The shrink and the spiritual director: Freud and the Jesuits

Members of the Society of Jesus have been among the relatively few Catholic Christians with a discerning appreciation for Freud and his revolutionary psychoanalytic methods. (Max Halberstadt/Public domain)

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the death of our father among the saints of psychology, Sigmund of Vienna. That, of course, is a title Sigmund Freud would not accept, nor would Christians bestow it upon him, a man who described himself as a “godless Jew.” Freud’s atheism and his controversial views on sex too often gave many believers license to dismiss his far-reaching influence. As W. H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” put it: “if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,/ to us he is no more a person/ now but a whole climate of opinion/ under whom we conduct our different lives.”

Members of the Society of Jesus have been among the relatively few Catholic Christians with a discerning appreciation for Freud and his revolutionary psychoanalytic methods. Even while Freud was still alive, his ideas were being discussed in articles in America in the 1920s. After Freud’s death in London in September 1939, and down to our present day, a number of Jesuits have undergone psychoanalytic training.

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Jesuits have also availed themselves of such therapeutic services, including the most prominent Jesuit alive today, the current bishop of Rome who, in 2017 revealed in an interview that as a priest he had seen a Jewish psychoanalyst in Argentina for six months—the first pope ever to admit to any kind of clinical consultation and therapeutic relationship. That Pope Francis could make such an appreciative admission reflects the latest phase in a winding journey among Jesuits, now dating back a century.

Jesuits have also availed themselves of such therapeutic services, including the most prominent Jesuit alive today, the current bishop of Rome.

During this period there have been, to be sure, other orders within the church that engaged Freud and other Catholics who were involved in non-Freudian forms of modern psychology. The English Dominican Victor White, for example, wrote several books on Carl Jung and had a 15-year-long epistolary dialogue with him about his theories and beliefs. In 1956, the Irish Capuchin priest Peter J. R. Dempsey wrote a still-useful book, Freud, Psychoanalysis, Catholicism. Thomas Verner Moore (d. 1967), a priest who had lived as a member of the Paulist, Benedictine and Carthusian religious communities, was the first to suggest some psychological screening of candidates for the priesthood.

But among the Jesuits, psychoanalysis took root with sophistication and staying power. Four Jesuit psychoanalysts stand out. Two of them lived and worked in Europe; two practiced in the United States. Three of the four are now dead. All of them have left an impressive body of hundreds of publications in several languages, and their insights still deserve our attention.

André Godin, S.J.

In Europe, the Belgian André Godin, S.J., who was born in 1915, entered the Society in 1933 and died in 1997. He did the usual philosophical and theological studies in Europe, and then received graduate training in psychology at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y., in the early 1950s. After this, he moved somewhat away from Freud and into the mainstream of the modern psychology of religion. Notable publications include the five volumes of Cahiers de Psychologie Religieuse, his 1985 book The Psychological Dynamics of Religious Experience and many other writings still found in bibliographies of pastoral psychology. Father Godin also established the prestigious International Prize in the Scientific Psychology of Religion.

Emblematic of Father Godin’s approach is an essay in the journal Continuum in 1965, “Revelation and Psychotherapy,” in which he writes, “I should therefore agree to seeing in the action of the therapist a sign of God.” Unlike other analysts who have been too timid to discuss faith (his contemporary Nina Coltart in England, who died the same year as Father Godin, was a very notable exception in her thoroughly delightful book Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1992), Godin unashamedly discussed faith and God. In assessing Freud’s 1927 book Future of an Illusion, Godin recognized (as Paul Ricoeur did in his landmark book Freud and Philosophy) how much Freud sought the destruction of idolatry and in so doing “situated the religious question in its proper place: on the side of reality, not as the fulfillment of compensatory desires; on the side of stimulation to reach maturity in opening out to the Other.”

Edward Boyd Barrett

Stateside, there were two especially noteworthy and prolific Jesuits. The first of these was the onetime Jesuit Edward Boyd Barrett, whose life has been recently studied in both Robert Kugelmann’s Psychology and Catholicism: Contested Boundaries and in Paula Kane’s chapter in Crossings and Dwellings: Restored Jesuits, Women Religious, American Experience, 1814-2014. (The details in the next two paragraphs are largely indebted to Ms. Kane, who kindly sent me a copy of her text.)

