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IT is the evil genius of heresy to distort the Christian truth by exaggerating or minimizing one or other of its aspects. The Church in all ages must counteract this by showing truth in its true proportions and full beauty. Today much error is being broadcast about so-called Divine Healing, Faith Healing and Spirit Healing. It is necessary, therefore, to make known the Church's attitude to suffering and sickness and the nature of her ministry to the sick, so that the true picture may by comparison reveal the distortions of the counterfeit.


Christ invites us to suffer.

Suffering and disease are the consequences of Original Sin and will be with us until the final coming of Christ,

when wounded Nature will be healed and the just enter into the glory and painless happiness of Heaven. The Christian must strive to cure sickness and relieve pain, but having done so must be reconciled to them and, by accepting them willingly, turn them to profit. By His Passion and death Christ turned them to good effect, paid the price of sin and redeemed the human race. Those who are redeemed are called upon to co-operate in the work of Redemption by applying to their souls the merits of Christ's Passion. They do this by reception of the sacraments, prayer and good works, but also by uniting their sufferings with those of Christ and offering them with His in reparation for their own sins and the sins of the world. The whole Church is the Body of Christ and must suffer, for it is not right that there should bea body at ease beneath a head crowned with thorns. Our Lord said, 'If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me (Matthew 16:24).

Since we are all members of the Body of Christ we benefit all parts of it by benefiting ourselves. Suffering then is valuable and the sick exercise a vital apostolate which invigorates the whole Church. Christian charity demands that all possible should be done to heal them and relieve their pains, but they are to be encouraged to bear their sufferings cheerfully for Christ's sake. Indeed, it is more perfect to embrace suffering than to fly from it.

Christ's Mission is Spiritual. Our Lord is concerned only indirectly with bodily needs. He died to bring grace to souls, not health to bodies. The Christian must exercise the corporal works of mercy chiefly because they are acts of charity and enable those who benefit from them to serve God better for the salvation of their souls.

Christ did not come to be a miracle-worker. The sacraments and sacramentals of His Church are not medicine, nor His priests 'medicine-men'. Any healing done in the name of Christ is only incidental to the work of saving souls.


The miracles of healing by Christ and the Apostles are part of the fabric of the New Testament. Their chief purpose was to prove Christ's claims and the authority given by Him to His Apostles and disciples, and they were not to be part of their normal priestly ministry.

Christ Healed

The public mission of Our Blessed Lord is thus summarized in a formula which we find twice in St Matthew (4:23 and 9:35):

'And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the Kingdom and healing all manner of sickness and infirmity among the people.

His miracles were unique, not merely in their effects but in the manner they were achieved and their number. He raised the dead to life and cured organic diseases. He did this in the sight of multitudes as well as privately, and with the minimum of effort, usually with a single command. As for their numbers, we need only quote this astonishing text:

'And when the sun was down, all they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them to him. But he, laying his hands on every one of them, healed them (Luke 4:40).

But He did not work miracles for their own sake. He would have preferred faith without wonders to arouse it. He said, with disappointment, 'Unless you see signs and wonders, you believe not (John 4:45), and, 'An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign (Matthew 12:39).

The Apostles Healed

When Our Lord, before His death and resurrection, sent the Apostles on a mission, He gave them power over 'all manner of infirmities, and told them to 'heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers (Matthew 10:1, 8). St Mark tells us that they used oil in their miraculous healing: 'And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them (Mark 6:13). After His resurrection He gave them His final commission to go forth as His Apostles with this promise:

'And these signs shall follow them that believe. In my name they shall cast out devils, they shall speak with new tongues, they shall take up serpents, and if they shall drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay their hands on the sick and they shall recover (Mark 16:17-19).

In fact, we learn from the Acts of the Apostles that they did these things (2:4, 9:33, 36-40, 16:18, 28:5, 8, etc.). Peter was the first to work a miracle of healing in the name of Jesus (3:6), and later worked so many such miracles that the people considered his very shadow falling on the sick would cure them (Acts 5:15).

