The father of psychoanalysis can help Christians in their search for the true face of God

‘Is Freud Dead?” asked Time magazine on its front cover in November 1993. I was an undergraduate student in psychology in Canada at the time when this cover assaulted my plans to train as a psychoanalyst. I later abandoned that path for other reasons, but have never abandoned my belief that Freud is a hugely important and – especially among Christians – much misunderstood figure.

Freud’s actual death took place in 1939 in London, to which he moved in the spring of 1938 “to die in freedom”, as he put it in his customarily unsparing fashion. After his death, Britain remained the intellectual centre of psychoanalysis, led by DW Winnicott, Melanie Klein, Anna Freud and Ernest Jones – and, today, Christopher Bollas and Adam Phillips.

It is appropriate this year for Catholics to reconsider Freud’s legacy for two reasons. First, 2017 is the centenary of one of the most influential books of the 20th century: Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. This is also the 90th anniversary of the publication of The Future of an Illusion, Freud’s attempted debunking of “religion”.

Christians, in particular, have sometimes seen the latter book as proof that Freud was nothing more than a “godless Jew” (Freud’s own phrase for himself) who was obsessed with sex and denying the existence of God. Pope Francis evidently never bought into these tiresome stereotypes, and his recent positive comments about working with a psychoanalyst in Argentina in his early 40s give us a second reason to reconsider the Freudian and analytic tradition.

Popes before Francis have also been positive. In 1998 John Paul II spoke about the insights and healing that can be found in psychoanalysis. And in the late 1950s, Pius XII gave three discourses to clinicians setting forth a cautious Catholic approval of psychoanalysis.

That approval was for psychoanalysis as a method of healing, not as a metapsychology or an anthropology explaining away the human soul and the quest for God. Nor was it approval of the attempt to recreate God in the images or “archetypes” of psychology as practised by Freud’s famously estranged follower, Carl Jung, the theologically confused son of a Swiss Reformed pastor.

Jung tried to concoct a bizarre and heretical mishmash of psychology with Trinitarian theology and Mariology to ensure that the feminine had an equal role in the Godhead. I have long preferred dialogue with an honest atheist like Freud to wading through the specious theology of Jung.

Papal approval, moreover, did not consist in recommending one form of healing over another. Nevertheless, having been through a classical analysis myself, I would argue that it has advantages other forms of therapy , precisely because of its similarities to Christian ascetical practices and a Christian worldview. (I’m teaching a course right now on Evagrius and the Desert Fathers, and am constantly struck in conversation with my students by the very close overlap between the 4th-century theologian and Freud, at least methodologically.)

By “similarities” I mean that analysis is an often a long, difficult process requiring intense self-discipline aimed at procuring structural alterations in the mind, not unlike what I think St Paul envisages when telling us to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind”.

In our world we are interested not in long-term transformation but in the quick and cheap fix – hence the popularity of pills, smartphone apps, “mindfulness” programmes and so on. But the serious Christian knows that putting on the mind of Christ is to put on nothing less than all of Christ, which means the whole of us must be transformed. That takes time and effort.

Analysis can help to do precisely that in ways that often last longer than the cognitive behavioural therapy so beloved of government and private insurance.

A study reported in the Guardian last year suggesting that analytic approaches have longer-lasting results. I would also direct readers to the columnist Giles Coren who, taking a break from trashing restaurants in the Times, wrote a provocative essay for Esquire, revealing the value of his own analysis in the long-term structural rearrangement of his mind.

Others who have found great value in psychoanalysis include important if overlooked Catholic analysts. W W Meissner, a Jesuit psychiatrist who died in 2010, wrote a number of books linking analysis and theology, not least in the life of his patron, Ignatius of Loyola. Meissner was a fairly traditional Freudian in many ways, but he was also a fairly traditional Jesuit, and he resisted the urge to turn either tradition into an ideological weapon to be used against the other. What animated his work was a desire to help people come to that depth of self-insight that Ignatius himself discovered via his Spiritual Exercises.

A generation before Meissner, Karl Stern, who died in 1975, was a German Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist influenced by Freud. Stern became a Catholic in Montreal in 1943, and wrote bestselling books in the 1950s about his conversion and his attempts to integrate Freudian insights with Catholic theology.

Perhaps most noteworthy of all is Ana-María Rizzuto, who was raised Catholic and taught the Catechism in parishes in Argentina before moving to America to finish her medical and analytic training. She wrote a groundbreaking book in 1979, The Birth of the Living God, which was the first successful attempt to tackle the analysts’ suspicion of faith and religious practice. Through detailed case studies of patients, she showed that the notion of God is not the infantile illusion Freud claimed, but a dynamic and living concept that the human mind naturally invokes in its quest to understand the world.

Rizzuto, whose work is finally getting overdue attention in a new book, Ana-María Rizzuto and the Psychoanalysis of Religion, surprised Freudians by remaining grateful for her Catholic upbringing. She said that Catholicism gave her many of the tools and insights so prized by analysts. Among these she noted the great value of regular examinations of conscience and sacramental Confession to help us become aware of, and later root out, our propensity to fool ourselves, and then excuse ourselves, when we act sinfully. (This puts one in mind of Chesterton’s remark that psychoanalysis is like Confession sans absolution.)

Catholics, then, have nothing to fear from Freud, and much to gain from the tradition that developed after him. His purposes and goals were ones that Catholics should not just salute but also share: the liberation of the human person from the shackles of illusions via an unsparing search for the truth. As the late French Protestant philosopher Paul Ricoeur argued, Freud’s Future of an Illusion should be welcomed by Christians rather than regarded as a threat, because its intent is a purifying one, destroying false images of God so that we may at last come face to face with Him as He really is and has revealed Himself to us – not as we neurotically imagine Him to be.

True images of God are often distorted, not only by our minds, but also by the money-makers, power-brokers and media owners who offer us seductive idols. Freudian categories and methods can help us understand those insidious forces, though it has fallen to non-Catholics such as the analyst-cum-social critic Erich Fromm to make such connections, albeit in attenuated fashion.

As we commemorate the centenary of Freud’s Introductory Lectures, let Catholics, following Pope Francis’s lead, be not afraid to learn once more from the writings of the great sage of Vienna. Freud and Francis would be in absolute agreement that – as Adam Phillips has succinctly put it – “reality matters because it is the only thing that can satisfy us”.

Dr Adam DeVille is a professor at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana

This article first appeared in the November 17 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here