The ‘ethics’ of the Catholic bishops? Freud had a name for that: Reaction formation.

pedophile-priest-with-hiv-who-raped-30-children-forgiven-by-church-counter-current-news As Pennsylvania investigators worked to confirm up to 1000 cases of sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests, a panel of Catholic ethicist-theologians appointed by the bishops was also hard at work.  

Like the Pennsylvania team, the panel serving the bishops sought to ensure that Church-affiliated institutions weren’t ignoring sexual evils. Good on them! you might think. They’re finally taking responsibility for the mess created by their obsession with priestly abstinence.  

You’d be wrong. 

Bad, Bad Birth Control 

The goal of the panel wasn’t to investigate, punish, heal or prevent child sex abuse. It was to ensure that Catholic-controlled healthcare systems don’t look the other way while doctors and other care providers offer contraception, vasectomies, tubal ligations, or abortions (or sexual transition care or death with dignity).   

The panel concluded that the bishops must prevent these evils in any institution where they have a say, including secular hospitals that have been acquired by or affiliated with Catholic healthcare corporations. In the past, mergers between Catholic-owned and secular hospitals have sometimes carved out separate legal entities to allow continued provision of reproductive and end-of-life services that are prohibited by the religious directives governing Catholic healthcare “ministries.”  

“The revised directives’ bottom line is that in any type of collaboration, everything the Catholic organization controls by acquisition, governance or management “must be operated in full accord with the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.” Additional language bars the establishment of an independent entity to “oversee, manage, or perform immoral procedures.”—Harris Meyer, Modern Healthcare 

(As an aside, it should be noted that Catholic charities and hospitals mostly serve non-Catholic people. Further, they obtain less than five percent of their revenues from Catholic offering plates, the bulk coming from taxes and private insurance.  It should also be noted that they provide less free care for poor people on average (2.8 percent in 2011) than do public hospitals (5.6 percent). Church control is largely an artifact of history and accumulated wealth.)  

At this point in history, the irony of the bishops posturing as ethical authorities in matters of sexuality is lost on no-one but the bishops themselves. A New York Times article on care refusals in Catholic hospitals provoked over 400 comments expressing outrage from Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  Have they no shame? 

More Members, More Guilt, More Abuse 

The Church has long sought to control sexuality and procreation, of course. Competitive breeding, sanctified by theologies that glorify childbearing, has been part of the Church’s expansion strategy since the origins of Christianity.  “Women will be saved through childbearing,” promised Christianity’s most noted early misogynist, the Apostle Paul.   

By the Middle Ages, the Virgin, Madonna, Whore trichotomy—a woman must be one of the three—was well ensconced, shored up by stories of virgin martyrs and saints.  As for sexuality itself, what better marketing strategy for an institution selling absolution of guilt than to persuade people that most sexual desires and pleasures are sinful?   

The Church’s antagonism to contraception (it allows sex for pleasure) and abortion (it enables women to refuse childbearing) and trans care (it garbles the carefully-delineated theology of gender binary) all can be seen as extensions of two age-old institutional objectives: more members and more guilt. Problem is, the second of those—the guilt—worked a bit too well, so well that it backfired, creating a culture of secretive, abusive sexuality.  

Why Such Warped Priorities? 

You might think that excising this festering socially-transmitted infection, making amends to victims, and transitioning to a married priesthood that recognizes the range of healthy human sexualities might be a full-time focus for the Catholic hierarchy right now. So, why have the bishops decided that now is the time to instead double down on judging such contrived sexual sins as using or inserting an IUD, or terminating an ill-conceived pregnancy, or getting the snip, or removing an unwanted uterus? Sigmund Freud would have had an answer for that. He might have called it reaction formation.   

Freud would have said that the Catholic hierarchy’s shame and guilt and outright horror at their inability to suppress their own sexuality has lead them to try even harder at controlling the sexual and reproductive lives of others.  

Most people are familiar with Freud’s concept of defense mechanisms, including, for example, denial (I do not have a problem), repression (I can’t remember), and projection (the problem isn’t me, it’s you). Reaction formation is part of the same list, but often less understood.  Here are some excerpts from the Wikipedia definition: 

Reaction formation (German: Reaktionsbildung) is a defense mechanism in which emotions and impulses which are anxiety-producing or perceived to be unacceptable are mastered by exaggeration of the directly opposing tendency. . . . Where reaction-formation takes place, it is usually assumed that the original, rejected impulse does not vanish, but persists, unconscious, in its original infantile form.[ . . . .  In a diagnostic setting, the existence of a reaction-formation rather than a ‘simple’ emotion would be suspected where exaggeration, compulsiveness and inflexibility were observed. 

The concept of reaction formation offers one hypothesis about why the Catholic hierarchy is willing to go to such extremes to suppress and control the sexuality of people who aren’t part of that hierarchy, whether through refusing medical services or through propagating harmful myths and stereotypes about sex that affect many of us.   

