know they are connected to some groups and disconnected from others.  All of these theories get at some aspect of emotions and some of these theories describe what emotions do, but none of those descriptions really do anything to tell us what emotions are.

The new science of interpersonal neurobiology (the study of how relationships affect the mind and brain) has proposed an interesting answer to the question, “What is an emotion” that cuts across all the different professional distinctions and gives the average person a simple but useful way of thinking about emotions so that they can get better control of them.

What is an emotion?

Emotions represent shifts in the degree of integration between or within the body, mind, and relationships.

Let me explain.

Warning…Warning…Disturbance on Level Three!

Think of your emotions as the security office in one of those caper movies, you know, like, say, Oceans 11.   In a sense, your emotions are like that room filled with cameras, indicator lights and buzzers that let you see how well (or not) everything is working–and working together (or not)–from moment to moment.   Only, instead of a bank vault, elevator shaft, and the boss’ office,  the security system represented by your emotions is the system that monitors how well your body, mind and relationships are working both on their own and with each other.   In other words, they “represent shifts in the degree of integration between or within the body, mind, and relationship.   Let me give a few examples…

Let’s say you feel “emotionally close” to someone.  What does that mean?   It means their thoughts and feelings are meshing well with your thoughts and feelings.  In other words, you are experiencing a high degree of integration between you and the other person and, as a result, you experience emotions that correspond with that integration, like happiness, affection, even love.

On the other hand, if you have a serious disagreement with that other person about something, your thoughts and feelings aren’t meshing well.   As a result of this lesser degree of integration between you, you might experience anger that they don’t see things the way you do or you might fear that the relationship is in jeopardy.

In both of the above instances,  your emotions are monitoring the degree of integration or disintegration you are feeling in your relationship with someone from moment to moment.

Let’s take another example.   What does it mean to be “emotionally healthy?”  Your degree of emotional health has to do with the degree of integration you experience between (and within) your body, mind and relationships.   It represents how much your mind consistently desires and motivates you to do things that are good for your body and your relationships.

For instance, if your mind produces strong urges to do things that would endanger your sense of bodily integrity (for example; drink too much or take drugs that impair your functioning or risks that endanger your well-being) you have poor integration between your mind and body.  As a result, the “security officer” played by your emotions may send out a warning sign in the form of sadness, desperation, or emptiness.

Similarly, if your mind produces a strong urge to lash out at others, there may be a poor degree of integration between what your mind wants and what your relationships need in order to function well.  As a result, your emotional security officer will send out warning sign in the form of feelings of estrangement, loneliness, or isolation.

As you can see, “emotional health” or “emotional illness” reflects the degree  of integration or disintegration, respectively,  that you are feeling between your mind, body, and relationships, from moment to moment.

The above represent examples of disintegration between your mind, body, and relationships.  But the Emotional Security Office also monitors how each of these systems are working on their own.

For instance, if you are rested, your body, itself, is more likely to feel a greater degree of integration than if you slept poorly.  Your emotions will probably reflect that degree of integration by making you feel content and peaceful.  But if you slept poorly, your emotions reflect that poor degree of bodily integration by making you grumpy and irritable.  In this case your emotions represent the degree of integration you are experiencing within your body from moment to moment.

In short, emotions are the vast monitoring network God gave you enabling you to oversee, at a glance, how much unity (integration) and well-being you are encountering between and within your mind, body and relationships from moment to moment.

So What?

Too often, especially when we feel negative emotions,  we think of the feeling as the problem.  “I wish I could just stop feeling so anxious/depressed/overwhelmed.    The feeling isn’t the problem.  The feeling is the warning light telling you to look for the problem–i.e., the disintegration that is causing the emotional alarm bells to ring.  Imagine if the Head of Security in our caper movie heard all the lights and buzzers going off that indicated a robbery in progress and instead of dispatching guards to the scene just said, “Ugh!   I’m so sick of listening to all these buzzers and seeing these flashing red lights!   Shut it all down!  I just need a nap!”  Or, alternatively, what if the same Head of Security said, “These lights and buzzers are freaking me out!  Let’s just torch the whole room.  You heard me!  Burn the place down!”

Obviously, those would be foolish choices.  But we try to do the same things with our emotions!  Because we tend to think of our feelings as the problems themselves, we try to ignore them or shut them down with rash decisions intended to make all the buzzing stop.  We often forget to listen to our emotions and, metaphorically speaking, send a guard to check out what’s going on at the vault, or on level four, or to the elevator (our mind, brain, or relationships) so that we can correct the problem.  We forget that the buzzing will stop when the problem is solved.

Just like the warning indicator doesn’t stop buzzing until the problem is resolved, your feelings won’t change until the disintegration they are pointing to is adequately addressed.


Emotions and the Quest for Original Unity

The Theology of the Body tells us that, before the Fall, man, woman, and God existed in a state of  Original Unity.  Presumably this unity didn’t just exist between them, but within them as well.  After all, you can’t be at peace with others if you are at war with yourself.  Before the Fall,   man and woman felt right (i.e., experienced a high degree of integration) within themselves, as well as between each other and God.  That “Original Unity” is what our emotions are pointing to; what they want us to get back to.  The thief has entered the building, and the alarms will not cease until we have expelled him from the premises (Matt 24:43).

Our emotions remind us of the need to strive for the Original Unity in which we were created to live.  Emotions are not the enemy.  In fact, they can serve us well as long as we don’t try to shut them down by rashly cutting people out of our lives, or by drinking, drugging, indulging our passions, or taking foolish risks in a desperate, reactionary attempt to plug our ears to the warning bells and blindfold ourselves so we can’t see the flashing red lights.

