Appeared in Spring 1997, Vol. XXIII, No. 1 Download PDF here

Advocates of the philosophy of liberalism claim that the history of American society, up to and including the present, is one which is progressively improving and becoming ever more humane.1Underlying this claim are certain taken-for-granted assumptions that should be brought to the fore. One is a unilinear evolutionary scheme that posits the idea of Progress, i.e., as history marches forward, civilization moves ever closer to some utopian state of affairs. Related to this is the assumption that Progress can be measured in terms of gains in material development and accumulation, in terms of individualism defined as complete autonomy and freedom defined as unlimited choice, and in terms of the degree to which science supersedes and replaces supernaturally based religion.

Part and parcel of this supposedly inexorable march is the emergence and widespread institutionalization of the “therapeutic mentality.” By this is meant a subjectivist philosophy and practical guide for action that is concerned primarily with furthering the worldly pleasures, experiential development, perceived needs, and sense of well-being of the solitary individual. As Philip Rieff states, “that a sense of well-being has become the end, rather than a by-product of striving after some superior communal end, announces a fundamental change of focus in the entire cast of our culture…”2 A far more troubling interpretation is offered by William K. Kilpatrick: “Our transformation into a psychological society has brought with it a new set of values. They are shallow and selfish values for the most part, and they are the ruling values. But that is not the worst side of the situation. The disturbing thing is the very effective suppression of alternatives. It is difficult to remember what the old values are, let alone to pass them on.”3

Supporters argue that the spread of the therapeutic mentality throughout all sectors of society, the Catholic Church included, has been salutary. One result, so the argument goes, is that there is a greater sensitivity to the American poor. Relationships between husbands and wives are likewise characterized as more consensual and caring and children are now granted legal protection against abusive parents. It is claimed that television and the mass media, for their part, now provide “dignity” to lifestyles and ideologies once unfairly portrayed as pathological and unacceptable. Formal education is now lauded for being centered on the needs of the creative, spontaneous, and potentially autonomous child. The criminal justice system is presently seen as more humane, appropriately concerned not only with the “rights” of the criminal but with the moral and intellectual complexities involved in understanding the very nature of crime itself. Similarly, the therapeutic revolution that has taken hold of the Catholic Church in the U.S. is seen, in a phrase, to make the institution much more “Christ-like.”

While there is a grain of truth to the salutary effects of the therapeutic mentality, in our present society it has been emphasized out of its proper proportion in relationship to more important allegiances that transcend the individual, i.e., the human being’s ultimate commitment to God and penultimate obligation to a society composed of the children of God. Indeed, the unqualified application of the therapeutic mentality threatens not only a civilization necessarily built on human solidarity but, even more importantly, the salvation of souls. The evidence is in: a fair verdict is that the therapeutic mentality has failed society and Church with serious and unhappy consequences for both.

Regarding American society, we will examine how the therapeutic mentality has brought about changes in culture, the family, television, formal education, the criminal justice system, and, in general, the role of government. Regarding the Church, discussion will be centered on changes in the image of God; in the concept of sin; in participation in the rite of reconciliation; in pastoral practice to divorced and remarried Catholics, homosexuals, feminists, and youthful practitioners of pre-marital sex; in the nature and perception of the institutional Church and in the role of individual conscience; and in the religious orders and seminaries. This essay should be considered primarily interpretive and exploratory, setting up a host of issues and hypotheses to be subsequently researched more fully and tested empirically by Catholic social scientists.

IL American Society

When Edward Banfield published his thesis that one significant cause of poverty was the existence of a counter culture of pathological values, he was, unsurprisingly and unfairly, attacked by the Left as being both insensitive and racist. In brief, his argument was that certain sectors of the poor were poor because they were participants in a cultural world that stressed a present-oriented hedonism and lacked, conversely, the necessary middle-class emphasis (at that time, at least) on such virtues as marital fidelity and a work ethic.4One must acknowledge that there are many other reasons for the emergence and spread of poverty in the U.S. that include the expanding welfare state,5various forms of discrimination,6and the move of industry and positive role models away from the inner cities and wherever the poor are located.7 To circumscribe Banfield’s thesis, however, is not to deny it. As a matter of fact, Banfield’s analysis is even more important today and not just because of the deteriorating position of the “underclass,” whether black, Hispanic, or white. Rather, Banfield is more relevant today because of the dispersion “upwards” of a worldview-now “subcultural” and no longer “countercultural”-that now extends well into the middle classes. Drugs, alcohol, and “liberated” sex are now part of the self-destructive “tool kit” of not only a certain segment of the American poor but also of yuppified bourgeois Americans in search of either outright self-gratification or some “new age,” therapeutically-informed religious reformulation.