The observation of St. Teresa of Ávila that all things are passing is certainly applicable to the popular teachings of psychoanalysis and the ideas of Sigmund Freud, which gained so much prominence during the middle of the 20th century. Priests have written to me asking about Freudianism and its status in today’s world. The fact is that Freudianism and many of its offshoots are virtually dead. At this point, in fact, they are far in the past — yesterday’s news. One could easily say they are not much more than a historical curiosity at this stage. However, that does not mean that the effects of such theories are completely gone. A large number of our readers may have received significant doses of Freudian theory as seminarians or as young priests. Even more important, they may have absorbed various ideas that are derived from the writings of Freud, Carl Gustav Jung and Carl Rogers, among others, and these ideas may still be with them, shaping aspects of their lives, whether they realize it or not.
Since I have spent a good portion of my life in the midst of the psychological world and completed my graduate work in psychology during the days when Freudianism in its various forms was still powerful, I must say that some ideas of Freud, Jung and Rogers did, in fact, make a significant contribution to my efforts to be an effective pastoral counselor. Each of these men did some good, but each had his shortcomings and some of these shortcomings were significant, especially in terms of understanding religion.
The best known of these three, of course, was Sigmund Freud. Although he was Jewish by birth, he was a complete and absolute atheist. He is famous for having referred to religion as an “illusion.” Despite this however, he did not show any personal hostility to believers and even at times mysteriously seemed to support certain aspects of religion. His son recalls that Freud once took his two children along the old boulevards of Vienna to collect wildflowers to place in front of statues of the Blessed Mother that were once found throughout that beautiful city. Freud is also quoted as saying that “religion is the music of life.” Despite all this, when all is said and done, Freud was a dyed-in-the-wool materialist. This profoundly colored his whole understanding of religion, as well as of the human being.
Although Freud’s most famous student, Carl Gustav Jung, was fascinated by religion, he too was not a believer, and he moved toward understanding religion as an anthropological phenomenon and a key to the human psyche. He became deeply involved in the study of myths and various esoteric teachings. Toward the end of his life, however, there are indications that Jung came to be a believer. In a private letter that he wrote shortly before his death, he said, “It has been given to me to know that dogma is true. I am grateful that I received this great gift, because without it I would have died hating God and hating the Church.” It must be said that when Jung spoke about dogma, he knew what the word meant.
Carl Rogers, a former Protestant seminarian, was much more positive toward religion than his two colleagues. He is famous for his non-directive approach to counseling, but sometimes this had unexpected results. Many years ago, he was requested to give a six-week summer course at a large Catholic religious community in California. He wiped them out. Large numbers of the sisters left the order soon after his time with them. I am told that Rogers was appalled by what happened and felt very responsible, as it was never his intention to do damage to the community in any way. The disastrous consequence of his work with these sisters points out how surprisingly weak the convictions of many religious were during those years.
Freud’s theories may be discounted now, but he initiated the whole idea of counseling and individual therapy. This has been and continues to be an extremely important and useful accomplishment. His own ideas were unfortunately lacking in religious convictions and understanding, which I believe limited him in many ways. His ideas were also lacking in adequate moral demands. Freud himself was not an immoral or amoral man, but many of those who followed him and adapted his ideas moved in that direction, often doing much damage in the process. My impression over the years is that Freud, Jung and Rogers were misused by many of their followers. There were devout Catholic Freudians and Freudians of other religions, and some of them were able to add a moral dimension in their application of Freudian principles.
The most important thing about this situation is that Freudianism and most of its offshoots are in the past. The promises of Freud and his followers were never fulfilled. Many of their theories simply didn’t work. Yet their concept of the importance of human development and their understanding of the unconscious mind is a positive and lasting contribution. A great deal of the damage caused by Freudianism was actually due to its uncritical application: many believers, including many Catholic clergy tended to be naive about Freudian and other claims that purported to be scientific in their evaluation of human psychology. Catholics of the mid-20th century, who were often enthusiastic about running out of the ghetto and assimilating into the larger population, often accepted Freudian and other notions hook, line and sinker. It’s a very different world now, one that is far less sure that the human personality can be so easily comprehended.
In effect, we are emerging from a time when we believed that theories such as Freud’s could explain us to ourselves. We should not be silent about the fact that Freudianism failed and that it is the Church that can explain man to himself. Unfortunately, we often fail to do this. Frequently, very intelligent people in the secular world who are not prejudiced in the slightest express disappointment that those who call themselves believers seem to be reticent and lacking in real conviction. We continue to apologize for the truths of the Gospel as if Freud’s claim that religion is an “illusion” might have some validity. We must not. Freud and his theories are now an intellectual curiosity, but Jesus Christ remains the Light of the World — the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. TP
FATHER GROESCHEL is the director for the Office of Spiritual Development of the Archdiocese of New York and professor of pastoral psychology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York. He is also a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.