From Plagues to Zika: Medical Care in the Catholic Church

COMMENTARY: It’s in the very DNA of the faith to help the sick.

St. Camillus de Lellis is a patron of the sick.
St. Camillus de Lellis is a patron of the sick. (photo: Public domain/Wikipedia)

Catholics have been at the forefront of medicine and medical response from the earliest days of the Church, when the Divine Physician walked the earth, and a doctor named Luke wrote his Gospel, right up to today, with the threats of Ebola and Zika.

From the research of men like Albertus Magnus or Athanasius Kircher to saints of mercy like Catherine of Siena or Damien of Molokai, and the hundreds of religious orders dedicated to care, it’s in the very DNA of the faith to help the sick.

In the Old Testament, illness was a judgment from God. Sometimes this chastisement, as Job observed, was for our own good: “For he wounds, but he binds up; / he smites, but his hands heal” (5:18).

Jesus brought something new into the mix. The in-breaking of the kingdom of God was signaled by the healing of the body. Jesus didn’t travel Judea handing out wealth or esoteric knowledge, but miraculous cures. Some of these were deeply symbolic. He restored eyesight to the blind as a sign that he was Light. The deaf were given the power to hear the word, and the mute were given the ability to proclaim it. The lame were freed to walk in the world. The corruption of the flesh was washed away. The possessed were relieved of the demonic cancers eating at their minds and souls. Even the “curse of Eve” was symbolically reversed in Mark 5:29. The old regulations concerning the sick and ritual purity were swept away. Jesus wasn’t contaminated by the woman with the flow or the leper. Rather, he purified them.

In the early life of the Church, we see a mixture of approaches, with both prayer and medical arts used to address illness. Suffering could be a path to sanctity, but a Manichean/Gnostic rejection of the body as evil was unacceptable. Care for the individual became one of the hallmarks of the young faith.

Although the Greeks and Romans had made great strides in medicine, they felt no obligation to care for others, and sickness was often viewed as mere weakness. However, the Christian was called to help the weak. The Church began work on its social-support network during the apostolic age, with deacons leading an effort to care for the sick and poor. At first, this meant distribution of alms for food, shelter and care, but by the fourth century, the Church was out of the shadows, flush with support and able to build places for the poor and sick. Bishops Eustathius of Sebastia and Leontius of Antioch were just two of the bishops to build poorhouses, where people could also get medical treatment.

Much of the work was done by women, who were at the forefront of the Church’s mission of care. St. Fabiola, for example, converted to Christianity and used her wealth to build a hospital in Rome.

As St. Jerome eulogized this remarkable woman:

“She was the first person to found a hospital, into which she might gather sufferers out of the streets and where she might nurse the unfortunate victims of sickness and want. … Often did she carry on her own shoulders persons infected with jaundice or with filth. Often, too, did she wash away the matter discharged from wounds, which others, even though men, could not bear to look at. She gave food to her patients with her own hand and moistened the scarce-breathing lips of the dying with sips of liquid.”


Driven by Christians, hospitals began to crop up everywhere.

In Jerusalem and Constantinople, there were facilities with more than 200 beds by the seventh century, as well as facilities for elder care, care for lepers and teaching.

While institutions of care grew, medicine began to languish, as medical discussion became abstract rather than practical. The decline of the Roman Empire was marked by a stagnation in medical care that persisted well into the Middle Ages. Monks had medical texts, and saints like Bede and Isidore were very concerned with treatment. The state of the art, however, was based on ideas about the four humors, fluids in the body that needed to be balanced among yellow and black bile, blood and phlegm. As the Western world tried to crawl out of the ruins of empire, medicine became a shadow of its former self.

Greek and Roman medicine had its share of folk remedies and magic charms, and Christians kept the folk remedies and added prayer, saintly intercession and the application of relics to the mix. Herbalism developed in the monastery, but much of the medicine was unsophisticated and intuitive.

Despite some popular conceptions to the contrary, the Islamic world fell into a similar period of ossification, but began to emerge from its medical “dark ages” ahead of the West because of its dedication to preserving Greek texts.

