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The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 807-808

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Psychology and American Catholicism: From Confession to Therapy? By C. Kevin Gillespie, S.J. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company. 2001. Pp. xviii, 214. $24.95 hardback.)

In his well-researched and well-written study of the encounter of twentieth-century American Catholics with modern psychology, Kevin Gillespie has shed valuable light on how both forces have influenced one another. The book also suggests that, in spite of the initial wariness of many Catholics toward modern psychology, which they perceived to be guided by secularist principles, many other Catholics quickly recognized the value of the new field for aiding in the understanding of the human person. [End Page 807]

As a lens for understanding the historical narrative, Gillespie accurately identifies and analyzes the chief problematic in the relationship between American Catholics: the cura animarum, that is, the spiritual responsibility of the Church to care for the souls of its members. The question among early Catholic investigators of the new field of scientific psychology was whether its use contributed to or hindered the care of souls. Although the term is rarely used in modern theology and spirituality, it is still legitimate to ask—and Gillespie does—whether modern attempts to integrate psychology and theology or spirituality bring genuine assistance to the spiritual lives of people.

Psychology and American Catholicism illustrates well the vitality and energy of Catholic pioneers in the psychology field. A number of Catholics, even priests, were among the earliest enthusiasts of the New Psychology who went to study under the European masters. The Catholic University of America was one of the earliest universities in the United States to establish a psychological laboratory and clinic. The enthusiasm for psychology quickly spread to other Catholic colleges and universities. The list of American Catholic leaders who helped bridge the gap between Catholic faith and modern psychology is long and well documented by Gillespie. Besides clergy (of whom many were Jesuits), the list includes an impressive number of religious sisters and lay men and women.

Modern psychology had its detractors and skeptics among American Catholics as well. Gillespie explores many of the resulting controversies. For example, some objected to any use of Freudian methods or insights in psychiatry, while others found ways to use those elements that were not tainted by Freud's atheism or materialism. In more recent times, some Catholics believe that a good deal of modern spiritual writing "conflates" psychology and theology such that they almost become indistinguishable.

It is curious that both Gillespie and the author of the foreword, Eugene C. Kennedy, repeat the conviction that the Church's fear of Modernism in the first half of the twentieth century had the "adverse effect of slowing most creative scholarship in the church" (p. 30, see also xi). However, the evidence Gillespie produces suggests that there was indeed much creative scholarship during this period in one of the most "modern" of sciences—psychology—and no evidence of restrictions from church officials to its development. Perhaps the old view about the effects of the Modernist controversy needs to be reconsidered.

This book gives valuable insight into the cultural interaction between Catholicism and American culture even beyond the limited focus of the study and contributes to our understanding of the vitality of the American Catholic Church in the twentieth century.


Benedict Neenan, O.S.B.
Conception Seminary College



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