Miracles were Signs'

No doubt Christ worked many of these cures 'because He had compassion on the multitude'. But He indicated that He chiefly performed them as 'signs' that He was the Messiah promised of old and ultimately to elicit faith in His divinity. He pointed in particular to His resurrection as a sign of His authority (John 2:19-21, Matthew 26:61), and said to unbelievers, 'Though you will not believe me, believe the works (John 10:38). When John the Baptist sent his disciples to Him seeking reassurance that He was the Saviour, He replied:

'Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, the poor have the gospel preached to them (Matthew 11:4, 5). He applies to Himself words used by the prophet Isaiah of the coming Saviour. (see Isaiah 61:1-2, and Luke 4: 18-21)

For the Apostles, also, healing was the sign that they spoke and acted with the authority of God and in the name of Jesus Christ. In His final commission He said, 'These signs shall follow them that believe. (See Mark 16:17)

Healing a Special Gift

Healing was one of the 'charisms', extraordinary gifts given to individuals for the benefit of the whole Christian community. They were necessary to encourage the faith of Christians and win converts in the first years of the Church's life when she was so small and the opposition of the pagan and Jewish world so fierce.

St Paul insists they are not necessary for every disciple and are relatively unimportant compared with the allimportant virtues, especially Charity. Not every disciple has a 'charism', he tells the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12): nor does anyone have them all. 'Are all of us apostles? he asks, 'all prophets, all teachers? Have all miraculous powers, or gifts of healing? Can all speak with tongues, can all interpret? None of these are necessary. 'I will tell you what is, he says, in effect, and in the famous thirteenth chapter sings the praises of Charity, the love of God and the neighbour.

Not all exercised the gift of healing, nor did all benefit from it. Suffering was not wiped out in the Christian community in apostolic times. The Revelations of St John tell us that Christians suffered terribly in the first century. There was sickness among the elect. Epaphroditus, for instance, companion of St Paul in many missions, suffered serious illness (Philippians 2:26), and St Paul himself all his life suffered from the weakness which he calls his 'thorn in the flesh', and bore many other sufferings in which he gloried (2 Corinthians 12:5-10).


The arm of Our Blessed Lord is not shortened since He went to Heaven. He carries on His ministry through His Body, the Church. He stretches forth His hands particularly through His earthly priest, who, in the words of St John Chysostom, 'lends Christ his tongue and gives Him the use of his hands. But Christ acts also through all the members of the Church. As Father Gerard Manley Hopkins says, the Christian

Acts in God's eyes what in God's eye s he is

Christ'for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not His. (Sonnet 34)

Christ still heals. Perhaps He works even more miracles today through His Mystical Body the Church than He worked through His physical body when on earth. But apart from miracles He is constantly bringing spiritual and physical refreshment to suffering souls through His sacraments and sacramentals.


Not every priest can claim the charism of healing, any more than those of apostolic times could. But the gift is still given. Christ on isolated and particular occasions still heals miraculously through His saints. Only a few of the saints of each generation are canonized, only a selection of their deeds are recorded and only the two major miracles submitted during their 'cause' of canonization are scrutinized and accepted officially by the Church. Many more wonders happen than are chronicled. Miracles, though comparatively rare, are part of the ordinary life of the Church, and, like themiracles of Christ, are given as 'signs' of the holiness of a person and the things for which he stands.

Miracles are of two kinds, broadly speaking. There are cures of organic diseases which in their effects and the manner in which they were achieved are quite outside the known laws of medicine. There are cures, particularly of functional diseases, which can be brought about by treatment but which in these particular cases, either because of the speed or completeness of recovery or the apparent inadequacy of the methods employed, are seen by the believer to be miraculous.

The cure of John Traynor at Lourdes in 1923 is an example of the former. As a result of multiple war-wounds, he suffered from epilepsy, paralysis of the right arm due to severed nerves, atrophy of the shoulder and pectoral muscles, was without feeling in his legs and without control of his functions. His skull had been trepanned and the opening covered with a metal plate. He was restored instantaneously to perfect health and for twenty years worked as a coalmerchant in Liverpool, himself lifting sacks of coal even though the nerves of the axilla which actuate the muscles of the arm remained severed. He died of a hernia in 1943.

