“I have consulted a Jewish psychoanalyst. For six months, I went to her house once a week to clarify some things”. Many people were amazed by reading this revelation of Pope Francis, contained in the book that will soon be released in France Politique et Société (published by The Observatoire), which collects twelve dialogs of the Pontiff with the sociologist Dominique Wolton.
Bergoglio and psychoanalysis
Jorge Mario Bergoglio talks about the face to face encounter with this woman when he was 42 years old which was “very helpful” to him. Moreover, he tells us that he maintained a bond with the psychoanalyst even at a later time: “Then one day when she was about to die, she called me. Not to receive the sacraments, considering that she was a Jew, but for a spiritual dialog“.
The astonishment created by the confession of the Pope is understandable, since between psychoanalysis and Catholic Church the relations were often far from being idyllic. In reality, the signalled wink by the current Bishop of Rome towards the discipline initiated by Sigmund Freud was presumed by some observers already on several occasions. For example, everytime the Pope, in his speeches, did not hesitate to call into question hidden psychological reasons behind the “stiffness” of some priests or behind the attraction of some young people for the Mass in ancient rite. Or when Vatican Insider published the photos of the notice posted outside the apartment Santa Marta: “Prohibited to complain”. The curious notice, in fact, is a gift given to the Holy Father by Salvo Noè, psychotherapist author of several books and motivational courses.
Church and psychoanalysis: the disagreements
These episodes seem to really mark a deep furrow with the past disagreements between the Church and psychoanalysis that have been established since the beginning. The materialistic obsession of Freud for the sexual instinct, considered the only engine of human action, found the logic and firm opposition on the part of the those who teach that the individual history of every person is under the salvific action of the divine Grace. From his part, Freud was not docile at all: he considered God a mere mental projection of the image of the human father, religion a sort of narcotic with which man controls his anguish but blunts the mind and the Catholic Church an “implacable enemy of the freedom of thought.
The post-war context
The theories of the Austrian neurologist found wide consensus in the second post-war period of the last century. Moreover, with the end of the world war, the concern for the daily survival faded as the main worry of men, which, in a new era of peace, began to wonder about the themes of human existence seeking answers also in those broad secular horizons.
In this context of lay cultural predomination, wherein “the psychological man” pretended to replace “the spiritual man” seeking for earthly happiness rather than eternal salvation, the armchair of the psychoanalyst threatened to substitute the confessional.
Freud condemned by the Church
The Church was immediately aware of the new challenges of history. In the thirties the suppression of the Italian Society of Psychoanalysis was the fruit – many people argue – of a convergence between fascism and ecclesiastical world. After the fall of the regime, as recalled by Andrea Tornielli on Vatican Insider, at the beginning of the fifties the Vicariate of Rome warned the faithful from contacting psychoanalysts, defining this practice a “mortal sin”. A choice, that appeared to be fully shared by Pope Pius XII, who insisted on the contradiction between psychoanalysis and Catholicism.
The first openings
Yet someone, in this case the religious and doctor Agostino Gemelli, read the speech of Pope Pacelli on 13 September 1952 to the participants in the First International Congress of histopathology of the nervous system, as an unambiguous relaxing signal. In that occasion, he emphasized that “it is not proved and it is even incorrect to state that the pansexual method of a certain school of psychoanalysis is an essential part of every psychotherapy worthy of this name”.
The prohibition of the psychoanalysis by the Holy Office
The clarification of Pius XII was however a small crack in a door of dialog still bolted. This is also testified by the fact that in 1961, under the pontificate of Pope John XXIII, the Holy Office published the prohibition for the members of the clergy of the possibility of practicing the profession of psychoanalyst and for seminarians to resort to this type of experts.
The cases Lemercier and Oraison
In those years a certain echo was given by the story of Gregorie Lemercier, Belgian Benedictine emigrated in Mexico, which introduced the psychoanalysis to resolve some spiritual difficulties in the convent of Santa Maria della Resurreccion. In 1965, on the orders of the Holy Office, the religious was transferred to Belgium and two years later the Mexican convent was closed. Lemercier left his cassock.
Before that, a tangle of controversy was provoked by the French priest and psychoanalyst Marc Oraison, when in 1951 published his university thesis Christian life and sexuality problems. The volume was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the list of forbidden books that was then abolished a few years later, during the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965).
The turning point of Paul VI
And precisely the winds of change of the Second Vatican Council concretely blew over the relationship between the followers of Freud and the followers of Christ, as it was demonstrated by the encyclical of Pope Paul VI Sacerdotalis coelibatis, that in a passage admits the possibility of resorting “to the assistance and the aid of a doctor or a competent psychologist”.
The opening of Pope Montini was confirmed by the speech he delivered during a General Audience of November 1973: “We estimate – evokes Tornielli, on Vatican Insider – this now famous current of anthropological studies, although we do not find them always consistent with each other, nor always validated by satisfactory and beneficial experiences”.
The work of don Innocenti
This was the beginning of a path, which is still on not without distinction and distrust. The scholar Don Ennio Innocenti, prolific writer who is today eighty-five years old, in his Critica alla psicoanalisi (Sacred Fraternitas Aurigarum in Urbe, Rome 2011) warns us about the “magic traces” of psychoanalysis proposed in the form of medical science. The psychoanalyst Leonardo Ancona, that in 2006 published Il debito della Chiesa alla psicoanalisi (ed. Franco Angeli) has a different opinion.
End of the hostilities?
In an interview to Avvenire during the same year, Ancona explained the rapprochement between Church and psychoanalysis with the “mutual recognition” of a “fundamental tension”, because “both psychoanalysis and Jewish Christian thought tends to recognize the truth through ideas that are from the past, that cannot be scientifically proved and somehow inaccessible to the mind“. And yet: “In front of faith we are in the darkness, and the most modern psychoanalysts admit that in front of the unconscious we must admit that we proceed without certainties“. Who knows if this reflection would have been able to reconcile Freud and the Holy Office. The doubts still remain.