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.
As in so many other realms, it took the Second Vatican Council, held between 1963 and 1965, to reintroduce common sense into the Catholic attitude toward rational introspection. Indeed, in focussing on what was valuable about Freud’s vision, the Church could retrieve some of the best elements of its own tradition, going back past great spiritual directors such as Ignatius Loyola and Teresa of Avila to Augustine of Hippo, who, with his “Confessions,” opened the mind of the West to the healing (and sanctifying) power of “concentrated attention” on the “most secret caverns” of memory, remorse, and self-reflection. So, after Vatican II, Roman Catholicism embarked on a transforming encounter with Freud and the multivalent culture he inspired. This occurred even as Freudians themselves were undertaking the project of rigorous self-criticism, aiming, for example, to leave the Austrian founder’s misogyny behind.
Psychoanalysis can be understood as the guided composition of an intensely personal story that makes sense of otherwise fragmentary experience: the patient discovers order in otherwise dispersed memories, sensations, and feelings. But, if psychoanalysis is a creative mode of reimagining, so, as the Church discovered, is religion, with its idea of salvation—history headed somewhere—as an antidote to the absurd cycle of mere mortality. It’s not incidental here that “salvation” comes from the Latin word for “health.” The concept was once understood as rescue from eternal damnation, but in the Age of Anxiety salvation amounts to rescue from meaninglessness. There are more ways to that than falling on one’s knees. Yes, there is also reclining on the couch.
Because the Church learned from the encounter with Freud, and from the real “in treatment” experience of legions of its own members, it yielded its claim to primal sovereignty over human inwardness. Religious people, including Catholics, came to see that due regard for the unconscious can open into a more rightly formed conscience; that reckoning with compulsions and complexes may narrow the apparent range of free will but can also sharpen one’s sense of what moral agency actually requires; that neurotic scruples indulged in the name of “being good” can make authentic virtue impossible.
As for Freud’s hostility toward religion, that came to seem less threatening when a closer look at his aggressive atheism showed it up as shallow and misinformed—not unlike his attitude toward women. The God whom Freud debunked was not the God of Biblical faith. Indeed, the Bible’s God, invisible and transcendent, provided an opening to the very same oceanic unseen of which Freud was a modern tribune. A believer, learning from Freud, could acknowledge that his faith was grounded in wish projection even as he insisted that the wish itself was also a revelation. Yes, he could say, there is no evidence of the God I long for, except, perhaps—if I choose to see it this way—my very longing. After all, who put it there?
Jorge Mario Bergoglio appears to have undergone such an experience before he became Pope. When he started psychoanalysis, he was in the last year of his tenure as provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina. The military junta’s Dirty War was raging, and it had put Bergoglio to the test. “I made hundreds of errors,” Francis told an interviewer, in 2013. “Errors and sins.” He described the period as “a time of great interior crisis.” Lucky him that he found a therapist who, mostly with the acutely focussed and patently empathetic listening that characterizes a good analyst, could enable his return to wholeness. “She helped me a lot,” he told Wolton. That the doctor was Jewish, as Francis mentioned to Wolton not quite off-handedly, is indeed a salient detail. As the anti-Semitic bile of Francis’s reactionary Catholic critics suggests, Freud’s Jewishness, and by extension the Jewishness of numerous of his disciples, was partly to blame for the Catholic antipathy toward psychoanalysis. To the Church, Freud was a modern avatar of the negative-positive bipolarity that had long characterized the Christian understanding of Judaism—law against grace, flesh against spirit, greed against generosity, synagogue against church, and, ultimately, the unconscious against conscience.
But that has all changed. Pope Francis, in his brief and passing note of autobiography—self-accepting but in no way self-aggrandizing—displayed respect for the rational inwardness of psychotherapy. He displayed readiness, as a vowed celibate, to reveal himself to a woman. He displayed the importance of knowing when to ask for help. He displayed easy recognition of a Jew as a moral equal. The surprise in all this is that anyone should be surprised. Once again, in showing us what a distance Catholics have travelled, this good man is showing us the distance that they, and perhaps all of us, must travel yet, until we arrive at the place of no surprise.