Telling psychiatrists they make their patients repress certain feelings is, well, like telling the pope he's not infallible.
Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung got into very hot water a few years ago for the latter. But when he leveled the repression charge at a standing-room-only crowd of psychiatrists here this week, they gave him a standing ovation.
What they are repressing, Kung told a crowded seminar at the American Psychiatric Association meeting at the Washington Convention Center, is religion, in themselves as well as their patients.
Whereas "the large majority" of psychiatrists simply ignore religion in treating troubled patients, some go so far as to view their patients' expressions of religion as "an illness requiring a cure," said the internationally known theologian.
Kung stressed that he was "speaking as a scholar, as a religious person," but his lecture was laced with citations from Freud, Adler, Jung and other pioneers in psychiatry.
He said he was convinced that "religion, if used correctly, if lived correctly, could help" in the treatment of psychological ills.
The Swiss-born Kung was an adviser at the Second Vatican Council 25 years ago, but in 1979 the Vatican removed his authority to teach as a Catholic theologian because of his questioning of papal authority.
Kung emphasized that he was not pleading for the institutional church. And he acknowledged that many assaults on mental health have been perpetrated in the name of religion, including "ecclesiastical control of souls in the name of God . . . sexual repression and suppression . . . disregard of women . . . mistaken ideas of good and evil right up to the present time."
In Freud's time, he said, "Religion was fought over and argued about, but today there is silence" on religion from psychiatry, where, he charged, "religion is the final taboo."
The theologian asked why, in the face of "so much attention to the explosion of religion in society," the psychiatric profession has "continued the suppression of religion in its own discipline."
Kung, who teaches at the German University of Tuebingen's Institute of Ecumenical Research, lectured for 90 minutes and then joined in another 90 minutes of discussion by the generally appreciative therapists.
Calling religion "the ultimate reality," Kung wondered whether "some, but not all, of the neuroses of our times, and their symptoms could be diagnosed as the result of spiritual trauma" and repression of deep spiritual feelings.
He said that the root of the "characteristic neurosis of our times" is not suppressed sexuality "but lack of [moral] norms, lack of meaning, especially among the younger generation," which tends to lack a religious orientation.
"It would be valuable, I believe, to investigate the social and psychological potency of religion," Kung said. Kung said he was not asking for "religious psychotherapy" but rather "for a therapy that takes seriously the phenomenon of religion as one of the phenomena of human expression.
"Just as a person with no experience of music will never be able to evaluate the healing potential of music," he said, the therapist without religion "is poorer than others in being able to heal."