“The care of the sick is to be placed above and before every other duty, as if indeed Christ were being directly served by waiting on them” — Saint Benedict
As the founder of one of the Catholic Church’s biggest orders, Saint Benedict’s words from the guiding principle of Christianity’s mission in the healthcare system. Following on from the teachings of Jesus, who himself healed the sick and weary, caring for the less vulnerable has always been a core tenet of the Christian tradition, something that forms and influences the very basis of the modern healthcare system.
In this article, we will explore the long and storied history of Christianity and healthcare, which has led to a huge number of universities, and hospitals across the world. Read on now for the full overview.
Pre-Christian Religious Care
In the Western world, the sick and infirm were treated very differently in the age before Christ. While both Greek and Roman civilizations made great leap forwards in terms of research and diagnosis — which of course led to the establishment of the Hippocratic oath that is still in use today — their society was not founded upon the idea to care for the infirm. Hospitals were built, of course, but they were initially dedicated to armies injured in battle.
A stronger precursor of Christian healthcare can be found in the Jewish tradition. While other religions were opposed to healthcare and healing, passages from the Torah exalt the power of the physician and implore them to look after the sick. Additionally, the Talmud explicitly forbids Jews to live in a city that doesn’t have a physician! As a Jew himself, Christ translated this mission into a reality, curing lepers and providing food to the hungry.
Saint Basil of Caesarea and the First Christian Hospital
Born under the oppression of Roman rule, Christianity took a few centuries before it took root across Europe. Nonetheless, Jesus’ teachings, such as his Sermon on the Mount and the Parable of the Good Samaritan, offer clear lessons for caring for our neighbors. This includes making sure they are not hungry, treating wounds and afflictions, and not giving up on the destitute — something which has formed the basis for Christianity in healthcare and has lasted until the modern day.
One devoted follower of Christ was Saint Basil of Caesarea. Born in Cappadocia, now modern-day Turkey, he was a famed theologian with a strong focus on caring for the underprivileged. As well as preaching and caring, he established a large complex just outside of Caesarea in 369.
Named the Basiliad, it included a house for the poor, along with a hospital and hospice. The hospital contained around 300 beds and was of great use to people dying of the plague. In fact, one of the earliest functions of the Churches was to contain those dying of epidemics, something which led to the establishment of institutions such as the International Red Cross movement.
Monastic Care in the Dark and Middle Ages
Following on from Saint Basil’s innovations, the role of Christianity in healthcare continued to grow. In France, Charlemagne ordered that every Cathedral built should come with a hospital. In Italy, Saint Benedict of Nursia established a new order: one of its core bases was to help the ill, which led to the formation of monastic hospitals. The first was built around 354 in Monte Cassino. Two centuries later, in Spain, Catholic bishop Masona built the first hospital in Mérida in 580. Later, in 650, the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris— literally meaning hostel of God — was founded by Saint Landry. Quite remarkably, this hospital still exists in the modern day, making it the oldest hospital still operating in the entire world.
Later in the Middle Ages, monks gathered a great interest in medicine and healthcare. As monasteries were self-secluded sanctuaries, they became the ideal place to heal and treat the sick. Many monks developed herbal remedies as a natural, God-given aid for treatment, with monasteries often containing a separate garden for growing plants.
While the stereotype of the time may have seen monks simply praying and trusting God’s will to bring the sick person back to health, they actually followed the word of God by finding new solutions to treatments. They made huge strides in tabulation and classification, creating a vast array of academic literature that — along with concurrent innovations coming out of the Arabic world — would go on to influence the foundations of modern healthcare.
The Golden Age of Hospital Building
Hospital building began in earnest during the 13th century, with Italy seen as the key leader of the rise. For example, Milan built around 12 hospitals, while Florence set up over 30 institutions. This later spread across the entirety of Europe. This led to German pathologist Virchow in the 19th century — who himself was not a believer — noting that every city across his country had one hospital per every 5,000 people, something he attributed to the pioneering work of Pope Innocent III. Most of these hospitals were found to be autonomous institutions, doing the work that we now see the government doing in the 20th and 21st centuries.
18th Century Reform Movement
In the UK, Catholic-based care suffered greatly under the rule of King Henry VIII, whose order to destroy the monasteries led to many sick and suffering people kicked out onto the streets. Thankfully, there was a revival in the country in the 18th century due to the preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield, which combined with enlightenment thinking led to a further explosion of hospitals across Europe. It’s worth pointing out that before the establishment of welfare systems and free healthcare for the vast majority of people, the Christian church was often relied upon to provide care to people who may otherwise never have found it.
