A Polish study published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality found evidence that clergymen and nuns from the Roman Catholic Church enjoy better mental health than the general population. The findings further suggested that spiritual openness may be one pathway toward better mental health among highly religious people.
Catholicism is the predominant religion in Poland, and the Catholic Church is strongly rooted in the country’s history. There are over 10,000 Roman Catholic parishes in Poland and an extensive population of clergy and nuns. Researchers Aleksandra M. Rogowska and Danuta Dolega point out that despite their central role in Polish society, these church leaders’ mental health remains largely unexplored.
Notably, there is some evidence to suggest that the Roman Catholic clergy experience depression at higher rates than the general population. In particular, Catholic priests may be vulnerable to burnout due to the physically and mentally demanding nature of their work, and aspects of their vocation like loneliness, celibacy, and isolation.
“Poland is mainly a Roman Catholic country. When I was young, I was a religious person, spending much time in the church and various activities in Catholic societies,” explained Rogowska, an associate professor at the Institute of Psychology. “My aunt was a religious Sister Of the Resurrection, and I saw how hard she and the other sisters work, with high engagement, serving older and disabled people, and priests as maids. I wondered whether the differences in spirituality and mental health would be shown between Roman Catholic priests and nuns in my study by using standardized questionnaires.”
“The community of clergy and nuns is usually closed to external influence and reluctant to provide information about daily work or what their problems look like. I was lucky because my M.A. student was closely related to the religious movement. During her pilgrimage to Częstochowa (in Poland), she decided to gather information from clergymen and nuns, as well as from their friends in convents and churches.”
The study authors recruited a sample of 70 Roman Catholic priests and 70 Roman Catholic nuns from Poland. The participants were between the ages of 21 and 70 with an average age of 44. The priests and nuns completed questionnaires that measured their personal relationship with religion, with items addressing their faith, morality, religious practices, and religious self. The participants also completed a measure of spiritual transcendence — the ability to step outside one’s personal boundaries and view the world from a greater perspective. Finally, they completed a general health questionnaire that assessed four aspects of psychological distress — somatic symptoms, anxiety and insomnia, social dysfunction, and severe depression.
The results of the general health questionnaire suggested that 26% of the participants were at risk of developing a mental health disorder, 31% showed somatic symptoms, 27% showed symptoms of anxiety and insomnia, 19% showed symptoms of social dysfunction, and 10% showed symptoms of severe depression. Interestingly, the authors note that these scores were generally below average when compared to the wider population of Polish people, suggesting that the priests and nuns had a lower risk of mental health issues.
“To my surprise, clergy and nuns do not differ significantly in mental health and spirituality,” Rogowska told PsyPost.
Although this finding runs contrary to past evidence that Catholic priests have higher rates of mental health disorders, the researchers say the context of the study might offer an explanation. Since Catholics make up the majority of the population in Poland, issues like isolation and lack of support may be less common among Polish priests compared to Catholic priests from other countries. Polish priests and nuns may also garner more admiration and respect from the community than priests in other parts of the world.
Further analysis revealed that personal religiosity and spiritual transcendence were related to better mental health. “Overall, high spirituality and religiosity can improve mental health, so prayers and developing transcendency can be seen as a way of self-actualization, and coping strategies in stressful situations (like currently the COVID-19 pandemic), maintaining well-being,” Rogowska said.
The researchers then used multiple regression analyses to examine potential mediation models.
One model revealed that personal religiosity mediated the relationship between spiritual transcendence and mental health. An alternative model revealed that spiritual openness mediated the link between personal religiousness and mental health. Lastly, in a mediation model that included both aspects of self-transcendence — transcendence proper and spiritual openness — a significant mediation effect emerged. This model accounted for the highest amount of variance and suggests that religiosity can encourage better mental health through spiritual openness and transcendence proper.
Rogowska and Dolega discussed the potential implications of these results in their article. “Highly spiritual people may increase their mental health through religious activity, such as participation in church practices, celebrating important events in Christian life, prayer, and meditation. Various forms of religious behavior may be protective factors for mental health disorders,” the study authors wrote. “On the contrary, engaging in spiritual practices, especially exercising spiritual openness, may also facilitate better health.”
“Our study showed that spirituality plays a mediating role between religiousness and mental health,” Rogowska added. “Danger can arise in people who do not develop spiritual openness and transcendence despite being religious. In such a case, religiosity can be a limitation and even a threat to mental health and well-being.”
The researchers noted that their sample was limited to Roman Catholic clergy and nuns from Poland, and the findings may not generalize to other religious populations. Future studies should explore whether similar findings are found among other religious groups such as Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim populations.
“The COVID-19 pandemic with its periodical isolation may contribute to the development of spirituality, transcendence, and religious practice in the home (e.g. more time spent in prayer, reading the Bible, etc.),” Rogowska said. “I recommend this practice for religious people. Numerous studies have shown that in difficult times of crisis (as in cancer patients), these practices can help us understand and familiarize ourselves with physical and mental health problems, pain, and the death of our loved ones. Therefore, I recommend this form of spending time in isolation, of course, to those who feel the need to do so.”
The study, “Investigating the Relationship Between Spiritual Transcendence, Personal Religiosity, and Mental Health in Roman Catholic Clergy and Nuns”, was authored by Aleksandra M. Rogowska and Danuta Dolega.