Philip Trower Home Page

Chapter Fourteen


We have to include the principal "human" or "behavioural sciences" psychology, sociology and anthropology in our survey of "modern thought" if only because they and the Church are concerned with the same subject: men and women as spiritual beings, with the Church taking the higher faculties of the soul (the area of rational free action) as its principal field, while the human sciences study mainly impulsive, conditioned or unconsciously motivated thoughts and behaviour. It would be more accurate to call them the "semi-human sciences." They are genuine branches of knowledge, but they deal with what is least rational in us.

About the value of the human sciences' factual content (when it really is factual) no one is in doubt. They have accumulated a mass of useful data about human behaviour and motivation. Nor did the Church wait for the Second Vatican Council to recognise their right to a place in the scientific pantheon. The late Polish Cardinal Wyszynski (d.1981) was a graduate in the social sciences of the University of Lublin and later a sociology professor. As for the Council, its decree on the training of priests says that the teachings of modem sociology, as well as those of psychology and pedagogy, should be used by those responsible for priestly vocations and by priests themselves in their pastoral work. 125 What the Council fathers assuredly did not expect was that their modest injunction would be interpreted as a command to deluge the faithful with psychological and sociological theories of greatly varying worth.

There is a number of reasons why the human sciences raise problems for the Church. The first is that there are areas where the fields of competence of the priest and human scientist, although distinct, overlap. The same human actions, individual or collective, can include an element of compulsion or conditioning and an element of moral fault.

Then there is the fact that, while most human scientists insist that scientific inquiry ought to be "value free" that is to say unaffected by metaphysical or moral presuppositions there are few who do not at some point stray into the fields of philosophy and ethics. This is in fact true of scientists in general, but it applies above all to human scientists. It could hardly be otherwise. 126 How can you study human beings or human behaviour without forming ideas about what they essentially are (a metaphysical judgement) and still more how they ought to act (a moral one)? We find many human scientists not only ready to do this, but mostly eager to do so. Unfortunately, however, the "values" of the most significant figures in these fields have seldom coincided entirely with those of the Church.

That brings us to the prevailing ethos of the human sciences. Reflecting the mindset of the leading figures in the field, it tends to be determinist or reductionist, or both. It is hardly necessary to define determinism: all human actions are externally conditioned. Reductionism means believing that there is nothing more to human beings than what one's particular science has to say about them. It is difficult, I think, even for those who are not reductionist or determinists, not to be affected by this ethos.

Finally there is the tendency of the public, from which Catholics are not immune, to regard anything calling itself a science as an exact science, which of their nature the human sciences are incapable of being, and therefore to see them as the highest authority on everything human.

In fact, what the Church knows about human beings is far greater and always will be than anything the human sciences can tell us, and that is because she knows from revelation and reason what men fundamentally are, and, from her long experience of shepherding them through history and its trials, how to give them the most important kind of "psychological" health and guide them to their final end. Being a Catholic does not of itself make  a man a good psychologist or sociologist. But it is arguable that the greatest advances in the human sciences will come only when their practitioners take the Church's knowledge of man as their guiding light.

I will begin with psychology. 127

From Aristotle to Freud

Psychology, the science of the soul, is not a new science. At least from the time of the Greeks, thinkers and writers have discussed the nature of the soul and its faculties and tried to account for the different types of human temperament and behaviour.

Aristotle's De Anima is the first and most enduringly impressive work on the subject. Like St Thomas and the medieval scholastics, he focused mainly on what is common to all men the virtues and vices, passions and appetites, the way they interact and their effects on the personality as a whole rather than trying to explain individual peculiarities. The latter task was first tackled systematically by his disciple and the editor of his manuscripts, Theophrastus. Theophrastus' Characters was translated into French in the 17th century by La Bruyère who added a collection of "character" portraits of his own. The great playwrights, poets and novelists have also provided a mass of insights into human behaviour and differences of temperament. 128

Such more or less was psychology down to the late 19th century. It was called "rational psychology" because it dealt with men in a normal state of  mind. Obviously insanity was recognized but it was little understood.

