Christians have a long history of putting themselves at risk to help others during plagues. For example, the Plague of Cyprian (251–66) is estimated to have killed two-thirds of the population of Alexandria, Egypt. And yet,
During the Plague in Alexandria when nearly everyone else fled, the early Christians risked their lives for one another by simple deeds of washing the sick, offering water and food, and consoling the dying.
Many Christians will point to medieval hospitals to argue that they were pioneers in giving us the medical system that we know today. Let’s consider that claim.
(Part 1 considered the similar claim that Christianity is responsible for modern universities.)
Health care in the Bible
We can look to the Bible to see where Christian contributions to medical science come from.
We find Old Testament apotropaic medicine (medicine to ward off evil) in Numbers 21:5–9. When God grew tired of the Israelites whining about harsh conditions during the Exodus, he sent poisonous snakes to bite them. As a remedy, God told Moses to make a bronze snake (the Nehushtan). This didn’t get rid of the snakes or the snake bites, but it did mean that anyone who looked at it after being bitten would magically live. So praise the Lord, I guess.
This is a “hair of the dog” type of treatment, as is homeopathic “medicine.” Just as bronze snake statues are useless as medicine today, Jesus and his ideas of disease as a manifestation of demon possession was also useless. To those who point to Jesus’s few individual healings as evidence that Jesus cared about public health, I ask why Jesus didn’t eliminate any diseases or at least give us the tools to do so.
The Father of Western Medicine was Hippocrates, not Jesus.
Without science, a hospital can do nothing but provide food and comfort. Palliative care is certainly something, and let’s celebrate whatever comfort was provided by church-supported hospitals, but these medieval European institutions were little more than almshouses or places to die—think hospitals without the science.
Christian medicine did not advance past that of Galen, the Greek physician of 2nd century who wrote medical texts and whose theories dominated Western Christian medicine for over 1300 years. Not until the 1530s (during the Renaissance) did the physician Andreas Vesalius surpass Galen in the area of human anatomy.
Let’s also be cautious about how much credit Christianity gets rather than simply Christians. People planning a hospital in Europe 500 years ago would’ve been Christians, not because no one but Christians were motivated to build hospitals but because in Europe at that time, pretty much everyone was Christian.
Hospitals of that time in other regions of the world would’ve been built by people who reflected those societies—Arabs, Chinese, and so on, and India, Greece, and Rome were trying to systematize health care long before Christians.
Christianity’s poor attitude toward learning
Christianity had an uneasy relationship with any ideas that didn’t directly support the Church. The 1559 Index Librorum Prohibitorum listed books by 550 authors that were prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church, though prior lists had prohibited books almost since the beginning of Christianity. The list is a Who’s Who of Western thought and included works by Sartre, Voltaire, Hugo, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Hobbes, Spinoza, Kant, Hume, Descartes, Bacon, Milton, Locke, and Pascal. The List was abolished only in 1966.
Dr. Peter Harrison says, “From the patristic period to the beginning of the seventeen century curiosity was regarded as an intellectual vice.” For example, Augustine compared physical lust to “vain desire and curiosity … of making experiments with the body’s aid, and cloaked under the name of learning and knowledge.” Martin Luther said, “Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.”
This aversion to knowledge is ironic because when the Church was motivated, it could accomplish great things. My favorite example is the thirteenth-century explosion of innovative cathedrals that still stand today.
A modern look at Christianity’s medieval hospitalsWe can get a picture of medieval Christian hospitals by looking at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity hospitals. They have minor comforts, and at best they are comfortable places to die. They’re not meant for treating disease and often lack even pain medication. This isn’t for lack of funds—some estimates claim that the charity took in $100 million per year, though we can only guess because the finances are secret.
One critique noted the mission’s “caring for the sick by glorifying their suffering instead of relieving it.” Christopher Hitchens said, “[Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty.” Mother Teresa’s own philosophy confirms this: “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.”
This is the opposite of the approach of modern hospitals.
Hospitals and medicine today
Let’s return to the Malcolm Muggeridge quote with which I started this post series: “I’ve spent a number of years in India and Africa where I found much righteous endeavour undertaken by Christians of all denominations; but I never, as it happens, came across a hospital or orphanage run by the Fabian Society [a British socialist organization], or a humanist leper colony.”
Maybe the humanists were more focused on curing the problem than simply addressing the symptoms and having a good old pray.
I’d like to give credit where it’s due. If the medieval Church catalyzed human compassion into hospitals that wouldn’t have been there otherwise, that’s great, but don’t take that too far. The Church was largely in charge at that time. If the Church deserves praise for its hospitals, does it also deserve some condemnation for the social conditions that forced people into those hospitals? Did Christianity retard medical science with its anti-science attitude? We forget how long a road it was to reach our modern medical understanding. The book Bad Medicine argues that “until the invention of antibiotics in the 1930s doctors, in general, did their patients more harm than good.” Christianity might have set modern medical science back centuries.
How many diseases has faith cured? How many have reasoning and evidence? Smallpox killed 500 million people in the twentieth century alone. Today, zero. Thank you, science.
Catholic hospital systems are today busy gobbling up independent hospitals in the United States. This appears to have nothing to do with providing improved health but rather to be an opportunity to impose Catholic moral attitudes in areas such as abortion and euthanasia. And note that “Catholic” hospitals are publicly funded, just like all the rest.
For religious hospitals, 46 percent of all revenues came from Medicaid or Medicare, 51 percent was patient revenue from other third-party payers, such as commercial insurers, and only 3 percent was classified as non-patient revenues.
Of those non-patient revenues, the majority came from county appropriations (31 percent) and income from investments (30 percent). Only 5 percent derived from unrestricted contributions, such as charitable donations from church members. So, at best, charitable contributions made up a tiny faction of religious hospitals’ operating revenues. (Source: “No Strings Attached: Public Funding of Religiously-Sponsored Hospitals in the United States”)
The few billion dollars that religion spends on good works in the United States is insignificant compared to the nearly trillion dollars that we as a society spend on health care through Medicare and Medicaid.
I’ll conclude with an observation about Mother Teresa’s charity, a modern throwback to medieval Christian hospitals. Speaking about her stance against condoms, which replaced science with Catholic prudery and removed a barrier against sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, one source said, “More people died as a result of dangerous Church beliefs than Mother Teresa could ever have hoped to save.”
- “Christianity Is a Hospital, and Sinners Are Ill (Or Not)”
- “The Bible’s Confused Relationship with Science”
- “Why Does the Bible Have No Recipe for Soap?”
Do you know what they call alternative medicine
that’s been proven to work?
— Tim Minchin, “Storm”
There was a time when religion ruled the world.
It is known as The Dark Ages.
— Ruth Hurmence Green
Image credit: MilitaryHealth, flickr, CC