Some of Freud’s map of the psyche has been debunked, but evidence is strong for “reaction formation,” a defense mechanism lurking behind some crusades.
“The lady doth protesteth too much, me thinks.” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet: III, ii, 242)
Be wary of crusaders! I have debated this article in my mind for days, arguing with myself whether I really wanted to write it. I have always dreaded offending people, and there’s just no way I’m going to be able to write this without someone feeling offended. But I also believe that simply not ever offending anyone is not a worthy goal for either a writer or a priest. I once asked a priest why he decided not to preach on the sanctity of life on “Respect Life Sunday.” He responded that he just doesn’t like offending anyone and someone is always offended when he preaches a pro-life homily. Sometimes, not offending anyone means avoiding ever speaking the truth.
It takes a degree of courage to point out the truth to ears that would rather not hear it. One newer reader of my blog at www.TheseStoneWalls.com has a recent example. Chris Tressa discovered TSW because Spero News publishes my posts. TSW has a “Comments Policy” that sets a standard for reader comments. I described why we have it in “When the Gloves Come Off on Catholic Blogs.” But Spero News is sort of the on-line frontier. Like many sites, civil discourse takes a back seat to free flowing reader opinion. So Spero News posts pretty much anything anyone wants to say.
We can’t really fault Spero News for this when standards for civil discourse don’t apply on many Catholic sites as well. Some of the comments posted on just about any subject in the Catholic Church by readers of the National Catholic Reporter demonstrate the steep decline in on-line Catholic civility I wrote of in “My Incendiary Blog Post on Catholic Civil Discourse,” and “The Scandal of Catholic Abuse of the Catholic Abuse Scandal.”
Spero News has lots of readers, but not a lot of comments. The relatively rare comments on my articles there are often printed and mailed to me. Some are very positive, but some are just outright attacks. I’m never offended, however. Invariably, the attacks are turned around by other readers and often backfire on their authors – who never identify themselves, by the way.
Sometimes this is even humorous. One writer identifying herself as an unnamed SNAP leader wrote in a comment that she finds it “despicable and deplorable” that an accused and convicted Catholic priest is given a voice on-line at a site called These Stone Walls. The sole comment posted in response made me laugh out loud:
“I clicked on that link and just spent several hours reading These Stone Walls. I found it to be riveting and uplifting. Thank you for telling us of this wonderful site.”
I don’t think that’s the response the SNAP writer hoped for, but Chris Tressa learned of TSW in just that way. A man who leaves negative comments about priests throughout the Catholic on-line world posted a really toxic one on the Spero News reprint of my TSW post, “When the Gloves Come Off On Catholic Blogs.” It was obvious that he didn’t actually read that post before spouting off, because he demonstrated in graphic prose the very points I set out to make. What was really of interest to me, however, was Chris Tressa’s comment in response:
“In one brief comment, the writer above used the term ‘pedophile priest’ five times, along with multiple variations of ‘child rape’ – all in just a few sentences of text. Who does that? To paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘The man doth protesteth too much, me thinks!’ This sounds to me like classic reaction formation. Is it time to visit the shrink?”
From an analysis of typical comments in Catholic media, it might appear that a lot of people have ongoing and extremely negative views about Catholic priests. That may not be the case. What’s really going on is that a relatively small number of crusaders are “seeding” the Internet with their comments. If you take the time – and have the stomach for it – to track comments throughout the catholic on-line world, and at mainstream media articles about the Catholic scandal, you’ll see the same few screen names over and over.
They seem to be everywhere, and Chris Tressa ran into one of them. They are on a very personal crusade, but what makes this so personal for them? As Chris Tressa asked, “Who does that?” Is it because they are victims of sexual abuse? Perhaps so, but I know MANY adult victims of sexual abuse who are not crusaders. This prison and prisons everywhere are filled with men who were seriously victimized as children. A number of the readers and supporters of These Stone Walls are survivors of childhood sexual abuse who resent the venom being spewed in their names.
But it’s also a fact that many of the most vocal crusaders at SNAP, Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), and Bishop-Accountability are not victims of sexual abuse. So what’s behind the nasty crusade of vilification and suspicion?
