Many people in the Church in France are concerned about the dangers of deviation and manipulation present in certain retreats, meetings or prayer groups that offer “psycho-spiritual” therapies. These practices, coming largely from overseas, raise fundamental questions: Should we recognize boundaries between the spiritual and the psychological? Which ones? On what basis?
Such perplexity and bewilderment invite us to establish reference points that are as clear as possible on a complex, controversial terrain. In this article I intend to show that this is a typical question of the modern era and that, certainly, the spiritual and psychological elements are mixed in the unity of the human person, but today as yesterday, there is a distinction between ways of thinking about spiritual experience, as well as on the level of practice (psychotherapy, spiritual accompaniment and the pastoral dimension in general).
A modern matter
A contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas would undoubtedly not have understood the title of this article. In fact, the term “psychology” in the sense in which we ordinarily use it has only appeared recently. It was first used in the 18th century to define the study of the phenomena of mental life (Leibniz and Wolff), and only in the 19th century was psychology established as a scientific discipline, as a “human science.”
The word had appeared before, but only marginally, at the end of the Renaissance when the great originality of Western culture appeared in the birth of modernity, with the first symptoms of the disenchantment of the world and the secularization of spirits, a birth marked by the traumatic effects of the Reformation. It was then that the term psychology began to be used in humanist and reformed circles (Marko Marulić and Philip Melanchthon).
Europeans were becoming increasingly interested in what we now call “the subjective experience of the individual.” The term “psychology” is therefore contemporary with the emergence of modernity when the human person began to assert individual identity, in his or her subjectivity before God, and soon against God. At the same time, the distinction was deepened between the order of nature (which needs God less and less in order to function) and the order of the spiritual (which becomes understood more and more as supernatural, that is, miraculous or magical).