The Medical Bureau and Medical Commission of Lourdes examine all alleged cures. They will only consider cases of grave organic lesion. They look for five characteristics which mark miraculous cures. The patient had no curative treatment immediately before the cure; it was instantaneous; there was no period of convalescence; it occurred in an unusual manner; the functions of the body were restored even when the organ responsible for them was biologically incapable of performing them. So rigorously are these tests applied and hearsay rejected that on an average only one such cure a year is officially attested. All concerned know that more occur.

Cures of functional diseases and diseases of the mind, not even considered by the Medical Bureau but accepted as miraculous in the common opinion of wise men, occur more frequently at Lourdes and other places of pilgrimage. But the working of miracles is not restricted to places of pilgrimage. Miracles, although rare, happen in all parts of the Church, on the testimony of discreet and sensible men, both medical and lay.

The Church, however, has a ministry of healing other than the miraculous, through the administration of the sacrament of Extreme Unction and her many blessings for the sick.

Extreme Unction (Sacrament of the Sick)

Sacred Scripture thus describes this sacrament:

'Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him

with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man, and the Lord shall raise him up. And if he be in sins, theyshall be forgiven him (James 5:14, 15).

Here is implied the whole of the Church's teaching on this sacrament'that it is instituted by Jesus Christ, for the benefit of the seriously sick, administered by the priest, who prays in the name of the Church and anoints with sacred oil, with the threefold effect of remitting sins, cheering and strengthening the soul and restoring the sick man to bodily health, if God sees this to be for his spiritual benefit.

Sacrament of the Sick'Christ heals through His Church

The first end of this sacrament is to forgive sins and restore supernatural strength to the soul to help it to bear its suffering cheerfully and face death with equanimity. The recovering of bodily health is secondary and conditional, sometimes accompanying the primary effect. With sins are removed such consequences of sin as spiritual debility, indifference, depression and worry, and the strengthening grace of the sacrament brings hope and confidence in the goodness of God, so that the soul is calmed and the body in consequence becomes relaxed and better able to recuperate. The recovery, if any, is not miraculous, although it is the result of supernatural graces. Nor is it 'faith healing'. Recovery is not the result of self-induced confidence, nor is it the inevitable consequence of the rite. In fact this is, in the words of the Council of Trent, 'Sacramentum exeuntium, the sacrament of the departing. It is the crowning of the Christian life. But all priests of long pastoral experience will testify that some physical improvement is to be expected after it and full recovery is not infrequent. Since grace here works on nature, it is wrong to postpone administration of the sacrament until the patient is almost at his last breath and incapable of recuperation.

The primary purpose of this sacrament is to give grace to the soul, but the Church intends also to bring strength to the body through it, as is clear from the prayers which she says in connection with it. The Bishop prays thus over the sacred Oil for the sick in the Mass of the Oils of Holy Thursday:

Send forth from Heaven, we pray You, O God, Your Holy Spirit into this rich Oil, which You have deigned to produce from the green wood for the restoring of mind and body'through Your blessing may all anointed with this Heavenly medicine be protected in mind and body, all mental and physical pain, weakness and sickness, being removed . . .

Blessings of the Sick

The prayers in the Roman Ritual for the various blessings of the sick indicate the Church's inten tion of healing the body as well as the soul. The words said over a sick child are typical of many similar blessings:

Stretch forth Your hand therefore over this Your servant deprived of health at such a tender age. Let health be given back to him. May he live out his full span of years, and may he never cease to give You loyal and grateful service all the days of his life. Amen.

There are many sacramentals for the sick (that is, prayers, actions or objects specially blessed by the Church, administered in a way resembling a sacrament), with prayers for the restoration of full health. Bread, wine, oil, water, are blessed to be used by the sick with the invocation of saints whose names have been traditionally associated with the curing of particular ills. The blessing of St Blaise for the throat is a good example. Two candles are sprinkled with Holy Water and the priest prays God to bless them:

So that all who shall be touched on the neck with them may be freed from all disease of the throat, by the merits of Christ's Passion, and in health and good cheer may give thanks to You in Your Church and praise Your name, which is blessed for ever.