Modern psychology was born when, towards the end of the 19th century, the focus of interest shifted from the mentally sound to the mentally and emotionally sick, giving rise to new theories about the nature of the soul and its activities.

However, in order to avoid misunderstanding, before looking at these theories, I want to draw a distinction between the ideas of the famous figures who first propounded them, and the practice of the millions of psychiatrists and psychologists at work around the world today.

Today's psychiatrist has basically two remedies open to him: drugs increasingly used for serious cases, or talking to his patients and getting them to talk to him. In regard to the latter, the successes, which should not be discounted, would seem to depend in the main on the experience, intelligence and natural wisdom of the individual therapist more than on theory; the wise pick only what they find useful from the different psychological orthodoxies. So criticism of aspects of modern psychological theory should not be seen as criticism of psychiatric medicine in general.129

The main point about modern psychological theory is that it is no longer about the soul. The difference between spirit and matter is either not understood or not recognised. "Psyche" has come to mean whatever goes on inside us above the biological level, and "psychology" its explanation in terms of quasi-physical dynamisms. For the modern psychologist, psyche is the equivalent of the phenomenologist philosopher's "contents of consciousness."

In so far, therefore, as modern psychologists do not believe in the soul, or the factors that contribute to spiritual (in contrast to psychological) health and sickness virtue and vice, sin and temptation, conscience and guilt (genuine, not neurotic guilt), they do not know what the thing they are dealing with essentially is. They are like doctors trying to treat people's bodies while ignoring the fact that they have heads.

The main lines of most present-day public thinking on the subject have come to us from the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), and the Austrian and Swiss psychologists Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Jung (1875-1961).

Pavlov's contribution to modern psychological theory was fairly straightforward. Whether he intended it or not, his "behaviourism," based on his studies of conditioned reflexes" (his salivating dog must be as famous as Hamlet or Hider) gave renewed vigour to the notion, already familiar for over a century, that man is just a body and the body a machine. La Mettrie had propagated the idea in his L'homme machine, (1747), and the American educationist John Dewey (d. 1952) popularised it with his explanation of mind as "an adaptive function" of the body. Pavlov can be considered the father of modern experimental psychology, which subjects normal as well as abnormal people to tests to see how they will react, with the possibility of finding ways to get them to act differently.

Freud's theories were more subtle, but ultimately no less materialistic. The role of the unconscious as a major determinant of human behaviour was the first of his ideas to revolutionise Western thinking. It was not the discovery of totally unknown territory, but an attempt at organised exploration and deeper penetration through the interpretation of dreams and the association of words and ideas.

The Hidden Depths

Although it was not at once appreciated, this new or increased knowledge of the psyche's hidden depths provided striking confirmation of what the Church has always taught about the effects of original sin: how deeply rooted self-love and disordered desire and passions are, how much of them there is that escapes easy control by the reason, how prone we are to concealing our real motives from ourselves. Modern psychology has stripped the facile optimism of Pelagius and Rousseau of any trace of plausibility once and for all. It has also made everyone more aware of the factors that diminish blameworthiness. We can more easily understand why we are ordered so sternly not to judge, and can say with Christ of our opponents, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," even when they appear to be fully conscious of it. All this can be of help to confessors.

As a therapeutic technique, exploring the unconscious proved beneficial in so far as it uncovered the causes of certain kinds of obsessional behaviour, hitherto incurable: the suppression of long-buried memories of painful past experiences. Bringing them to the surface, it was found, could of itself bring relief or a return to sanity. It was like lancing a boil or purging the stomach. Such is the fundamental idea underlying psycho-analysis, and even much of everyday psychological practice. At a superficial level it has  affinities with relieving one's mind by telling one's troubles to a friend. Psychoanalysis no longer enjoys the prestige it once had. But the idea that dredging the unconscious for the causes of particular troubles and bringing them to the surface is good therapy remains influential.

