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Modern Psychology and Priest Sex Abuse

by Patrick Guinan, M.D.

The current crisis of sexual abuse by priests has shaken the self confidence of the American Catholic Church. The role of the complicity of and cover up by the bishops is significant, but the essential problem in about 90 percent of cases appears to be sexual abuse of adolescent males by priests. This is, by definition, homosexual behavior and is technically called ephebophilia. While priestly sexual abuse of this sort has always occurred, its incidence seems to have increased in the 1970s and 1980s. Why is this so?

It is the contention of this essay that there were significant changes in psychological theory as taught in Catholic Universities and practiced in seminary formation programs in the 1950s-1960s, the practical results of which became manifest only after Vatican II. It was, in essence, the acceptance of a new psychological theory that resulted in, on the part of priests, the loosening of the moral restraints on personal behavior, but especially, relative to the current crisis, on genital sexual activity.

As a paradigm of this process we will explore the work of Eugene Kennedy, who in 1972 was commissioned by, and wrote a book for, the United States Catholic bishops. The psychological theory utilized by Kennedy is representative of the model that provided the rationalization for the behavior resulting in the current problem.

The problem arose as the result of a number of factors, all of which are associated with the career of Eugene Kennedy. In order to explain both the problem and the career we need to: 1) describe the Aristotelian psychology that had traditionally characterized the Church's position, 2) outline the flawed contemporary Freudian psychology that replaced it, 3) describe, as a paradigm example, Eugene Kennedy's book Psychological Investigations,1 4) demonstrate the temporal relationship between the promulgation of this Freudian psychology and the rise in priestly sexual abuse and finally, 5) suggest a solution.

Classical Psychology

The traditional psychology that has sustained western civilization was Aristotelian in origin and was characterized as realist. A human person existed in the real world and consisted of a body and a soul, or animating principle, which conferred on that person his humanity. A human person has vegetative (nutrition and reproduction) and animal (sensation and memory) powers, or abilities. But man also has immaterial powers such as intellect and will. These rational powers in the human body constitute the soul or vitalizing principle of the human person.

The human person has certain habits or tendencies that can direct and perfect, with their development, human tendencies or passions such as for nutrition and generation. These are the virtues, and their counterparts are the vices. One of the virtues, temperance, controls among other passions, the sexual drive. Without this virtue there would be sexual anarchy and no family or civil life. An ascetical corollary of temperance is chastity or the restraint of the sexual drive for more noble purposes such as altruism or religious beliefs.

Over the course of the centuries there have been a number of challenges to Aristotelian psychology, particularly from the idealists who stated that objects and persons were not real but only reflections of ideas. The Enlightenment posed the most serious threat to classical psychology by turning its hierarchy upside down, placing appetite above reason. Positivism posed another threat, but the greatest threat came from Freudian psychology. Classical psychology was universally taught in Catholic psychology departments and seminary formation programs until the 1950s and 1960s when Freudian psychology replaced it.

Contemporary Psychology

Contemporary psychology could be said to have begun with Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), when in 1879 he established his psycho-physiological laboratory in Leipzig. His research was to be scientific and mathematical. He observed the behavior of humans and animals, quantitated the individual observations, and formed hypotheses and theories. Wundt's psychology limited itself to the quantification of observed behavior. In a word, contemporary science and psychology are forms of a philosophical system called positivism, which only recognizes individual observed material objects. Anything immaterial or conceptual such as religious experience and chastity do not exist and are ignored. This crass form of materialism is opposed to idealism as well as realism, which says that the human mind can comprehend objects and determine their commonality or universality. A positivist denies all immaterial considerations.

Wundt's experimental psychology laboratory was enthusiastically imitated in Europe and the United States. Its influence spilled over into educational theory in the writing of Edward Thorndike and Thomas Dewey. The movement was strongly influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Medicine was impacted by the study of neuropsychiatric diseases by Emil Kraepelin and hypnotism by Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot's most famous student was Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and his psychological theories grew out of the same Zeitgeist.

Freud's theory, based upon his clinical observations of neurotic patients, posited a human personality comprised of a superego, ego and an id. He, along with Josef Breuer, developed the concept of repression which was the unconscious mental suppression of adverse experiences. The sex drive was the most important emotional force and the denial of its expression could result in repression. Not to act out sexual urges was abnormal. Freud was fundamentally a materialist.

Freud's ideas were further developed by Carl Jung and Alfred Adler as well as many lesser disciples. One of them was Eric Erickson whose theories, as we will note later, had a profound effect on Eugene Kennedy, who was to use them as his psychological model. Erickson's psychological system listed eight developmental stages: 1) the first year of life, 2) through the second year, 3) from age three to six, 4) from age of six to puberty, 5) adolescence, 6) early adulthood, 7) young and middle adulthood, and 8) later adulthood. Each stage had to be successfully worked through for normal development. Stage six required sexual intimacy and expression.

