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The Repeating Sacraments from the perspective of the Psychology of Learning April 23, 2005

Posted by Administrator in Catholicism, Education.

In teaching religion to high schoolers, I often get the questions put to me in some form or other: "Why does one need to go to Confession? Why go receive the Eucharist as often as possible?"

In responding to the last one first, there is a personal anecdote that I might share.

My brother and I were raised by a nominally Catholic woman and functionally atheist man. Mom made sure that we at least started in Catholic school. I entered during that period shortly after Vatican II where the Latin Mass had been disposed of and much of catechesis was grossly watered down, but daily Mass participation was strongly encouraged. Partially due to the daycare advantages that were provided, I was dropped off at church at 7:45 each day for an 8 AM Mass, with school starting at 8:30. Five days a week.

Most weekends I would pester my mother: "Mom, I've had two and a half hours of Mass already. Do I have to go for another hour this weekend?" Mom was adamant, and away I would go to Saturday evening Mass as well. Mass six days a week during the school year. For seven years.

My younger brother, who was possessed of a precocity that drove the nuns to distraction, was removed from Catholic school after first grade and placed in a public school alternative program for gifted kids. He went to Mass once a week.

It is possibly coincidence, but both of us retreated from the Church in our late teens, while I returned in my mid-twenties, and my younger brother is still away from the Church. My suspicion has often been that it was the repeated exposure to the Eucharist that has eased my road back to the Church. I was simply exposed to more grace than my brother.

But let's look further at these Sacraments from a behavioral perspective. Behavioral psychology (among other things) teaches that individuals will pick up a habit after 21 repetitions of the behavior in question. Various reinforcers (generally speaking, rewards) and aversive conditioners (generally speaking, punishments) can strengthen or weaken the target behavior one wishes to integrate into his life. Let's say that we have an adult who is in poor physical shape. He sees a behavioral dietician to assist him in getting in shape. The dietician arranges for the adult to work with him once a week; he will report to the psych how many times he has worked out over the course of the week and his diet. If the number of workouts falls below a certain number, the adult will be compelled to give up his nightly news fix (called a negative punishment) in exchange for another workout each night, so as to encourage the adult to workout. Also, if the adult reports that he has pigged on cheesecake, the dietician might assign additional workouts (called a positive punishment; though in some ways could be a positive reinforcer), along with an admonishment to avoid the cheesecake in the future. So is the good habit of eating well and regular exercise maintained and modified, with the reinforcer in this case being the improved health, energy and subsequent weight loss on the part of the participating adult.

Speaking as a psychologist, I believe that one of the primary reasons the Holy Spirit (though the Church) instituted these Sacraments is to build good habits. Reception of the Eucharist exposes the communicant to grace (positive reinforcement). But to be open to that grace, the communicant must be free of mortal sin. Freedom from mortal sin is obtained through Confession. If the state of mortal sin is present, the communicant is forbidden from Communion (in an academic sense: In most cases, the communicant will not receive Communion only if he chooses to hold himself out. Only in the case of obvious public scandal will the priest actually withhold the Host on his own hook). Refusal of access to Communion would in this case be a negative punishment.

(NOTE: "positive" and "negative" in the sense of psychology of learning has NOTHING to do with positive or negative "perceptions". They instead refer to either adding an element to the learning environment [positive reinforcer or punisher] or subtracting an element from the learning environment [negative])

Now, the Church goes to (or it used to) great lengths to educate the faithful on sin, and in this education it attempted to attach an aversive event (removal of access to the Eucharist) to undesirable (and in many instances, dangerous) behavior. But it went a step further. It allowed for consideration of and forgiveness of the dangerous behavior. Simple learning theory by itself does not allow for this. It simply rewards positive behavior and punishes the negative. The Church takes the opportunity to use the negative behavior both as a teaching moment and as a means of providing grace -forgiveness (positive reinforcer for seeking forgiveness)- as well as a simple behavior modification tool.

Enough meaningful exposures to the aversive event (possibility of no Eucharist), (21 exposures if the behavioral psychologists have done their sums correctly) leading to Confession and a true effort to reform his llife, and the penitent/communicant no longer engages in the negative behavior. Proper participation in the Sacraments (this means taking yourself away from Communion if you are in a state of mortal sin) improves your behavior for the better.

Now, the MRTs may be asking, if this is all supposed to be voluntary, why does the Church outright deny it from some, and speak in such condemning terms? The same reason a parent enforces principles of learning upon their children; left to their own devices, they will rationalize and outright lie their way out of responsibility. So too the Church instills in Catholics a (correct) fear and loathing of sin, so that they might at some point come to voluntarily seek to push it from their lives, just as the couch potato will (hopefully) get his lazy ass off the couch and take better care of his body, to his later gratification.

Remember too, the Church teaches this as discipline. Which was initially meant (and is still the #1 and #2 definitions on dictionary.com) the following:

  1. Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement.
  2. Controlled behavior resulting from disciplinary training; self-control.

Discipline is not punishment. Discipline is self-control.

And when used as the Church teaches, the repeating Sacraments are fundamental tools -as explained in learning psychology- in instilling the discipline to lead those virtuous lives.



1. Michael - May 27, 2008

This is a very interesting article. Though it treats the Eucharist from the psychological perspective, it is reach in deep theological reflection. Could I call it a theological psychology of the Eucharist or a psychological theology of the Eucharist?

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