The “Ultimate secret “
Reprinted from TOMORROW, Vol. 6, No. 4 Autumn, 1958
Pope Pius XII’s address to the Congress of Applied Psychology raised several vital questions about hypnosis and psychotherapy
On April 11, 1958, the late Pope Pius XII admitted to his presence the members of the Thirteenth International Congress of Applied Psychology, who had convened in Rome from all over the world. On that occasion, the Pontiff commented extensively on the subject of clinical psychology and psychotherapy. His remarks were subsequently published, in the French language, in the official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
With the full text o his comments available, Pope Pius’ position could be studied in all details. His address suggested deep appreciation of the growing importance of modern means in the field of psychological studies, as well as of psychotherapy generally. On the other hand, the statement appeared to over-emphasize the possible dangers present in these fields, technical limits are not taken hilly into account, and several aspects of psychotherapeutic activities were not fully explored.
Speaking of psychology generally, Pius XII expressed his approval, with certain reservations, of the “Ethical Standards for Psychologists,” as defined by the American Psychological Association. He acknowledged that psychological testing procedures and other research techniques have “added enormously to our knowledge of the human personality.” However, he expressed reservations regarding such means as the lie detector or narcoanalysis, which he regarded as “questionable” if used as part of psychotherapy and as “illicit” if part of judicial procedure. Pope Pius was also sharply critical of what he described as “psychiatric interventions” made “without the preliminary consent of the patient.”
Although he did not specifically refer to hypnosis or to psychoanalytic techniques, the Pope expressed concern over the “intimate psyche” of a person, which, he said, “the individual defends against intrusion by others.” He stated: “Certain matters will even be guarded at all costs and against anyone,” adding that even if a subject gives his consent, the psychologist or psychotherapist must be careful not to infringe moral rules, nor to injure the rights of a third person. Recalling his words to the participants of the Congress of Psychotherapy in 1953, Pope Pius said that “certain secrets cannot be revealed absolutely, even to one single, prudent person.”
Toward the end of his address, the Pope stated that “the psychologist who really wishes to do his patient good will show himself particularly careful in respecting the moral limits of his action,” aware that he has been entrusted, so to speak, with his patient’s “capacity of acting freely, of realizing the highest values of his personal destiny and of his social vocation.”
The main points of the Pontiff’s address may therefore be summarized as follows: depth psychological interventions may violate a sort of inner temple of the individual, may threaten a freedom which is considered irreducible; the individual has a right to protect this inner temple, and should the psychologist or psychotherapist fail to recognize this right, the patient has to defend himself, with his own means, against such possible intrusion. These comments, made a few months before the death of Pope Pius XII, must be considered the authoritative view of the Roman Catholic Church, unless and until they are revised by his successor.
19th Century View of Hypnotism
It is this writer’s view that psychological investigations and psychotherapy do not, in fact, present dangers of this type, in such a way or to any such extent. And if certain perils exist, as they certainly do, they are more likely to be created by quite different forms of interventions.
Perhaps more than any other psychological technique, hypnosis has stimulated controversy as to whether or not its practice violates the inner personality and will power of its subjects. In the mind of the general public, the hypnotized subject often appears as the will-less tool or puppet of the hypnotist. This, however, is essentially a fictitious view, based on literary versions of the hypnotist-subject relationship, prominent in popular novels and plays of the nineteenth century; these were imaginative accounts that correspond to unconscious, widespread fantasies of a pre-adult kind.
But even an expert medical hypnotist of the nineteenth century, Dr. J. H. Delboeuf (De l’Origine des Effects Curatifs de l’Hypnotisme, Paris, 1887) was already able to note that “the hypnotized subject preserves a portion of his own intelligence, reason and freedom, quite sufficient to prevent him from performing actions which would be irreconcilable with his character and moral habits.” In other words, hypnotic suggestion cannot cause an individual to behave contrary to his basic personality to any greater degree than would be possible through any other kind of influence or enticement.
Those who might view Dr. Delboeuf as too old-fashioned an authority may note that a contemporary American expert, Dr. Milton H. Erickson, states that “hypnosis cannot be misused to induce hypnotized persons to commit actual wrongful acts, either against themselves or others.” Those conversant with the specific literature of case histories know, of course, that in a small number of instances suspicion has arisen – and in two or three cases, actual evidence seems to have been presented-that hypnotized subjects have performed, or complied with, unethical or downright criminal deeds. However, and this must be said with special emphasis, not a single such case has been reported from the practice of a qualified and responsible psychotherapist.
If these are the conditions under which hypnosis operates, it would seem that the “dangers” of psychological and psychotherapeutic techniques are still more remote. After all, these techniques permit the subject to remain fully awake and in possession of all his faculties; they are employed with the subject’s full consent-otherwise their use would be futile; moreover, as is very often the case with psychoanalysis proper, these techniques demand the careful avoidance of all direct or indirect forms of suggestion. As far as ethical criteria are concerned, it is evident that psychological investigations and psychotherapeutic interventions should be undertaken only by experts in good standing and of proven capabilities, who at the same time abide by acknowledged moral standards.