Christianity spread across large swathes of the globe thanks to the missionary movement, making it the biggest religion in the world with over 2.3 billion adherents. Missionaries played a large part in moving abroad and starting up clinical and medical practices in countries that had yet to establish their own sophisticated healthcare system. One such example of a missionary was Reverend Dr. John Scudder. Born in New Jersey, USA, he travelled to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1819. Serving in the region for 19 years, he built a large hospital there which made great strides in treating diseases such as cholera and yellow fever. Other famous medical missionaries include:
a). Benjamin Hobson: Established hospitals in 19th century China
b). Mary H Fulton: Creator of Hackett Medical College for Women in Guangzhou, China
c). Arthur Lewi Piper: Battled various diseases in the Belgian Congo
d). Zena Sanford Loftis: Famed American physician who worked in Tibet
Medical missions in China were particularly successful, helping to provide the basis for modern healthcare in the Middle Kingdom today. Pilgrimages started with Peter Parker (no, not Spider-Man!), who visited China in 1834. While foreigners were usually not allowed to move to China, he managed to get an exemption because of his background in medicine. He opened a hospital in Canton in 1835 for 2000 people. Then when he realized that missionaries could find a way into China through medicine, it became an immensely popular route. As the most popular destination for medical missions at the turn of the 20th century, they established around 128 hospitals in their time.
Christian Hospitals and Institutions Today
Today, Christianity and Catholicism in particular, can lay great claim to the way it has influenced and provided healthcare throughout the world. Today, Catholic hospitals make up a whopping 26% of all hospitals across the globe. This includes 117,000 health care facilities, 18,000 pharmacies and over 500 centers for people with leprosy. Global Christian institutions that help promote good healthcare around the world include:
1. Christian Healthcare Ministries
2. Christian Connections for International Health
3. Sisters of Charity
4. Sisters of Mercy
5. Sisters of St Francis
6. Global Medical Research Institute
Of course, one cannot mention the spread of Catholic healthcare institutions across the world without touching on the inspirational work of Mother Teresa. Born into a Kosovar-Albanian family at the beginning of the 20th century, her Missionaries of Charity institution was set up in Calcutta to help abandoned newborn babies, and to take in the sick and mentally ill. By the 1960s she had achieved worldwide fame, before finally founding over 450 centers across 100 countries.
Many universities across the world are still rooted in Christian teaching. One great example is Marymount University. As a Catholic university rooted in the traditions of the Sacred Heart of Mary, they offer online courses in a variety of subjects, including Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Post-Master’s Doctor of Nursing, Master of Science in Nursing, and Family Nurse Practitioner (a Post Master’s certificate). You can learn more over at their website.
Patron Saints of Healthcare
Devotees of medicine and the Christian faith can find comfort in praying to a variety of saints. For physicians, the most important saint is Luke the Evangelist. A disciple of Saint Paul himself, and the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, he was trained as a physician, making him the perfect contender to be their patron saint. Two early Christian martyrs and also patron saints of physicians were the Arab pair Cosmas and Damian, who practiced in Aegeae, now Syria, famously taking no payment for their healing services.
For surgeons, patron saints include Saint Quentin (hailing from 3rd-century France), Saint Foillan (from 7th-century Ireland), and Saint Roch (from 14th-century France). Meanwhile, for nurses, there are a wide variety of saints — mostly female — including:
- Saint Alexius
- Saint Agatha
- Saint Catherine of Alexandria
- Saint Catherine of Siena
- Saint Margaret of Antioch
- Saint Camillus of Lellis
Great Discoveries by Men and Women of Faith
With a lot of free time on their hands as well as a great curiosity about the world around them, men and women of faith have made significant discoveries that have altered the way we understand the human body.
German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, a true renaissance man from Thuringia, was one of the first people to ever observe microbes under a microscope. Aiming to investigate the blood of plague victims, he saw that there were what he called “little worms” in the blood and decided that the disease may be caused by microorganisms. Even more strikingly to a post-2020 audience, he proposed a variety of measures to counteract the spread of disease, including isolation, quarantine, and wearing face masks, something that sounds familiar in the age of the novel coronavirus.
Additionally, Gregor Mendel, both a scientist and Augustinian friar from Austria, started developing what would come to now be known as modern genetics. Providing an explanation for how species could emerge, his work would prove mightily influential to the career of none other than Charles Darwin, who would later use these breakthroughs as a means to go on to develop his theory of evolution.
The Future of Christian Care
Given Christianity’s popularity across the world, it is likely that it will continue to be a key bedrock for the healthcare system for a long while to come. Nonetheless, it is no longer the fastest growing religion, with Islam poised to overtake that honor by the middle of this century. Thankfully, for the world, Islamic tradition decrees that taking care of your health is a moral imperative handed down from God, meaning that the future of healthcare remains in safe hands.
Today new challenges face the world of Christian care. While the original hospitals and teachings of Jesus were often focused on lepers, the coronavirus pandemic has filtered into nearly every single corner of the world, making it the number one concern of Christian healthcare providers worldwide. Now, none other than Pope Francis has set up a coronavirus fund, preached the importance of face masks, social distancing, and washing your hands. He has invoked his people to “not abandon the suffering, especially the poorest, in facing the global crisis caused by the pandemic.”