(This article is taken from "Medical Ethics" by Edwin F. Healy, S.J. published by Loyola
University Press, 1956)
The Use of Hypnotism
Hypnotism consists of a "state of mental absorption in which all distracting thoughts
are for the moment warded off, and only such thoughts as are suggested by the
hypnotist reach the consciousness of the patient. The essence of hypnotism is the
concentration of mind on one idea or only a few ideas dictated by the hypnotist."1 If the
hypnotist is not skilled in this practice, the patient may suffer various evil effects.
Among the deleterious effects that may be produced are (1) an abnormal proneness to
become drowsy and to fall asleep; (2) a detachment, more or less pronounced, from
reality, even though the patient is to all appearances in a state of wakefulness; (3) an
occasional loss of memory and of mental equilibrium resulting in increased irritability;
(4) incoherence of speech. The hypnotist has the subject in his power and can strongly
influence his mind. He is able, moreover, to force him to reveal secret knowledge, to fill
his memory with unwholesome suggestions, and even to perpetrate immoral actions
There is of course nothing wrong in itself with the practice of hypnotism, and therefore
under certain conditions its use would be licit. Since hypnotism, however, violently
deprives the subject of the full use of reason and free will, a justifying cause is required
for allowing it to be practiced. Hypnotism may be licitly used provided three
conditions are verified: (1) there is present a grave reason, (2) the consent of the subject
is obtained, and (3) due precautions are observed. We shall explain in detail the
meaning of these three conditions.
A Grave Reason. A proportionate cause is required in order that one licitly be
hypnotized, for we are not permitted to give up, without a compensatory reason, our
dominion over the faculties of the understanding and the will. A justifying reason
would be, for example, the need to cure or to curtail an evil habit such as drunkenness,
pyromania, masturbation, or kleptomania. If deemed medically advisable, hypnotism
may be licitly employed in place of an anesthetic for surgical cases. If there is at hand
another remedy which would be equally effective but would not involve the dangers
that often accompany hypnotism, it must of course be preferred.
The Use of Hypnotism
The Consent of the Subject. The consent of the patient must be procured, for no one has
the right to deprive another, against his wishes, of the full use of his faculties. Hence
forcibly to impose an hypnotic state on another, even for a short period, would be to
violate his rights. It is not necessary, however, always to obtain the explicit consent of
the patient. If the patient is in such circumstances that his explicit consent cannot
prudently be sought and if one is convinced that he would not object to hypnotic
treatment, this would be considered sufficient consent on the part of the patient. With
regard to the insane and to children who have not reached the age of reason, the
physician should not use hypnotism without first procuring the consent of the parents
or of the one who is charged with their care.
Due Precautions. The first precaution which must be observed is that the hypnotist be
one who is medically qualified to exercise this art. An unskillful hypnotist may injure
the patient's mental faculties. A competent physician can as a rule prevent the evil
effects which sometimes result from the use of hypnosis. The second requirement is
that there be present an authorized witness of unimpeachable character who will serve
as a protection both to the physician and to the patient. The witness (for example, a
parent or the marriage partner of the patient) could afterward defend the physician
against any false accusations of improper conduct.2
Use of Hypnotism in Insomnia
The patient is of a nervous type and is suffering from insomnia. The physician wishes
to try hypnosis to effect a cure, but he is doubtful whether it is licit to use hypnosis as a
remedy for insomnia. Solution. The use of hypnotism in this case is licit.
1 James J. Walsh, M.D., , p. 152. New York: D. Appleton and
2 For material on hypnotism and its morality see James J. Walsh, M.D., Psychotherapy,
pp. 151-62 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1929); Catholic Encyclopedia, article
"Hypnotism"; William T. Heron, Clinical Applications of Suggestion and Hypnosis,
chap. 8, pp. 90-93 (Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1950).
(The following excerpt is taken from "The Modern Catholic Dictionary" by Fr. John A.
Hardon, published by Doubleday & Company Inc.)
HYPNOTISM. The phenomenon of artificially induced sleep, which renders the victim
abnormally open to suggestion. The subject of hypnosis tends to be dominated by the
ideas and suggestions of the hypnotist while under the induced spell and later on.
According to Catholic principles, hypnotism is not wrong in itself, so that its use under
certain circumstances is permissible. But since it deprives the subject of the full use of
reason and free will, a justifying cause is necessary for allowing it to be practiced.
Moreover, because hypnotism puts the subject's will in the power of the hypnotist,
certain precautions are necessary to safeguard the subject's virtue, and to protect him or
her and others against the danger of being guilty of any injurious actions. For grave
reasons, e.g., to cure a drunkard or one with a suicide complex, it is licit to exercise
hypnotism, given the precaution that it is done in the presence of a trustworthy witness
by a competent and upright hypnotist. The consent, at least presumed, of the subject
must also be had. Several documents of the Holy See set down the norms to be
followed in the use of hypnotism (The Holy Office, August 4, 1956; July 26, 1899).
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