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By Robert Kugelmann


The Montréal Review, October 2011


"Psychology and Catholicism: Contested Boundaries" by Robert Kugelmann (Cambridge University Press, 2011)


"Kugelmann has done a masterful job of documenting a major set of developments with psychology and with US Roman Catholicism from obscurity, while integrating many diverse literatures and strands of scholarship in psychology, history, theology, philosophy, and their relevant subspecialties. Were the opening chapter required reading in every psychology of religion course, as well as every Christian seminary and pastoral counseling program, it would elevate the level of discourse in the field tremendously."

-Brian H. McCorkle, PhD, Boston University


Relationships between sciences and religions are a thorny issue in our day. All too often, dogmatic statements proclaim animosity between them, as when atheist thinkers condemn religion in the name of science, or when fundamentalist Christians usurp scientific authority by reference to the Book of Genesis. More irenic positions get staked out as well. Distinctions are made about the kind of questions that science and religion can address. At times, sweeping statements about either What Science Is (And Is Not) or What Religion Is (And Is Not) bowl us over with abstractions cut loose from history and everyday experience. When we get down to specifics, looking at a particular religion and a particular science at a particular time in history, things get both clearer and more muddled. Clearer, because we can see what kinds of accommodations and conflicts actually took place; more muddled, because we can see that the boundaries between what counts as science and what counts as religion are less than cleanly cut.

The history of the relationships between a particular science-psychology-and religion-Roman Catholicism-within a particular time period, from 1879 to 1965, exemplifies how different things look when the specifics are kept in mind. This was a time when scientific psychology was defining itself, eager to differentiate itself from all that was not science. This was a moment in the life of the Church when it felt beleaguered by the changes happening in the wider world, especially the development of the sciences. Under the name of "modernism," the Church condemned attempts to discount religious teachings in the name of science. So the borders of both psychology and the Church were armed to defend truths and traditions from interlopers.

To a great degree, both occupied the same territory. At the end of the nineteenth century, psychology claimed to be the science of mental life, and in most formulations, discarded notions of the soul as irrelevant. The Church, using a Neoscholastic philosophical mode of inquiry only lately dusted off to deal with the modern age, claimed that any concept of the human being that ignored the soul and its rational, immortal core, was missing the most essential things. While non-Catholic psychologists might dismiss such arguments, what about Catholic psychologists in the first half of the twentieth century? What they did was to propose and then carry out a natural scientific psychology with a Neoscholastic philosophical foundation. They argued for the autonomy of psychology to pursue its own research and theory-building and to make the case for the philosophical foundations at a time when many in psychology sought to dismiss them. They also had to secure their place in psychology against charges of having Church dogma overrule empirical results.

The two also staked common ground in the area that the Church called "care of souls" and the new science called "psychotherapy" and "psychoanalysis." Freud threw down the gauntlet to people of faith by calling attention to pathological aspects of religious belief-and viewing religion itself as a form of psychopathology. To be sure, Freud did not have the last word. The story of Catholic responses to psychoanalysis is a complex one, ranging from outright rejection to measured embrace. Early Catholic responses focused on the relationship between psychoanalysis and the sacrament of confession. Not doubting psychoanalysis' effectiveness (unless to denounce it as pseudo-science), views ranged from analysis as a complement to the confessional to it being an inferior replacement, thus affirming the power of confession not only to forgive sins but also to heal the sufferings of the soul. And if confession does the latter, what is the purpose of psychoanalysis? Among the psychoanalysts is included Edward Boyd Barrett, a Jesuit who left the order in 1925 and practiced psychoanalysis in New York City until the early 1930s. His version of what Freud started was an interesting synthesis of various strands of mental healing current at the time, and his written work shows how diverse psychoanalysis was in the early decades.

The story did not end there. During the 1940s, at a time when the French Catholic press wrote favorably about psychoanalysis-the communist press condemning it as bourgeois science-in the United States, the radio (and later television) celebrity, Monsignor Fulton Sheen's attack on Freud linked "Freudianism" with communism and cast aspersions on Catholics practicing or entering psychoanalysis. At least that is one version of the story played out in the press, as was the critical response to Sheen by Catholic psychiatrists. Even Sheen, however, referred some who sought him for counsel to a psychiatrist, because he recognized that not all the problems of life could be resolved with spiritual means. The 1950s saw further debate on the nature and treatment of mental disorder, with Pope Pius XII giving nuanced support for psychiatry, as long as the integrity of the human person was respected.

Following World War I, the West seemed to many a cultural wasteland, with religion no longer relevant, yet with longing for the depth of meaning that it promised. There was a widespread sense that modern men and women were cut off from the myths and traditions that rooted and nourished human living. "Hollow men" and women who could no longer believe in Christian teachings turned to Carl Jung for help. Jung's claim to be a natural scientist was granted him by many a Catholic thinker, although others, such as the psychologists Agostino Gemelli and Magda Arnold, questioned the scientific soundness of his psychology. Jung, unlike many of his contemporaries in psychology, actively sought out theologians, philosophers, classicists, and others for purposes of understanding the nature of the soul. In this way, Jung provided a model for how a psychology interested in its relationships with Catholicism (and religion generally) might move forward today in recovering from its amnesia and connecting with the long traditions of thought and action about the human soul and its well-being. Nevertheless, Jung's ambivalent dismissal of religious claims to be able to know something of the transcendent-God-has caused continuing turmoil in this version of the relationship.

Humanistic psychology promised a new conception of the boundary between psychology and Catholic thought in the 1950s and 1960s. Here was a psychology that was not reductionistic and that did think that questions of value and meaning were important in human life. But the humanists questioned the boundaries between religion and science by challenging the conception of science that the Neoscholastics had accepted. The old division of labor between the philosophical and the empirical psychologies broke down in this challenge. In addition, humanists and existentialists alike encroached upon religion by delving into spiritual issues. They encouraged individual autonomy and promoted the questioning of all authority, thereby challenging institutional hierarchies and ecclesiastical conceptions of authority and truth. In the final analysis, humanistic psychology contributed to a more "psychologized" spirituality within and without the Church.

The relationships between scientific psychology and the Catholic Church found institutional locations during the twentieth century, where the boundaries were disputed and defended. Psychology departments, the use of psychological testing in schools and clinics, and professional organizations began, in particular, the American Catholic Psychological Association, whose leaders included Noël Mailloux, the Dominican priest who founded the Psychology Department at the University of Montreal. Finally, common ground was sought in the formation of pastoral psychology within Catholic circles during the middle of the twentieth century.

There are peculiarities in the relationships between psychology and Catholicism, and between psychology and other religions, that do not extend to other sciences. For example, it does make sense to speak of a Christian psychology, a Buddhist psychology, etc., in a way that it does not make sense to speak of a Christian, Buddhist, or Islamic physics. This is not because psychology is immature as a science; it is because psychology deals with human beings, often with the most intimate places in their lives where, despite efforts to the contrary, the religions of the world will continue to stake claims. Finally, this history illustrates that during the past century and more, the type of science that psychology is or claims to be has had multiple meanings. The Church, too, has changed, especially since the 1960s. All this makes for caution in pronouncing what the science/religion relationship is or should be.


Robert Kugelmann is a professor of psychology at the University of Dallas. He has written two previous books: The Windows of Soul (1983) and Stress: The Nature and History of Engineered Grief (1992).


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