Glimpses of Grace Donald Stoesz
Topics in Psychology and Sociology



Section A: Psychological Theories and Their Applications
Discovery of the Unconscious
Incremental Opportunities to Change
From Wish Fulfillment to Post-Modernity
Into the Woods to Find Our Identity
American Beauty of Conflicted Personalities

Section B: Sociological Theories and Their Applications
Discovery of the Collective Unconscious
Max Weber’s Views on Mysticism and Asceticism
Sociological Comparison of Religious Groups
Categorizing the Essential Aspects of Worship



 I discovered the difference that psychology and sociology make when I worked as a chaplain in the prison system. While I was conducting worship services, conducting Bible studies, and providing pastoral care to inmates,[1] psychologists were meeting with offenders to help them understand the reasons why they committed their crimes, parole officers were meeting with inmates to ascertain whether they were eligible for parole, and correctional officers were managing these inmates in the housing units.

I realised that if I was going to be an effective chaplain, I would have to learn more about criminal behaviour, prison dynamics, and the way in which the Correctional Service regarded its mission and conducted its business. I was helped along this journey of discovery by a mentor during graduate studies at McGill University, Professor Gregory Baum.

Gregory Baum was a noted Catholic priest and theologian who came to Canada in 1940 as a young man. He was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church in 1946 and joined  the Augustinian Order in 1947.[2] He taught for many years at Saint Michael’s College in Toronto, before transferring to McGill University in 1988. He was an advisor to the pope and cardinals during the 1960s Vatican II Council. He contributed substantially to the document on the church and antisemitism.[3] He believed in a new ecclesiology that was more open to democratic reforms.[4]

Gregory became increasingly disillusioned with what he regarded as the lack of reforms within the Catholic Church. As a result, he went in 1975 to study under sociologist Peter Berger in New York.[5] As he explains in his book, Religion and Alienation, he wanted to have a better understanding of the psychological and sociological dynamics of the church.[6]

Gregory found answers to his questions by studying such eminent psychologists and sociologists as Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Alexis Tocqueville.

Sigmund Freud had used the oedipal complex as a grand narrative to explain dysfunctionalities within individual human behaviour.[7] Emile Durkheim had discovered a collective unconscious that influenced the way in which society operated.[8] Max Weber had shown how charismatic authority was able to transform traditional authority into rational authority.[9]

Baum realised that the Catholic Church operated like a large unwieldy hierarchy, that charismatic influence was only so effective, and that psychological fear of change was what induced the laity to cling to old worship practices that had been instilled in them since time immemorial.[10]

Baum used concepts such as subsidiarity[11] and symbolic idealism[12] to show how the church could change. He acknowledged that the weight of the hierarchy combined with the vivid memory of traditional authority played a large part in the failure of Vatican II reforms.

I realised during my sojourn with Gregory Baum that the same psychological and sociological concepts could be applied to the Correctional Service. The Correctional Service also represented a large hierarchy. It functioned a little bit like a military operation, with a top down chain of command.

Similar to the Vatican II Council in the 1960s, the Correctional Service adopted a new Mission Statement in the 1980s. The Catholic Church was committed to a “People of God” theology while the Correctional Service regarded inmates as subjects in their own right.[13] CSC’s mission was “to help offenders become law-abiding citizens while exercising safe, secure, and humane control.”[14]

During my thirty-five years as a prison chaplain, I had ample opportunity to apply the theories that Gregory Baum had introduced within the context of a prison. Max Weber’s theories of traditional, charismatic, and rational authority,[15] along with Sigmund Freud’s theory of the self as comprising three parts, id, ego, and superego,[16] could be applied to the lives of the young adults that I worked with. Freud’s oedipal complex was alive and well in relation to various sex offenders that I counselled.

Emile Durkheim’s collective unconscious helped to explain the Correctional Service’s prioritization of authority, loyalty, and sanctity over that of equality, empathy, and respect. Correctional officers worked according to a chain of command and within an atmosphere of staff loyalty that gave clear direction to inmates, bent on undermining order when given the chance in order to continue their illicit activities.

The collective unconscious also helped me to understand offenders’ pervasive delusion that crime paid. The harsh reality of prison itself produced dark false ideas on the part of its residents that selling drugs was simply a business, that they had acted in self-defence during an assault, that gangs were necessary as an anti-authoritarian organization to keep the ideal of living above the law alive, and that next time, they would not be caught.