What Can I DO?

So the next time your emotions get the better of you, don’t beat yourself up for being weak.  Thank God that your emotions are doing exactly what he created them to do.  And instead of asking, “Why do I feel this way?”    Ask, “Where is the most acute imbalance in or between my body, mind or relationships right now and what can I do to begin addressing it?”

Correct the disintegration in or between your body, mind, and relationships and your feelings will follow suit.

If you would like additional help in achieving emotional health, contact me, Dr. Greg Popcak,  to learn more about the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Catholic Tele-Counseling Services.  You can visit us online or call 740-266-6461 to make an appointment today.


Why Doesn’t the Catholic Church Just Get with the Times?

Contraception, abortion, women’s ordination, gay marriage.  These represent just a few of the issues the Church is regularly criticized for being on the “wrong side” of.

So, why can’t the Church change?

Today’s episode of More2Life Radio was titled, “Stand Your Ground.”  We looked at the challenge of knowing when we need to draw a line in the sand and when we need to be more flexible.  Part of that discussion involved an interview with Bishop Jeffrey Montforton of Steubenville (former rector of Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary) about why the Church can’t just modernize.

The answer to both questions (when do we change and when can the Church change) is really the same.    It all comes down to knowing who you are.  As a Church or as individuals, you can change the things that don’t jeopardize the core of your mission–the heart of your identity–but you can’t change the things that do or you cease to exist in any meaningful way.

Catholics have been given a special gift.  God has shared with us, directly, his truth, his vision of what the world was intended to be and is destined to become again.  He has communicated to us what he intended the world to look like from the beginning of time and he has tasked us with the mission of doing whatever we can to make the world fall more in line with that vision.  In other words, it is not the Catholic Church’s mission to look more like the world.  It is the Catholic Church’s job to make the world look more like the Catholic Church–a community of love dedicated to using our time, treasure, talent and selves to work for the good of others and, in the process, become the best version of ourselves.

We can’t fulfill that mission if we accommodate to the culture.   True, we can change things that aren’t at the center of that blueprint for building the Kingdom that God has given us.  We can move some furniture around.  We can change some words here and there as long as we don’t tamper with the meaning behind those words.  But we can’t be a prophetic sign of what the world is supposed to be by allowing ourselves to become what the world already is!

But, of course, there are objections to this.  I can think of two huge ones off-hand.

1.  Oh, Sure!  The world should look just like the Church!?!  You mean we should all be pedophiles?

Answer:  I’m glad you brought that up.  This is a perfect example of how the Church accommodated to the world.  Seriously, what’s more worldly than committing sexual sin and covering it up?  In fact, the reason the world is so angry at the Church for the scandal is because it didn’t behave like Church.  The world WANTS there to be a sign of goodness in the world (the world hates it, but wants it all the same–like kids and rules).  The world NEEDS a sign of grace in the world and for the world to think that the Church isn’t a sign of grace is infuriating to the world.  The relationship between the world and the Church is like the relationship between an abusive husband and his wife; the more the wife tries to accommodate to her abusive husbands expectations, the more the abusive husband comes to hate the woman.  Only when she stands up to his abuse is there any hope.

2.  But Catholicism is just one brand of Christianity.  Lots of other Christians have modernized their teaching.

Answer:  Yes, well, that’s what happens to the branches that fall off the tree.  Jesus Christ created a Church (Matt 16:18) and entrusted to that Church the vision of what the world should look like.  It is the Church’s job to pass that vision–that Tradition (capital T)– from one generation to the next.  Apostolic succession is the means of transmitting that vision.  Those Churches that preserve Apostolic Succession maintain the Tradition, the vision of what the world must become.  Those Christian and Christian-flavored sects that cut themselves off of the apostolic vine lose the Tradition and end up taking their cues more from the world than from Christ’s original vision.  At best, the messages of these various latter-day Christian sects represent  the seeds sown on rocky soil.  Their work sprouts buds that quickly die if they are not transplanted into more fertile soil (Matt 13).  In fact, we see exactly this.  Sociologists of religion show that there is immense turnover in Evangelical mega-churches.  Their gospel-lite message attracts new seekers but their disconnection from the vine causes the new shoots to starve and die.    And that’s the best case scenario.   At worst, these sects sow weeds that threaten to choke out the vision, weeds that will be gathered up with the wheat but then burned on the last day (Matt 13:24-30).

Belief in the Sun-god.

In his encyclical, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis quotes St. Justin Martyr as saying that “no one ever gave his life because of his belief in the Sun.”   That’s because worship of the sun-god was a secular religion.  It didn’t exist to challenge the culture.  It existed to give people a safe way to vent their spiritual feelings. That vision of church is what most people imagine church to be even today.    That has never been the mission of the Catholic Church. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if that’s all church is then to hell with it.   We exist to hold up the truth.  To be a sign for the Truth and, if necessary, to be willing to die to defend that Truth.

The Church cannot change because if it changes it ceases to be Church and becomes an exercise in what Cardinal Ratzinger once referred to as “spiritual auto-eroticism.” God know, no one needs more of that.

The Right Question

When we encounter some teaching that offends us, annoys us, irritates us; some teaching that the Church stubbornly insists it can’t change and makes us say, “Why doesn’t the Church change that already?”  it is best to recognize that the better question is, “Why is this teaching so central to God’s vision of what the world must become and, having discovered that, how can I get on board and do my part in promoting that vision?”

We do not ask how we can change the Church.  We ask how the Church can change us.