On Serving Two Masters

A superficial psychology has infected contemporary catechetics. The result is a mingling of the trendy and the sacred that trivializes the faith.

“It ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people,” wrote Chesterton in 1910. The child, he complained, is oftentimes older than the theory he is taught so that the “flopping infant of four actually has more experience … than the dogma to which he is made to submit.”

A current illustration of this upside-down approach can be found in Catholic religious education — the last place, we might add, where Chesterton would have expected to see it. For often the youngest things are taught to the youngest people, and it is done with the aid of the youngest techniques. “Cranks and experiments,” said Chesterton, “go straight to the schoolroom when they have never passed through the Parliament, the public house, the private house, the Church or the market place.” The most striking recent example of this process is the use of contemporary psychology in Catholic education programs. The psychology of choice among Catholic educators is what is called humanistic psychology, and its various spinoffs such as values clarification. Humanistic psychology is an important illustration of one of those experiments that has hopped from the drawing board onto the blackboard without an intervening period of public trial. For example, even before Carl Rogers, the dean of humanistic psychologists, had published his Freedom to Learn in 1969, he had been invited into Catholic school systems to test his innovative techniques. And religious studies textbooks such as the Winston series were already based on the humanistic model. In addition, almost as soon as the idea of encounter had sprouted on the American scene, it was transplanted into convents, seminaries and high school retreats.

For a while, humanistic psychology did lead a charmed life. It received little initial criticism either from religious or secular circles and quickly came to be accepted as the common wisdom among college-educated people. But that honeymoon period seems over. Humanistic psychology looks more and more like one of those seemingly benign drugs whose harmful effects don’t become apparent until years later. This is the way it now looks to many people within psychology itself who question the validity of many of the humanistic assumptions. Nonetheless, despite these criticisms from within psychology itself, humanistic psychology continues to hold its appeal for religious educators. One can only suppose that it does so because of certain surface similarities to Christianity. The humanistic talk about loving, sharing and caring sounds Christian, as does the humanistic admonition against making judgments and the humanistic concern for the little child within us. Ideas about “wholeness” and “freedom” and “values” seem to echo Christian sentiments as well. And “the dignity of the person” is high on the list of humanistic priorities just as it is with Christians. Nonetheless, it seems to us that these central ideas of humanistic psychology can take on, when not properly and carefully qualified, meanings which are in several important respects incompatible with Catholic belief. Our purpose in this article, therefore, will be to show, with reference to several current religious education texts, examples of how an insufficiently qualified use of the ideas of humanistic psychology in Catholic Christian catechetics can lead, and has led, to confusion. Our procedure will be twofold: we will first attempt briefly to characterize the basic assumptions of humanistic psychology; and we will then undertake to show how these assumptions have been carried over into religious education texts in ways which serve to seriously erode the integrity of Catholic belief.

Much of the content of humanistic psychology derives from the central assumption that man is good, and that evil comes simply from outside: selfishness, aggression and other undesirable behaviors are blamed on man’s environment, not on man himself. The Catholic notion that man is weakened by sin is either implicitly or explicitly rejected by most psychologists of this persuasion. Erich Fromm, for example, states that his psychology would be untenable if the doctrine of original sin were true. Unlike the Catholic view the psychological one fails to distinguish between physical or existential goodness and moral goodness. Man is simply good as he is. As a consequence much stress is laid on simply being oneself and accepting oneself. This self-acceptance is encouraged without regard to any prior transformation of the self, meaning, of course, that the need for repentance, for forgiveness, for baptism, or for God’s grace all tend to be nullified at the outset. Tied in with this concept is the standard humanist notion that man is simply perfectible and can achieve this perfectibility through his own powers. In the language of human-potential psychology, people are either “self-actualized,” or “self-determined,” or “self -fulfilled.”

As a result, since man apparently can perfect himself without God’s help, and since there seems to be very little wrong with him in the first place. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross tends to appear both unnecessary and unintelligible. Sacraments, likewise, are rendered unnecessary as means of salvation and come instead to be looked upon merely as celebrations of human virtue. Prayer and worship also tend to become activities of dubious worth within this framework. And the Christian practices of self-denial and sacrifice tend to appear as obstacles to growth. In humanistic psychology man achieves fulfillment more by satisfying his wants than by ordering them in ways which sometimes require self-denial. Other Christian virtues such as obedience and conformity to God’s will are difficult to reconcile with the humanistic emphasis on self-will and autonomy. Where the psychological model prevails, these virtues will tend to be slighted or ignored even by Christian educators.

