It has recently come to my attention that several homeopathic enthusiasts are implying that Catholics and Christians should be encouraged to use homeopathy because of the many popes who used it. They are also pointing to an award given to a homeopathic physician by Pope Paul VI and to the fact that Mother Theresa’s order has also used these drugs as reason for Catholics to embrace homeopathy. Although all of these facts are true, when the story behind them is told, the picture looks a whole lot different!
First of all, Catholics can use any alternative they want for minor problems such as ear aches or scrapes and scratches. This includes untested methods and those that have failed scientific scrutiny such as homeopathy.
What they can’t do is use any of these methods to treat life-threatening or contagious conditions. As this blog explains, the Church’s Ethical and Religious Directives for Health Care Services (Part V, No. 56) which is based on the Catechism, clearly state that a person has “a moral obligation to use ordinary or proportionate means of preserving his or her life.”
As Kevin G. Rickert, Ph.D. explains in Homiletics and Pastoral Review, unscientific medical cures such as alternatives that are either untested or failed to pass the test of rigorous scientific scrutiny [as is the case with most alternatives in use today] are not considered to be ordinary “because they are not real means at all,” Dr. Rickert writes. “As such, they are neither required nor permitted. The main problem with these kinds of ‘cures’ is that they don’t really work; they are irrational, and as such they are contrary to the natural law.”
Thus, when we put our full faith in one of these untested methods to treat a serious illness like diabetes or heart disease, while refusing the best science of the day, we fall into the trap of deception and error, aka “superstitious medicine.”
“In this case, I subject my mind to deception, and at the same time, I neglect my obligation to employ ordinary means; in so doing, I subject my body to illness and my loved ones to potential hardships.”
In other words, stating that Mother Theresa and a few popes have used homeopathic drugs doesn’t really tell us what we need to know. What exactly did they use the homeopathy for? It makes all the difference.
Another example of these kinds of disingenuous statements is in articles such as this one which tout “Homeopathy for Catholics!” by listing a string of Popes who once used it.
For instance, Popes Pius VIII who reigned from 1829 to 1830, and Pope Pius IX who reigned from 1846 to 1878 are two examples given. During this era of history, doctors employed methods such as bleeding and blistering to cure patients, or they relied upon herbal mixtures of one kind or another because they had not yet developed methods for creating effective medicines. These methods, along with a variety of popular “snake oil” concoctions, were all they had to fight serious diseases such as cholera, yellow fever, typhoid fever, diphtheria, malaria, and tuberculosis. How well these methods worked is evidenced by the life expectancy at the time which was a little over 40 years.
The same author also claims that Pope Pius X, and XII used homeopathy. What she doesn’t tell her readers is that during this time, doctors were also using arsenic and mercury to treat diseases. Heroin tablets were used to treat asthma symptoms and cocaine was used for everything from toothaches to throat lozenges. Chances are, Pope Pius X and XII might have used these treatments as well.
In other words, these popes used homeopathic drugs because of the times they were living in and the state of medicine at the time. To cite their use as being in support of homeopathy more than 100 years later is not just unreasonable, it’s downright dishonest! And it’s also nonsensical. If we apply the same logic, we could say that the Church approves practices such as bloodletting, leeches and the use of arsenic and mercury to treat illness because popes have been known to avail themselves of these treatments in past centuries.
As for St. John Paul, the same author cited above writes that “Pope John Paul ll’s physician, Dr. Francesco Negro, was awarded the Order of St. Gregory for his work as a homeopathic physician.”
First of all, Dr. Negro was not St. John Paul’s physician. Dr. Renato Buzzonetti served as Pope John Paul II’s personal physician from 1978 until his death in 2005. Dr. Negro may have been one of his physicians, but he was not the man who served as his primary care giver – which is a big difference!
Second, the recipient of the Order of St. Gregory was Francesco’s father, Antonio, who was a prominent homeopathic physician in his day.
The bottom line is that homeopathy has not fared well under the scrutiny of modern science, especially as testing methods continue to be improved. This means that even in the last 20 years, the information available to Mother Theresa and St. John Paul on the efficacy of homeopathy is vastly different than what it is today.
No doubt both of them would have changed their minds about using it for anything other than minor cuts and scrapes (if that) if they knew what science knows about it today. This is especially true for St. John Paul who had a great respect for science throughout his life.
Last, it should be stated that the Pontifical Councils issued a warning about homeopathy in its preliminary statement on the New Age entitled, Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life. It lists the practice among a variety of others that are connected with the New Age (See Sec. 2.2.3).
Proponents of alternatives such as homeopathy who are seeking Catholic clients should resist the temptation to misrepresent the facts in order to make it appear as if unscientific methods have Church approval when they really don’t. This could inadvertently lead people with serious illnesses to forgo life-saving medical treatment.
Any statement made about Catholicism and homeopathy should include the stipulations posted at the beginning of this article and leave the choice of whether or not to use homeopathy up to the prayerful discernment of the Catholic consumer.