The two candles are placed scissor-wise to the neck by the priest as he says:

Through the intercession of St Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God free you from all disease of the throat, and from all other evil; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

All Catholics know that there is no guarantee of cure in each case and are encouraged to bear their sufferings patiently if it is not God's will that they should be cured. But undoubtedly many are comforted and not a few cured by such blessings.

Catholic Nursing

The Church has always regarded the care of the sick as a noble vocation, and holy people have dedicated themselves to it from earliest times. In the early Middle Ages, and particularly during the Crusades, religious Orders of both men and women were founded for this purpose. Throughout the West, Hotels-Dieu, or Guest-Houses of God, were established in which religious lived according to rule, with vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and service of the sick, and whose 'guests' were invalids of all kinds. These Orders and their successors have something unique to contribute to the practice of medicine, even in these days of National Health Service.

Catholic Nursing'Christ heals through His Church

There can be no doubt that the Catholic doctor and nurse, whether religious or secular, bring a spirit of dedication and kindness to their service of the sick derived from the grace of the sacraments. Many who are not Christians prefer Catholic hospitals because of the cheerful and kindly service of the nurses, particularly nuns, and the air of refinement which religion brings to the wards. An atmosphere is a vital factor in nursing. This is particularly true for Catholic patients with deep faith. The sight of the crucifix and statue of Our Lady, the knowledge that a priest is available to bless them, hear their confession, bring Holy Communion and administer the sacrament of Extreme Unction, are sources of great comfort. Doctors of all religious beliefs, and of none, know as a fact of experience that 'the comforts of religion' have a marked effect upon the emotions and contribute much to the recovery of health. Through faith the patient loses his self-centredness, shakes off his sense of guilt and banishes morbid fears. Peace of mind and a sense of security under God's protection develop hope and the conviction of having an important part to play in life and stimulate the will to live, which is a vital factor in the recovering of full health.


There are many false ideas taught and dangerous practices employed in the name of religion in attempts to cure the sick by other than medical means. 'Spiritual Healing' is a term popularly used to cover them all. The different types of Spiritual Healing may be described under the three headings of Divine Healing, Faith Healing, and Spirit Healing. It is difficult to define what the proponents of these theories mean by their terms, because their explanations, whether written or spoken, are vague and various. A rough and brief outline of the dominant ideas of each will be attempted.

Divine Healing

Divine Healing is the term used in the Protestant Churches (chiefly the Anglican) for the attempt to cure the sick through 'healing services' in church with the sick present, or through the prayers of groups in private, or the 'laying on of hands' and 'unction' by a minister in the sick-room or hospital. Although the sixteenth century Protestants neglected and even scorned the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, recent Protestants imitate it more and more. The report of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission in 1958, entitled 'The Church's Ministry of Healing, gives suitable forms for services of healing in which debt to the Catholic ritual of Extreme Unction is obvious. But there are two fundamental differences. First, it is clear that these are rites for bodily healing primarily; secondly, that they suggest that the faith of the patient and his will to be cured are dominant factors. The report says: 'Every effort, by resort to Scripture and by reference to the divine commission of the Church, should be made to evoke firm faith in the patient that the ministry of healing is valid and effective and part of the substance of the gospel. The Commission recommends that doctors and the minister of religion present should co-operate, showing the same confidence. The emphasis hence is on strong 'suggestion'. One is led to the conclusion that this is a respectable form of 'Faith Healing', of which we must now speak.

Faith Healing

The philosophy of Faith Healing is based on the conviction that mind can dominate matter, that a sick person can overcome his illness so long as his faith is sufficiently strong. It is not always clear what faith is meant the patient's faith in God, his faith in the healer, or his faith in his own spiritual powers of recuperation. Normally all these are implied.