Another element which seems inextricably bound up with humanistic psychology is subjectivism. The idea of a common truth to which all are bound is seen as an encroachment on freedom. Hence, the only truths tend to be personal truths. This attitude explains why humanistic therapies are invariably non-judgmental and why humanistic education is geared in the direction of having students create their own values. Moreover, since the humanist has no objective criteria for choosing values, he has to rely on instincts. “When an activity feels as though it is valuable or worthwhile,” writes Rogers, “it is worth doing.” All of this is, of course, very much in keeping with modern sentiments, but it is difficult, at least without careful qualification, to square with the Catholic emphasis upon truth as objective and permanent, and with the Catholic belief that the most important truths (the Trinity, the incarnation, the redemption) come to us in the first instance through divine revelation rather than self-revelation.

In light of this brief description of what we regard as the basic assumptions of humanistic psychology, let us now turn to examine how such assumptions serve in several current education texts to create confusion with respect to a proper understanding of Catholic Christianity. Book One of the Benziger series answers the question, “Who Am I?” by saying, “I am me. There are things I can do and say. See the gifts I have. I am me. I can talk and run and hug. I am special.” In fact, “All boys and girls are good and special.” Book Four states that Jesus “was trying to show [people] how they could be themselves.” In the same book children are told “you must like yourself for what you are.” Book Eight reminds us that “A person has value by the very fact of being human. A person, a ‘you,’ has rights, needs and worth independent of other people.” Consequently, “knowing yourself through self-examination can help develop your self-esteem.” By implication poor self-esteem means one simply hasn’t taken stock of one’s abilities. These sentiments are mixed in with genuine Christian doctrine but one wonders whether the constant emphasis on self-esteem does not tend to reduce the “good news” to the status of nice news because of the implied suggestion that there was not any bad news about the human condition to begin with.

The writers of these texts themselves often seem confused, bound as they are on the one hand to the Christian belief, and on the other to the psychological faith. Thus, in Book Seven of Benziger: “We aim at becoming our true self, what we are capable of becoming, the person God and nature intended us to be. We strive to become the person we want to be.” It is not at all clear in this passage whether we should become what God intends us to be or what we want to be, or whether the two are always to be equated. The emphasis on the “we,” however, along with all the earlier encouragements to self-esteem and self-determination suggests that what we want will do just fine. There is a similar problem in Book Eight where we are told that “Saint Paul had self-esteem” and that this particular self-knowledge helped him in his mission to spread Christ to all people.  Then follows the story of Paul’s conversion, but the whole thing is forced into the procrustean bed of a self-esteem format. The point of it is not that Paul came to know God, but that “Paul came to know himself through God” — as though knowing oneself was the be-all and end-all of existence. This attempt to assimilate the New Testament to the categories of psychology results, predictably, in a distortion. The Benziger book states that Paul’s “journey toward self-knowledge took a lifetime,” but this is very nearly the reverse of the truth.14 If there is one story in the annals of mankind that is not about the gradual acquisition of self-knowledge, it is the story of Paul’s conversion. In fact, it is not primarily about self-knowledge at all.

This kind of double message — the presentation of a Christian theme along with a psychological one which tends to undo it — is particularly apparent in the treatment of marriage and sexuality. On the one hand, a typical text will say that sex is to be reserved for marriage which is a sacrament. On the other hand, the next chapter may well present a section on “what young men should know about young women in lovemaking,” followed by “what young women should know about young men in lovemaking.”

For some reason, these young men and women who are supposed to be waiting for marriage need to know the facts about arousal (there are three stages), tempo and style, and about “the inability of some men to control the ejaculatory aspect of sexual excitement” which is “one of the principal reasons for the disappointment most young women feel in premarital experimentation.” Young people should remember, however, that “sexual intercourse outside of marriage is considered less than psychologically wise.”

