Jordan Peterson’s Catholicism Connection: Cause for Concern — or Celebration?
Peterson’s polarizing popularity, both inside and outside of the Church, undeniably makes him a pivotal cultural figure to understand today...
Recent photos of Bishop Robert Barron filming in St. Peter’s Square sparked controversy on Catholic Twitter — not because of anything Bishop Barron said, but because of whom the American prelate and evangelist was filming with: Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist-turned-internationally-recognized-social commentator and lightning rod for media controversy.
Peterson, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, has sparked heated debate ever since his 2016 rise to fame for opposing a Canadian bill that defined refusing to use a person’s preferred pronouns as “gender-based harassment,” and he hasn’t shied away from fraught questions since.
His outspokenness on contested issues like identity politics, innate differences between men and women, and the need for order in life and society has garnered a significant following — nearly 7 million subscribers on YouTube and more than 4 million Twitter followers — and also polarizing reactions from across the cultural landscape.
But Peterson is nearly as controversial among Catholics as he has proved to be in the mainstream. And the fault lines of this division were evident in the contrasting reactions to Peterson’s recent appearance with Bishop Barron.
Some comments criticized the bishop of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, for appearing with a man who, just days earlier, had critically responded to a tweet from Pope Francis promoting aspects of social justice related to poverty and human rights.
“There is nothing Christian about #SocialJustice,” wrote Peterson on March 2. “Redemptive salvation is a matter of the individual soul.” Respondents criticized Peterson not only for being disrespectful to the Pope, but also for expressing an overly individualized account of Christianity, part of a wider critique of how well the Canadian commentator’s account of the Gospel meshes with the Church’s actual teaching.
But others celebrated Peterson’s appearance with Bishop Barron, hopefully speculating that it was yet another sign that the commentator may be a step closer to becoming Catholic himself. Peterson has previously expressed his admiration for aspects of Catholicism and revealed this past weekend that he had just spent three weeks at the Austrian abbey-monastery of Heiligenkreuz, where he worked on his upcoming book, We Who Wrestle With God.
Other Catholics, on Twitter and elsewhere, have expressed gratitude for Peterson’s work, noting that his reflections on Scripture or the importance of personal responsibility had played a big part in their own return or conversion to Catholicism.
Peterson’s polarizing popularity, both inside and outside of the Church, undeniably makes him a pivotal cultural figure to understand today. But with his work’s simultaneous dissonance and resonance with the Gospel, and in the crossfire of equally devoted critics and adherents, many Catholics are left wondering who exactly the popular public intellectual is and how to relate to his work from a Catholic perspective.
A Popular Message
Peterson, 60, has a much more significant body of work than his volume of tweets. He is predominantly known for his popular podcasts and lectures, as well as his three books. Peterson is currently on a promotional tour for his most recent book, Beyond Order, but, for Peterson, a book tour is not a series of stops at small bookstores; it includes lectures in packed arenas worldwide, with films of his addresses to thousands of listeners posted to the paid video channel of the media platform Daily Wire.
A unifying theme in Peterson’s work is the importance of discovering ways of making life meaningful, including amid suffering and mundane responsibility. Maps of Meaning (1999), Peterson’s first book, draws together psychology (especially Jungian and Freudian theory), the myths and stories of religions through the ages, and cognitive science to discuss the narrative structure of human belief and the experience of meaning.
For Peterson, scriptural and other Christian stories are a profound source of meaning-making for contemporary people. His podcasts, interviews and YouTube videos frequently include reflections on Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, or St. George and the dragon. He also has a complete commentary series titled, “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories” that includes episodes like “Genesis: Chaos and Order,” “God and the Hierarchy of Authority” and Abraham: Father of Nations.”
But it’s not merely Peterson’s interest in reading scriptural stories through a psychological lens that appeals to Catholic audiences. Much of his advice simply comes down to brass tacks, particularly concerning the importance of taking personal responsibility and bringing order to a world that can feel chaotic and evil. One of his 12 Rules for Life is “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.”
An Appeal to Men
John Stokman, a marketing and communications specialist at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, has followed Peterson since 2016. He shared with the Register that Peterson’s advice to create order in small ways before going on to change the world in big ways resonated with him and other Christians in his friend group.