Faith Healing is practised in its extreme and most dangerous form by the Christian Scientists, a sect founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1875. This sect denies the reality of matter and says pain is a figment of the imagination; that Christianity was founded to give mankind perfect physical and mental health; that Christ was the great Healer and intended all His followers to have powers of healing; that medicine is of little use; that suffering is the fault of the sufferer, for he can conquer it through faith. This strikes at the profession of medicine as well as at the Faith. It causes delay in seeking medical attention, suppression of symptoms and consequent new physical disorders. (Cf. What is Christian Science?, by Dr. L. Rumble M.S.C.)

Spirit Healing

This is the most pernicious of all the errors connected with this subject. Socalled 'spiritual healers' are in fact spiritualists who claim to be mediums and agents on earth of great doctors of the past who now, in the spirit-world, have even greater knowledge and skill in medicine. Meetings like spiritualist seances are held with all the mumbojumbo and trickery of Spiritualism. The healers also have sessions of 'contact healing' in which they interview patients and lay their hands on them, claiming to receive strength and inspiration from the spirit-guides. They practise also 'absent-healing''by correspondence!

This is open to all the dangers of Spiritualism. It is completely divorced from the Church founded by Christ and the doctrines He committed to its care. It is a mixture of charlatanism, credulity and emotionalism, and is the enemy of true religion and true medicine.


There are three fallacies beneath all these ideas on healing. First is the presumption that all illness is against the will of God and wholly evil. In fact, suffering and disease are now a necessary part of man's fallen state and are occasions of grace for him and a more valuable way of making reparation for his sins.

Second is the idea that the faith of the sufferer, stimulated by any form of 'suggestion' (religious 'suggestion' being particularly powerful), is the prime if not the only factor in bringing about a cure. The Catholic Church teaches that it is the direct action of God in answer to prayer which brings about a supernatural cure, if this be His will.

Third is the belief that healing is part of the normal ministry of the individual Christian priest, and even layman, and may be exercised in the name of Christ without any reference to His Church. In fact healing is a 'charism' given only to individuals on rare occasions.

Harmful Effects

Such beliefs and practices have harmful effects both in religion and medicine. False notions are taught, in the name of the Christian religion, which make a mockery of true religion, by teaching error and raising false hopes. Great harm is often done to the individual. He is in danger of losing his faith if, as often happens, after his hopes of cure have been raised high by religious fervour, there is either no result or a mere remission brought about by emotional excitement. This is particularly true in the case of Faith Healing when the sufferers are told that if there is no cure it is their own fault because their faith is too weak.

The harmful medical effects on the patient are manifold. The British Medical Association in 1956 published a report on 'Divine Healing and Co-operation between Doctors and Clergy, made by a special commission at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission on Divine Healing. The report lists these harmful effects of so-called Divine Healing, Faith Healing and Spirit Healing.

Often pain is relieved by emotional experiences and auto-suggestion without the root of the disease being affected. Pain is a most important guide to the doctor in making his diagnosis. It is a principle of medical practice not to alleviate pain until a firm diagnosis has been made. To destroy symptoms by suggestion caused by laying on of hands, prayers and ceremonies arousing religious enthusiasm, without curing the disease, is doing the patient a grave disservice.

Raising false hopes of a cure may cause a patient to delay taking normal treatment. Indeed, Christian Scientists on principle discourage any resort to medical aid. Absence of immediate cure and, much more so, a relapse after a remission or temporary absence of symptoms, may cause deep depression. Excessive fervour, particularly in public healing-services, may destroy the emotional balance of the patient and even lead to a physical or mental breakdown. Meetings of a revivalist nature may destroy mental balance permanently, cause hallucinations and consequent extreme depressions.

The harmful effects to medicine in general are even more serious. The recognition of the right of 'spiritual healers' to enter hospitals would create two different authorities both seeking to cure bodily ills. The 'spiritual healer's' suggestions might easily be in direct opposition to the advice of doctors and medical staff. Quietness of mind and body are normally essential to recuperation. Often these healers seek to arouse fervour. Far different are the ministrations of a Catholic priest who quietly administers the sacraments of the Church and, while praying for good health and encouraging the patient to have hope and confidence, seeks to make him resigned to suffer patiently, if such be the will of God.

