We continue our series this week on ten benefits of faith to our mental health.
A seventh dimension of mental health that faith illuminates is the link between leading a virtuous life and the experience of happiness. How we act effects how we feel. Before Christianity, Plato made this connection as he argued that justice is always happifying (Plato, The Republic, Book 2, 358a). For St Augustine, happiness is more than a feeling but is always linked to the truth: ‘the happy life is joy based on the truth. This is joy grounded in you, O God, who are the truth’ (Confessions, 10, 22, 33). For St Thomas Aquinas, all the prescriptions and prohibitions of the Gospel are ordered to our joy (Summa Theologiae, q. 99). Here is the invitation to order our lives along the domains of justice, truth, peace and love as the gateway to authentic happiness.
The Christian Tradition also insists that our conscience is a mechanism that teaches us what to avoid and what are the right choices to make. The conscience can distinguish which actions will bring sadness and which will bring joy. For St Ignatius of Loyola, when we make bad choices we must welcome the prick of conscience and note the misery that sin produces (Spiritual Exercises, First Week). This desolation is purifying. In this light, not all guilt is negative. It is like pain to the body, telling us something is wrong. As Pope Pius XII taught: ‘Guilt is the consciousness of having violated a higher law, by which, nevertheless, one recognises himself as being bound, a consciousness which can find expression in suffering and psychic disorder’ (Address to the Fifth International Congress on Psychotherapy and Clinical Psychology, April 13, 1953).
There is a strong argument that this link between morality and mental health is most neglected and ignored in public debate on the issue. However, if we are serious about treating the root causes of mental health problems then we cannot avoid the evidence that links virtue to happiness and vice to misery. Honesty forces us to acknowledge the reality of sin which is the deadliest sort of pathology since it attacks the soul and drains its joy (The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes envy, one of the traditional seven deadly sins, as a sadness. CCC 2540). In the words of one Catholic psychiatrist: ‘Much mental distress or disorder , including some cases of depression, are caused or sustained by a person’s trying to live a series of contradictions’ (A. Kheriaty, The Catholic Guide to Depression, 172). So while the confessional was never meant to be a cure for neuroses or mental health problems, it can be argued that the couch was never meant to absolve sin which is what people need as much as clinical treatment if their mental problems are being caused by moral conflicts. As Pope Pius XII wisely advised, there comes a time when ‘the doctor should direct his patient towards God and to those who have the power to remit the fault itself in the name of God’ (Address to the Fifth International Congress on Psychotherapy and Clinical Psychology, April 13, 1953).
PART 8 NEXT WEEK