“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.
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