How did the Catholic church get into the hospital business?

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From ancient times, the healing ministry was a natural function of religion.

Hospitals have a fascinating history. In the 19th century, they were popularly conceived as places where you were assured "a bed to lie in and to die in." People reacted to hospitals similarly to the Sacrament of the Sick: as a sure sign you were on your way out. In the era before germ theory was understood, the chances of getting sicker in a hospital—where the critically ill were gathered and treated by doctors who didn't wash their hands between patients—was admittedly high. For this reason, some older people still avoid doctors and hospitals, seeing both as omens of the end.

From ancient times, the healing ministry was a natural function of religion. Faith healing was in the hands of religious practitioners. The Bible describes how priests were invested with the authority to banish the contagious from public life, and also to pronounce them cured and restored to the community. The popularity of healing pools is evident in the gospels, as well as exorcisms and magical rituals. In the century before Jesus, Sirach puts in a good word for doctors too. During Jesus' ministry, people naturally bring their sick to the man "who speaks with authority," and receive physical and mental cures. The evangelist Luke was attracted to the church as a physician and recorded many healing narratives.

As early as the 5th century BC—when Hippocrates uttered his oath, "First, do no harm" —science joined the healing business. Medical schools were operating in 40 BC. Yet the church continued to engage in healing ministries with sacraments for the sick and the sinner. Care for the sick was declared a work of mercy. When Constantine embraced Christianity in the 4th century, hospitals opened in every cathedral town of the Roman empire. Early hospitals functioned as hostels, almshouses, and healing facilities at once. In a word, they offered hospitality: a term rooted in addressing the needs of the stranger. Many saints took the infirm into their homes, or pursued full-time doctoring at no charge like Cosmas and Damian. 

Secular hospitals emerged by the 16th and 17th centuries. Yet often the church embraced patients they refused: Damien de Veuster and Marianne Cope ministered to lepers in Hawaii. Frances Cabrini opened hospitals for the under-served poor in New York and Chicago.  The esteemed Mayo Clinic was founded and funded by Franciscan Sisters in Rochester. If we take seriously the concept that "all healing is faith healing," it's hard to imagine the church getting out of the hospital business.

Scriptures: Leviticus 13:1-46; Sirach 38:1-15; 7:31-37; 8:22-26; Matthew 4:23-24; 8:1-17; 10:5-8; Luke 17:11-19; 18:35-43; John 5:1-9; 9:1-7; Acts 3:1-10; 5:12-16; 8:9-25; James 5:13-15

Books: The Bible and Healing: A Medical and Theological Commentary, by John Wilkinson (Eerdmans, 1998)

Who Shall Take Care of Our Sick?: Roman Catholic Sisters and the Development of Catholic Hospitals in New York City, by Bernadette McCauley (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005)

Reprinted with permission from ©TrueQuest Communications.

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