Confession and Mental Health
by Dr Pravin Thevathasan
speaking of the priest's contribution to mental health, one's thoughts
turn first to his function as confessor. Now, confession in the
Catholic sense has a therapeutic value all its own, but it cannot be
compared with any other therapeutic device since confession is a
sacrament and therefore belongs to the supernatural order. Those who
look upon sacramental confession as just another psychotherapeutic
device miss its meaning completely...although confession belongs to the
supernatural order, it has psychotherapeutic after-effects, for it not
only rids the penitent of his sins but greatly contributes in most
cases to his feelings of security by ridding him of his feelings of
Of course, the doctor is exaggerating. There are certainly those who need mental health specialists. But he does have a point: in the old days when psychiatrists had the time to listen for prolonged periods to their patients, it sometimes did feel like confession without absolution. Those of us who are critical of the old psychiatry will admit that attempts were made to treat the whole person. Much of psychiatry these days seems to be symptoms-based.
Father Thwaites goes on to say that we have been given not only baptism, but confession as well because we are chronic sinners in need of God's mercy. He notes the many fruits of the sacrament. It obtains for us a greater delicacy of conscience. We receive the "grace of a greater supernatural hatred for sin." And it gives us a greater awareness of God's love for us.
Mallmann observes that we often have a negative view of confession when
we only think of it in terms of cleansing our souls. We forget that a
sacrament is essentially a source of life: "If
St Francis de Sales and St Vincent de Paul confessed daily, it is
because they possessed an essentially positive view of the sacrament.
For them, confession was like another form of Communion to which they
sought fruitful recourse in order to be ever more alive." Confession is thus an encounter with the Lord.
Father Mallmann discusses the fruits of confession according to the teachings of Pope Pius XII. Firstly, it increases true self-knowledge. The more specific the confession, the more firm will be the resolution. Secondly, it encourages humility: "Since each of my failings spring, without a shadow of a doubt, from an upsurge of pride which prefers my will to the will of God, is it not natural that my pride be curtailed principally by the humiliation that comes with true confession of my sin?" Thirdly, confession lends itself to the uprooting of bad habits. Fourthly, we will combat spiritual negligence and lukewarmness: "My love for Jesus will be renewed, and having rediscovered the fear of sin, the Passion and the Cross will once more take on their true dimensions and I will be astonished by the bounty, patience and mercy of God." Fifthly, confession purifies our conscience. The more we confess, the less likely are we to be deceived about the state of our souls. Sixthly, confession strengthens the will. Seventhly, it lends itself to spiritual direction. St Bernard said: "He who would be a teacher to himself is student to a fool!" Finally, confession increases grace.