Barret was born in 1883 in Ireland, where he joined the Society in 1904. He later studied psychology and psychoanalysis, first in Belgium and then England, before returning to Ireland and publishing scholarly books and articles, including eight articles on psychological topics in America in 1923, which also accepted a further six articles from him in 1924 and 1925.

In October 1924, Barrett arrived in the United States after the Maryland-New York Province of the Jesuits agreed to take him on. America solicited a further three articles, but they were censored by Jesuit superiors in New York. Such censorship happened regularly to Barrett and other clergy writers in an era when the taint of Modernism still attached to psychoanalysis and similar disciplines. Jesuit reviewers, as Mr. Kugelmann has shown, were far from being of one mind that Barrett’s views were heterodox: some in England were willing to publish what those in Ireland or America were not, and vice versa. We also cannot discount the possibility that some of Barrett’s critics were unconsciously upset by his views on the War of Independence (1919-21) and the Civil War (1922-23) in Ireland.

Barrett’s therapeutic method was a hybrid of Catholic and Freudian notions designed, it seems, to placate Jesuit and Thomist critics.

After Fordham University invited Father Barrett to speak in 1925, the superior of the Maryland-New York Province censored his lecture. Barrett’s Jesuit home province in Ireland recalled him, but he refused to go. By September he was no longer a member of the Society of Jesus. Whether he left or was dismissed is not clear, according to Ms. Kane and Mr. Kugelmann, who says that “the available evidence supports both positions.”

In any event, Barrett set up what he regarded as a psychoanalytic practice in Greenwich Village in New York City, though without the new professional credentials required in the United States. In 1926, in response to an international conflict over emerging U.S. regulations restricting analysis to physicians, Freud (whose only visit to this country in 1909 led him to exclaim afterwards to his authorized biographer Ernest Jones, “Yes, America is gigantic. A gigantic mistake!”) published his waspish essay “The Question of Lay Analysis,” in which he told both priests and physicians to keep their hands off analysis. Instead, he coined a striking phrase to describe the ideal psychoanalyst as a “secular pastoral worker,” which, as it turns out, was an apt phrase for Barrett in his post-Jesuit period (during which he married, was widowed and finally became reconciled enough to the Society to die in the Jesuit infirmary in Santa Clara, Calif., in 1966.)

Barrett’s therapeutic method was a hybrid of Catholic and Freudian notions designed, it seems, to placate Jesuit and Thomist critics. He insisted on explicit efforts to retrain the patient’s will, though such practices were in clear violation of Freud’s rule that the analyst practice “abstinence” when it came to offering any sort of advice or, worse, moral exhortation. As Barrett asked, “How can analysts face the reconstructive part of their work?...The weak will of the moral degenerate has to be built up!... It is a moral and religious problem.” This attempted synthesis, which predictably displeased hardcore Catholics and clinicians alike, allowed Barrett (and others, like Karl Stern) to clear enough room in the church to make it possible for psychoanalysis (as a therapy, not a metapsychology) to be approved by Pope Pius XII in the 1950s.

Barrett succeeded in part by arguing that Freud was neither very revolutionary nor very original. He regarded certain psychoanalytic practices as originating in ancient Christian ascetical methods. This is a view of considerable merit. When teaching courses on Evagrius of Pontus, I am often struck by his methods as psychoanalytic avant la lettre. As the eminent historian Peter Brown would put it in a 1971 article on holy men of late antiquity, the monastic cells of upper Egypt had rather nicely furnished and frequently used consulting rooms.

William W. Meissner, S.J.

If some of Barrett’s confreres faulted him for blurring the boundaries between psychoanalysis and theology, the next Jesuit analyst of note took pains to be as conventional, if not conservative, as possible. If some of Barrett’s writings fulgurated polemically, then this second American Jesuit analyst was determined, it seems, to be as prolix and plodding as possible, policing the boundaries between Freud and God rather strictly. This was William W. Meissner, S.J., who was born in the United States in 1931, entered the New York Province of the Jesuits in 1951 and died in 2010. He trained at Harvard University in psychiatry and then pursued analytic training. While practicing both of these disciplines, he also taught at Boston College and wrote more than 200 articles and over 20 books.