It is within this collective backdrop that I used various psychological and sociological theories to aid offenders in becoming law abiding citizens. I showed young adults that Max Weber’s theory of traditional, charismatic, and rational authority applied to them. I demonstrated how Sigmund Freud’s theory of the id, ego, and superego helped to explain the irrationality of their high speed car chases, their inability to deal with their parents’ inconsistent care, and their current difficulties in asserting their ego against the constant pressures of their peer group.[17]

I showed various sex offenders that Sigmund Freud’s oedipal complex was alive and well in regard to their offending behaviour. Unable to overthrow the dominating influence of their spouses, the offenders had resorted to infantile behaviours in order to get out of the situation.[18]

I realised that the only way that I could counter the depressing reality of prison along with the prevalent view among offenders that crime paid was to offer compelling social and collective alternatives.  A volunteer driven Alternatives to Violence program responded directly to the predominant inmate view that violence was necessary in order to solve problems. Inmates could be liberated from the strict coercive enforcement within and without gangs by becoming pro-social members of an alternative prison community. They could become co-facilitators with community volunteers in the AVP program and show fellow inmates how dynamic communicative action through transforming power was able to diffuse so many potentially violent situations.[19]

The Christopher Leadership course offered similar pro-active solutions. Group volunteers came into the prison to show inmates how to become relaxed in group settings, how to talk in public, and how to share personal stories with others. Volunteers shared their spiritual journeys of giftedness, uniqueness, caring, courage, and leadership in order to emulate those principles for others.

The two groups’ symbolic ideation countered inmates’ anti-social values at a basic collective level. Community solidarity was achieved as inmates gave up their con codes in order to trust others in the group, to share personally about their lives, and to identify with the transforming power of AVP and the leadership skills of Christopher Leadership.

These two volunteer groups served as complimentary resources to the new focus of Canadian prisons on dynamic security and programming.[20] While static security in the form of fences, guns, and locked doors represented the primary role of prison security in the past, the correctional service in the 1980s saw staff’s dynamic interaction with inmates as key to keeping the prison safe and in motivating offenders to change.

Correctional Service management stated the priority in this way:[21]

We want to make full use of all talents in our people. It is for this reason that we want to delegate authority as close as possible to the point of impact of the decision made . . . trust and motivation are key issues.

Staff’s interactive interventions with inmates was supplemented by a new emphasis on programming.[22] While work was considered in the 1960s as the most important skill that inmates could learn, the correctional service decided in the 1980s that offenders needed to take programming regarding their offences. Addictions counselling, violence prevention, pro-social associations, and sex offender therapies were mandated in order for inmates to understand the reasons for their offences as well as to internalize pro-active and pro-social solutions to their problems.

Other sociological theories were useful in understanding what was needed for change. Max Weber’s theories about mysticism and asceticism spoke directly to the various meditative and physical exercises that took place in prison.[23] Whether that had to do with the Correctional Service’s emphasis on work during the day, the inmates’ preference for “working out” in the gym in the evening, or various self-help groups and contemplative programs, all of these activities could be analysed in relation to whether they were this-worldly or other-worldly affirming.

Sociological analyses also helped me to compare various religious groups that were historically different from each other. While theology and church history helped explain Mennonites’ role within the church, sociology provided a spatial plane by which their pacifism, martyrdom, egalitarianism, distinct clothing, and ethnic language could be favourably compared with that of Rastafarianism in Jamaica. Rastafarians also came into conflict with the law with their use of ganga, were persecuted, established an informal authority structure, adopted dreadlocks and the colours of the Jamaican flag to set them apart, and developed a unique language in their reasoning sessions.[24]

This sociological comparison of two religious groups bodes well for chaplains and others in becoming empathetic to religious groups quite different from their own. Sociological concepts obviate the question of religious truth in order to show the extent to which religious groups have some practices and beliefs in common.

I became convinced of the importance of this book when I was able to extrapolate the psychological and sociological insights that I used in prison and apply them to a broader context. Authors John James and Russell Freedman have used the idea of “Short Term Energy Relieving Behaviours” to explain how grieving people respond to the death of their loved ones.[25] Harville Hendrix has used the theory of the unconscious to help couples move from power struggles to true love.[26] Bruno Bettelheim has used fairy tales to help dysfunctional children overcome their oedipal complexes.[27] Various movies such as Into the Woods and American Beauty have used these same psychological theories to show how some rapprochement after the failure of modern ideals is possible, 

These contemporary re-evaluations of historically important theories -- id, ego, and superego, collective unconscious, oedipal complex, and post-modernity -- convinced me that I, too, could go on a flight of fancy with regard to desires, compulsion, mutual love, and wish fulfillment. I based my creative reflection on a book by William Leach, Land of Desire,[28] that dealt with the lure of department stores. I suggested that the now defunct Eaton’s Department Stores embodied a Durkheimian collective unconscious in the way it displayed its wares over eight floors. I follow these displays in the chapter to show how they encourage individuals to desire romance, seek love, become committed, marry, have children, and establish a home.