The difficulty has always lain in knowing whether the memories are genuine or due to auto-suggestion or to a desire to please or impress the therapist, and whether exposing them to the air could not in many cases be like pulling the scab off a wound. Then there is the problem of the advice the therapist gives his patient about how to handle himself and his life once he is cured or as part of the cure. Many psychologists would say this is not the therapist's business. But, given the nature of the relationship between therapist and patient, it hardly seems possible for a therapist not to convey to his patients some idea of what he personally believes to be a rational or right way of thinking and living, and for it to have no influence on them. This is where, from a Christian standpoint, a therapist's character, beliefs and principles must be of vital importance.

The fathers of the modern movement had initially, of course, been concerned with serious mental disturbance (madness or psychosis). Freud had moved into psychology after witnessing the cures or partial cures of mentally deranged patients by means of hypnosis worked by Breuer in Vienna and Charcot in Paris, under whom he studied for a time. But eventually he found hypnosis unsatisfactory and developed psycho-analysis as a substitute.

However, once it was discovered that nervous disorders likewise often had psychological rather than physiological roots, they spent more and more of their time treating neurotics. (Although serious neurotics are often victims of strange compulsions, they are emotionally disturbed, but not mad.) Then during the 1920s and '30s, growing numbers of practitioners moved from treating the seriously neurotic to the mildly neurotic (people suffering from unreasonable fears and anxieties), and from there to normal people suffering under the strains and stresses of life (the background to many of today's counselling services).

In the process a distinction was introduced between the unconscious and the subconscious. Not everything below the level of consciousness was to be seen as lying at the same psychic depth. The contents of the unconscious were held to be beyond the knowledge of its possessor. Without a psychologist, it could not be recovered. With the subconscious it was otherwise. The subconscious is to be seen as the region immediately below consciousness where we are continually absorbing impressions, forming ideas, reaching conclusions and even making decisions without adverting to the fact either fully or at all. But the contents are not so deeply buried that they cannot be fairly easily brought to the surface by the owner himself, with or without outside help. It is the region, in biblical terminology, of the heart's "secret thoughts," the place where we can bury unpleasant memories, without this necessarily having seriously disturbing results; or hide "secret designs" of the kind that cause Holy Scripture to speak of the heart's "deviousness."

The subconscious is important for the subject of this chapter because it is the area where psychological counselling and religious guidance or spiritual direction mainly overlap. A man who talks all the time about himself may be partly or largely the victim of a compulsion. It is his way of overcoming a sense of insecurity. Or it may be a moral fault: he is thoroughly self-centred. When St Teresa of Avila said that one of her hardest tasks was getting her nuns to own up to their faults, she was saying neither that they were deliberately lying, nor that they were incapable of discovering those faults with a little effort and good will. 130

The extension of the psychologist's field of operations that I have just mentioned, had a number of consequences that, for good or ill, were to be important for both Western society and the Church. It helped to spread the theories of the new psychology to a much wider public than would have been the case had psychologists confined themselves to treating the insane. It turned psychologists into universal authorities on how to be happy or less unhappy. And more important still, it began to obscure public understanding of the difference between psychological illness and health on the one hand, and moral or spiritual illness and health, which in the case of Catholics meant the difference between psychological counselling and spiritual direction.

A little anecdote will illustrate all three points. A priest I know was summoned to the bed of a construction worker fatally injured in a fall from a building. On reaching the hospital he found the family gathered round the dying man's bed. When the priest had given the last rites, he turned  towards the wife intending to give her some words of consolation and encouragement. Instead she asked to see a hospital "counsellor."

The reaction of many Church authorities when priests and religious started having crises of faith after the Council tells a similar story. Instead of sending for wise and experienced spiritual directors to get them back on track, they called in psychologists, as though loss or disturbance of faith were a psychological disease. And in a well-known seminary, there was for a long time a course on psychology, but none on the Trinity. This, however, illustrates the prestige of psychology rather than confusion about its proper role.

