Conservative Catholics and Orthodox often say that priests should not act as psychotherapists unless they are so trained, and should never so act in the confessional even if they are so trained. After all, sin is one thing, mental illness is another. Treating the former as the latter is unduly exculpatory; treating the latter as the former is unduly condemnatory. And both mistakes sow confusion.

But as with anything involving the human heart, it’s really more complicated than that. It’s true that absolution, spiritual direction, and psychotherapy are conceptually distinct, so that often enough, one of them can and ought to be supplied without aiming to supply the others. But equally often, one or both of them are supplied de facto, even if another is what’s actually intended. We’re all familiar with the observation, which Ven. Fulton Sheen popularized, that a good confession not only heals the soul, in the sense of opening it anew to grace, but also heals the penitent emotionally by relieving the burden of guilt.

Healing the Whole Person

The interconnections run even deeper. Consider that the point of all the sacraments is salvation. The word’s root is the Latin salvare, which means ‘to heal’. Each of us at some point is going to need physical or emotional healing as well as spiritual healing. And God desires the salvation of the whole person. Eastern-Christian theology even emphasizes that the process of salvation is really the process of theosis: becoming by participation what God is by nature. From a Christian standpoint, being healed in toto is the same process as becoming a god in the sense just described.

But that necessarily includes more mundane healing, at least up to a point. One of the sacraments, the Anointing of the Sick, was even first intended primarily for physical healing, though of course it’s understood that the sacrament serves for spiritual healing even in the absence of physical recovery. So if salvation is the healing of the whole person, one would expect that actions divinely intended as aids to salvation would contribute to emotional and even physical healing as well as spiritual healing. As the miracles of Jesus and others evince, emotional and physical healing can manifest and/or contribute to spiritual healing.

So close are these interconnections that the very process of ongoing conversion can be seen as divine psychotherapy, of which priests are either conscious or unconscious practitioners. That becomes especially clear when sin and mental illness interrelate, by either occasioning or reinforcing the other.

For instance, being genetically predisposed to alcoholism or undue aggressiveness makes certain sins more likely, even when culpability is limited. People who have had especially poor upbringings can become sociopaths without knowing it. Habitual sins, especially of a sexual nature, can make a person incapable of having a truly loving, lasting marriage. One could go on and on, and I’m sure some of you have poignant examples to offer.

Given how broken most of us are, in such ways or others, forgiveness is both a spiritual and a psychological necessity for almost everybody at some point in their lives.

Obstacles to Forgiveness

To see how, let’s proceed in three stages: define what forgiveness is, clear away a few misconceptions about what it involves, and note the most common obstacles to fulfilling that divine commandment. (I shall rely on what’s called the “Enright model” of forgiveness, which has been fashioned, refined, and applied by Christian psychotherapists; see here. One of its advantages is that it can be applied with or without a theological context.)

Forgiveness is a form—indeed, the major form–of mercy. Thus, in Enright’s words, it is the “foregoing of resentment or revenge” when the wrongdoer’s actions deserve it, and instead giving the offender undeserved gifts of “mercy, generosity and love.” So forgiving someone does not mean pretending he did nothing wrong; still less does it mean giving him his just due. It means giving him a gift he doesn’t deserve. Depending on the offender’s dispositions, he might or might not receive such a gift and thus benefit from it. But forgiveness is what it is whether or not the offender responds positively to it.

That’s vitally important to keep in mind. What often prevents people from forgiving is that they assume that “to forgive they must do what is impossible or even wrong.” Sometimes it is impossible to reconcile with the offender–in the sense of re-establishing trust, or at least a measure of “interpersonal safety”–because she is unrepentant and/or untrustworthy. So if you think you have to be reconciled in order to forgive, you will naturally believe it’s impossible to forgive such an offender. But forgiveness needn’t entail reconciliation.

Another obstacle to forgiving is that, too often, we unconsciously prefer maintaining the role of victim. To a certain degree, that role enables us to handle the pain caused by the offense. We can maintain a sense of moral superiority to the offender, cover over the pain with the stimulus of anger or chronic resentment, and take regular pleasure in revenge fantasies. Real forgiveness is often hard because it removes that sort of temporary anodyne. But of course, it should. For refusing to forgive is indeed, as the saying goes, “like drinking poison expecting the offender to die.” We do ourselves a favor by ceasing to do that.

Then there’s a form of pride: We don’t want to be “played for a sucker.” I’m told by game theorists that, in most scenarios, people would rather forgo easy money than risk being taken for suckers by the other participant(s) in the scenario. Something similar holds for forgiveness and the lack thereof. People would rather hold onto a grudge, thus poisoning themselves, than forgive, because they’d rather keep pickling in their resentment than give the other a chance to triumph over them.

Another way in which the deadly sin of pride poses such an obstacle is, paradoxically, the offended’s unwillingness to admit that he might be wrong! That happens sometimes when the offender is sincerely willing to admit she was wrong and to reconcile. But the offended refuses to accept that.

The “logic” of such a refusal goes something like this: “This person has hurt me. I think he’s a total jerk. So when he says: “Hey, I’m sorry,” seeming to want forgiveness, it might be that either (a) I was wrong to think he’s a jerk, or (b) He’s still a jerk and is only pretending to repent and want forgiveness.”

If one believes (a) about the offender, one has to give up one’s low opinion of him, which some people are loathe to do because it means abandoning the posture of moral superiority. So one instead chooses to believe (b), which makes it hard to forgive because one believes reconciliation is impossible, even if it is objectively possible. Of course one ought to forgive regardless, but often we don’t because we know the offender doesn’t deserve it, and thus we feel no “obligation” to forgive even if it would facilitate reconciliation. That’s pride.

Finally, there’s what might seem to be a philosophical obstacle to forgiving somebody. Many people, even many Christians, believe that mercy is incompatible with justice, so that to be merciful–especially in the form of forgiving the unrepentant–is to be unjust. If you don’t believe professed Christians can think like that, just ask some of them what they think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16). I have done that twice: once as a Bible-study leader, and once as a philosophy professor teaching ethics. Nearly all the students thought the vineyard owner was being unjust by paying the workers hired late in the day the same wage as those hired early in the day. And yet Jesus presented that parable as an illustration of God’s generosity in calling the undeserving into the Kingdom of God.

Search for Opportunities to Forgive

Whether or not one is Christian, there’s likely to be somebody in one’s life or past to forgive. And one must take the opportunity to do so. That’s because forgiveness is often essential for mental health. So the belief that mercy is incompatible with justice, and should therefore give way to justice, is an injustice to oneself. Christians have less excuse for forgetting that than unbelievers.