Minding the Faith

Psychology and American Catholicismby By C. Kevin Gillespie S.J.Crossroad. 240p $24.95

You Americans, I was once reprimanded in Paris, have little spirituality todayyou have only psychology. Americans should not dismiss this scolding too quickly. Kevin Gillespie’s informal history of American Catholics and their embrace of psychology helps to put this issue in some perspective.

On March 9, 1947, Fulton Sheen attacked psychoanalysis from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. In the controversy that followed, a prominent Catholic psychiatrist resigned his position at St. Vincent’s Hospital, and multiple letters appeared in The New York Times. In Rome, then-Msgr. Pericle Felici condemned psychotherapy as a mortal sin. In response, Leo Bartemeier, M.D., organized an international conference in Rome on pathologies of the nervous system. Pius XII granted the conference an audience at which he offered cautions about forms of psychotherapy that seek to unleash the sexual instinct for allegedly therapeutic purposes. The pope, however, also praised psychology as a modern means to gain knowledge of the soul. C. Kevin Gillespie, an assistant professor of pastoral counseling at Loyola College in Maryland, recounts this incident as a way of introducing the struggle by American Catholic specialists in mental health to respond both to the deep suspicions of their church and the undeniable influence of psychology in their society.


The Catholic University of America, before the Americanist controversy and for a remarkably long time after, was a center for the critical appropriation of psychology by American Catholicism. Through the efforts of Edward Pace and Thomas Verner Moore, it served as an arena for an engagement between the rationalist psychology of the established neo-Thomism and the experimental psychology of Wilhelm Wundt and William James. Pace and Moore both studied with Wundt in Europe and were influenced by Desiré Mercier’s work on experimental psychology and by Thomism at the University of Louvain. Pace was one of the founders of the American Psychology Association. The Americanist controversy would have a chilling effect on their efforts, but the psychology department at The Catholic University was psychoanalytically oriented up to the Second Vatican Council.

At mid-century, John Tracy Ellis published his memorable criticism of American Catholic intellectual life. Ellis underscored not only anti-Catholicism, but Catholic otherworldliness and a pervading spirit of separatism as aspects of the problem. In the area of psychology, resistance to this separatism can be seen in the work of Leo Bartemeier, mentioned above in his role in the controversy begun by Fulton Sheen, and Gregory Zilboorg, a secular Jew who converted to Roman Catholicism without renouncing his commitment to psychoanalysis. Zilboorg was a friend of Jesuits like Gustave Weigel and John Courtney Murray and taught periodically at Woodstock College in Maryland. Gillespie also recounts Zilboorg’s stormy relationship and lengthy correspondence with Thomas Merton. In 1953, St. John’s College in Collegeville, Minn., began a summer institute that was remarkable not only for training pastoral counselors in the latest developments in psychology, but also for its ecumenical outreach.

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, psychology proved to be an important aspect of the American church’s dialogue with the modern world. The moral theology of Joseph Fuchs and Bernard Häring, with their attention to the psychological development and health of the moral agent, had a particular attraction for Catholics in a country like the United States where psychology was so securely established. After the council, American canonists tangled with Rome in regard to the role of psychology in annulment cases. Adrian van Kaam and William Meissner, among many others, put psychology in dialogue with Catholic spiritual tradition.

Gillespie’s book obviously started out as a doctoral dissertation. So it is surprising that, at times, a breezy rehearsal of historical facts begs for deeper analysis. At other times the presentation of material is unfocused. Why, for example, are so many paragraphs devoted to the philanthropic origins of a Jesuit novitiate? Gillespie’s book also leaves the reader still asking how critical Catholics should be toward this social science, which is such a culturally established force in American society. Despite the subtitle and some issues raised in the final chapter, much of the text seems to presume that the more psychology, the merrier Catholics will be. Despite these problems, I know of no other historical treatment of this subject. Gillespie’s service has been to gather historical material for a discussion that must be continued.

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