Dear Catholic Exchange:

What does the Catholic Church say about hypnotism? It is used for entertainment and therapeutically — does the Church respond to both types?

Thank you in advance for your response.

Jill Ruskamp

Dear Mrs. Ruskamp,

Peace in Christ!

Three points must be considered when evaluating the morality of hypnosis: the freedom of the one hypnotized, the morals of the hypnotist, and the purpose for its use. Furthermore, there are general issues concerning hypnotism that affect the three points noted above:

Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order (Catechism of the Catholic Church (Catechism), 1738).

As expressed in the above quotation, the freedom of the individual is intrinsically linked to the image of God. Abuses of this freedom are moral evils. Thus, the evils of drunkenness, drug highs, etc., are based on this premise. Likewise, when one willfully or unknowingly is subject to a lessening or complete loss of freedom due to hypnosis, it becomes an occasion of sin.

The moral and ethical character of the hypnotist directly affects the dangers of scandal and abuse. Professional counselors must maintain a code of ethics that respects their clients' freedom. Hypnotists who do not adhere to a Christian anthropology pose a great risk of violating the freedom and dignity of those they hypnotize. Critical elements of a Christian anthropology include not only a belief in free will, but the practice of protecting it. Those who do not adhere to the ethical standards of their profession also pose a risk of scandal and abuse. Those who claim to be hypnotists with no link to a helping profession, but use the phenomenon for social entertainment or furthering of self, pose a great risk of scandal. This last risk is grave due to the public display of jest at the expense of respect due the person, who is created in the image and likeness of God.

Based on these principles and the opinions of the Holy See in the later part of the 19th century, moral theology affirms that “one may submit to hypnotic treatment for a grave reason, if suitable precautions against its abuse are taken and if there is no superstition or scandal” (H. Davis, SJ, Manual of Moral and Pastoral Theology, p. 19). Grave reasons would include the need for hypnosis to treat psychological illness or neurosis. Grave reason does not include public displays of jest or humor at the expense of those hypnotized. Necessary precautions include having a reliable witness present who would ensure no wrongful abuse of the one hypnotized while their freedom is diminished. At the very least, the moral and ethical standards of the hypnotist must be well established.

Another consideration is strength of will; those who have a weaker will are more susceptible to complete loss of freedom, abuse, and side effects. It is well known that most teenagers do not have the strength of will that mature adults have. Further, it is well established that strength of will differs from individual to individual.

The Pontifical Council For Culture and the Pontifical Council For Interreligious Dialogue produced in 2003 Jesus Christ, The Bearer Of The Water Of Life: A Christian reflection on the “New Age.” The context of the following paragraph, which mentions hypnosis, is that New Age includes the idea of a oneness as opposed to individuals. Hypnosis is included in a list of techniques used with the intent of transcending a person’s individuality and entering a state of oneness. This document is a “reflection” which indicates that it is putting forth theological opinion. However, while the method and intention of the New Age use of hypnosis might be different than that of hypnosis used for amusement, the Pontifical Councils' caveat regarding vulnerability should not be dismissed:

“The point of New Age techniques is to reproduce mystical states at will, as if it were a matter of laboratory material. Rebirth, biofeedback, sensory isolation, holotropic breathing, hypnosis, mantras, fasting, sleep deprivation and transcendental meditation are attempts to control these states and to experience them continuously”. These practices all create an atmosphere of psychic weakness (and vulnerability). “We are authentic when we 'take charge of' ourselves, when our choice and reactions flow spontaneously from our deepest needs, when our behaviour and expressed feelings reflect our personal wholeness” (no. 4, footnotes omitted).

United in the Faith,

Peter Balbirnie

Information Specialist

Catholics United for the Faith

827 North Fourth Street

Steubenville, OH 43952

800-MY-FAITH (800-693-2484)

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  • Chris

    Do you realize that stories, humor, metaphors, jokes, can all be hypnotic? When you provide a framework for how to consider something, you guide, fix, and reduce a persons freedom to think with regards to a topic differently. But does the activity of doing so make it of itself wrong? I think we have a “mysterious” word here, that doesn’t have much concrete content to help give it any specific sense of what hypnosis can be about.

    I won’t discuss everything about hypnosis, but I will address an aspect of communication that relates to control of the will and can be quite hypnotic, e.g. can make you positively or negatively hallucinate very different conceptions of the world.

    If a person defines or frames conception as when the embryo embed into the uterine wall as apposed to when the egg/ovum and sperm unite, then they have framed it as such so that it has the “hypnotic” effect making the use of birth control pills or pills that would prevent the embedding of the embryo into uterine wall less likely to be frames as a form of abortion.

    Yet, when a priest provides the churches reframes that view that life has always been defined as when the egg and the sperm unite and when something artificial imposes physio/chemical barrier to the implantation of the embryo then that effort is an abortion, then the priest has helped enlighten and make something that was dull in the mind become sharp by allowing something that was hidden to become seen.

    The absorption, or being lost, in a certain frame is simply more overt in “hypnosis” than it normally is otherwise. When a priest, a teacher, or anyone creates a framework to consider some content, they impose not just words, or discrete facts, but system of language or paradigm for how to interpret experience.

    Interestingly, how much of all the content and uncountable number frameworks within the vast array of ideas contained in all the books you’ve read, all the movies you’ve watched, all the stories you’ve been told, and their impact are they, I ask, still now overtly subject to the choosing of your will?

    How much of what you’ve read, listened to on the news, heard from a friend, watched in a movie, passed into a part of your memory that you could recall if you were asked about, but are not really consciously aware of now? Probably not many at any one time. And if you aren’t aware of all the different frameworks that you’ve ever read, or been read, or told, can your will make a conscious choice to avoid their influence? If find it rather unlikely that you can of your own power compete with the many forces that impose or advertise in your mind.

    Yet, we are to seek the teaching of the Church and the moral teaching of the Church are to stand on Peter who stands in place of Christ to bind and to loose, to say what is good and what is not, what is in and what is out. If we do go to a hypnotist, we still must bend our knee and our hearts to God and adhere to the leading of the Holy Spirit. So, sure our will, will be thwarted. But what can escape our pleading for good cause to the Holy Spirit?

    Further, that people are subject to be triggered to fearful of “hypnosis” as something radically different than ordinary experiences like day dreaming, imagining, probably adds to the negative influence it can have because if you are fearful of a process, say, someone speaking “hypnotically” you are going to be less resourceful to keep your wits about you while you are agitated by that fear and if there was some negative influence of that communication they would be less apt to adequately deal with it while in fear.

    Hypnosis hype actually ads to the making just talk about hypnosis quite hypnotic, or entrancing of the mind, e.g. more likely to capture/grab you attention, and impact you without being able to be critical and prayerfully aware of content of what was intended to be persuaded to you. You process something like 7 to 9 bits of information consciously, so part of your attention is diverted to deal with some anxiety you have about “hypnosis” you’re operating with less conscous “headroom” before you start passing more information unconsciously into your memory.

    I hope I have helped you consider hypnosis as something other than sensational, although something that can be “marketed” as something that itself makes it probably a bigger deal than it really is. Still, don’t take this to mean that people aren’t abusing what they learn about hypnosis, but just balance that against the idea that even the advertisements on this very page offer in their marketing a kind of hypnosis, or communication that if you just attend to thinking about hypnosis as some strange communication behavior that you only bump into at carnivals and stage shows, or weird places like that, your readers may follow you and really miss just how often influencing messages bombard them every day and those hundreds or maybe even thousands of messages embedded in how advertisers frame how we should value or look at the world may be more damaging than the limited powers of a strange guy trying to make you quack like a duck.

    God bless you!