Catholic Cults and Devotions: A Psychological Inquiry

By Michael P. Carroll | Go to book overview

Introduction

The failure of psychoanalysts to take any significant interest in the study of popular Catholicism is puzzling, since popular Catholicism seems ideally suited to psychoanalytic investigation. Imagine, for example, the heart ripped from the body of a man, wrapped tightly with a circlet of thorns, pierced with a knife, and then displayed on the outside of that man's chest. Not a stylized "Valentine" heart, mind you, but a real, physical heart, complete with aortic opening and asymmetrical shape. If such an image appeared recurrently, say, in a person's dreams or in hallucinations experienced by several individuals, psychoanalytic investigators would have little hesitation in deciding that they might be able to shed light on the processes that gave rise to these images. Precisely this image does lie at the core of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, one of the most popular Catholic devotions. Yet I know of no psychoanalytic investigator who has studied this particular devotion.

Another example: imagine a person who was absolutely convinced that he or she had to wear a small piece of brown wool next to their skin in order to avoid a great calamity. Suppose further that the person insisted that the wool had to be brown and had to be worn continuously. Could there be a clearer case of obsessive behaviour? Yet though obsessive behaviour of just this sort was among the very first things studied by Freud, this particular obsession — which defines the Catholic devotion to the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel — has been ignored by psychoanalytic investigators.

Or what about the Catholic insistence that the Angelus prayer only be said in response to the sounding of a loud church bell? Or the fact that the Rosary only became a popular devotion when the Rosary prayers were merged with the practice of fingering small hard beads? Or the very graphic emphasis upon the suffering of Christ evident in the Stations of the Cross? Why haven't such things been addressed by the psychoanalytic investigators, who find it so easy to address similar beliefs and patterns in connection with dreams, myths, neurotic behaviour, and so on?

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