Good Effects

It cannot be denied that good effects may follow from these dangerous beliefs and practices. God does reward faith wherever He finds it. Also good effects follow naturally from strong suggestion and auto-suggestion. Morale is built up and the will to recover intensified. Many diseases of the body, particularly those caused by anxiety, can be cured by relieving anxiety. Psycho-somatic diseases, in which the physical condition is caused by mental illness or unrest, can be cured by Spiritual Healing as by other forms of psychological treatment. What the mind can cause the mind can cure. As for people suffering from the less serious nervous complaints, it is not surprising that they should have temporary and sometimes even permanent relief from religious experiences, particularly if they are of an emotional kind. But the harmful effects on the whole far outweigh the benefits.


Claims of remarkable cures are made by those practising the different forms of Spiritual Healing. It is astonishing to the Catholic, used to the stringent demands made by the Church in her examination of alleged miracles, how meagre is the case-history and unscientific the presentation of the medical evidence in connection with these claims, even when they are made in print by reputable men.

There can be no doubt that suggestion, particularly when it is supported by prayers and religious practices and backed by faith, will calm the mind, build up morale and enable the body to recuperate naturally. But claims of cures are to be treated with great caution.

The British Medical Association's report says that most claims of cures of organic diseases by Spiritual Healing alone are false for one or other of six reasons:

1. There was a mistake in diagnosis. A psychological condition with physical effects was diagnosed and treated as organic, or vice versa.

Thus, a case diagnosed and treated as epilepsy was in fact hysteria, and an improvement caused by a profound religious experience removed the physical symptoms.

2. There was a mistake in prognosis, or the foretelling of the future course of the disease. It may resolve itself naturally but unexpectedly under normal treatment.

3. There was alleviation of the symptoms without cure. Religious excitement, enthusiasm, hypnotic suggestion, may remove pain and give the stimulus for diseased organs to function; but when the stimulus dies down the pain returns, and probably damage has been done to the diseased organs.

4. There was a remission. The symptoms disappeared naturally for a time though the diseased condition remained. Often the claimed 'miracle' receives great publicity, the relapse none.

5. There was a spontaneous natural cure. Such inexplicable recoveries occasionally happen under normal circumstances.

6. There was continued treatment. The cure was due to normal treatment, but the credulous patient attributed it to faith-healing practices carried on at the same time.

The report concludes: 'When all these possibilities are considered it leaves little room for miraculous cures of organic disease by methods of spiritual healing (op. cit., p. 13).

( Footnote: One is led to conclude that the committee did not sufficiently study the miracles of Lourdes. It shows a certain indecision in commenting on them in passing. However, it does refer to them in this context as events 'which cannot be explained.)


In this as in all things the Church maintains the balance between the extremes of scepticism on the one hand and credulity on the other. She teaches that sickness and pain are evil consequences of Original Sin, but that in His Passion and death Christ has ennobled them and calls upon all Christians to unite their sufferings to His in reparation for the sins of the world.

She teaches that Christ worked miracles of healing as proof of His divinity and continues to do so through the members of His Church, although no one can claim this power as part of his office. But, apart from miracles, He brings grace and comfort to the souls and health to the bodies of the sick through the sacraments and sacramentals and the charity of Christian doctors and nurses.

The laws of Nature are the will of God and we must not expect Him to be constantly suspending them; yet we may trustfully ask Him for health in sickness, knowing that He will give it if it be for the good of our souls. But we must be resigned to suffer and we gain great merit if we desire suffering for His sake.

We must be doubtful of all claims of miracles whilst admitting the possibility of them, expect Nature to run her normal course yet realize that the influence of the supernatural upon it is part of God's plan. The supernatural touches the natural at all points.

The angels keep their ancient places;

Turn but a stone, and start a wing!

'Tis ye, 'tis your estranged faces,

That miss the manysplendour'd thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder) Cry;'and upon thy so sore loss

Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter, Cry,'clinging Heaven by the hems; And lo, Christ walking on the water, Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!


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