Freud had a lot of ideas about child development and the human subconscious that have turned out to be wrong. (Even a science as squishy as psychology is self-correcting over the course of a hundred years.)  But what’s interesting about this particular situation – the problem of the bishops and their sexual obsessions—is that Freud developed his hypotheses about human nature in precisely the kind of situation that Catholic dogmas have created: a culture that is highly repressive of sexuality, one that layers on rituals and rules in an intricate system of proprieties aimed at distancing us from our animal nature.  In Freud’s case this system was the European culture of the Victorian era. But the parallels make his analysis particularly relevant when it comes to making sense of the inside-out, upside-down “ethical” priorities of the Catholic bishops. 

Just Say No 

Part of being psychologically healthy is learning to recognize when other people are putting their stuff on you, and learning to say no–kindly when possible, but firmly. The Catholic bishops need to be told that their sexual hang-ups are not ours and that they cannot force their harmful theologies on the rest of us, especially not on the public dime, and especially not in healthcare systems that disguise their religious affiliations and where we may be sent unknowingly 

When we are sick or injured and seeking care, we are vulnerable, especially at the beginnings and endings of life.  We must be free to make important and even sacred decisions according to the dictates of our own conscience with support from people we know and trust.  It’s time to ask the bishops to leave our bedrooms and hospital rooms.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Christianity in the Public Square, Musings & Rants: Christianity, Reproductive Health, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The ‘ethics’ of the Catholic bishops? Freud had a name for that: Reaction formation.

  1. Dear Valerie, thank you again for your analysis. I get the same feeling when I see the behavior of the Catholic Church as you describe it (not addressing one own issue(s) and attempting to bring the focus to something else, namely their own obsessive agendas) as when I see the extent of the behavioral damage done by the Republicans and Trump to societies and the response we get from them (him), merely attempting to bring the public focus backto their own fanatic agendas. Keep on writing!


  2. madagascanlemur says:

    I’m sure you didn’t intend any of this post to be humorous. But I’m a Catholic univesity graduate from 1975, and a “recovering Catholic.” Way back in the ’70s a nun who taught about the Church in modern society (an iconoclast progressive named Rose Cecilia) predicted the church-wide sex abuse problems and cover ups. Back in 1973 she proposed that the only solutions were: dump celibacy, married clergy, female clergy, including bishops and cardinals. She believed that Paul VI’s edict “De Humane Vitae” (mostly about women’s reproductive choice) was insulting and just plain wrong by any modern standard. Fortunately, she didn’t live to see the regressive policies of Saint Pope John Paul II and Bishop Emeritus Benedict XVI. She’d have made a face like there was a rotten smell at the mention of either man. I found humor in parts of this post because I could hear Sister Rose Cecilia bellowing your words in her outside voice


  3. thesseli says:

    Reblogged this on Thesseli.


  4. thesseli says:

    The ethics of Catholic bishops are similar to jumbo shrimp and military intelligence.


  5. Gerard Clark says:

    There is a new recognition of a cause for Religious Trauma Syndrome.

    When an institution attempts to take the place of God, everything gets warped.
    For a long time many Catholics have prayed for the reconciliation of the Catholic clergy especially the “Dons” of the Roman Curia (the day to day administrators in Rome) with Christ. It is this flawed mentality that creates an environment that accepts “situational ethics”.

    This same flawed mentality has supported other abuses. The “bishops of bling” and the social sin of discrimination against women. This exposure could be the work of the Holy Spirit in the Celtic tradition of a Wild Goose, not content to turn over an apple cart, but intent on wrecking the whole biizzare bazaar, Maybe we will soon see Pink Smoke Over The Vatican!

    Gerry Clark


  6. Steve Ruis says:

    Could it be that the MAGA crowd has mistaken the Catholic Bishops for Qanon? The similarities are far from coincidental, no?


  7. Doug Wadeson says:

    Sad that their doctrine of celibacy virtually invites men in who have difficulty with their sexual urges and then puts them in positions of power over the vulnerable. What a recipe for disaster.


  8. Jim Lee says:

    You really have to ask yourself the question, exactly what do these Priest actually believe? It’s almost certain they do not believe what they preach to their congregations re punishments in hell for committed sins etc. I really think these religious institutions exist because of the gullibility of their followers who believe without question what they are being brainwashed with.


  9. Karen Gorder Garst says:

    As always, an excellent analysis. The Catholic Church accepted married priests, etc. for a time if they agreed not to have sex with their wives. One of the reasons it adopted celibacy was to keep any property that the priests had accumulated. If they were married, it went to the wife. How can people not see that this was a man-made religion… mostly for men.
    Karen Garst, The Faithless Feminist


  10. Ktrig says:

    Valerie, when you quote an expert, you almost always quote men. I am not a fan of the Catholic hierarchy but Freud was just as misogynistic as any bishop. When you started quoting Freud, I lost interest in your article.

    There are a lot of experts who happen to be female. Start quoting them. Indeed, I would love to hear what feminist psychoanalysts say about the bishops’ double-down behavior.


  11. BmoreBird says:

    Today’s news niw shows a contingent if the Church developing a new strategy of blame that will provide a blanket excuse and remove the current Pope – a “culture of homosexuality” within the Priesthood is the real problem.

    I think the arguments here are worth pursuing to challenge Catholic instituations as the continue to provide certain health care while also claiming a moral exception to certain care.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s