The reverse side of this coin is the idea, prevalent in the public at large, that men and women who are psychologically well balanced that is to say, sound in mind, in control of their emotions, and tolerably content with life have nothing more to worry about. Among Christians it has, I suggest, been one of causes of the decline of the "sense of sin," and in the Catholic Church of empty confessionals.

However, the chief negative consequence of the new psychology's exploration of the unconscious has been the idea that the bulk of people's faults and misdeeds can be attributed to causes over which they have little or no control. People have been seduced into being "non-judgemental," not only about their fellow men, which can be a good thing, but about themselves and the objective rightness and wrongness of actions which of their nature demand an adverse judgement. Even criminals these days, we are told, have learned to blame their crimes on their parents. One result has been a tendency among the clergy to see hearing confessions as an occasion for giving psychological counselling. Of course, people are affected by their upbringings, and a minority are seriously damaged psychologically. Our sympathy for them, however, should not obscure the fact that most men have the ability, with God's help, to rise above bad experiences, and even if those experiences have left a mark, to learn to live with them. Only in extreme cases is the spiritual so completely subordinated to the psychological that a person can no longer be held responsible for their actions.

In the Church, one of the chief sufferers from the increased reluctance to admit responsibility for one's actions, either because of psychological damage in childhood or supposed immaturity, has been the marriage bond.

At a time when men are widely proclaimed as having at last "come of age," more and more annulments are being given by Catholic diocesan marriage tribunals on the grounds that the couples applying for them, even when considered old enough to vote, receive university degrees, fill responsible  well-paid jobs handling other people's money, and generate children, were too immature at the time of their weddings to understand the meaning and obligations of what they were doing. Most marriages throughout history have been between couples in their teens. Are we to consider them all invalid? Rome keeps protesting-, but little attention is paid.

The Rebels in the Basement

Freud's other contribution to the transformation of Western thinking is, of course, the dominant role he gave to sexual instinct.

His picture of the human psyche is like a house on three floors. In the basement is the libido (a kind of nursery of unruly drives and passions, mostly sexual, clamouring to get out); above comes the ego or central self (source of rational decisions); and over that again lies the domain of the superego a kind of psychic "top floor" from which the injunctions received in childhood from parents, teachers and other authoritative voices continue to be transmitted, often against the householder's will. (It is like having a stereo which you can't switch off ceaselessly playing in the attic.) The ego appears as a kind of psychic Cinderella between two ugly sisters issuing contradictory instructions. This in its way is not a bad description of how, in our fallen state, we sometimes feel about ourselves.

However, the Freudian ego is not to be identified with the Christian soul, the thing that keeps the human whole together, any more than the superego is to be equated with the voice of right reason or conscience. 131 For Freud, the libido is the substantive part of the human psyche. The ego is merely a psychic superstructure which the libido creates and subjects itself to in order to survive. The libido somehow knows that it would destroy itself or be destroyed by rival egos if it gave free reign to its impulses (murdered  its father and went to bed with its mother, for instance). So it represses its more disorderly energies and desires and directs them into socially acceptable channels through fear of disapproval. But although now under control, the fundamental nature of these energies remains unchanged. Man is essentially a sexual animal.

From all this, 20th century man has, not surprisingly, concluded that happiness must lie in giving these energies maximum release, and misery or damage to health result from controlling or restraining them. To control is to frustrate. If the post-Freudian world recognises a sin, it is surely "frustration." Even translators of the Bible have not been immune to the idea. Where the older English versions of Colossians 3:21 had "Fathers, provoke not your children lest they be discouraged" or "become discouraged" (Douai-Rheims, Authorised, and R.S.V.), the more fashion-conscious translators of the Jerusalem Bible give us "Parents, never drive your children to resentment or you will make them feel frustrated." In an analysis of modern atheism (I 4th Apr., 1999), John Paul II took issue with the idea that God is a projection of the "repressed image of the earthly father" from whom adults must free themselves if they are to develop properly.

