How the Sensitivity Movement Desensitized Catholics to Evil

Remember bell-bottoms, beads, and tie-dyed shirts? Remember encounter groups, Esalen, and trust falls? Remember “self-esteem,” “risk-taking,” “self-awareness” and the other clichés that were born with the human potential movement?

Both bell-bottoms and human potential psychology became popular in the mid-sixties. Bell-bottoms, however, eventually went out of style. Human potential psychology never did. If you don’t notice it anymore, that’s because it’s become a fixture of modern life. It’s no longer necessary to seek out a sensitivity group, because the culture itself is now one large sensitivity group. The assumptions, vocabulary, and techniques of the sensitivity circle have found their way into business, schools, churches, and popular entertainment.

For example, college orientations for incoming students usually include heavy doses of encounter-group exercises—typically followed by four years of learning to be sensitive to differences and non-offensive to a myriad of minorities. Not surprisingly, the punishment for insensitivity is more sensitivity. Most of us know of cases where students, school personnel, sports stars, or businessmen have been sent to sensitivity training for the purpose of thought adjustment. The sensitivity movement was meant to liberate human potential, but it now serves as little more than a tool for enforcing conformity to the codes of political correctness.

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One of the first institutions to embrace humanistic psychology was the Catholic Church. During the 1970s, self-awareness psychology became an integral part of life at Catholic seminaries, colleges, and grade schools. Religious studies textbooks were rewritten to include a generous serving of the wisdom of pop psychology gurus such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. For example, in the Conscience and Concern series’ book on the sacraments, about four-fifths of the chapter on marriage consists of a lengthy excerpt from Carl Rogers’ book Becoming Partners: Marriage and Its Alternatives. What might those alternatives be? Well, basically, whatever makes you feel good about your self. According to Rogers, the governing priority in any relationship is not fidelity but self-growth.

The influence of psychology even extended to the textbook illustrations. Book Seven of the Benziger series used in those days contains 300 photos and illustrations, but only one depiction of Christ on the cross. Book Eight has no crucifixion scenes. Nor do the books for grade levels Six, Five, Four, and Three. Presumably the sight of Christ suffering and dying for our sins might remind us of our sinfulness—and that, from the humanistic viewpoint, might be an unhealthy blow to our self-esteem.

Whenever a Catholic doctrine, such as human sinfulness, collided with a psychological doctrine, such as human goodness, the tendency was to sweep the offending Catholic doctrine under the rug. Catholics were given the impression that salvation was bound up with self-awareness and self-acceptance. Self-acceptance, it was believed, would automatically follow self-awareness, because the more you learned about yourself the more you would discover about the wonders of your inner self.

One of the things that a great many Catholics discovered almost simultaneously was that they were—to use the lingo of the day—OK. Convinced of their own self-worth, many Catholics abandoned the sacrament of Penance. Almost overnight, the long lines at the confessional disappeared. Catholics had been so well-schooled in the gospel of self-acceptance that they couldn’t think of any sins they needed to confess.

During the “me decades,” priests, nuns, and laity abandoned the Church in droves in order to find personal self-fulfillment. One particular incident in the late sixties stands out as emblematic of the new mood that was sweeping through the Church. In 1967, the Immaculate Heart of Mary order of teaching nuns invited Carl Rogers and his colleagues to carry on an experiment in “educational innovation” within their extensive school system in Los Angeles. What followed was a two-year program of intensive encounter groups. The end result was the collapse of the teaching order and along with it the school system they ran. As I wrote several years ago:

The sisters, who had initially been enthusiastic about revitalizing their schools, became absorbed with questions of self-actualization. Teaching took a back seat. Many lost their faith as well. The order secularized itself and broke its ties with the Catholic Church. The schools were shut down. Coulson, who was project coordinator, later wrote, “When we started … there were six hundred nuns and fifty-nine schools…. Now, four years later, as I write, a year following the formal completion of the project there are two schools left and no nuns.”

The effect of inviting Rogers and his self-esteem crew into the school system was not unlike the effect of inviting the devils into the convent at Loudon. Things fell apart. And all the confusion and disorientation that resulted from the Los Angeles project soon spread to the rest of the society as more and more individuals and groups jumped onto the human potential bandwagon.

The damage occurred first in the schools, where the sensitivity group soon became the model for classroom activities. Students learned to feel good about themselves and—through pop psychology programs such as Values Clarification—they learned that values are no more than personal preferences. Meanwhile, their teachers learned to be accepting and non-judgmental. They quickly learned that they had no right to impose their own values or society’s values on students. Free to choose their own values, students in alarming numbers opted for drugs, alcohol, and sexual experimentation. Not surprisingly, the schools responded to these problems by instituting “values-free” sex education and drug education programs which only served to magnify the problems.

Soon enough, the parents of these children launched their own self-development projects. How, they asked themselves, could they love their children unless they first loved themselves? By cultivating their own self-growth and seeking their own self-actualization, they would become better parents and better spouses. Anyway, that’s what they were assured by numerous self-help books and growth gurus. It didn’t work out as planned, however. Divorces skyrocketed while illegitimacy soared.

The social problems engendered by the self-growth mania affected Catholics as much as it did the general population. Church leaders took note of the carnage and many of them correctly saw that relativism was at the root of it. I’m not sure, however, that many of them made the connection between relativism and the self-esteem movement. One of the premises of the movement is that right and wrong are entirely subjective. What’s right for me is what feels right for me. As for your opinions about right and wrong—well, who am I to judge? Through Values Clarification and through non-judgmental sex and drug education programs, this relativist notion of right and wrong entered the schools and the schools, thereby, became one of the chief conduits by which relativism entered the general culture.