This reflection speaks directly to the modern ideal of romance that has been upended in two movies, Into the Woods[29] and American Beauty.[30] I am assuming that a more detailed look at what once was a modern ideal helps to reinforce the denouement that is necessary when modernity in various forms has been upended and replaced by something else.

I also extrapolated what I had learned about sociology to analyse the dynamics of worship. Christian groups could be analysed according to the manner in which their church sanctuary was arranged and according to the various aspects of worship that they embraced. A diagram showing how these elements are connected along a line of continuity helps practitioners and non-believers alike to identify their own “preferences” for worship while gaining insight into why other groups practice differently.

In summary, the book shows how various psychological and sociological insights were useful in my work in prison, as well as how these theories could be extrapolated to apply to such diverse topics as grief recovery, marriage relationships, modern ideals, comparison of religious groups, and worship practices.


[1] For an example of what prison chaplaincy entails, see Donald Stoesz, Glimpses of Grace (Victoria: Friesen Press, 2010), Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual (Victoria: Friesen Press, 2020).

[2] Gregory Baum, The Oil has not Yet Run Dry (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2017), xi.

[3] For an overview of Gregory Baum’s involvement, see Michael Higgens, The Journalist as Theologian: A Tribute to Gregory Baum, Commonweal, December 2, 2011, 12-18.

[4] Gregory Baum, The New Ecclesiology, Commonweal, 31 October 1969, 123-128.

[5] For works by Peter Berger, see for example The Sacred Canopy (Anchor Books, 1990).

[6] Gregory Baum, Religion and Alienation, 2nd edition (New York: Novalis, 2006), 15-18.

[7] Gregory Baum, Religion and Alienation, 110-113.

[8] Gregory Baum, Religion and Alienation, 115-119.

[9] Gregory Baum, Religion and Alienation, 115-119.143-167.

[10] Gregory Baum, Compassion and Solidarity, (House of Anansi Press, 1992); Neo-Conservative Critics of the Church, Neo-Conservatism: Social and Religious Phenomenon, edited by Gregory Baum (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1981), 43-50.

[11] Subsidiarity (Catholicism), Wikipedia, Subsidiarity (Catholicism) - Wikipedia, Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, (Italy: Libreria Editrice Vaticana), 1990), 1883.

[12] Gregory Baum, Religion and Alienation, 115-119.

[13] Pierre Allard makes this comparison in his D. Min thesis, The Statement of the Correctional Service of Canada Values and a Biblical Perspective for the Role of Chaplain, Doctor of Ministry Dissertation (Illinois: North Baptist Theological Seminary, 1986), 20. Cf. Richard McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).

[14] Pierre Allard, The Statement of the Correctional Service, 18. Cf. the slightly stronger wording in the third edition of Correctional Service Canada, Mission of Correctional Service (Ottawa: Correctional Service, 1991), 5. This statement adds “encouraging and assisting” to the original CSC Values wording of “helping” and places this “assistance and encouragement to become law-abiding citizens” before its exercise of “reasonable, safe, secure, and humane control.” “The Correctional Service of Canada, as part of the criminal justice system, contributes to the protection of society by actively encouraging and assisting offenders to become law-abiding citizens while exercising reasonable, safe, secure, and humane control.”

[15] Max Weber, Economy and Society, Volume 1, edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), 226-299.

[16] Wikipedia, Id, Ego, and Superego, Id, ego and super-ego - Wikipedia.

[17] I deal with some of these issues in Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual, 115-124

[18] Note the discussion in Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual, 125-132.

[19] Note the discussion in Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual, 133-140.

[20] Note the discussion in Donald Stoesz with Joan Palardy, Transformative Moments in Chaplaincy (Victoria: Friesen Press, 2024), 39-40.

[21] Ole Ingstrup, Task Force of the Mission and Organizational Development of CSC: 300 Senior Managers’ Views of CSC – 1984 No. 11 (Ottawa: Correctional Service Canada, 1985), 31, quoted in Allard, The Statement of the Correctional Service, 23.

[22] Donald Stoesz with Joan Palardy, Transformative Moments in Chaplaincy, 42-43.

[23] Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual, 149-154.

[24] Note the discussion in Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual, 173-178.

[25] John James and Russell Friedman, The Grief Recovery Handbook (New York; William Morrow, 2009).

[26] Harville Hendrix has detailed the dynamics of this situation in Getting the Love You Want (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008).

[27] Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Vintage Books, 1975).

[28] William Leach, Land of Desire (New York: Vintage Books, 1993).

[29] James Lapine, Into the Woods, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1987);  Into the Woods, DVD (Walt Disney Studios, 2015).

[30] American Beauty, DVD, director Sam Mendes (Warner Brothers, 2013).