It's all too common to justify treating others with a lack of love and respect in the name of religion.
A few years ago, I stayed up all night reading Educated, a memoir about a young woman growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon family. It’s one of those books you truly can’t put down.
The author, Tara Westover, describes some horrifying abuse and neglect that she and her siblings suffered at the hands of her family members. And the thing that really floored me was that her parents were unbothered by it all, even by the most life-threatening and terrifying acts.
The abuse and neglect were justified, in their minds, by their religious beliefs. They believed all this preventable suffering was ordained by their version of God.
This book left me with an impression that has been strengthened over the years: Mental health is a necessary foundation for spiritual health.
I’ve come to see that a person who is mentally unstable can justify all kinds of horrible behaviors in the name of religion — even Christianity, and even Catholicism.
Surely you can think of your own examples, if you give it a minute of thought. History is rife with examples, for one thing, and perhaps you’ve even met people like this yourself.
It seems frighteningly common that people justify treating others with a total lack of love and respect in the name of a religion that, ironically, was founded by the God who is Love Himself.
So after witnessing a few examples of this phenomenon, including in Educated, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to check up on our mental health as well as our spiritual health.
Without a strong foundation of mental health, a person can inadvertently twist their religious beliefs to justify all kinds of unsavory behavior. Especially as one dives deeper into seriously practicing one’s faith, a mental-health check-in seems to be an essential first step.
I certainly don’t want to imply that a person needs to be free of mental illness in order to be faithful or holy. Nothing could be farther from the truth; in fact, many of the saints battled mental illness!
The key difference here is that the saints were known for treating other people with great love and respect. There is a world of difference between the saints’ actions and the actions of someone who justifies treating others cruelly in the name of religion.
Christ warned us, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). So perhaps another thing I’ve learned is that we can tell more about a person from the way they treat other people than from how much time they spend praying or how religious they say they are.
Certainly that was the case for the family in Educated. The parents thought of themselves as deeply religious and Christian people, but the fruits of abuse and neglect they created all around them tell a very different story. Yet it’s a story that is tragically not uncommon.
For those of us who are very religious, it’s critical to pay attention to whether the fruits of our spiritual lives are positive or negative. Does our faith lead us to practice greater kindness and compassion, or greater anger and derision?
If the fruits are negative, and we find ourselves making decisions because of fear or anger or a need to control everything instead of surrendering our lives to God’s good will, it’s time for a course correction.
And possibly it’s also time to see a trusted Catholic counselor to get our mental and spiritual health back on a solid footing.