September 2019 Print

A Meditation on the First and Only Church of Christ the Scientist

by John Rao, PhD

In the 1970’s, just at the time that I was doing my doctorate at Oxford, Dr. Theodore Zeldin, a fellow at St. Antony’s College, published a multi-volume, multi-faceted, and extremely readable work dealing with France in the hundred or so years between 1848 and 1945. One of the themes that he dealt with at length therein was medical science. In doing so, he revealed a particularly ironic fact debunking the 19th century’s pompous conviction of moving ever more vigorously from medieval darkness into modern light. For Dr. Zeldin’s research made it clear to him that the more medical scientific progress that was made—and honest to goodness progress there truly was—the sicker the French population actually felt itself to be.

This is really not surprising, because in order for medical science to effect a truly lasting improvement in mankind’s overall sense of health, it would have to do so in a way that linked itself together with every other branch of the natural sciences. But the cooperative work of each and every natural science can ultimately only harmoniously take place under guidance coming from solid philosophy and theology rooted in the divine seat of all scientia; from the Word of God, and from Him Incarnate in time. Such aid is only then made practically available to us through what we—with apologies to Mary Baker Eddy—might legitimately call the First and Only Church of Christ the Scientist. Alas, the dominant forces in 19th century French medical science were quite unwilling to call upon her holistic healing arts.

Meditation upon these facts can inspire a myriad of different questions, but the one that should most concerns us in a discussion of the relation of the Church and scientists, is that of what exactly it is that contributes to building a healthy, long-lived society. The truth, historically, is that every active force at any given moment in time creates such a culture. Medieval civilization, to take an example central to my argument, was the brilliant product of Roman, Catholic, Byzantine, German, Celtic, and Slavic formative influences. It would have displayed a very, very different character had there had been no one working hard to keep the earlier Catholic and Roman imperial traditions alive, however vain that labor may have seemed under the pressure of the newer pagan and heretical barbarian forces entering onto the scene in its infancy. And the historian seeking to sort out exactly which of these highly-varied elements might have been productive of what aspects both of the brilliance of the civilization of the Middle Ages as well as of its inevitable human flaws finds that he does not have an easy task ahead of him.

Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979) of Cambridge University did yeoman service pointing out the damage done to understanding the gradual emergence of modern civilization out of its medieval predecessor in a classic book entitled The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). Here, he shows how the promoters of the Whig spirit—another term for the vision of liberal modernity—sought to suppress the real study of the development of contemporary culture out of its medieval roots. They did so by positing as an “obvious” unexamined “given” the idea that everything good within the modern world sprang from their own naturalist Enlightenment axioms, which worked progressively and inevitably to free this budding new civilization from the stultifying grip of obscurantist forces, with the Roman Catholic Church at the top of the list. Since science, in the mind of the liberals was definitely a good thing, an irrational Catholicism, and the civilization connected with it, “evidently” had nothing to do with this development of wisdom at all.

Hence, to return momentarily to our more specific medical reference, these closed-minded “masters of them that know” argued that the healing arts, as a praiseworthy branch of the purely liberal-generated natural sciences, could not possibly have experienced any progress under Catholic auspices. A rigid adherence to abstract philosophical principles handed down from Greco-Roman times having nothing to do with practical human life was said to be the negative medieval Catholic contribution to the backward medicine of the dying past; a liberating spirit of observation and experimentation with the physical world was the positive, liberal naturalist element propelling the modern healing arts from one undreamed-of success to another.

It seems to me that a digestion of Butterfield’s thesis shows this smug, self-satisfied argument to be flawed by no less than six gross historical errors: 1) the presumption that any scientist doing what supposedly only liberals were able to do could not really have been Catholic but a hidden fellow traveler instead; 2) that the work of any scientist proudly professing the Faith could ipso facto be disregarded as valueless, thereby guaranteeing that no one would ever learn of his serious accomplishments from a liberal historian; 3) that a medical man openly Catholic in character who was unfortunately faulty in his scientific approach was doubtlessly operating in total accord with fundamental orthodox religious principles; 4) that Catholics in general, scientists included, knew perfectly well what such solid Church teachings were; 5) that liberal scientists doing admittedly fruitful labor were in no way heavily influenced by the presuppositions of the Catholic environment out of which budding modern civilization emerged, but about whose character they themselves might have been painfully ignorant; and, 6) that the logic of their own blindly-accepted liberal naturalist vision was not helping the cause of the natural sciences, but actually slowly eating away at a broadly wisdom-friendly Catholic culture whose continued influence alone could sustain a lasting productive interest in all branches of knowledge.

A serious study of history, free of the unexamined ideological axioms generating the six gross errors indicated above, cannot help but demonstrate the complexity of the growth of the natural sciences in the modern world out of what was an essentially but not completely Catholic environment. It therefore cannot help but encourage apologists wishing to demonstrate the durable, holistic value of the Faith and its practice for scientific progress and maintenance. Let us once again turn to the medical department of the natural sciences to underline this universal two-fold truth and conclude our admittedly rather heavy argument.

From the very birth of Christendom, Catholic commitment to the health of the human person as a whole revolutionized the care of the sick through provision of a vast network of hospitals that also aimed at their spiritual well being. The work of St. Basil the Great (329-379) of Caesarea and St. Samson the Hospitable (d. 530) of Constantinople was crucial in this regard. The basilias—named after the former—were staffed by professional doctors and nurses who dealt with various diseases in highly-specialized wards. Byzantine political and cultural influence in the early medieval West brought knowledge of their standard operating procedure into Italy and Spain, whence it passed to Frankish Gaul, where Charlemagne ordered a basilia to be attached to each cathedral and monastery. Once again, this had a physical and spiritual function, hence giving birth to the western term of a Hotel-Dieu. Crusading fervor in Spain and the Holy Land inspired monk-soldiers to enhance the sophistication of the older basilias still further, perhaps the most famous example of this further revolution in care of the sick being that effected by the Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, founded in 1099 and known today as the Knights of Malta.