An extreme example of the confusion present in many of the newer texts is the treatment of marriage in the Conscience and Concern series published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. About four fifths of the chapter on marriage consists of a lengthy excerpt (three pages of double columns) from Carl Rogers’ book Becoming Partners: Marriage and Its Alternatives. Now, anyone familiar with Rogers’ work knows that he is far more committed to the idea of change than to the idea of marriage. This particular excerpt ends with Rogers commenting on his own marriage: “We have grown as individuals and in the process we have grown together.” Yet elsewhere in Becoming Partners Rogers makes it plain that it is just as acceptable for couples to grow apart: the governing priority is growth not fidelity. Perhaps a more pointed commentary, however, may be made on the fact that this same chapter devotes only two lines to Christ’s views on marriage. When a person attempts to serve two masters, one of them will not be served very well.

A further consequence of the infatuation with human potentialism is omission of crucial content. Catholic doc-trines which do not lend themselves to the humanistic framework are partially presented or simply omitted. As a result, the content of these books reveals very little about man’s sinfulness and quite a lot about man’s goodness; very little about grace and quite a lot about deserved reward; very little about man’s dependence upon his creator and quite a lot about autonomy; very little about hell and purgatory and, for that matter, very little about heaven. Time and again, the fullness of doctrinal belief is distorted through emphasizing those beliefs which are in keeping with the humanistic tenets — man is good; man is deserving; man is autonomous; and man is the measure of all things.

This habit of omitting or slighting crucial Christian doctrine even extends to the illustrations. Although all of the psychologically based texts are heavily illustrated, there are surprisingly few depictions of the crucifixion. Book Seven of the Benziger series is over 300 pages in length with at least 300 illustrations and photographs, yet there is only one picture of Christ on the cross. Book Eight, with an equal number of illustrations, has no crucifixion scene. Neither do Books Six, Five, Four or Three. Of eight books in the Sadlier series, only three have crucifixion scenes. This central symbol of the Christian faith is apparently not in accord with the humanistic emphasis on our goodness.

When supernatural or non – humanistic topics are covered, they are given a curious slant. Sin, for instance, is usually treated as an impediment to growth — not to growth in Christ, just to growth. For example, God’s message to Cain as rendered by Benziger is, “You can grow; you can become a better and wiser person.” Accordingly, penance is viewed as a challenge to self-understanding, a chance to talk on an “I-you level with the priest about ourselves.” But penance is not the remedy of choice in these books. Rather, the emphasis in book after book is on values clarification or on Kohlberg’s stages of moral growth or on some form of decision – making.

Chapter One of Understanding Christian Morality in the William C. Brown series presents Kohlberg’s six stages as though they were scientific fact. Benziger, on the other hand, prescribes the seven steps of values clarification. Step One asks, “Does my position make me feel good?” As is so often true in these texts, this emphasis follows not so much from Christian principles as from psychological premises — in this case, the assumption that wrongdoing is simply a matter of poor decision-making skills. Good decision-making is apparently almost the whole point of the gospels which are “a help to Christians in making their decisions because they show Jesus and the others accepting both challenge and the familiar as part of their decision – making process.

Another method of firming up the self is positive thinking. One of the earlier Sadlier books tells the story of Olympic skier, Jill Kinmont, who was paralyzed in an accident, and how she “began to believe in herself once more.” In a subsequent chapter, an attempt is made to relate her tragedy to the Fall and her new hope to the new hope we have in Christ. But it is difficult to correct the impression given in the earlier chapter that obstacles are overcome simply by tapping deep inner resources, or that the worst thing about obstacles is that they “threaten our image of ourselves.” Kinmont’s recovery is made possible by the intervention of a friend but also because “She had her identity: Jill Kinmont, a person with a lot to live for, and a lot to give to others.”

The positive-thinking theme is much more explicit in The Fully Alive Experience, a retreat workbook for high school students. Chapter Two starts off with this quote from William James:

“The greatest discovery in our generation is that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”

The right “inner attitude” comes from “choosing or deciding to esteem ourselves.” A few paragraphs later, the student is advised: “Through countering, modeling, stretching and praying, we can come to a life-giving self -image.” “Life-giving self-image” is, of course, a new star in the Catholic firmament. Readers of this religious self -help manual may be forgiven if they conclude that salvation is something one does for oneself.

The content of the textbooks, however, may be only a partial indicator of the depth of the psychological mentality that exists in religious education classrooms. The publishers still want an Imprimatur or Nihil Obstat, and this desire insures that the emphasis on personal growth will be balanced by doctrinal content. The teachers, however, are much freer in this regard; casual observation suggests that they lean even more heavily toward psychology than do the textbooks. One teacher, when asked to explain the doctrinal content of her course, replied, “We are teaching the children to grow, to become whole persons, to question, to choose values.”