CLASSIC DEFENSE MECHANISMS
We got a hint of the answer in the case of Dr. Steve Taylor, a Louisiana psychiatrist and member of SNAP who has been one of the more vocal advocates for an end to all civil rights for accused priests. Dr. Taylor has argued loudly for an end to any state respect for the seal of the Catholic confessional. Dr. Taylor was also the founder of a local chapter of SNAP. “We have faces now,” he bitterly exclaimed to legislators and news cameras while SNAP members held up the contrived “Holy Childhood photos” described in “SNAP Exposed” and my own post, “SNAP’s Last Gasp!” in September 2011.
Over the last three years, Dr. Steve Taylor has lost his medical license to practice psychiatry. He is now serving a sentence in a federal prison convicted on multiple charges of possessing child pornography.
Before he was sentenced to prison, SNAP founder Barbara Blaine and anti-Catholic author Jason Berry both pleaded for leniency for Dr. Taylor citing that his “problem” does not undo or overshadow all the good he has done. We might keep this in mind as SNAP leaders now vilify Bishop Robert Finn, charged with a misdemeanor for not reporting a priest fast enough when the priest was allegedly discovered with child pornography.
The crusade against accused priests that Dr. Steve Taylor was on has many of the elements of classic reaction formation, a concept first proposed by the father of modern psychiatry, Sigmund Freud. His descriptions of human ego defense mechanisms and hysteria included this entirely unconscious phenomenon which he described as an attempt to cover up something unacceptable in oneself by adopting a stance in opposition to it. It is the formation of a reaction to an encounter with self. When something disdained is discovered there, defense mechanisms like reaction formation can develop into an elaborate ruse in which the thing feared in oneself becomes the thing attacked in others.
There are many modern examples. Congressman Mark Foley railed in Congress for bills targeting those who would sexually exploit young people. In 2006, Congressman Foley resigned after he was confronted with sending sexually explicit e-mail and text messages to teenage male pages working for the U.S. Legislature.
The televangelist scandals of the 1980’s involving famed TV preachers Jimmy Swaggart, PTL’s Jim Baker, and others also come to mind. Week after week, they railed against the licentiousness of the modern era while caught in their own sexual and financial scandals. Former New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer mercilessly prosecuted officials caught in prostitution and other crimes before he was himself arrested in a prostitution sting. In the 1970’s, Covenant House Founder, Father Bruce Ritter testified before Congress to expose what he called the rampant exploitation of homeless youth on America’s streets only to leave the country when several of the very young people he claimed to be saving accused him of sexual abuse.
DEBBIE NATHAN ON “SYBIL” AND HYSTERIA
Much of what Sigmund Freud brought to the field of psychology and its understanding of hysteria has been debunked. One of the latest debunkings – and one of the finest – is a new book by Debbie Nathan entitled Sybil Exposed (Free Press, 2011). Debbie Nathan serves on the advisory board of the National Center for Reason and Justice (www.ncrj.org). (For full disclosure, I should tell you that this heroic organization endorses These Stone Walls and assists in sponsorship of my own defense).
Debbie Nathan is also the author (with Michael Snedeker) of an earlier landmark book, Satan’s Silence, which exposed the great fraud behind the ritual sex abuse stories of the 1980’s. Debbie Nathan continues this theme in Sybil Exposed, a riveting account of the fraud perpetrated in the story of Shirley Mason, known to the world as “Sybil.” Debbie Nathan here exposes the truth behind the world’s most famous case of multiple personality ever brought to print and the silver screen.
Sybil, aided by an ambitious psychiatrist, claimed to have sixteen separate personalities brought on by a childhood traumatized by sexual and physical abuse. But Debbie Nathan now exposes that it was all an elaborate hoax, a hoax that sold six million copies of Flora Rheta Schreiber’s 1973 book, Sybil. It turns out that neither the abuse nor the multiple personalities were real. In Sybil Exposed, Debbie Nathan has performed a great service to victims of the “hysteria prosecution” craze.
The story of Sybil was also a fraud on the American courts. The two decades from 1980 to 2000 saw multiple cases of “victims” claiming to have trauma-induced repressed and recovered memories of sexual abuse. Many men – including some Catholic priests – went to prison on those fraudulent claims. Some are still in prison. Writer Ryan MacDonald wrote of how the “psychological trauma” fraud played out in my own case in “How Psychotherapists Helped Send an Innocent Priest to Prison.”