“My generation wants to become activists, and his call [is] to first get a tiny portion of your life in order — can you even get your room clean?” Stokman reflected, noting that the message seemed to have a special resonance among young men like him.
Peterson himself noted in 2017 that “91% of those who view my videos are male.” This gender disparity may have to do with some of the content of Peterson’s work; according to Peterson’s worldview, which is deeply informed by Jungian archetypes, order is masculine, and chaos is feminine. Peterson’s diagnosis of the modern world is that it suffers from an overprotective, “devouring mother” complex: An overabundance of empathy (which he considers to be archetypally female) causes destruction in the name of protecting victims, leading to a widespread acceptance of transgender ideology and other societal ills.
Peterson is also well-known for observing that seemingly constitutional differences between men and women lead to their pursuing different careers in egalitarian societies.
Part of Peterson’s appeal to men may simply be that, at a time when many feel like they are either ignored or demonized, he holds them to a high standard, offering a demanding but positive account of masculinity.
Franciscan Father Dave Pivonka, who hosted Peterson for a lecture and conversation at Franciscan University in April 2022, said Peterson resonates with the young men on Franciscan’s campus because “he has done a beautiful job of calling out being a man” by asking, “What does it mean to be a man of courage and integrity and accountability and standing up for what’s right?”
On the Way to Faith?
Peterson’s speaking engagement at a Catholic university may also have been a step in his own personal journey. Though he is willing to make many concrete suggestions for improving one’s life, the public commentator is open about his ongoing questions, particularly about matters of faith. “He’s unbelievably bright — he’s kind of tortured, in that he’s very much a thinker,” said Father Pivonka.
Although he has never publicly confirmed that he is a believing or practicing Christian, Peterson (summarizing Carl Jung) has called Catholicism “as sane as human beings can get.” But he has also suggested what he sees as laxity in practice beginning in the 1960s is an ongoing failure on the part of the Church: “not asking enough of people.” According to Peterson, “that is what [the Church] has to offer: ‘that’s the straight and narrow path. This is very, very, very, very, very difficult, but it’s the alternative to hell. So there is that.’ There’s true and there’s meta-true — and that’s meta-true.”
While visiting the campus at Franciscan, Peterson attended Mass for the first time and has since been spotted at Mass again. Peterson’s rise to huge popularity has led to widespread enthusiasm for his conversion among Catholics, but other Christian denominations would also be glad to see the intellectual superstar among their numbers: Peterson has expressed frustration with the many denominations that want him to be a part of “their club.”
Those the Register spoke to, though, saw Peterson’s potential conversion as a personal affair.
“Would I be happy if Jordan Peterson became Catholic? Of course I would,” said Father Pivonka, “just for him and for the grace in his life. With that being said, it was our desire to love him and be hospitable and kind to him because he deserves that.”
“I just want him to keep searching for the truth, and whether he’s Catholic or not isn’t necessarily the most important thing to me,” added Stokman.
At the conclusion of the conversation at Franciscan University, students prayed with and for Peterson. Later, Peterson would describe his experience of the liturgy as “soothing.” In his own words, “Catholicism is a great drama. It’s an inclusive, encompassing ritual and drama, as well as a system of beliefs. And more power to it, as far as I’m concerned.”
An Aid to Evangelization?
Some Catholic leaders have highlighted Peterson’s appeal to young men and his apparent openness to Catholicism as a possible avenue for evangelizing others. Chief among these is Bishop Barron, who, in a statement to the USCCB in 2019, drew the bishops’ attention to what he called “The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon.”
“I told my fellow bishops that, most recently, Peterson has been lecturing on the Bible, causing armies of people, especially young men, to take a fresh look at the Scriptures,” the bishop explained at the time. “… [H]is emergence and his success are, I argued, indicators that we could get a serious message across to a wide audience.”
Though Bishop Barron explicitly disclaimed “a one-sided or uncritical endorsement of [Peterson’s] teaching,” he has hosted two discussions with Peterson, one in 2019 and one in 2021. A page on the Word on Fire website is devoted to Bishop Barron’s conversations and articles with and about Peterson.