Even if the teaching and the textbooks were doctrinally sound, there would remain the question of method. While all of the newer texts do present basic Catholic beliefs, there is often a problem with the manner in which they are presented. The major problem has to do with the humanistic emphasis on truth as a personal construct, independent of outside norms. The Church has always claimed to deal in revealed truths rather than revealed opinions. The textbook writers are aware of this, of course, and make gestures in the direction of asserting Catholic doctrine as infallible truth. At several points in all of these texts, there are conscious attempts to inform the student that he can’t simply make up his own truths whenever he wants to. The authors seem to realize that this is the direction toward which humanistic psychology leads. Yet, it is a temptation they themselves can’t resist. For example, in the Sadlier book, One Faith, One Lord, in a section entitled, “What It Means to Me,” the student is invited to decide upon the powers of God himself:

Take a stand on what you believe by choosing one of the answers below. In the column on the right give the reasons for your choice.

Among the choices given are:

1. I believe God created the universe.

2. I believe God had nothing to do with creation.

Most Sadlier chapters have at their end a section entitled “What It Means to Me.” Likewise, most chapters in the later Benziger books end with an invitation to students to write down a definition of this or that Catholic doctrine “in your own words.” In the Conscience and Concern series, students are asked: “Do you agree or disagree that the sacraments are celebrations of important moments in a person’s life? Why?” and “From your point of view, what is the future of each of the sacraments?”

Similar questions of opinion can be found in many of these modern religious texts. Questions asking if premarital sex is permissible, if religion is valuable, or if attendance at Sunday Mass is important are often presented to readers as matters of choice. In one of the Wm. C. Brown books, students are asked, “Do you think abortion is a moral solution to an unwanted pregnancy?” On the same page, students are directed: “Write a short paragraph giving your philosophy of life.”

This “you decide” approach to the faith is dictated by the often schizoid nature of the textbook writers’ belief. Their double allegiance to Catholicism on the one hand and to a self-oriented psychology on the other almost guarantees that every advance on the doctrinal front will be canceled out by a concession to solipsism. It is an unfortunate illustration of the old adage that how you teach is more important than what you teach. In Catechesi tradendae, John Paul II states: “A technique is of value in catechesis only to the extent that it serves the faith that is to be transmitted and learned; otherwise, it is of no value.” It is difficult to see how the techniques mentioned above adequately serve the Catholic faith in its integrity. At best, the student will likely be confused by these double messages, if not actually misled into supposing that God’s laws are arbitrary and Catholic morality relativistic. The (one hopes) unintended message is that Church teachings are open to just any subjective interpretation, and with that message comes the implication that the authority of the Church to pronounce on matters of right and wrong is no different from that of any other authority; indeed, it is no better than personal authority.

All of which leads to another point. Educators often speak of a hidden curriculum in the schools — values which are not explicitly stated but are subtly conveyed by actions and priorities. The hidden curriculum in the psychologically inspired texts looks very much like some form of secular humanism. The penchant for psychologizing is, of course, the most obvious example of it. The repeated use of identity quizzes (on a computer-card format), self-esteem tests, personality profiles, values inventories, and relationship compatibility tests, suggest that Christian growth is to be measured simply in terms of human fulfillment. But the secular tone is not by any means limited to psychology. The Sadlier series, for instance, makes much ado over Arthur Fonzarelli, Archie Bunker, Mary Tyler Moore and other media celebrities, and it juxtaposes their photos with pictures of apostles and martyrs.

Other series specialize in the use of photo illustrations that can only be described as contemporary-mod. The intent here is either to speak to the students’ interests or to show that Christianity is relevant to the modern world. The effect, however, is to ratify secular culture, and place it on an even footing with Christianity.

Christians are, at times, supposed to separate themselves from the world and even to judge it. But it is difficult to see how these texts even with their stress on autonomous judgment could encourage that kind of Christianity. Although much emphasis is laid on community in these texts, one does not get the sense that that community is the City of God. It looks instead like the secular city with an overlay of religious sentiment. The Catholic Church appears no different from any other socially aware organization or movement. If it is made to seem relevant, it is also made to seem superfluous — a pious accessory that one might choose to complement one’s existing repertoire of secular ideas.

