Profession and Faith: The National Guild of Catholic Psychiatrists, 1950-1968

By Nussbaum, Abraham | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Profession and Faith: The National Guild of Catholic Psychiatrists, 1950-1968


Nussbaum, Abraham, The Catholic Historical Review


In the early 1950's, Roman Catholics in America were underrepresented as psychiatric patients and practitioners, and a group of lay Catholic psychiatrists organized a National Guild of Catholic Psychiatrists and published the Bulletin of the Guild of Catholic Psychiatrists as a first step towards establishing an institutional Catholic presence within American psychiatry. From 1952 to 1968, the members of the Guild taught Catholic clergy to adopt psychiatric methods both for the selection and training of their members, and for the pastoral counsel with which they succored the laity. The Guild successfully introduced psychiatry into the Catholic experience, but they failed to create a thriving subculture within American psychiatry; the Guild is an exemplary failure in the efforts of Roman Catholics in America to create distinctly Catholic institutions.

In the late 1940's, Roman Catholic psychiatrists in America found themselves at the margins of their professional and faith communities. Many Catholics believed psychiatry a secular imitation of the faith, while many non-Catholic psychiatrists feared that Catholics were so dogmatic that it was deleterious to their mental health.1 In April 1950, a small group of lay male Catholic psychiatrists, seeking a concord between their faith and their profession, placed a small notice in the back-pages of the American Journal of Psychiatry, their profession's journal of record, asking "Any Catholic psychiatrist who is a member of the American Psychiatric Association" to write to Dr. Edward L. Brennan.2 The notice did not explain why a reader ought to write Brennan: the unexplained invitation implicitly assumed that Catholic psychiatrists would recognize the need for such an organization.

Perhaps the intended readers of this notice still heard, ringing in their ears, the 1947 Lenten sermon that Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen had preached at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, a sermon publicized by The New York Times. Sheen, the most charismatic and popular Catholic preacher of the era, had unfavorably compared psychoanalysis to confession and analysts to confessors, implying that psychiatry was a wan imitation of the true faith of Catholicism.3 Some Catholic psychiatrists received the homily as a grievous insult. When Sheen refused to retract or clarify his statements, four prominent Catholic psychiatrists denounced Sheen and angrily insisted that no conflict existed between psychiatry and Catholicism, a denunciation also reported by the New York Times. One of these four psychiatrists, Frank J. Curran, resigned in protest from his position as the chief psychiatrist at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City and told a reporter that his some of his patients had ceased psychiatric treatment for fear that it constituted a sin.4 Another of the four psychiatrists, Leo H. Bartemeier, responded to Sheen's provocation in 1949 by inveighing upon Pope Pius XII to embrace psychiatry as licit. During his audience, Bartemeier found the Pope receptive to psychiatry, and in 1953, Pius XII made the first supportive, if qualified, papal statement on psychiatry.5 Men like Bartemeier and Curran were the peers whom Brennan sought, Catholic psychiatrists making inroads into a Catholic culture which perceived psychiatry as a threat to the faith, while publicly embracing their faith at some risk to their professional careers.

Eighteen such men responded to Brennan's notice, and in 1952, they formed the National Guild of Catholic Psychiatrists, the first religion-based psychiatric society recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Like Brennan, the Guild and its members sought both to make psychiatry licit for Catholics, and Catholicism acceptable to psychiatrists.They enjoyed scant success on the latter front, as their meetings and publications attracted only passing notice from most of their secular colleagues in the APA.To be sure, there were exceptions, Catholic psychiatrists like Francis J. …

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