The flaw in Freud's theory is his basic positivism which is materialist and as such cannot rise above animal characteristics when discussing human behavior. A problem arises when aspects of the human personality such as the virtues are considered. As previously mentioned a virtue is a habit of the human rational powers. An example would be the virtue of temperance whereby a person would choose not be promiscuous. Chastity is an aspect of temperance which inclines a person to deliberately forego sexual relations for ascetical purposes. For Freud and Erickson, this would be abnormal and possibly pathologic.

Religious experience has also been ignored by modern psychology. Viewing religion as a projection of human needs, Freud treated organized religion dismissively. Since religious belief is not directly measurable and quantitatable, it could not be the object of psychological investigations. This fact is remarkable inasmuch as all of recorded human history acknowledges a religious or transcendent dimension to human experience. William James2 and Rudolph Otto3 have documented the human universality of, and need for, religious belief. Even more recently Mircea Eliade4 and Joseph Campbell5 have documented the presence of the "sacred" in all major human cultures.

Psychological Investigations

In 1972 Eugene Kennedy, then a Maryknoll priest, was commissioned by the United States Catholic bishops to conduct a study of the psychology of priests. This was unfortunate for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Kennedy based his evaluation on the psychological theory of Eric Erickson, a Freudian, and therefore a materialist.

Eugene Kennedy's book, Psychological Investigations, involved a psychological evaluation of 271 priests, one which relied heavily on a variety of measuring instruments including Rorschach tests, MMPI tests, and interviews. His subjects were priests, whom he categorized as either psychologically "developed" or "not developed.". Of the priests he studied, he placed 19 (or 7 percent) in the former category and 252 (or 93 percent) in the category of "not developed." Of those not developed priests, 50 (20 percent) were developing, 179 (71 percent), remained underdeveloped and 23 (9 percent) remained maldeveloped. These are remarkable results.

The standard against which the priests were judged was Erickson's development scale. Because the majority of priests were underdeveloped, they remained in Stage Six or the early adult stage, because in order to get beyond Stage Six, the priests would have to engage in "sexual intimacy."

In addition to being an assault on celibacy, there are two major problems with Psychological Investigations: 1) its premise is based on a flawed theory, and 2) possible investigator bias. Kennedy employed the developmental psychology of Eric Erickson as the model against which he judged the emotional development of priests. Erickson's developmental psychology is basically Freudian6 and as such has all of the same fatal deficiencies of Freud's psychology. It is positivistic and, therefore, materialistic. Freudian theory is incapable of acknowledging religious experience or integrating the concept of chastity or asceticism into its idea of healthy human development.

Priests, grounded in a strong sense of the transcendent, voluntarily take a vow of chastity. Not only is this not necessarily an indication of immaturity but, given the childhood catechesis and the ascetical example usually reflected in devout parents, the young man who makes this vow may have a level of maturity even exceeding that of his peers. Freudian psychology is incapable of either recognizing that aspect of the virtue of temperance known as chastity, or acknowledging behavior motivated by an appreciation of the transcendent.

Freud, while a perceptive psychiatrist, whose insight into the role of repression in neurosis has been a major clinical contribution, was fundamentally a positivist. Positivism is basically a philosophical form of materialism that limits investigators to sense experience. Modern science is positivist in as much as it limits itself to the mathematically quantified observed behavior of material objects in order to turn those observations into hypotheses and theories. Modern psychology is positivist and as such is incompatible with a rational psychology which is Aristotelian. Rational psychology posits that man is a rational animal, that is a bodily substance infused with a human soul, and therefore appreciative of ascetical virtues in the transcendent order.

The relevance of this reiteration for our discussion is to point out the difficulty Erickson, and therefore Kennedy, will have in integrating certain aspects, such as the ascetical dimension of a priest's psychological make up into their psychological model. Sexual needs are an aspect of human nature, but so is reason, and man's rational powers also include the moral virtues which act as a restraint on appetite, or habits of behavior which include temperance, an aspect of which is chastity. Erickson is incapable of including chastity into Stage Six of his developmental frameword because he is a positivist.

When Kennedy examined priests he concluded that 93 percent were "not developed," because their emotional growth was arrested at Stage Six. The possibility that they might be practicing the virtue of chastity, which would have no value to a positivist, completely escaped Kennedy and as a result was not included in his psychological testing model. As a result Kennedy came to view chastity as psychologically abnormal. By definition, then, priests are abnormal or "not developed". By begging the question, Kennedy created a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Church. His conclusion, based on Erickson's Stage Six, that lack of sexual intimacy was incompatible with psychological development was also at variance with the constant teaching of the Catholic Church, as well as all other major human cultures.

