Fr. Fortea, how can one tell if a vision is demonic in origin or is a psychiatric problem?
The best way to discern if something is demonic in origin or merely a psychiatric problem is through the passage of time. If something that seems extraordinary (e.g., a vision or a locution) is a mental illness, it will get progressively worse and obvious psychosis will develop. When a person meets with his spiritual director or a theologian to discuss an extraordinary phenomenon he has experienced, it is initially very difficult – if not impossible – to discern what is actually taking place. After some months, though, the most obscure cases are clarified, and it becomes possible to separate a demonic influence from a mental illness.
For example, an unknown penitent kneels in the confessional and tells the confessor that the Blessed Virgin has audibly told him that she loves him and that he should be good. The priest has no way of knowing if the person has received a genuine locution or is suffering from a hallucination. Not even the greatest theologian in the world could know. But if the person confesses this phenomenon over time (e.g., a year or even less), the matter would become clearer. If the penitent is sick, his illness will gradually progress and he will say that the Blessed Virgin is revealing more and more things to him. Within five years, his mental instability will be obvious, not only to the confessor but also to his family and friends, due to the absurd and illogical character of his hallucinations. As mental pathologies advance, they move further and further away from the laws of logic.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about spiritual warfare and demonology, Catholic Spiritual Direction recommends Fr. Fortea’s excellent book Interview With An Exorcist – An Insider’s Look at the Devil, Demonic Possession, and the Path to Deliverance.
Art for this post on Questionable visions: demonic or psychiatric origins?: Brustschmuck Mesoamerika3 EthnM Golden Pectoral From Middle America, Photographed by FA2010, February 2009 own work, PD-Worldwide; detail of Padre José Antonio Fortea 2017, photographed by Elgatoconbotaselgatoconbotas, 5 May 2017 own work, CCA-SA 4.0 International; both Wikimedia Commons. Cover of “Interview with an Exorcist” used with permission, all rights reserved.