VATICAN CITY—Up to one-fourth of the world population suffers from mental disorders. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers in the West. Some 80 percent of the homeless in New York (30,000-40,000 people) suffer from mental disturbances. More than a quarter of people sent to prison in the United States are mentally ill.

Experts cited grim statistics at a three-day conference on mental illness here late last month. The Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers sponsored the event, which brought together theologians, doctors, state officials and researchers to discuss how the mentally ill can be better understood, cared for, and, if at all possible, cured.

Among the 60 experts who spoke were German scientist Erwin Neher, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine; Mary Coleman, professor emeritus at the Pediatrics Institute of Georgetown University; Eliot Sorel, president of the World Association for Social Psychiatry, Washington, D.C.; and Professor George Palermo, director of Criminological Psychiatry at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Mental illness, participants agreed, is not only a social issue but a moral and theological one as well. Among the questions raised: “What happens when man, who has been created in the image and likeness of God, with the capacity to know and love, loses his faculties?” And, “How should society treat the mentally ill?”

Inaugurating the proceedings, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), rather than delivering a formal presentation on the Church's teaching regarding mental illness, recounted a personal story to the 7,000 people from 105 countries gathered in the congress hall. The German-born cardinal revealed that in 1941, when he was just 14 years old, the Nazis deported a younger cousin of his. The boy, who suffered from Down syndrome, had been a source of great joy for his mother who had lost her only other child, the cardinal said. Not long afterward, the family received word that the boy had “died of pneumonia.”

The numbers of those from his village of Marktl am Inn who were arrested or deported and subsequently “died of pneumonia” grew larger. Cardinal Ratzinger recalled that an elderly spinster, whom the village children often visited, was classified as mentally disturbed and taken away by authorities. Soon after, three brothers who, despite suffering from mental illness, had lived next door to the Ratzingers for years were taken away. “Finally,” the cardinal said, “there was no more doubt about what was happening, which was the systematic elimination of all those who were not considered productive.”

Cardinal Ratzinger said that the mentally ill “are images of Christ, whom we must honor, respect, and help as best as possible, but above all, they are images of Christ and bearers of a special message about the truth about man.” That, he added, is “a message which we tend to forget with ever-recurring frequency: our value in God's eyes does not depend on either intelligence or character stability or health. It depends only on the decision we make to love as much as possible in truth.”

Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini, president of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, told the Register that “science and technology have made great progress, including in the field of mental illnesses. Therefore, we can only wonder why the number of people suffering from disorders of the mind continues to increase.”

“The truth is,” he continued, “that the [necessary] progress in what Pascal called the ‘reasons of the heart’ has not been [brought about by] the extraordinary progress that has been made in the ‘reasons of the mind.’ We have wonderful means to serve life but at the same time our respect for life, for its sacredness, its inviolability and its dignity, continues to decrease. This is precisely the attitude which casts a shadow on our modern society…. In this regard, modern society is not modern at all.”

Cardinal Angelini, in his presentation to the congress, developed a similar theme. He said one of the most acute problems in therapy and assistance for the mentally ill is the absence of the human touch. “Even the most modern facilities, where there is a lack of ‘heart,’ end up being analogous to the abominable insane asylums,” he said. “All health care workers should be psychologically, professionally, morally and spiritually prepared for this form of assistance.” Father Tony Anatrella, a French psychoanalyst and researcher, said the dissolution of family and community ties means that many individuals lack adequate human support for dealing with anxieties and other mental challenges.

Congress participants urged the scientific community not to underestimate the spiritual dimension in caring for the mentally ill. Carmelite Father Bonifacio Honings, a theologian and adviser to the CDF, cited a study of 120 patients suffering from terrible pain. Sixty from the group were asked to read the passage from the first letter of St. John that says, “God is love,” (1 Jn 4, 8) every day. The result: the test group— including professed unbelievers— reported feeling more able to tolerate the pain than the 60 subjects from the control group, who weren't exposed to the Scripture passage.

Father Honings, in reference to the conference title, “In the Image and Likeness of God,” explained that both those in control of their faculties and the mentally ill are made in the image of God. The difference, he said, was that the first group can prove it, while the second cannot.

Pope John Paul II concluded the congress with a call to defend the rights of the mentally ill. “Man is made in the Creator's image … even when his intellectual powers are strongly limited and also impeded by a pathological process,” the Pope said, reiterating the Church's commitment to the mentally ill. He also reminded the political community of its duty to recognize this by accomplishing “works of leadership and service on behalf of those suffering from serious mental disorders … through an adequate investment of human, scientific and socioeconomic resources.”

Referring to the conference's topic, the Pope recalled “the conviction (of Christian anthropology) that man was created in God's image and likeness…. Philosophical and theological reflection finds in the intellectual powers of man— intelligence and will—a privileged sign of this affinity with God … that enables man to know God and to establish a dialogue with him.”

“However,” John Paul II continued, “it must be specified that man as a whole, not only his spiritual soul and his free will, but also his body, participates in the dignity of the ‘image of God’…. Because it is the whole human person who is intended to be, in the Body of Christ, the shrine of the Spirit.” The Pope affirmed that “the Church recognizes the same dignity in all men, … independent of the fact that such human capacity is not feasible, because it is prevented by a mental disease.”

J. Colina Díez is based in Rome.