For God’s sake: An exploration of the life and work of women religious in Ireland in the twentieth century from a psychoanalytic and systemic perspective

Metcalfe, Camillus (2012) For God’s sake: An exploration of the life and work of women religious in Ireland in the twentieth century from a psychoanalytic and systemic perspective. PhD thesis, Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust/University of East London. Full text available

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This is a study of religious life in women‟s congregations, in Ireland, in the twentieth century. It aims, through interviewing ten women, to explore this hidden life. In this respect the study is unique. It follows the course of convent life from 1930 until the present. It is a psychosocial study taking conscious, as well as unconscious dynamics, into consideration (Clarke and Hoggett, 2006). It uses a Grounded Theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) approach, combining aspects of BNIM (Rosenthal, 1993) FANI (Hollway and Jefferson, 2000) and Cartwright‟s (2004) Psychoanalytic Research Interview to collect the data. The analysis is done through the iterative process of Grounded Theory and deepened by the application of psychoanalytic concepts. Until Vatican II (1962-65), active Orders were subject to papal cloister with intensive commitment mechanisms which had many elements in common with Goffman‟s (1961) “total” institution, Coser‟s (1974) “greedy” institution and Wittberg‟s (1991) “intentional communities”. Besides obeying the rules and constitutions, the nuns owed “blind obedience” to the superior, who was seen as God‟s substitute on earth. Group conformity was of the utmost importance. The Sister‟s individual ego became fused with the collective ego of the group and the break with the world meant that the convent became a “psychic retreat” (Steiner, 1993) for many. A “social defence system” (Menzies, 1960, 1970) enabled an avoidance of unwanted emotional experience and the turning of a “blind eye” (Steiner, 1993) replaced insight. Personality development was stunted, maturity inhibited and spontaneity and creativity restricted. The changes effected by Vatican II (1962-65) were embraced according to the individual‟s ability to accept responsibility and accountability. Unfairness, injustice and punishment, especially towards the lay Sisters were part of convent life and the nuns felt powerless in the system. Identification with the aggressor (Stapley, 2006), projective identification (Klein, 1946) between society, the nuns and the vulnerable are identified as possible causes of abuse in institutions run by religious. At present, the conflict between individual freedom and the institutional mission, and the loss of a unified vision are causing a fragmentation of the system.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements of the University of East London for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy
Subjects: Race and Culture > Social/Cultural Influences on Psychology (e.g. disasters, war)
Sex Psychology > Females/Women
Department/People: Adult and Forensic Services

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