If you have not done so already, please start with Part One of this article series.
WHAT DOES THE CHURCH SAY ABOUT ACUPUNCTURE?
The Catholic Church has not spoken specifically about acupuncture, but we know that the Pope himself has sought acupuncture treatment. In his biography of Pope Francis, Austen Ivereigh recounts the story of the Pope (at the time Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio) being treated with acupuncture for “a creaky gallbladder”, diabetes, and heart trouble by Taoist monk Liu Ming over the course of three years.
According to Ivereigh, Cardinal Bergoglio jokingly referred to Liu Ming as his “Chinese torturer” and suggested a name for his daughter (who was, as a result of these conversations, named Maria Guadalupe). During their sessions the two discussed the I Ching, the Bible, God, the Tao, and how “the body contains within itself its own capacity to heal itself”.
Though of course the judgment of the Pope is not infallible when he is acting in the context of his personal life, it is reasonable to assume that he would have considered the spiritual implications of acupuncture and would have avoided it if he felt it was potentially harmful. The fact that he received acupuncture from a Taoist monk, no less, implies that the Pope would agree with W. Michael Westbrook when he says:
I would be comfortable receiving acupuncture from someone who practiced Buddhism or Taoism in their personal life. I see no more reason to object to this any I would to receiving treatment from a Jewish dentist. If a therapy does not depend on spiritual mechanisms, then the faith commitments of the practitioner and patient are irrelevant.
IS CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE “CHRISTIAN MEDICINE”?
Because Western medicine is the norm in our culture, it does not occur to most Christians to subject it to the same scrutiny as they would unfamiliar and “alternative” treatments such as acupuncture. Some Christians object to acupuncture saying that it is based on Taoism and is therefore irredeemably un-Christian. But these same people typically fail to inquire into the philosophical and religious underpinnings of Western medicine.
THE PAGAN ROOTS OF EARLY WESTERN MEDICINE
What we now think of as conventional or Western medicine has its roots in ancient Greece. In fact, to this day, new medical doctors take the Hippocratic Oath (quoted below). Hippocrates was born around 460 BC and is considered the father of Western medicine although he was trained in a pagan medical temple and espoused a number of principles that would be considered distinctly non-Christian (for example, he emphasized the importance of astrology as a tool for both the diagnosis and treatment of disease). In the oath that is attributed to him, Hippocrates calls on physicians to swear by pagan gods:
I swear by Apollo the physician, and Aesculapius the surgeon, likewise Hygeia and Panacea, and call all the gods and goddesses to witness, that I will observe and keep this underwritten oath, to the utmost of my power and judgment.
I will reverence my master who taught me the art. Equally with my parents, will I allow him things necessary for his support, and will consider his sons as brothers. I will teach them my art without reward or agreement; and I will impart all my acquirement, instructions, and whatever I know, to my master’s children, as to my own; and likewise to all my pupils, who shall bind and tie themselves by a professional oath, but to none else.
With regard to healing the sick, I will devise and order for them the best diet, according to my judgment and means; and I will take care that they suffer no hurt or damage.
Nor shall any man’s entreaty prevail upon me to administer poison to anyone; neither will I counsel any man to do so. Moreover, I will give no sort of medicine to any pregnant woman, with a view to destroy the child.
Further, I will comport myself and use my knowledge in a godly manner.
I will not cut for the stone, but will commit that affair entirely to the surgeons.
Whatsoever house I may enter, my visit shall be for the convenience and advantage of the patient; and I will willingly refrain from doing any injury or wrong from falsehood, and (in an especial manner) from acts of an amorous nature, whatever may be the rank of those who it may be my duty to cure, whether mistress or servant, bond or free.
Whatever, in the course of my practice, I may see or hear (even when not invited), whatever I may happen to obtain knowledge of, if it be not proper to repeat it, I will keep sacred and secret within my own breast.
If I faithfully observe this oath, may I thrive and prosper in my fortune and profession, and live in the estimation of posterity; or on breach thereof, may the reverse be my fate!
THE INFLUENCE OF PAGAN THINKERS ON THE CHURCH
I do not point these things out to dismiss the value of Hippocrates’ contribution to modern medicine (which was substantial), but to highlight the fact that both Eastern and Western medicine have non-Christian underpinnings. The reality is that Western civilization (and in fact the Christian Church itself) was and is influenced quite profoundly by pagan thinkers. For example, during the middle ages Christians in Europe rediscovered works of Aristotle that had been preserved by Muslim scholars. Although these were obviously works of genius, they were certainly not Christian.
According to W. Michael Westbrook:
It was the great achievement of St. Thomas Aquinas to “baptize” Aristotle in such a way that he could be accepted by the medieval church. By keeping what was true and abandoning or adapting the rest, St. Thomas produced the great synthesis which still shapes Catholic theology today. Simply being pagan didn’t mean that Aristotle was always wrong, but it took a brilliant theologian like St. Thomas to see that. In the same way, if there is anything of value in alternative medicine, it can and should be adapted for use by Christians who wish to aid the suffering or who are suffering themselves
- Although the Catholic Church has not made an official pronouncement regarding acupuncture, we know that the current Pope sought (and benefited from) acupuncture treatment himself.
- Because acupuncture does not depend on a spiritual mechanism, the faith commitment of the practitioner is irrelevant. A Christian should have no more concern about the faith commitment of their acupuncturist than the faith commitment of their dentist or medical doctor.
- Christians who dismiss Chinese medicine as anti-Christian because of its Taoist roots often fail to subject Western medicine to the same scrutiny.
- Many aspects of Western civilization (including Western medicine) were fundamentally shaped by pagan thinkers. This is not a reason to dismiss their value.
READ ON FOR PART THREE…
In part three, I will compare and contrast the role of doctor and patient in Western versus Eastern medicine and explore whether it might be argued that Chinese medicine takes an approach to health and healing that is more compatible with the Christian worldview than that taken by conventional Western medicine.