It hardly matters that Freud did not regard sexual licence as a remedy for neurosis, and in his personal life appears to have been a faithful family man. Without Freud's idea that man is a fundamentally sexual being, it is impossible to imagine the degradation of the greatest of natural mysteries into a "fun activity" and a universally discussible subject down to the baldest details, anywhere and everywhere, which is now the distinguishing mark of Western societies. A small language change tells a large part of the story: the use of the expressions "having sex" and a "sex life," for "making love" and a "love life."

The "sexual revolution" that has followed, with its assault on marriage and the family and its policy of explicit sex education embracing every conceivable sexual deviation for younger and younger children, would, without Freud, be just as hard to account for. 132 Once the sexual instinct was presented as the  bedrock of human personality, all this could no doubt have been foreseen.

What could hardly have been foreseen was the speed with which large numbers of Catholics adopted quasi-Freudian ideas about sex after the Council. For some of the clergy, no doubt the way had been prepared by the Kinsey Report of the early 1950s. A proportion, at least, seem to have used that now discredited document 133 to throw what they thought was light on degrees of moral responsibility in the case of sexual sins. But that hardly explains the irresponsible way the faithful were suddenly deluged with ill-considered psychological notions of a kind they had hitherto been taught to eschew, and the wisdom of the ages about handling the "facts of life" was abruptly flung aside like an old plastic bag.

Apparently without thought, young men in seminaries were exposed to courses in which they "explored their sexuality" to find out "who they were," many deciding along the way that celibacy was contrary to nature, probably psychologically damaging, and, except for neurotics, impossible. Guilt came increasingly to be seen as a psychological hang-up. Celibate priests and nuns were put in charge of sex education programmes that would have made Charles II of England and his courtiers blush. 134 Many in authority seem to have forgotten that, in addition to sin, there are "occasions of sin." The Church is now paying the price, not only in lost vocations and lost faith, which is what really matters, but to compensate for clerical misdemeanours in cash to the tune of millions. It is unnecessary to dwell on the way all this has contributed to loss of faith among the laity, especially the young.

We also find Freudian ideas being used to keep orthodox young men out of certain seminaries. In a case known to the author, the applicant was asked, by the priest and nun interviewing him to see if he was psychologically suitable, whether "he had ever had a girlfriend." When he said No, he was told to remedy the situation and apply again. Piety and orthodoxy can also be obstacles to acceptance. They are treated as signs of psychological immaturity. The theory of the Oedipus complex requires a psychologically healthy young man to be to a certain degree rebellious.

With the laity, the logic of Freudian anthropology seems to have fuelled the demand for annulments and opposition to Humanae Vitae. If the sexual instinct is the bedrock of human personality, marriage ought to include maximum sexual satisfaction with minimum restriction.

I will not multiply examples and instances. The Church in the West is awash with them. I have given enough, I think, to indicate Freudianism's role in the collapse of Catholic faith and morals.


125. See Optatam Totius, on the training of priests, arts. 11 & 20."The Church does not scorn serious study of psychological and sociological elements of the religious phenomena, but firmly rejects the interpretation of religiosity as a projection of the human psyche or the result of sociological conditioning" (John Paul II, General Audience, 14th October, 1999).

126. If we look at the question closely, we find all scientific thinking and writing falling into one of three kinds. We can call them descriptive (about things that exist and the way they act or develop); explanatory (about why they are the way they are and act as they do); and finally prescriptive (about the use they can be put to or the way they should be made to act).While it may be possible and even desirable to keep the first two activities "value free," (description and explanation or scientific inquiry in the strict sense), it is impossible when it comes to deciding what is to be done with the knowledge acquired. Only a minority of scientists believe that just because a thing can be done it is always right to do it. Many of the physicists who contributed to splitting the atom were deeply troubled by the production of the atom bomb. Others today have reservations about genetic engineering.

