Tell me about your mother superior

I found this fascinating aside in a 1969 article on ‘Psychiatric Illness in the Clergy’ about a group of monks who underwent psychoanalysis, causing two thirds of them to realise they were “called to married life”.

The Pope immediately banned psychoanalysis from the priesthood as a result:

[Bovet] suggests that many clergy would benefit from psychotherapy during their training. This was attempted in Mexico when in 1961 a group of 60 Benedictine monks underwent group and individual psychoanalysis. However, of the original 60 monks taking part in this experiment, only 20 are still monks ; and of the 40 who have left the monastery it is reported that “there are some who realized that they were really called to married life” (Lemercier, 1965).

The Papal Court answered this “threat” the following decree: “You will not maintain in public or in private psychoanalytical theory or practice, under threat of suspension as a priest, and you are rigorously forbidden under threat of destitution to suggest to candidates for the monastery that they should undergo psychoanalysis” (Singleton, 1967).

This would not be the last time psychotherapists cause stirrings in the faithful.

The book Lesbian Nuns, Breaking Silence contains a chapter by the former Sister Mary Benjamin of the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent in California.

Psychotherapists Carl Rogers and William Coulson arranged for the nuns to take part in encounter group, essentially a form of fashionable 60s group psychotherapy aimed at well people rather than patients for ‘personal growth’.

The effect was disastrous for the convent, with hundreds of the nuns defaulting on their vows, and several, including Sister Mary Benjamin, discovering repressed lesbian desires.

The convent eventually collapsed and was closed in 1970.

There’s a brief online article that also recounts this story and I was intrigued to see a footnote at the end:

Having abandoned his once lucrative career, Dr. William Coulson now lectures to Catholic and Protestant groups on the dangers of psychotherapy, with a particular emphasis upon the “encounter group” dynamic.

There’s a whole novel right there in that footnote.

Link to summary of ‘Psychiatric Illness in the Clergy’.
Link to online article about Dr William Coulson.

8 thoughts on “Tell me about your mother superior”

  1. The Catholic Church in my city and many other cities in the US not only supports psychotherapy for clergy, they actively promote it for Catholic seminarians. Over the past twenty years, I’ve seen many priests and seminarians in analytically-oriented treatment as have several other psychoanalytically oriented therapists here.
    Therapy doesn’t seem to have the dramatic effect on religious vocations seen in these studies. Perhaps one difference between then and now is that applicants today undergo extensive psych evaluations before entering seminaries. I do many evals and recommend against admission on about half. Many of those would have been accepted in the past.
    Studies that occurred during the sixties and early 70s also have a significant confound–Vatican II. Clergy and religious left in droves, regardless of whether or not they were in psychotherapy.

  2. A bit more that might be relevant: clergy in the sixties and earlier almost always arrived through a seminary system beginning in the first year of secondary school. By age 14, they were locked into rigourous, all-consuming programs that forbade dating and much normal social contact. Very few seminarians today attended high school or college seminaries and many have worked in ordinary jobs or professions, dated and lived secular lives before deciding to apply to a major (graduate) seminary. Seminarians are often in their 30s and they aren’t wondering what sex or a life outside the seminary or priesthood would be like.

  3. the philosopher/psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva does brilliant work on the collusion of Christianity and Psychoanalysis… as does Slavoj Zizek. as both Zizek and Kristeva are Lacanian’s specifically and analysts generally, they stress the shared role of the paternal signifier in the western monotheistic tradition and in both Freudian and Lacanian analysis. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that these nuns and priests could be so easily ‘converted’ as what is it work in both systems is an adherence to the name of the father, the system of order, the structuring of the subject according to divine law and its randomization through grace. we could map through Kristeva and Zizek at least, the way these structures (psychoanalysis and christianity) are two different tongues of the same language where the productive outputs of repressed desire are part and parcel of both projects.
    fascinating work and I do agree that all that speaks here speaks most loudly from the footnotes!

    1. Psychoanalysis and Christianity have absolutely nothing in common: Christianity was founded by Christ, the Son of God, while psychoanalysis was created by Freud, who rejected God. What the footnote clearly shows is that Coulson finally realised that and he dropped his “lucrative career”, understanding who he had been serving and what the cost of this “lucrativeness” really was. As to Kristeva and Zizek’s expertise on these issues, what Sokal and Bricmont wrote in Intellectual Impostures on Kristeva and her referring to mathematics in her work may apply to both. These are not two tongues of the same language, as you say: they are two diametrically different tongues.

  4. Having been involved in the church and psychiatry for many years when I was younger the subject of whether ritualistic practices liberate or suppress human potential continues to interest me. I don’t think it is the ritualistic practice itself but what it means at the time.

    I wonder if for many people like myself in previous years we adopt certain practices because they fulfil a deeper need at the time, yet maybe do not allow for our true potential to surface?


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