Mike Aquilina is one of the most prolific Catholic authors today, having churned out over fifty books as well as numerous essays and articles. The title of his latest book is The Healing Imperative: The Early Church and the Invention of Medicine as We Know It (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, $18.95). In this slim volume, Aquilina takes us back to the state of medicine before the rise of Christianity to show us not only how Christ transformed the healing professions but also how Christian charity gave rise to hospitals and medical science.
“All Lives Worth Saving”
Lest the title fool you, Aquilina does not pretend that physicians and medicine didn’t exist prior to Christ. The words to be stressed are “medicine as we know it”. The change isn’t one of technology but rather one of ethos. “It took Christianity to create the conditions under which modern medicine could develop, with all its life-saving potential. And that’s because it took Jesus Christ to teach us that all lives were worth saving” (p. xvii).
All pre-Christian cultures had healing mythologies and deities of health; all had practical remedies and equivalents to physicians. The Greeks had the closest to what Aquilina considers a scientific approach. They understood diseases to have natural causes, attempted to understand them by observation and deduction, and applied natural remedies. But even the Jews, who were apt to view sickness as a sign of God’s displeasure, still had recourse to physicians and medicines under the Law of Moses. The materials for the foundation of modern medicine were all there.
However, in the classical world, doctors didn’t wast time with hopeless cases. If you had an infectious disease, you were most often cast out to die. The closest thing to free clinics were the valetudinaria run by the army for legionaries and by the latifundia (large farming plantations) for the slaves. If you were too poor to afford a doctor, you were left with such traditional salves and poultices as the local wise women could make for you. Competition, not collaboration, was the order of the day, as doctors hid their most effective remedies from all but their own students as trade secrets.
Jesus and the Healing Imperative
According to The Healing Imperative, then, the pagan world tended to abandon the sick to fate just as it abandoned the poor, especially if the disease were known to be communicable. Jesus and the apostles changed this by making care of the poor and the sick a positive religious duty as well as an extension of the ancient traditions of hospitality. Jesus did not endorse the “divine retribution” theory of individual illnesses and death; only once does he precede his healing by granting forgiveness, and then only to make a point about his own authority.
In referring to Luke 10:8-9, part of the passage in which Jesus instructs the seventy disciples he sends out to announce his coming, Aquilina writes, “Note well that the command to heal comes before the command to proclaim the Kingdom. This is the healing imperative.”
It’s as if healing is a necessary step of pre-evangelization. Or perhaps Jesus intends that the Kingdom should manifest itself first through deeds of healing, and then simply be confirmed by the disciples’ words of proclamation. (p. 38)
One may quibble with Aquilina’s interpretation of the Lucan passage. After all, the command to “eat what is set before you” precedes the command to heal; in a list, unless obviously ordered by some other criteria such as the alphabet, the most important item usually comes last. Nevertheless, that Jesus intended his followers to be healers is of a piece with his general vision of the Kingdom on earth as a society which nourishes, cherishes, and protects its most vulnerable, and in which hospitality is given to those who are least able to return it (cf. pp. 43-44).
Why We Need This Story
I have to overcome the temptation to give too detailed a synopsis of The Healing Imperative. That’s one sign of a well-written story: having read it, you want to give others a blow-by-blow description by way of encouraging others to read it as well. You would expect a writer who’s penned more than fifty books to have mastered the art of writing compelling narratives. And part of writing such narratives is finding a story that begs to be told. How Christianity Changed Medicine is just such a story, all the better for being true.
Contrary to the old cliché, facts don’t “speak for themselves”. They are mute until they are organized and connected in a manner that makes sense. And the manner that is most congenial to the human mind is the story. Humans are incorrigible, almost compulsive storytellers because stories organize and explain the universe to us; the stories we share define and solidify our communities. History begins and ends as story—the common narrative of a people by which they find a common identity and purpose. The difference between Eusebius of Caesarea and Paul Johnson lies solely in source citations.
But stories are not true merely by dint of being stories, or even because they contain some facts. Aquilina reminds us that “it’s the intellectual world that is turning post-Christian. And it’s developed its own mythology of ‘The Warfare of Science with Theology,’ to use the title of one of the founding texts of this odd idea” (p. 165). The myth can also be expressed as “the battle between Religion and Reason”. Myths are stories; colloquially, they’re stories gone wrong, stories that present a false view of the universe. We need stories like The Healing Imperative to counteract the myth of fundamental conflict between religion and truth.
What Happened After That?
One weakness of The Healing Imperative is that the story ends too abruptly: you have hospitals springing up throughout the Eastern Roman Empire as the Western Empire fades and collapses … and then the curtain falls. Aquilina then pretty much skips through the next 1,500 years in a handful of paragraphs to ask in an epilogue what the future of medicine will look like. You can almost hear a skeptic ask, “Okay, then, if fifth-century hospitals were so great, what happened? Why was medicine in such a parlous state at the end of the medieval period?”
However, in fairness, Aquilina states right in the subtitle that he’s concerned only with the early Church period. The Healing Imperative was intended to be neither an exhaustive survey of medical history nor a fully-developed refutation of the New Atheist myth of scientific development. It is, in essence and intent, light, interesting reading for the armchair historian. It’s even written at about the ninth-grade reading level for maximum accessibility. By no means is this a criticism; on the contrary, I wish I could write more like that.
Also, I must note that The Healing Imperative mostly avoids references to modern politics and issues, taking no sides in policy debates. The closest Aquilina comes is to clarify that Tertullian’s statement, “All things are common among us but our wives” (Apology 39), “didn’t mean setting up a communist society” (p. 55). The book is not a defense of single-payer health care or socialized medicine, but neither is it an anti-Obamacare screed. It simply makes clear that supporting the poor and caring for the sick have always been obligations, both individual and corporate, that come with Baptism and Communion.
The Future of Medical Science
The relevant question for Aquilina isn’t whether medicine will continue to exist in the post-Christian world; medicine existed in the pre-Christian world. The question is whether medical science—or any of the other sciences—can continue to progress in the postmodern, post-Christian intellectual cosmos. That cosmos isn’t progressing but rather regressing to the classical world’s view, in which health and beauty were functionally the same idea and those who were deformed, disabled, or dying had no rights. One might even call these attitudes the “default position” that the human mind seeks when it rejects divine grace.
However, the hospital succeeded in the East because, contrary to our exceptionalist conceit, Westerners were neither the cleverest nor the most important people in the world. The gospel no longer “belongs” to the Global North, if indeed it ever did; historic Christendom is only a small (albeit wealthy) fragment of global Christianity. As the old hymn tells us, “Where there is charity and love, there is God.” And wherever Christians continue to uphold the intrinsic dignity of the poor and the sick by obeying the healing imperative, medical science can never die.
Summary: Mike Aquilina’s The Healing Imperative is an accessible and engaging look at the influence of Christianity on medicine. It’s perfect for the wider Catholic market and would make a great present for young adults, history buffs, and anyone interested in the cultural legacy Christianity has bequeathed to us.