The question arises as to why, specifically, fears or criticism in this instance are to be restricted to clinical psychology and psychotherapy. Surely, high ethical standards are equally essential in other professional activities, such as surgery, legal counseling, teaching, marriage counseling, to name but a few. Psychology and psychotherapy require ethics and practices of the same high caliber as other professions that affect the life and well-being of the individual-no more, and no less.
Importance of “The Secret”
Before examining the possible basic motivation for the special emphasis notable in Pius XII’s address, let us make a brief and purely technical survey of some of his remarks and suggestions. One of the main concerns expressed by him was the need to maintain “ultimate secrets.” Such secrets, he specifically stated, “cannot be revealed absolutely, even to one single prudent person.”
The paramount problem appears to be this: even if we admit, in principle, that certain topics might be omitted from a psychological investigation, or during psychotherapeutic treatment, without real prejudice to either, who exactly is to define what actually can be omitted, without inconveniences?
Certainly, this decision cannot be left to the patient who is undergoing treatment; his decision would quite naturally reflect a “resistance” or “rationalization” on the part of the subject himself. On the other hand, who but the patient himself could decide where to draw the line between subject matters that are the legitimate concern of the therapist and those that are part of the patient’s “inner temple.” In fact, if the decision is to be made by someone other than the patient, his “ultimate secret” would have been revealed to whoever this outsider might be!
Freud’s “Golden Rule”
Regarding the possibility of “resistances” or “rationalizations” in psychotherapeutic treatment, a witty remark by Freud is pertinent. The remark concerned the “golden rule” of psychoanalysis, the patient’s pledge to say everything that comes to his mind. If, Freud observed, we should admit exceptions to this rule, we would he in the position of a state in which criminals are granted full immunity within a limited area, such as a certain square or a particular building. Where, Freud asked, would the criminals then congregate, if not inside this specific sanctuary? Similarly, he concluded, if we reserve within the mental world of a patient a certain area which psychoanalysis may not touch, this area would without a doubt become a stronghold of the patient’s unconscious resistances to treatment.
Just as ethics are not restricted to the psychologist or psychoanalyst, so the “dangers” of revealing certain secrets are no greater in these areas than they are in an individual’s dealing with the legal profession, or with medical practitioners such as those concerned with the cure of venereal disease or with surgical anesthesia. Always to emphasize this point once again, it is a question of competence and ethics that is our real concern, not the professional specialty that is involved.
In several cases of psychological or psychotherapeutic intervention, the subject’s avoidance of “secrecy” is part and parcel of the technique involved. This is not always the case in other professions, such as those already mentioned. Moreover, the well-trained psychologist and psychotherapist-as well as the medical hypnotist-is likely to be particularly sensitive to those criteria of respect for the individual, discretion and professional care which Pope Pius XII emphasized.
Priest and Psychologist
Having reached this conclusion, for which there appears to be no scientific alternative, the question naturally arises why the Pope should have singled out those engaged in psychological and psychotherapeutic work in recommending caution, responsibility and due regard for moral principles-to the extent, in fact, of saying that there should be a sort of Iron Curtain in their path which they should not seek to lift, and behind which any subject or patient would be entitled to hide, in accordance with his own judgment.
The answer, I believe, is that Pope Pius assumed that psychotherapy and psychology are unavoidably concerned with an area which has long been reserved for the clergy. The distinction between “soul” and “mental apparatus” is either disregarded or openly rejected by many religious authorities, who consider “spiritual healing” as a form of psychotherapy, and, conversely, regard psychotherapy as a kind of “healing of the soul.”
The idea that psychological research or psychotherapy proper have nothing to do with spiritual or religious assumptions-nay, that they deal with psychological functioning and dynamics as watch repairing deals with the mechanism of a clock-is uncongenial to those who expound these views. They maintain that a psychologist or a psychoanalyst, is, or should be, a sort of priest. Finding it impossible to claim, in the mid-twentieth century, that only ordained priests ought to practice psychology or psychotherapy, they are particularly concerned about non-clerical professionals who deal with the “souls” of other people. It is from this concern that their recommendations, fears and avoidances originate; and it is against this background that Pius XII’s comments on dangers to the human soul, the inner temple, must be viewed.
This writer deems it essential to reassure those who may be inclined to share misgivings expressed by the late Pontiff. No religious-minded person need fear that a responsible psychologist or psychotherapist will tamper with his subject’s “soul,” “spiritual destiny” or the like. The true, scientifically-minded psychologist-who, indeed, may have religious convictions of his own-keeps perfectly neutral and non-dogmatic toward his subject’s “transcendental inner world,” a world which, by definition, does not come within the province of science at all. Reminders of an ethical or philosophical nature are undoubtedly to be welcomed; however, the technicalities of psychological interventions stand, as such, as apart from the religio-philosophical plane as any other technique of craftsmanship.
Prof. Emilio Servadio