One also wonders about possible investigator bias. When Kennedy began his research resulting in the book Psychological Investigations he was a Maryknoll priest. When he finished it he got laicized and married. Obviously, if one demonstrated "scientifically" that celibacy was abnormal, and that its practice inhibited personal development, then leaving the priesthood and marrying was breaking solemn promises but rather something logical and healthy. In the 1970s, the post-Vatican II exodus from the priesthood was in full swing. There was a sense at that time that the Church's rule of celibacy needed to be relaxed. A "scientific" psychological study demonstrating that celibacy was abnormal and inhibited emotional development gave impetus to the sense and the exodus. The fact that Kennedy's thesis was based on a flawed Freudian positivistic philosophy was not recognized at the time. His study was accepted by the American bishops, and his conclusion that priestly celibacy is abnormal and detrimental pervades much of dissident writing to this day. Not only did Kennedy's thesis lend support to those priests who wanted to reject their vows and leave the priesthood, but it can also be argued that it was the cause, in part, of the current priest sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

Priest Abuse

Sexual abuse of minors is a societal problem. The fact that it occurs less frequently among priests than among other segments of society does not lessen its damaging effects to the Church, especially given our culture's animus against the Roman Catholic Church and their eagerness to use any scandal as a way of weakening the Church's influence in society.

If repression is portrayed as psychologically unhealthy, it can be argued that Kennedy's Psychological Investigations and its flawed psychology gave support and justification to beliefs that resulted in the sex abuse of minors. Erickson's insistence that sexual intimacy was essential to successfully traverse developmental stage six, justified sexual acting out in general, but it also justified sexual activity with predominantly male minors, who because of their proximity were the targets of abusive priests.

Prior to Vatican II the Catholic community adhered to a rigid sexual morality. Sexual activity outside of marriage was strictly forbidden. Forces in secular society relying on the questionable research of Freud and Alfred Kinsey were promoting more liberal policies and even sexual liberation. Some theologians emphasizing "love over law" suggested that individual conscience could arbitrarily pick and choose any sexual behavior. The dissent against Humanae Vitae, unchallenged by the bishops, only encouraged and promoted the acceptance of Kennedy's premise.

When Psychological Investigations was published in 1972, it relied on Erickson's and Freud's materialist psychology, which posited unrestrained sexual behavior as inevitable and healthy. Seminary formation programs as well as individual priests accepted Kennedy uncritically and in an effort to move beyond Stage Six and become normal through sexual intimacy began acting out sexually. Since priests, many of whom were homosexually inclined, had ready access to adolescent males, this vulnerable group of victims was disproportionately targeted. While some abusers were implicated in serial rapes many involved only isolated cases. Nonetheless most involved coercion and all were breaches of both the sixth and ninth commandments as well as the vow of chastity. The scandal, now involving hundreds of cases, has resulted in significant damage to efforts at evangelization in the United States, to say nothing of the staggering financial losses.


The publicity given to the priest abuse scandal has resulted in a strong episcopal policy of discipline for those priests guilty of sexual abuse. This form of abuse is serious, and appropriate punishment of abusers, as well as punishment for colluding bishops, is indicated, but more importantly, the scandal calls for vigorous pastoral care for all victims.

Most importantly, however, is the need to reassert the perennial position of the Catholic Church regarding the psychology of human sexuality. That position posits a rational soul in a human body. Men and women have sexual inclinations which are under the control of the intellect and will. The virtue of temperance allows them the human freedom to control the sexual drive and at times, for a valid reason, not to exercise it. The ascetical practice of chastity is desirable and to be promoted.

The traditional position, the one that has guided the Church for 2000 years, should be re-emphasized. Classical psychology needs to be reintroduced to all seminaries and into as many psychology departments of Catholic universities as is possible. Materialist and positivistic psychologies, such as that reflected in Kennedy's Psychological Investigations should be specifically repudiated by the United States bishops. The priest sex abuse crisis has been perhaps the greatest scandal to befall the Catholic Church in the United States. With God's assistance, good may yet come of it, not the least of which good would be the return of a realist psychology of sexuality and asceticism.CW

1. Kennedy, Eugene and Heckler, Victor. The Catholic Priest in the United States: Psychological Investigations (Washington DC, US Catholic Conference, 1972).
2. James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Longmans Green, 1902).
3. Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy (London, 1923).
4. Eliade Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane; The Nature of Religion (New York: Harcourt & Brace, 1961).
5. Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York: Viking, 1960).
6. Maddie, Salvatore. Personality Theories: A Comparative Analysis (Dorsey Press).

This article was published in the May, 2004 issue of Culture Wars.

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