During the recent row over the planned relocation of the National Maternity Hospital, the very strong impression was given that Ireland would be far better off if the Catholic Church had no involvement in the country’s hospitals at all. A medical Catholic ethos was treated as something very bad and undesirable. In fact, no organisation in the world has made a bigger contribution, historically, to healthcare than the Catholic Church. In many ways, the Church invented the healthcare system we now take for granted. Let me explain.
An excellent place to investigate the foundations of Christian healthcare is ‘Medicine & Healthcare in Early Christianity’, by Gary Ferngren, who is an American professor of the history of medicine.
As he explains, right from its beginnings, the Church believed one of its primary missions was the care of the sick, following the example of Jesus. The Church cared for its sick members, and quickly extended its network of care to non-Christians.
When the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire came to an end in the fourth century, Christians quickly moved to found the very first hospitals in Europe aimed at ordinary people. These simply did not exist before. We might find this surprising. Surely every civilization establishes hospitals when they reach a certain level of development? This is not the case. There must be an underlying philosophy in existence first, and this was supplied, in our case, by Christianity.
Professor Ferngern looks at the attitude of the Romans and Greeks towards the sick. Although doctors were available to those who could afford them, there was no sense of a general duty of care towards the sick.
Christianity believed in the equal dignity of all human beings, which stemmed from the belief that we are all made in the Image and Likeness of God.
Ferngern explains that while the classical world “believed in the dignity of humans”, it was specific to “the virtuous person”, someone who possessed “excellence”.
He say that rights were defined “judicially” and “depended on membership in a society (a family, kinship group, or state) that granted them”.
In the classical world, he writes, “Attitudes to the physically defective reflected the belief that health and physical wholeness were essential to human dignity, so much so that life without them was not thought to be worth living”. (A notion that is returning today with great force, as we see from assisted suicide and euthanasia laws).
Christians, on the other hand, believed that those suffering even from very serious and permanent health disabilities were equal in dignity to everyone else, and indeed might be particularly precious in the sight of God. This impelled them care for the sick and to establish proto-hospitals in religious houses and then to build actual hospitals. Groups of dedicated Christians also wandered the streets of the Empire to care for the sick as best they could.
From a very early stage, Christians, Ferngern recounts, “attacked abortion, infanticide, the gladiatorial games, and suicide in the strongest possible terms” because all these practices devalued human beings.
A society that does not believe in the equal dignity of all human beings, or which believes that permanent illness or disability strips you of dignity, will be much less inclined to look after the sick. This is the chief reason why no hospitals aimed at ordinary people were founded in the Roman Empire.
Indeed, as we have previously written, in many parts of the world the very first hospitals were set up by Christians.
To this day, Catholic organisations run 5,000 hospitals and 16,000 health clinics worldwide. They are following in a tradition that is now two millennia old and completely taken for granted by many people.
We tend to believe now that a philosophy of caring for the sick, including total strangers, develops naturally, over time, in all societies. It does not. It arises from a view of life that for most of human history, and in much of the world, did not exist at all. This philosophy of care might not be sustained if we give up the belief that we are all made in the Image and Likeness of God. Indeed, it is already crumbling before our eyes. The consequences of this will be, and are, dire.