Early books (for example, Group Dynamics in the Religious Life, from 1965, when Meissner was still training at Harvard; and The Assault on Authority: Dialogue or Dilemma? from 1971) have not aged well, being very narrowly aimed at a particular social context in the church now vanished. Some of the books from his middle period in the 1980s and 1990s were commendably cautious attempts to shed light on the psychodynamics of Ignatian spirituality. Thus, a book like Ignatius of Loyola: the Psychology of a Saint, published in 1992 by Yale, emerged from the relatively young and frequently controversial field of psychobiography. Meissner, I think, very painstakingly laid out the benefits and risks of such an approach, but some reviews, predictably, sniped at him anyway for daring to apply Freudian categories to Ignatius at all.

Father Meissner wrote two other noteworthy books. Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience (1984) has been called by Ana-Maria Rizzuto (a fellow Boston psychiatrist and analyst, still living) a classic in the field, but I think that too much. It is, like all Meissner’s books, very workmanlike and certainly a good place to start for those without any background in the field; but it contains few startling or creative insights not on offer elsewhere, including Ms. Rizzuto’s own truly groundbreaking book The Birth of the Living God (which Meissner reviewed in Theological Studies as a “truly seminal work”).

In his 2000 book Freud and Psychoanalysis, Meissner again offers a solid but limited historical introduction to Freud. But the hugely influential object-relations school in England under Melanie Klein, D. W. Winnicott, R. D. Fairbairn and Harry Guntrip—and more recently the important contemporary Anglo-American analyst Christopher Bollas—is severely downplayed while other significant figures (like Heinz Kohut) are totally ignored. For all that, however, I found the book’s last chapter both insightful and moving in shedding light on my own experience as an analysand.

In three articles rapidly published in his last two years, Meissner talked more explicitly about God, albeit more in clinical than narrowly theological terms, arguing to the end that blurring those boundaries never serves patients well. As Ms. Rizzuto would say in her memorial tribute to Meissner published in 2010, “He was first and foremost a psychoanalytic theoretician and clinician.” But for a fuller appreciation of the man, this view should be set alongside the Chicago analyst Robert Galatzer-Levy’s moving tribute to Meissner in The Therapist in Mourning: From the Faraway Nearby, published in 2013.

Carlos Domínguez-Morano, S.J.

God is front and center in our last Jesuit analyst of note. Here we return again to Europe. Unlike the other three just discussed, Carlos Dominguez-Morano, S.J., is still living and active. Born in Huelva, Spain, in 1946, he joined the Jesuits and studied philosophy and theology before going to Paris and Madrid for psychoanalytic training. Currently teaching the psychology of religion at the University of Granada, Spain, he is the author of numerous books.

"Father, teacher, or director are not Christian words insofar as they are used to describe a type of interpersonal relationship inside the community. Only God can take that place.”   

Strikingly, several of his books have run through numerous editions in Spanish, a welcome reminder that while the fortunes of psychoanalysis have collapsed in the United States (as several analysts grimly confirmed to me last year when I was on a fellowship at the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute), in much of Latin America as well as parts of both Asia and my native Canada, analysis remains a real option for people in need of deeper structural alterations in the mind beyond what is available through psychotropics or short-term counselling dictated by insurance companies. (My seven-year analysis in Canada, four times a week, was covered by the universal health care system.)

