We need both medicine and Catholicism to understand mental illness


A new CTS booklet has arrived: Catholicism and Mental Health by Dr Pravin Thevathasan. Obviously, being a booklet, it provides only a brief overview of the subject, but I did learn some interesting facts. For example, the priory of St Mary of Bethlehem, was founded in England in 1247; by 1403 it was a well-known hospital for the mentally ill and the precursor of the Bethlehem Hospital. In Paris, St Vincent de Paul, founder of the Vincentians, established the hospital of St Lazare in 1632 with – for the times – very enlightened treatment for mentally ill patients: there was the minimum of restraint; the Sacrament of Confession was encouraged; patients were encouraged to work and were given counselling and advice. All this is so different from the popular conception today of the Church as a symbol of medieval bigotry and intellectual darkness.

Again, I did not know that Freud, the father of the now largely discredited technique of psychoanalysis, had once remarked, according to Paul Vitz’s book, “Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious”, that “I don’t think our cures can compare to those at Lourdes.” What did he mean by this? Perhaps that he recognised he was in the presence of something beyond human comprehension and before which his own theories and treatments were powerless and inadequate.

Nonetheless, according to the booklet, Freud’s associates did not share his opinion. A colleague, Helen Deutsch, wrote of St Bernadette that she “turns away from reality and abandons herself to fantasy which she experiences with hallucinatory intensity…”The Lady” is a product of fantasy.” In other words, Bernadette was mentally ill, subject to delusions.

Dr Thevathasan rightly points out that psychiatrists are not in a position “to discuss the authenticity of apparitions, locutions and other extraordinary phenomena. His contribution in the process of discernment is to differentiate between those who are mentally ill and those who are not.” He suggests that when evaluating mental instability psychiatrists should look at other aspects of patients’ behaviour, such as self-centredness, disordered thinking, a lack of judgement and prudence.

If a psychiatrist had examined St Bernadette they would have been struck by her transparent candour, her modest behaviour, her reticence, her desire not to be the centre of attention, her refusal to benefit materially from her apparitions. Above all, they would have been awed by her courage in accepting the physical pains of ill-health, her calm and caring qualities when nursing sick nuns in the infirmary at the convent in Nevers, where she was to spend her life after she left Lourdes, her obedience to the rules of the convent, however harshly administered.

St Bernadette happens to be one of my favourite saints. But no-one who knew her would ever have thought her a fantasist or mentally unbalanced. Deutsch’s remark merely shows how limited was the understanding of the Freudian world-view. As the author of this booklet points out, advances in brain science have led to a more biological and medical approach in the treatment of mental illness. Modern drugs have been of enormous help to those who suffer this most debilitating of illnesses. And, as he wisely concludes, “Our understanding of mental illness can be more complete if we draw upon the insight of both medicine and Catholicism.” In this area, as in others, science and faith do not have to be in conflict with each other. Faith welcomes modern advances in neuroscience; by the same token, scientists should be humble in an area well outside their own competence.