William Coulson and the LCWR: “We Overcame Their Traditions and Their Faith”

William Coulson and the LCWR: “We Overcame Their Traditions and Their Faith” April 19, 2012

This week the Vatican released its doctrinal assessment of the LCWR, the Leadership Council of Women Religious. The statement read, in part:

On June 25, 2010, Bishop Blair presented further documentation on the content of the LCWR’s Mentoring Leadership Manual and also on the organizations associated with the LCWR, namely Network and The Resource Center for Religious Institutes. The documentation reveals that, while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching.

But if the LCWR’s membership—which includes, according to their statistics, 80% of women religious in the United States—are off-track theologically, that has not always been the case.   The “angry feminist nun” seems to be a citizen of the modern era.   Once it seemed that the life of a Sister was a life of piety and prayerful service, not theological dissent and left-wing political causes.

Things have changed, to be sure.   But why? William Coulson may have an answer to that question.

* * * * *

The Sixties—that loosely defined “cultural decade” that began around 1963 and ended around 1974—was a time of great social turbulence.   Our country was at war in Vietnam; rock and roll was king; the sexual revolution lured youthful heads away from traditional morality toward a new permissiveness.

In that “anything goes” climate, in 1966-67 Dr. William Coulson embarked on a mission to change the Catholic Church.   With his mentor, influential American psychologist Carl Rogers, Coulson inundated Catholic religious orders with humanistic psychology— “nondirectional therapy” which they termed “Therapy for Normals” or TFN.

They began with the IHMs, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.   Speaking later with great regret, Coulson explained how they had influenced the Sisters to look not to the Commandments, to the Church, or to God, but to look instead within themselves to find their own personal truth.

Rogers, Coulson and their team had a three-year grant; but they suspended the project after only two years, because they could see what a negative effect it had had.   In 1986, Naiad Press published a tragic book called Lesbian Nuns, Breaking Silence by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan, which documented part of their effect on the IHMs and other orders who had participated in “sensitivity sessions” or “encounter groups.”

Asked about the effect of their inundation, Coulson later said:

Rogers and I…called it Therapy for Normals, TFN.   The IHMs had some 60 schools when we started; at the end, they had one.   There were some 615 nuns when we began.   Within a year after our first interventions, 300 of them were petitioning Rome to get out of their vows.   They did not want to be under anyone’s authority, except the authority of their imperial inner selves.

Coulson and his group offered workshops for other religious orders including the Jesuits, the Franciscans, the Sisters of Providence, Sisters of Charity, and the Mercy Sisters. Coulson spoke to the National Federation of Priests’ Councils and the National Catholic Guidance Conference.  They conducted encounter groups for dozens of Catholic religious organizations because, as he explained, in the excitement that followed Vatican II, “everybody wanted to update, everybody wanted to renew.” Humanistic psychology was a way for people to “renew” without having to study.

Coulson came to see his work, and his wide influence in Catholic education, as a great failure. As a case in point, he cited Immaculate Heart College, which was founded by the IHM Sisters in Los Angeles in 1916.   The college served Catholics in southern California until the late 1960s, when William Coulson and researchers from the Esalen Institute conducted therapy experiments there.   The Sisters, following what they believed to be guidance from Pope Paul VI, conducted an extensive review of their structure and proposed changes in how they prayed, worked, lived together and governed themselves.   However, Cardinal Francis McIntyre, the Archbishop of Los Angeles, was opposed to their proposed changes.   He ordered the removal of all IHM sisters teaching in Los Angeles diocesan schools, and presented the community with an ultimatum:   either conform to the standards of traditional religious life, or seek dispensation from their vows.

In the end, 90% of the IHM sisters—encouraged by the humanistic, person-centered psychology of Rogers and Coulson—sought release from their vows.

Coulson deeply regretted the impact they had had on religious communities. He said,

“…it destroyed Catholic religious profession, just as it would destroy the practice of medicine if medicine took seriously the idea that all the answers are within the students; so, too, did it destroy the vows of the nuns. There were many priests who didn’t even bother to get laicized. They just left, saying, “My vows don’t count for anything, because they came from somewhere else; they didn’t come from within.”

The field of psychology, Coulson taught, consisted of three “planes” or “floors”:

1. Psychology One – The work of Sigmund Freud;
2. Psychology Two – Behaviorism, the work of Skinner and Watson; and
3. Psychology Three – Humanistic psychology.

Coulson and other Catholics who became involved with humanistic psychology believed—wrongly, he now says—that this third force could be easily integrated with Catholic ideals, with the belief that every person is precious.   We have human potential, Coulson taught, because we are children of a loving God Who has something marvelous in mind for every one of us.

Coulson warns that practitioners of humanistic psychology, having wreaked destruction with their self-centered theories, have now moved on to a “fourth plane” that he calls New Age psychology.

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