The Church has repudiated the philosophy of relativism, but I’m not aware of any similar repudiation of the human potential psychology that made relativism so popular. I would guess that seminary classes are no longer conducted like encounter groups, but it does seem that the encounter mindset still lingers in the Church. Perhaps the biggest hangover from the self-esteem era is the loss of the sense of sin and evil that comes from too much exposure to me-centered psychology. You will get a much better sense of the reality of evil by reading a single Dean Koontz novel than by listening to a hundred Sunday sermons in an average Catholic parish.

These days, reminders of the presence of evil are everywhere. If you’re not a Koontz aficionado, you can simply switch on the nightly news and learn about the latest beheading. Or—something I don’t recommend and would not do myself—you can search the Internet and find videos of the actual beheadings. According to a FrontPage article by Dawn Perlmutter, the latest of these—a slickly produced video of the beheading of 19 Syrian military officers—presents the beheadings as a solemn religious ritual: “a ceremonial rite of purity” by which young Mujahideen warriors are initiated.

Needless to say, beheadings were not among the potentials psychologists envisioned would be released once people were liberated from their inhibitions. Freud, with his more gloomy view of human nature, would not have been surprised, however; neither should anyone who understands the meaning of Original Sin. It took a while for those of a secular mindset to adjust to the brave new world of beheadings, crucifixions, and sex slavery, but after a while even they began to see it for what it was. Even President Obama described the latest beheading incident as “pure evil”—although he went on to assure the world that the actions of ISIS “represent no faith, least of all the Muslim faith.” Other world leaders have also used the word “evil” in response to recent atrocities. So have some Church leaders. Unfortunately, however, thanks to having imbibed so deeply of the cup of human potential theory, evil is not a word that springs readily to the lips of today’s prelates. Many are still locked in the non-judgmental mode, and many subscribe to the therapeutic view that the root cause of jihad is a lack of self-esteem caused by poverty and oppression. The idea that evil deeds might be rooted in evil hearts is as foreign to them as Catholicism without crucifixes would have seemed to a Catholic in the 1940s.

Up to now, the official Catholic response to the global jihad has been nothing more than continued calls for dialogue. But the dialogue process itself sounds suspiciously like something out of the bell-bottom-encounter group era. Not that the dialoguers stand around in circles and hold hands—I presume that they do not—but that they carry over into their discussions many of the assumptions of that period. When Church leaders speak of dialogue, they tend to use language uncomfortably reminiscent of the heyday of the human potentialists. Calls to dialogue are replete with phrases such as “risk-taking,” “releasing creativity,” “mutual understanding,” “encounter,” and “respect for the other.” Moreover, today’s dialogue advocates seem to share the same optimistic assessment of human nature held by encounter enthusiasts. They operate on the assumption that once you get to know the other fellow, you’ll invariably find that, underneath it all, he shares the same worthy values and goals that you do. As a recent USCCB statement on dialogue with Muslims puts it:

Perhaps most importantly, our work together has forged true bonds of friendship that are supported by mutual esteem and an ever-growing trust… Through dialogue we have been able to work through and overcome much of our mutual ignorance, habitual distrust, and debilitating fear.

In other words, we can trust the other. We only fear others because we don’t know them. And once we know them, we’ll realize that there was never anything to fear.

Unfortunately, this trust in the power of trust seems to have rendered the USCCB dialogue participants unable to grasp the possibility that their Muslim dialogue partners are not motivated by the same vision which inspires them. That their main dialogue partner—the Islamic Society of North America—is a spinoff of the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be of little concern. That their counterparts may simply be using the bishops in order to gain respectability for their main agenda—which is to introduce sharia law to America—does not seem to have entered the prelates’ minds. Nor does the possibility that the whole dialogue process is a way to ensure that Islam itself will never be implicated in the crimes of Islamists. After all, once you’ve invested so much time and energy in forging “true bonds of friendship that are supported by mutual esteem and an ever-growing trust” it becomes rather difficult to find fault with your friends or with the religion to which they belong. For the sake of fellowship, it becomes incumbent on you to take your trusted friends’ word for it that Islamic aggression has nothing to do with Islam. It would be unseemly to check it out for yourself.

Back in the seventies, the trust fall became a standard feature of encounter groups, summer camps, and college orientations. In one version of this trust-building exercise, one person stands in the middle of a circle of his peers and falls backward, relying on the others to catch him. In the controlled environment of a camp or college orientation, it’s reasonable to assume that the others won’t fail you. It might not be wise, however, to bring this assumption into other realms—such as nuclear weapons negotiations with Iran and interfaith dialogue with Muslim Brotherhood organizations whose Mid-East brethren seem intent on eliminating Christians rather than dialoguing with them.

Contrary to human potential psychology, the world is not a giant safety net, and human nature is still fallen. This has always been a fallen world, but right now, thanks to the denial of that fact by the spiritual heirs of Carl Rogers, the world is a far more dangerous place than it might otherwise have been. The sensitivity movement desensitized us to the reality of evil. And many are now paying the price for that naiveté.

In 1967, smiley-face assumptions about human nature led to the collapse of an order of nuns and a district-wide Catholic school system. Unless we manage to discard our trust-fall fantasies about the human condition, we seem destined to experience a fall of much greater magnitude in the not-too-distant future.

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