Father Morano only really entered the anglophone world last year, having previously penned such works as Psicodinámica de los Ejercicios Ignacianos (which draws on Meissner’s work), Experiencia Mística y Psicoanálisis (similar in some ways to the Jewish American analyst Michael Eigen’s book The Psychoanalytic Mystic), and Psicoanálisis y Religión: Dialogo Interminable. Sigmund Freud y Oskar Pfister (which treats the very rich 30-year correspondence and treasured friendship between Freud and the Swiss Reformed pastor Oskar Pfister, the first Christian cleric to train as an analyst). In 2018 Routledge published a translation of what is the most important and profound engagement of Freud by any Christian thinker in over half a century: Father Morano’s Belief After Freud: Religious Faith Through the Crucible of Psychoanalysis, already in its fifth edition in Spain (where it was published in 1998 as Creer Después de Freud). The book is a tour de force and deserves a wide audience among Catholics, especially those whose faith has been shaken by the on-going sexual abuse crisis.

Father Morano’s book may appear to some as a sort of manual of dubious ideas. Each of Father Morano’s many discussions—on prayer and idolatry, capitalism and money, sex and the body, and Jesus and his Father as the one relationship free from all neurotic projections and masochistic temptations—may challenge smug suburban piety. I had just started my sabbatical last year when Father Morano’s monograph landed in my lap. It totally upended my plan for a book on theology and Freud that in some ways I have been writing in my head intermittently for 20 years since undergoing a classical psychoanalysis while studying theology and thereafter regularly drawing on psychoanalytic insights in my work in ecclesiology and historiography. But I quickly came to thank God that Father Morano wrote Belief After Freud, for it is far braver than anything I would have attempted.

Father Morano did, in fact, become a major interlocutor in the book I ended up writing and publishing this year, Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power. I draw on several of Father Morano’s refreshingly blunt and unsparing arguments, including his excoriation of members of the hierarchy whose only response to any crisis is to exhort others to pray and fast more, a deflective move masking a sinister agenda: “Religious power structures have never been indifferent to prayer and have so frequently manipulated it to their advantage…. Prayer finds in power a perfect ally and associate to help pursue certain goals.”

Perhaps the most powerful challenge in the book comes from Father Morano’s dethroning of any and all father-figures with far greater theological sophistication than anything attempted by Future of an Illusion (a jejune work Freud himself repeatedly told his friends was his “worst book—the book of an old man!”). Drawing on Lk 2:42 ff, Father Morano finds in Jesus’ relationship with Mary and Joseph the lesson that “nobody on earth can claim paternal authority.” From this story Father Morano concludes that in...

Christian community, it has to be stated... the place of the father should remain empty. Father, teacher, or director are not Christian words insofar as they are used to describe a type of interpersonal relationship inside the community. Only God can take that place.

What does such a radical counsel do to so many of our relationships in the church? How ought seminarians to regard their rector, or priests their bishop? How could a Jesuit—famously vowed to special obedience directly to the “Holy Father” of Rome—recommend such a radical reordering of terminology and relationships within the church? How would the Society and church at large operate if any of this were put into practice?

Father Morano does not answer those questions directly or concretely. Indeed, as he says in the epilogue of his book, an encounter with Freud should forever disabuse one of the “haughty pretension of having reached ‘the answer.’ Many taxing questions will remain open forever. We are, thus, invited to the healthy asceticism of renouncing total synthesis. The faith that confronts psychoanalysis learns to live and remain in the modesty of tentative formulations.”

Tentative formulations are, of course, what good analysts proffer all the time. And, strikingly, they seem to be more frequently offered during the pontificate of a man who was formed both by the Jesuits and also by his own psychoanalytic experience. As Stephen Toulmin and Albert Jonsen noted almost 30 years ago in The Abuse of Casuistry, tentative formulations are the fruits of a process going back to the Society’s first generation: early Jesuit leaders “prepared their charges to meet problems of conscience with ‘discernment’—a favourite Jesuit word.”

Some 400 years later, Edward Boyd Barrett, André Godin, William Meissner and Carlos Domínguez-Morano rightly discerned in psychoanalysis ideas and methods to help people, including the current pope, heal from not just personal trauma or pathology but also from that universal disease of idolatry which, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “remains a constant temptation to faith” (No. 2113). Eighty years after Freud’s death, we can marvel, as he surely would, that it fell to four Jesuit priests to advance the atheistic Jewish analyst’s iconoclastic project of challenging all of us to move (in Newman’s felicitous phrase) ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (“out of shadows and imaginings into the truth”).

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