It took until 1100 for institutional medicine to return to Europe, with the founding of the Salerno medical school, which legend says was begun by a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim and a Greek to draw on the combined wisdom of the four traditions.

There’s at least a symbolic truth in that. St. Alfanus, bishop of Salerno, traveled from his Benedictine community at Monte Cassino to Constantinople, where this learned polyglot discovered medical texts in Greek and Arabic. He translated and synthesized these in Latin and brought Constantine the African and his collection of medical works from Carthage. Constantine’s work was a bridge between East and West, past and present. As the university system began to develop, first in Paris and Oxford, and then elsewhere, medicine began a slow process of improvement.

The Church’s role in all of this was complex, but stories about her hostility to science and medicine are simply false.

As Roy Porter writes in his history of medicine, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, “Physics and faith, while generally complimentary and enjoying a fairly peaceful co-existence, sometimes tangled in a border dispute.” The learned work, of course, was done almost completely by monks, but not everyone saw medicine as a good thing. Naturally, the Church believed the soul was more important than the body.

But because it has always taught respectful care of the body, as the temple of the Holy Spirit, the Church has always been at the forefront of running hospitals and training doctors. “Life and physical health,” the Church teaches, “are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good” (Catechism, 2288).

There were, of course, exceptions. The exacting, ascetic St. Bernard, for example, considered doctors and medicine unfitting for religious people and “contrary to purity.” Physicians were supposed to be approved by the Church, but in practice people saw the doctors they wanted to see and took what treatments they could. Two physicians even became pope: Peter the Spaniard (John XXI) and Gerbert of Aurillac (Sylvester II).

The decree of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) preventing clerics from “shedding blood” had nothing at all to do with surgery, as has been suggested, but concerned war and corporal punishment. Regulations about clergy and medicine were meant to keep them from profiting from it, not from practicing it.

There’s also a widespread idea that the Church forbid dissection. Certain bishops may indeed have discouraged it, but there was never a universal ban on dissection. In 1482, Pope Sixtus IV told a university they could dissect criminals as long as they were given a Christian burial. The prohibition on dissection in places like England was the work of secular authorities.

The Church’s main influence on medicine, however, was the hospital. Crusaders planted infirmaries and hospitals in Germany and France, all along the Mediterranean and into the Holy Land. When exploration brought Spain to the New World, the Hospitaller of the Brothers of St. John of God went with them to build some 200 hospitals.

As learning increased, so did medical fellowships and societies to help regulate the practice. Properly trained doctors were so common by 1300 that they could be found in any city. When the plague struck, and there was nothing to be done, they focused their efforts on palliative care.

And St. Camillus de Lellis (1550-1614) founded the Camillians or Clerics Regular, Ministers to the Sick, in 1582.

The red crosses on the members’ black cassocks later inspired the international symbol of medical care. St. Camillus said the “hospital was a house of God, a garden where the voices of the sick were music from heaven.” The order ministered to the sick of Holy Ghost Hospital in Rome and later ministered to wounded troops in Hungary and Croatia; it was the first field medical unit.

Several dozen saints and blesseds were physicians, dating back to the earliest days of the Church. Blaise’s fame for saving a child with a bone in his throat led to his patronage for throat ailments and the annual tradition of blessing of throats. Cosmas and Damian were famous for never taking payments for their medical services. Giuseppe Moscati personally treated thousands of soldiers during World War I and was the first modern physician to be canonized. In the 1960s, Gianna Molla, a pediatrician, sacrificed her life for her unborn daughter, who survived and herself became a physician.

This commitment to health has continued throughout the centuries, with the Church building hospitals and providing medical care everywhere it goes, often in places of great poverty and suffering. Today, the Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental provider of health care, managing 26% of all medical care in the world, including 5,500 hospitals, 18,000 clinics and 16,000 care homes.

Why do we do it?

The Rule of Benedict says it plainly: “The sick are to be cared for before and above all else, for it is really Christ who is served in them.”


Thomas L. McDonald is a journalist and historian.