CV NEWS FEED // A Catholic therapist recently reviewed a Jesuit book about psychoanalysis and the Christian Faith, arguing that the relationship has demonstrated unexpected growth.
Catholic World Report published Dr. Adam DeVille’s review, titled “Surveying the often tense relationship between Christianity and psychoanalysis,” on February 3. DeVille is an associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and a psychotherapist.
Psychology Today explains that “Psychoanalytic therapy encompasses an open conversation that aims to uncover ideas and memories long buried in the unconscious mind,” a style of therapy pioneered by 17th century neurologist Sigmund Freud:
Identifying patterns in the client’s speech and reactions can help the individual better understand their thoughts, behaviors, and relationships as a prelude to changing what is dysfunctional…
Freud’s ideas have been contested and criticized—yet his influence is also hard to overstate. Freud’s realization that much of mental life operates outside of awareness was a groundbreaking insight that propelled psychology forward.
DeVille explained that Freud, self-described as “a godless Jew,” had an unlikely friendship with Christian pastor Oskar Pfister. In 2023, Spanish Jesuit Carlos Dominguez-Morano wrote a book on their complex friendship titled, Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister on Religion: The Beginning of an Endless Dialogue.
DeVille praised Morano’s book for “[providing] an up-to-date survey of the status quaestionis (state of the question) of psychoanalysis and Christianity.”
On the scientific side of the relationship, there has historically been “disdain” for faith, and on the Christian side there has been “reluctance” and “suspicion.”
DeVille highlighted that the Catholic Church has gradually shifted from suspicion of psychoanalytic therapy to support of it in the past several pontificants. Popes Pius XI, Pius XII, and John XXIII wrote papal statements on this therapy. In reading these statements, “there is reluctance to engage psychoanalytic therapy and palpably anxious suspicion of it.”
Pope Paul VI “[shifted] to cautious consideration of its possible uses,” DeVille wrote, and then Pope John Paul II moved to “an open embrace” of psychoanalytic therapy. In 1979, John Paul II even “invited the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm to the Vatican,” DeVille noted.
With Pope Francis, the openness to psychotherapy increased after he revealed “that he was himself in therapy with a Jewish psychoanalyst in Argentina.”
In Morano’s book, Freud and Pfister demonstrate the “interconnected theme of suspicion-and-support” through their “deep, warm, frank friendship,” DeVille wrote:
For Freud, being set free meant rejecting not the truth-claims of religion (he ignored those in Future of an Illusion) but its role as a provider of infantilizing comfort in a capricious and often cruel world…
Pfister thought this a minor danger for some, but that most outgrow such behaviors by discovering that there is a way of being both spiritually dependent on God and autonomous….
Pfister, a trained psychoanalysis, argued that the therapeutic practice “was to be welcomed precisely as a tool to help believers be more mature, more self-regulated in their emotional lives, and more able to free themselves from the various idols and illusions we all construct,” DeVille wrote.
The various pontificates have begun to welcome this therapeutic practice as Pfister initially argued for, but the book’s author Morano argued that it can never take the place of Christianity in the search of truth.
“Morano says the dialogue must continue because the search for truth and freedom is an endless quest, and at their best both psychoanalysis and theology teach us abstinence from some final formulation that then becomes ideology bled of all mystery,” DeVille concluded:
But then what? After mutual understanding comes a divergence. Morano, faithful son of St. Ignatius of Loyola, recognizes that Christian faith, unlike psychoanalysis, is supererogatory, insisting we travel the “royal road” to service of others ad maiorem Dei gloriam. In the end, faith alone enables us to be, as Charles Wesley wrote, “lost in wonder, love, and praise”.