Christopher Kaczor is the St. Thomas Aquinas Fellow for the Renewal of Catholic Intellectual Life at Word on Fire and a professor at Loyola Marymount University. He is also the author of Jordan Peterson, God and Christianity: The Search for a Meaningful Life, published by the Word on Fire Institute. Kaczor told the Register via email, “I think it is fair to call Peterson an evangelist in the sense that he is seeking to share what he thinks is true.”
Kaczor said he sees Peterson as a seeker, but one who is poised to build a synthesis that may not be currently available within the mainstream Church.
“Peterson is seeking a harmony of faith and reason that I think is best found in the Catholic Church,” he said. “Peterson’s own teaching is much more speculative and integrative than teachers in the Church because he is drawing on many sources, including contemporary psychology that most teachers in the Church do not use.”
Or a Problematic Psychologist?
Other Catholics see Peterson’s project as fundamentally incompatible with Church teaching.
Sam Rocha, who teaches philosophy as an associate professor in the education department at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, described Peterson to the Register as a “social Darwinist.” According to Rocha, Peterson’s research on intelligence quotients is “pseudoscientific,” with links to 19th-century race science and ethnoscience that gave rise to segregation.
“Social Darwinism and stratification of human beings according to ability of this kind ... are, in my opinion, completely antithetical to not only Catholic social teaching, but also to any basic sense of Catholic morality,” Rocha told the Register.
Rocha also proposed that one of Peterson’s big ideas, outlined in Maps of Meaning, was opposing the primordial force of ordered “Meaning” to chaotic “Being” — an ontological argument fundamentally opposed to the Catholic view that God is the source of all being. In a word, Rocha said, “Jordan Peterson is a Manichean.”
Rocha also criticized Peterson’s approach to Scripture as “totally Jungian,” reducing biblical characters to “meaning-making devices that exist in this kind of global spirit and give us lessons on life.” Despite Peterson’s dissonance with aspects of Christianity, Rocha surmised that his fellow Canadian has gotten a pass from Catholics concerned with orthodoxy because he aligns with some of their other social and cultural commitments.
Rocha admitted that an understandable defense of Peterson was that he had helped people to improve their lives, but in this respect compared Peterson to pop psychologists, like “Dr. Phil” McGraw, who “often help people in very short situations, and they often don’t help them by giving them any objective cure.”
In an article for Crisis Magazine titled “The Insufficiency of Jordan Peterson,” Matt Soldano, a Catholic husband and father, emphasized that despite Peterson’s obvious interest in truth, he has not yet encountered Christ as the Logos concretely. “Will he move from mere philosophizing and begin the journey upward into reality itself? Wrestling with God is beautiful, wrestling is important. But ultimately, wrestling is insufficient.” Crisis also published criticism of Peterson for capitulating on same-sex civil marriage, an apparent undermining of his own emphasis on traditional morality.
Similarly, in an article for FemCatholic entitled “The Problem with Peterson’s ‘Feminine Chaos,’” Catholic wife and mother Ashley Lenz presents critiques of Peterson’s dominance-hierarchy framework, which he applies to differences between the sexes, as well as other aspects of his thought. “There is nothing in Peterson’s writing that suggests that women are much more than commodified bodies which placate male desire, inspire male violence, or validate male status and success.”
Finding What He’s Looking For
While there’s certainly disagreement — and even uncertainty — about what Peterson actually believes, Catholics who have found encouragement from him are confident that Peterson has something to offer — so long as he isn’t taken as more authoritative than the Gospel.
“I sometimes see people following Jordan Peterson’s words so far to the point that they get overwhelmed by needing to get their life in perfect order instead of relying on God, realizing that we’re broken. ... But that’s not how we’re called to live as Catholics — we don’t need to have everything perfectly aligned. Christ meets us in our weakness and in our disorder, too, and so sometimes I think that can be Jordan’s path to faith,” reflected Stokman.
Peterson developed a life-threatening benzodiazepine dependency in 2018, when his wife, Tammy, was diagnosed with a rare and fatal form of cancer. Both recovered, and Tammy converted to Catholicism. Their daughter, Mikhaila, is also now a Christian.
“I have seen those who have come back to the Church, those who begin to answer questions that they might not otherwise have, except for coming across him,” noted Tyler Ferry, a Catholic husband and businessman.
Whether this movement will include Peterson himself — and what his lasting impact on the Church’s evangelization efforts will be — remains to be seen.