But “reaction formation,” one of Freud’s signature theories about hysteria and ego defense mechanisms, has survived all the debunking. One of the most advanced modern psychology studies demonstrating the power of reaction formation (Adams. Wright & Lohr, 1996) was on the topic of homophobia. It pointed out the difference between a moral belief that society should not promote homosexuality as a social good, and a more personal belief that society should persecute homosexuals. They are not one and the same. The 1996 study found that people who cross the line between a moral opposition and a moral crusade are often “protesting too much” a tendency in themselves that they find unacceptable.
Reaction formation also influences our views about what constitutes prejudice. Political or religious opposition to same-sex marriage, for example, is often – and wrongly – interpreted as active persecution and outright bigotry. I have known gay rights activists who interpret any opposition to their political goals and social agenda as religious persecution and a denial of their civil rights. This is the second way reaction formation is manifested. People who see all disagreement as judgment, condemnation, and persecution may really be passing judgment on themselves. I have read repeatedly that the Catholic Church “condemns gay people.”
This is simply untrue.
REACTION FORMATION AGAINST PREJUDICE
American society since the 1960s has been especially conscious of any appearance of racial bias or prejudice, and has widely endorsed strong norms condemning prejudice. If Americans are led to believe that they may hold unacceptable prejudiced beliefs, or if they even believe that others are seeing them in this light, “they may respond with exaggerated displays of not being prejudiced (Adams, Wright and Lohr, 1996).
The debate surrounding gay marriage may be an example of that response. When concerns are raised that gay marriage laws are an example of legislation and social reform by judicial fiat instead of by a democratic process, gay rights activists typically, and wrongly, dismiss the objection as bigotry. The media has given strength to that interpretation by underwriting it, and many Americans have withdrawn or silenced their opposition to same-sex marriage because of a politically correct fear of appearing prejudiced.
A striking example of how the fear of appearing prejudiced creates reaction formation is something that occurred in the Episcopal church in New Hampshire. The World Wide Anglican Communion has been in a state of civil war since the 2003 election of Bishop V. Gene Robinson. At the time he was nominated as bishop, he was a divorced, openly gay man in a relationship with another man. This has played out in New Hampshire almost perfectly parallel to the Catholic sexual abuse crisis, but never the two shall meet.
And yet I have no doubt whatsoever that if Gene Robinson was not a gay man – if he was simply a heterosexual divorcee living with another woman, he would never have been a candidate for bishop in any U.S. Episcopalian diocese. This seems an example of a group so wishing to demonstrate its lack of prejudice that a new standard for its episcopacy was created. Bishop Robinson was not elected bishop in spite of being openly gay, but because of it. The global Anglican Communion has been torn asunder by this one example of reaction formation. Yet I have read repeatedly that one of the goals of “reform” groups like Voice Of the Faithful is to foster an American Catholic church that mirrors the Episcopal church and its “sensitivity” to politically correct American values. Thanks, but no thanks.
This same politically correct fear of appearing prejudiced has also radically altered the U.S. Bishops’ collective response to the Catholic sex abuse scandal. When the John Jay College of Criminal Justice was commissioned to study the causes and contexts, both the researchers and the bishops were left with a conundrum. The results were clear that this was not a crisis involving pedophilia as it is clinically defined – though that did exist on a much smaller scale. The problem was predominantly, and clearly, claims of homosexual predation of adolescent and young adult males during the sexual revolution of the 1960s to 1980s. There is no greater evidence of the power of reaction formation than when an entire institution would prefer the term “pedophile scandal” to “homosexual scandal” even when the facts say otherwise.
Truth and honesty are truly golden things, and most of you, in your own heart of hearts, know them when you see them. We are in a culture, however, in which the views of many are manipulated by the agendas of a few. But sometimes the few are themselves manipulated by the quirks of their own psyches. Be wary of crusaders. Freud and Shakespeare both knew the truth about them. Sometimes they doth protesteth too much.
Fr. Gordon J. MacRae is a Spero News columnist and a prisoner at the New Hampshire State Prison. He writes weekly for an award-winning blog at www.TheseStoneWalls.com, a wrongful conviction website sponsored by The National Center for Reason and Justice – www.ncrj.org.