Medicine: Catholic Holistic Healing Series
Updated: Jul 7, 2020
In the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI states that
"When understood at a sufficiently deep level, [healing] expresses the entire content of 'redemption.'" (1) This article is the first in a series delving into this quote, and it will focus on how different forms of modern medicine can inform our understanding of healing.
A functioning human is a saint. While the redemption Christ won for us is something new, it is not foreign to God's design in creation. We are made in "God's image and likeness" from the beginning. Sin obscures our God-likeness, but Christ's redemption places us on a trajectory beyond Adam and Eve's blessedness.
Sin might be ordinary, but it is not normal. The historical condition of sinful humanity is not our pattern. We need to look at God's original and ultimate plan to chart our course.
We don't start our journey to God's design at zero. We begin with a mixture of wounds from personal and generational sin, trauma, false beliefs, and physical damage. (2) These insults are the root causes of our struggles.
The process of God redeeming us is also a process of God healing us.
"Justification detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin. Justification follows upon God's merciful initiative of offering forgiveness. It reconciles man with God. It frees from the enslavement to sin, and it heals." Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1990.
Salvation is not a superficial coating of grace. God heals us as he saves us. (3)
How does God heal us? The shortest answer is "grace," but this does not give us a clear idea of what it is like to experience healing. Let's take a look at different approaches to physical healing to understand what it is like for God to heal us.
Conventional Medicine is what probably comes to mind when you think of medicine in general. "Western," "Allopathic," "Science-Based," and "Modern" are other names or different perspectives of Conventional Medicine. A doctor trained in this style of medicine will have an "MD" after their name.
Allopathic medicine grew out of an older approach called "Heroic" Medicine. (4) Heroic Medicine focused on balancing the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile), by draining them through various means like bloodletting. A couple of the most important early discoveries for Conventional Medicine were germ theory and sanitation.
A few of the defining characteristics of Conventional Medicine are:
Disease Focus = Label groups of symptoms with a disease name, and determine treatment plans and bill based on disease diagnosis.
The Standard of Care = Each disease has an accepted course of surgical and/or pharmaceutical interventions.
A preference for identifying a single cause to explain all symptoms. This approach is the medical application of Occam's Razor. Occam stated that "Plurality must never be posited without necessity." (5)
Conventional medicine is particularly adept at curing acute conditions and taking life-saving measures. It would be hard to overestimate the number of lives saved by this approach and how frequently conventional medicine extends peoples' lifespans.
In spite of advances in modern medicine, there is an increasing burden of chronic medical conditions. Six in ten adults in the United States have a chronic medical condition, and four in ten have at least two. (6) Conventional medicine often offers relief to the symptoms of chronic diseases, sometimes provides means to slow the progress of the disease, but rarely provides a definitive cure.
The costs of these treatments are staggering. The United States spends 3.5 trillion dollars on health care annually or about $10,200 per person. The next closest country, Switzerland, spends about $8,000 per person, and Germany comes in third at about half the Unites States at $5,700 per person. (7) People with chronic physical and psychological conditions account for 90% or 3.15 trillion dollars of the total health care costs in the United States, (8) and over 80% or 2.63 trillion dollars of that cost goes directly into treating their chronic conditions.
Despite spending the most per person on healthcare, the United States ranks in the mid-thirties in health compared to other countries. (9) While this is not an argument against the use of conventional medicine. The disease burden of the United States is affected by many factors, and the other countries on the list also utilize a conventional approach. It does demonstrate that there is not a correlation between increased spending on conventional treatments and overall health.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)
The inability of Conventional Medicine to turn the tide on chronic disease has lead to increased openness and research into alternative approaches. Treatments that received the "alternative" label are increasingly named "complementary" or "integrative," as experiments demonstrate their effectiveness. (10)
A conventionally trained doctor may take an integrative approach, but some medical schools explicitly focus on integrative approaches. A Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) learns a holistic approach and hands-on diagnosis. A DO has the same licensure and privileges as an MD. (11) A Functional Medicine Practitioner is a healthcare professional who gets certified in "a systems biology-based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease." (12)
Lastly, Naturopaths take a holistic and root cause approach. (13) Naturopaths have a wide diversity of training. Some naturopaths are MDs or DOs who also train in naturopathic medicine. Others attend an accredited school of naturopathy earning a Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine (ND or NMD). A Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine may or may not have state licensure. Some naturopaths have training in different forms of ancestral and cultural medical approaches but no formal medical training.
