Carl Rogers wanted to conduct a major research project applying unconditional acceptance to a school system to demonstrate its effectiveness in producing positive change. He received permission from a school system in California operated by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), consisting of 60 schools including a college. The order at the outset of the project was comprised of 560 nuns. William Coulson, a colleague of Rogers for many years, was project coordinator and has reported on this project.
Beginning in 1966 this order allowed Rogers, Coulson, and 58 facilitators to operate encounter groups within the school system.[i] Administrators, teachers, and students participated. The function of these groups was to provide a Rogerian environment of unconditional acceptance, which encouraged the participants to be sensitive to and express their feelings, that is, to experience “non-directive self-exploration.”[ii]
The short-term results looked quite positive. However, soon the picture changed dramatically. Coulson reports that within a year, 300 of the 560 nuns “were petitioning Rome to get out of their vows. They did not want to be under anyone’s authority, except the authority of their imperial inner selves.”[iii] Coulson refers to “a tragic book called Lesbian Nuns, Breaking Silence, which recounts lesbian activity among nuns resulting from the influence of these groups. In his description, Coulson provides this account:
“An older nun in the group, ‘freeing herself to be more expressive of who she really was internally,’ decided that she wanted to make love with Sister Mary Benjamin. Well, Sister Mary Benjamin engaged in this; and then she was stricken with guilt, and wondered, to quote from the book, ‘Was I doing something wrong, was I doing something terrible? I talked to a priest–.’
“Unfortunately, we had talked to him first. ‘I talked to the priest,’ she says, ‘who refused to pass judgment on my actions. He said it was up to me to decide if they were right or wrong. He opened a door, and I walked through the door, realizing I was on my own.’”[iv]
Coulson also speaks of “seductions in psychotherapy, which became virtually routine in California,”[v] which Coulson attributes to the fact that “we had trained people who didn’t have Rogers’ innate discipline from his own fundamentalist Protestant background, people who thought that being themselves meant unleashing libido.”[vi]
Coulson cites a book entitled Hollywood Priest, which describes how one of the nuns from the IHM order “got in the spirit of Rogerian non-directive encounter,”[vii] and propositioned a priest. Therapists were assigned to nuns who opened up too much in the encounter groups.[viii] When the priest refused, the nun became sexually involved with her Rogerian therapist. Coulson observes:
“He got her involved in sex games, in therapy. Rogers didn’t get people involved in sex games, but he couldn’t prevent his followers from doing it, because all he could say was, ‘Well, I don’t do that.’ Then his followers would say, ‘Well, of course you don’t do that, because you grew up in an earlier era; but we do, and it’s marvelous; you have set us free to be ourselves and not carbon copies of you.’”[ix]
In other words, Rogers was forced by his own theory of unconditional acceptance to approve of the behaviors of these therapists. This development and Coulson’s analysis of it graphically portrays that unconditional acceptance really does grant the individual autonomy, the right to do one’s own thing whatever that thing may be.
Rogers’ project resulted in the closing of all but one of the schools, including the college. Of the 560 nuns, Coulson estimates that there may be only a couple of dozen remaining. Coulson recalls: “(W)e called off the study after two years, because we were alarmed about the results. We thought we could make the IHM better than they were; and we destroyed them.”[x]
Rogers’ own study provides powerful proof that unconditional acceptance not only fails to deliver the promised positive results but also that the moral license that it extends results in emotional, behavioral, relational, and organizational chaos.
Why then has this theory been so enthusiastically embraced and adopted as our cultural foundation and how does it continue to maintain its cultural dominance? That is the topic I plan to address next.
[i] William Coulson, “We overcame their traditions, we overcame their faith,” The Latin Mass, Special Edition, p. 13.
[ii] William Coulson, Mass, p. 14.
[iii] William Coulson, Mass, p. 13.
[iv] William Coulson, Mass, p. 13.
[v] William Coulson, Mass, p. 14.
[vi] William Coulson, Mass, p. 14.
[vii] William Coulson, Mass, p. 14.
[viii] William Coulson, Mass, p. 14.
[ix] William Coulson, Mass, p. 14-15.
[x] William Coulson, Mass, p. 15.