Yes, it is true that a good number of medieval western medical researchers and health providers promoted a rigid following of the ideas of Galen (129-c. 200/216). Still, they did so not in submission to Catholic teaching, but, rather, as a result of a slavish passion for imitating Greco-Roman models that they shared with many other learned men in varied branches of activity, most of whom, like Marsilius of Padua (1275-1342), are remembered for being vehement enemies of the Church.

Meanwhile, other Catholics, such as Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), St. Albert the Great (c. 1193-1280), and Roger Bacon (c. 1219-c.1292) approached their own scientific work, all of which had great importance for medicine as well as other natural studies, in a spirit of encouragement of the practical observation of physical nature potentially highly disruptive of dogmatic ancient secular canons. But even here, their complexity as men of a multifaceted Middle Ages filled with still-vibrant pagan Greek, Roman, and barbarian influences alongside Christian ones makes it difficult to identify which of these particular forces shaped one specific aspect of their work or cancelled out the impact of all of the others. Hence, the absurdity of attributing any of their interests that are approved by modern liberals to the non-Catholic side of their personalities—thereby making them blood brothers of founders of Whig Liberalism such as Isaac Newton (1642-1727), John Locke (1632-1704), and Voltaire (1694-1778)—and those of which they disapproved—such as Bacon’s dabbling in magic—to the irrationality of a Church that actually condemned such frequent pagan game playing.

In any case, Catholics with medically inclined scientific minds were always observing and experimenting in what was supposedly a purely naturalist liberal “modern” way. A study of the highly-practical preventive and diagnostic work of Guy de Chauliac (c. 1300-1368), papal physician in Avignon at the time of the Bubonic Plague, demonstrates just how much this was true. So does the story of Jesuit missionaries living in Spanish America, who noted that the powder coming from the bark of a tree the Incas called the quina, could be used to treat malaria. This story became much more important once the Spanish Jesuit Cardinal Juan de Lugo (1583-1660) popularized what became known as quinine to fight this disease in the area around Rome, whose marshlands were breeding grounds for it—at a time when medical men in England could only use it by hiding its papist origins. And, leaping ahead, as far as I know, so does the tale of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), whose Catholic Faith the lovers of modernity have repeatedly tried to contest. For Pasteur erred more by the riskiness of his dangerous medical experiments than from any religious closed-mindedness, while facing more obstacles from establishment physicians than from priests warning penitents against belief in the existence of germs in the confessional. As the Literary Review of October 18th, 1902 cites him as having said: “Posterity will one day laugh at the sublime foolishness of modern materialistic philosophers. The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator. I pray while I am engaged at my work in the laboratory.”

All contemporary naturalism is ideological in character. Its devoted servants see what they want to see. “So much the worse for the facts” seems to be their motto when their own vaunted principle of observation yields information running counter to their vision. Hence, Emile Zola’s (1840-1902) dismissal of a miracle at Lourdes that he himself witnessed with the comment that the beneficiary was still “unclean” to him.

Even more valuable as an argument of the need for those who truly love natural wisdom to join the “First and Only Church of Christ the Scientist” is the fact that the closed-minded naturalist world view ultimately works to destroy belief in a knowable natural order of things, along with the desire practically to use the knowledge thereof. Bl. Nicholas Steno (1638-1686), a European renowned Danish scientist before becoming a Catholic and a bishop, together with one of his prize pupils, Albert Burgh (c. 1648-1708), who joined the Franciscans, already sensed this from their reading and correspondence with the granddaddy of modern materialist atheists, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677).

If they had lived long enough, they could have read Denis Diderot (1713-1784), editor of the French Encyclopedia and passionate Spinoza advocate, spell this destructive influence out for them. While never abandoning his naturalism, Diderot came to understand that the continually evolving and eternal universe that Spinoza posited made all efforts to pin nature down, distinguishing man from woman, human beings from other animals, and animals from vegetables or minerals, utterly impossible. He was a transhumanist before his time. And the pointlessness of using a knowledge constantly dissolving before one’s eyes comes out in a letter to his long-term mistress where he laments the fact that their life together was to end with her becoming nothing other than fertilizer. Why would the average person in such a universe want to bother to do anything for fellow men destined for nothing other than the dung heap?

In a naturalist-dominated world whose medical symbols—hospitals— are money making ventures rather than Hotel-Dieu, and whose health care funds are often spent to perform abortions, transform boys into girls, and figure out how to cure AIDS while leaving the immoral behavior causing it intact, I find myself longing for two things: a general revival of the holistic influence of the basilias of the past, combined with that undoubted progress in the healing arts witnessed in past centuries. The First and Only Church of Christ the Scientist, through St. Basil the Great, was fully responsible for the one. She was very significant in ensuring the second. And she remains absolutely indispensable for all time for the serious maintenance of the desire to know nature and work with it for the benefit of human beings whom she knows to have an eternal destiny. The great theoretical and experimental scientist, bishop, and enemy of naturalism Nicholas Steno said: “Fair is what we see, Fairer what we have perceived, Fairest what is still in veil.” It is ultimately only this belief in our eternal destiny and the awareness that the full meaning and glory of existence will be made known and experienced by us in our future, supernatural life that compel us to know, love, and cultivate our brief passage here on earth fruitfully—and scientifically.