A few of the defining characteristics of these integrative approaches are:
Treating the whole person: Body, Mind, and Soul
A Systems-based approach = The person is one interconnected and complex system.
The body can heal and self-regulate if you remove obstacles and provide support.
Treating the Root Causes = The symptoms defined as a disease are manifestations of systemic dysfunctions.
From the integrative perspective, the same disease may have many root causes. The opposite is true too. One root cause may lead to multiple diagnosable conditions. Although there are common root causes, two people with very similar symptoms may have very different underlying insults.
The Functional Medicine Tree is an excellent illustration of the root cause perspective.
The signs and symptoms that are manifesting in the organ systems are the leaves/fruit that the tree produces. At the base of the trunk is the phenotype of the patient. A person's phenotype is how their unique genetics are expressing based on environmental inputs. The phenotype of the person determines how the body is functioning holistically. The roots are the array of environmental inputs, including behaviors like diet, exercise, and sleep as well as toxic exposure and trauma.
Ultimately I do not think it is an either/or proposal. In Medicine, the best results are often from the strategic application of both styles of Medicine. Generally, the standard of care is excellent at handling acute problems, and the functional/integrative approach can be more helpful with chronic issues. Many cutting edge treatments utilize the simultaneous application of treatments from both methods. An example of this is the identification of the interplay between the Gut Microbiome and Immunotherapy in cancer treatment. (14)
How Does God Heal?
Let's return to our original question: how exactly does God heal us? I think God's healing follows the pattern of both styles of medicine. Sometimes the healing happens in an allopathic manner, almost as if God cuts the sin out and replaces it with virtue. This immediate healing can occur during a profound conversion, at a powerful retreat, or after someone prays over you. We can experience quick and drastic life changes from these experiences, but rarely, and probably never, is someone wholly perfected in this manner.
Sometimes the healing is not immediate. You might pray to stop, get prayed over, and frequent the sacraments but continue to fall into sin. Does this mean that God is not answering your prayers? NO. It is an invitation into a journey of healing with God. This journey of healing follows the more integrative/functional approach. The journey needs to go down to the root causes of sin.
"The root of sin is in the heart of man" Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1853.
Later, the Catechism describes the heart as the "hidden center" of the person that is the "place of decision." (15) The problem is not, ultimately, that I sin. The root of the problem is that I want to sin.
How do we heal the root of sin? The full answer to this question is beyond this article. On some level, every page of this website is attempting to answer this question. Let's return to Pope Benedict XVI for the basic structure of the answer:
"healing by God's power is both a summons to faith in God and a summons to use the powers of reason in the service of healing. The "reason" meant here, of course, is wide open—it is the kind of reason that perceives God and therefore also recognizes man as a unity of body and soul. Whoever truly wishes to heal man must see him in his wholeness and must know that his ultimate healing can only be God's love." Pope Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth. 176
First, healing is a collaboration of faith and reason.(16) We need to bring to bear the full spectrum of human ingenuity in applying discoveries from science and revelation in our lives.
Healing also needs to address the "wholeness" of the person. (17) This wholeness accounts for the person as a body/soul unity, and as fully alive only in relationship with God. The journey of redemption does not neglect the physicality of the person.
The person fully alive and integrated is not a closed system. By design, we are made to be in communion with God. The ultimate goal is not pure nature nor self-sufficiency. God is an integral part of the system of the person. We don't fully function without God. I think it is more accurate to flip this. God is not a part of us; we become a part of God. The human person fully functions when it is taken up into the divine life.
(1) Here is the full quote: "Healing is an essential dimension of the apostolic mission and of Christian faith in general. Eugen Biser even goes so far as to call Christianity a "therapeutic religion"—a religion of healing (Einweisung). When understood at a sufficiently deep level, this expresses the entire content of 'redemption.'" Pope Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth. From the baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. New York: Doubleday, 2007. 175 - 176
(2) A later article in this series will go into detail about why we need healing.
(3) See https://www.becominggift.com/post/healing for an explanation of the different ways that grace heals.