It is not that the sacred element has been excluded — the Benziger series, for example, is replete with Bible stories — but that it has been severely compromised by the tone of sunny rationalism which pervades these texts. The constant reference to “communications breakdowns,” “risk-taking,” “involvement,” “decision – making,” “personhood,” “I – you relationships,” “getting in touch, “self-disclosure,” “awareness” and “assertiveness” carries the implication that all the deep mysteries of faith can be encompassed in secular/psychological categories. In fact, there is very little sense that there are any deep mysteries — that there might be some elements of the faith so awesome and unfathomable that they exist far beyond the reach of the social sciences. Even Christ is reduced to size. “In His life,” according to one text, “Jesus showed what it meant to be a whole person.” In another text, Christ seems to be little more than an advertisement for the telephone company: “Christ quite likely was trying to teach something about the miracle taking place every time one person reaches out and touches the life of another.” This type of thing, along with the juxtaposition of the sacred and the trendy, only serves to trivialize the gospels, to set them within mundane limits. Reading these books one gets the impression that Christianity is little more than an ethical or value system. “Here,” they say, “are some examples of very good people with well-thought out values. Knowing about them can help you develop a value system of your own.”

Even if it were true that psychologically based techniques for promoting values and growth did work — and that is far from certain — it would be a small gain if, in the process, Catholic students suffered a loss of the sacred. Almost everything else in today’s world conspires to rob young people of what Wordsworth called the “vision splendid” — the child’s intuitive sense of wonder. The Church has always stood on the side of the child in this matter, and proclaimed that the world is indeed uncanny and marvelous, with greater marvels to come. Against any number of temptations, she has not allowed the light of revelation to “fade into the light of common day.” But the current attraction which some Catholic educators have for humanistic psychology must be seen as just such a temptation. The temptation is understandable, of course. It is a fine thing to be a whole person. But it is essential to remember that Christianity has radically transformed the notion of what it means to be a whole person.

The irony of all this is that Catholic educators already had an effective psychological approach in place. There were many problems with the previous system, to be sure, but if we can speak about a deep psychology as opposed to a superficial psychology of technique, it becomes apparent that the Church was psychologically far more sophisticated in the past than she is today. Catholic educators knew how to evoke responses from regions of the psyche that lie far deeper than those surface areas given over to concerns of decision-making and self-concept. That this is so is attested by the almost indelible nature Catholicism once had. One could no more get rid of it than one could escape the color of one’s skin. That does not appear to be the case today. Catholicism is rather easily shucked off by many. And one reason, certainly, is that an inferior brand of psychology has insinuated itself into the catechetical movement. While humanistic psychology may be helpful in some areas (such as therapy), it cannot be freely applied to all areas or in all circumstances. Sometimes it simply won’t work. It is an inappropriate tool. Anyone trained in pedagogy knows that each subject area has its own appropriate method. A technique that is appropriate for a creative writing class may not be at all useful in a physics class. And a gym instructor will not want to use the same methods as the social studies teacher or the school counselor. Now in many respects teaching Catholic faith is more like teaching a physics class than a social studies class. It has to do with permanent laws. One does not decide upon the validity of divine truths by the group discussion method any more than one uses that method to decide upon the point at which water boils. In other respects, teaching Catholicism is like teaching poetry or folklore or myth. Memorization – the storing up of wisdom – is called for. In still other respects, it is like a class in gym or dance: the muscles need to be trained as well as the mind; the proper movements and steps have to be practiced over and over. But finally, of course, the Catholic faith is literally like nothing else on earth. The Church is at once our supernatural mother and the Bride of Christ, and God our Father dwells in inaccessible light. These mysteries can only be approached in an atmosphere of reverence and humility. The atmosphere simply of free inquiry and self-concern won’t work.

It seems that all of this was better understood once. It represents an older form of psychology – what was once referred to as “the psychology of the soul.” But it is precisely by these oldest ways, if we may extend Chesterton’s observation, that the youngest people ought to be taught.


  • Janice D'Avignon and William Kirk Kilpatrick

    In 1984, Janice D'Avignon was adjunct professor of educational psychology at Boston College and at St. John's Seminary, Boston. William Kirk Kilpatrick was professor of educational psychology at Boston College.

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...