The Pope’s Shrink and Catholicism’s Uneasy Relationship with Freud

Source: The New Yorker

Why was the news that Pope Francis once saw a Jewish psychoanalyst so surprising?

Photograph by Donatella Giagnori / Camera Press / Redux

“Pope Francis Sought Psychoanalysis at 42,” the Times headline read. Other outlets treated the news more salaciously—“Pope Reveals,” “Pope Admits.” Some noted that the psychoanalyst in question was Jewish, or that she was a woman. Below the headlines, though, the stories were the same: a French sociologist named Dominique Wolton had published a book of interviews with the Pope, and, buried on page 385, amid discussions of the migrant crisis and the clash with Islam, America’s wars and Europe’s malaise, was the four-decade-old scoop that had made editors sit up. “I consulted a Jewish psychoanalyst,” Francis told Wolton. “For six months, I went to her home once a week to clarify certain things. She was very good. She was very professional as a doctor and a psychoanalyst, but she always knew her place.”

Almost immediately, the news drew venom from the Pope’s detractors. A writer for the Web site Novus Ordo Watch, a mouthpiece of the ultra-conservative Catholic fringe—its slogan is “Unmasking the Modernist Vatican II Church”—insisted that Francis’s treatment by a “female Jewish Freudian” was “a really big smoking gun,” incontrovertible evidence that his “mind is saturated with Jewish ideas.” This reaction, and others like it, were a useful reminder that the Catholic Church was for many decades a bulwark against the great cresting wave that Freud set flowing from Berggasse 19, in Vienna. Rome’s enmity was partly a reaction to the doctor’s own fierce hostility to religion, including his infamous denigration of faith in God as an infantile father projection. To Catholics and other believers, Freudianism—the caricatured version of it that they saw, anyway—epitomized the scientific materialism that elevated the unconscious over conscience, compulsion over free will, and sex obsession over transcendental longing. Even into the nineteen-sixties, lay Catholics were discouraged, and clergy were forbidden, from undergoing psychoanalysis.

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