127. History is usually classified as one of the human sciences. However, it has always been widely recognised that the understanding and writing of history is as much an art as it is a science. Collecting and verifying the facts, the strictly scientific part, is only laying the foundations. For the way historical studies affected the understanding of doctrine and theology in the period after 1920, see Appendix I.

128. Theophrastus and La Bruyère used the word "character" where we should probably use the word "temperament," meaning the qualities and peculiarities we are in some sense endowed with from the start. By "character" we tend to mean what we make of ourselves by our free choices, with or without the help of others. Hence "character building" and "character formation." A weakness of much modern psychology is the lack of any theoretical basis for this important distinction: We build our character with and through our temperament, but sometimes this has to include going against it. The word "personality" seems to embrace temperament and character together. For centuries, the most popular explanation for the differences of temperament was, of course, the theory of the four humours. They were attributed to the prevalence of one of four bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, black bile, the resulting temperaments being named "sanguine "phlegmatic" "choleric." and "melancholic." mind. Obviously insanity was recognised, but it was little understood.

129. Even the "orthodox" are sometimes compelled to make theory bow to common sense. A strict Freudian I know was once describing a patient she had been analysing and having little success with. "In the end," she concluded, "I decided the woman was just thoroughly selfish."

130. Alfred Adler tells a story perfectly illustrating the point. A small boy was making his parents' life intolerable. They brought the child to see him. A principle of his therapy was destroying what he called "false good faith," so at the end of the first session he said: "Now there's something I want you to say to yourself every morning when you wake up". The boy's eyes opened wide with curiosity "I want you to say to yourself: Adler went on, "l must remember to make my parents as miserable as I can today. "This time the boy looked at him with amazement. The cure had begun.

131. For Christians. what psychiatrists would designate as the superego would include conscience without being limited to it. Not everything that "authority figures" tell children they should or should not do is a matter of right and wrong. Part of growing up is learning to determine the relative value of the things we have come to accept as in some sense obligatory. That means learning to distinguish between morality and social custom. But, although man-made, social customs have their value too; not all are dispensable like used razor blades or fashions in clothes. They are in large part expressions of natural wisdom, providing a psychologically necessary framework for ordered living or a bulwark against moral anarchy. Unfortunately, too many psychologists regard the psychic "top floor" in a largely unfavourable light. Psychological maturity or health consist in silencing or rejecting its voices.

132. However, it is interesting to note that Freud himself, even though in his earlier years he was in favour of contraception, later came to define sexual perversion as the removal of the procreative aspect from sexual activity: "It is a characteristic common to all the perversions that in them reproduction as an aim is put aside. This is actually the criterion by which we judge whether a sexual activity is perverse if it departs from reproduction in its aims and pursues the attainment of gratification independently. You will understand therefore that the gulf and turning-point in the development of the sexual life lies at the point of its subordination to the purposes of reproduction. "

133. See Judith A. Reisman and E.W. Eichel,  Kinsey, Sex and Fraud, The Indoctrination of a People, edited by John H. Court and J. Gordon Muir. Huntingdon House, 1990.

134. In the 1980s. the author was asked to take a batch of particularly lurid sex-educational material to the Holy See. The Cardinal who received it sighed and said wearily: "The Holy Father already has a whole pornographic library of stuff like this."Everything that occurs before this conversion takes place, and everything which refuses to conform to it and serves the pursuit of gratification alone, is called by the unhonoured title of  'perversion' and as such is despised." A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, tr. Joan Riviere (New York, Garden City. 1935), p. 277; cited in Janet E. Smith ed., Why Humanae Vitae Was Right, (San Francisco, Ignatius, 1993).



Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018

Version: 8th March 2018

Home Page

Book Contents

Reflections on Scripture