10. Christianity and Medial Science

An Address to the Students of Medicine


{505} I HAVE had so few opportunities, Gentlemen, of addressing you, and our present meeting is of so interesting and pleasing a character, by reason of the object which occasions it, that I am encouraged to speak freely to you, though I do not know you personally, on a subject which, as you may conceive, is often before my own mind: I mean, the exact relation in which your noble profession stands towards the Catholic University itself and towards Catholicism generally. Considering my own most responsible office as Rector, my vocation as an ecclesiastic, and then again my years, which increase my present claim, and diminish my future chances, of speaking to you, I need make no apology, I am sure, for a step, which will be recommended to you by my good intentions, even though it deserves no consideration on the score of the reflections and suggestions themselves which I shall bring before you. If indeed this University, and its Faculty of Medicine inclusively, were set up for the promotion of any merely secular object,—in the spirit of religious rivalry, as a measure of party politics, or as a commercial speculation, then indeed I should {506} be out of place, not only in addressing you in the tone of advice, but in being here at all; for what reason could I in that case have had for having now given some of the most valuable years of my life to this University, for having placed it foremost in my thoughts and anxieties,—(I had well nigh said) to the prejudice of prior, dearer, and more sacred ties,—except that I felt that the highest and most special religious interests were bound up in its establishment and in its success? Suffer me, then, Gentlemen, if with these views and feelings I conform my observations to the sacred building in which we find ourselves, and if I speak to you for a few minutes as if I were rather addressing you authoritatively from the pulpit than in the Rector's chair.

Now I am going to set before you, in as few words as I can, what I conceive to be the principal duty of the Medical Profession towards Religion, and some of the difficulties which are found in the observance of that duty: and in speaking on the subject I am conscious how little qualified I am to handle it in such a way as will come home to your minds, from that want of acquaintance with you personally, to which I have alluded, and from my necessary ignorance of the influences of whatever kind which actually surround you, and the points of detail which are likely to be your religious embarrassments. I can but lay down principles and maxims, which you must apply for yourselves, and which in some respects or cases you may feel have no true application at all.


All professions have their dangers, all general truths have their fallacies, all spheres of action have their limits, and are liable to improper extension or alteration. Every {507} professional man has rightly a zeal for his profession, and he would not do his duty towards it without that zeal. And that zeal soon becomes exclusive or rather necessarily involves a sort of exclusiveness. A zealous professional man soon comes to think that his profession is all in all, and that the world would not go on without it. We have heard, for instance, a great deal lately in regard to the war in India, of political views suggesting one plan of campaign, and military views suggesting another. How hard it must be for the military man to forego his own strategical dispositions, not on the ground that they are not the best,—not that they are not acknowledged by those who nevertheless put them aside to be the best for the object of military success,—but because military success is not the highest of objects, and the end of ends,—because it is not the sovereign science, but must ever be subordinate to political considerations or maxims of government, which is a higher science with higher objects,—and that therefore his sure success on the field must be relinquished because the interests of the council and the cabinet require the sacrifice, that the war must yield to the statesman's craft, the commander-in-chief to the governor-general. Yet what the soldier feels is natural, and what the statesman does is just. This collision, this desire on the part of every profession to be supreme,—this necessary, though reluctant, subordination of the one to the other, is a process ever going on, ever acted out before our eyes. The civilian is in rivalry with the soldier, the soldier with the civilian. The diplomatist, the lawyer, the political economist, the merchant, each wishes to usurp the powers of the state, and to mould society upon the principles of his own pursuit.

Nor do they confine themselves to the mere province of {508} secular matters. They intrude into the province of Religion. In England, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, lawyers got hold of religion, and never have let it go. Abroad, bureaucracy keeps hold of Religion with a more or less firm grasp. The circles of literature and science have in like manner before now made Religion a mere province of their universal empire.

I remark, moreover, that these various usurpations are frequently made in perfectly good faith. There is no intention of encroachment on the part of the encroachers. The commander recommends what with all his heart and soul he thinks best for his country when he presses on Government a certain plan of campaign. The political economist has the most honest intentions of improving the Christian system of social duty by his reforms. The statesman may have the best and most loyal dispositions towards the Holy See, at the time that he is urging changes in ecclesiastical discipline which would be seriously detrimental to the Church.

And now I will say how this applies to the Medical Profession, and what is its special danger, viewed in relation to Catholicity.


Its province is the physical nature of man, and its object is the preservation of that physical nature in its proper state, and its restoration when it has lost it. It limits itself, by its very profession, to the health of the body; it ascertains the conditions of that health; it analyzes the causes of its interruption or failure; it seeks about for the means of cure. But, after all, bodily health is not the only end of man, and the medical science is not the highest science of which he is the subject. Man has a moral and a religious nature, as well as a physical. {509} He has a mind and a soul; and the mind and soul have a legitimate sovereignty over the body, and the sciences relating to them have in consequence the precedence of those sciences which relate to the body. And as the soldier must yield to the statesman, when they come into collision with each other, so must the medical man to the priest; not that the medical man may not be enunciating what is absolutely certain, in a medical point of view, as the commander may be perfectly right in what he enunciates strategically, but that his action is suspended in the given case by the interests and duty of a superior science, and he retires not confuted but superseded.

Now this general principle thus stated, all will admit: who will deny that health must give way to duty? So far there is no perplexity: supposing a fever to break out in a certain place, and the medical practitioner said to a Sister of Charity who was visiting the sick there, "You will die to a certainty if you remain there," and her ecclesiastical superiors on the contrary said, "You have devoted your life to such services, and there you must stay;" and supposing she stayed and was taken off; the medical adviser would be right, but who would say that the Religious Sister was wrong? She did not doubt his word, but she denied the importance of that word, compared with the word of her religious superiors. The medical man was right, yet he could not gain his point. He was right in what he said, he said what was true, yet he had to give way.

Here we are approaching what I conceive to be the especial temptation and danger to which the medical profession is exposed: it is a certain sophism of the intellect, founded on this maxim, implied, but not spoken or even recognized—"What is true is lawful." Not so. Observe, here is the fallacy,—What is true in one science {510} is dictated to us indeed according to that science, but not according to another science, or in another department. What is certain in the military art has force in the military art, but not in statesmanship; and if statesmanship be a higher department of action than war, and enjoins the contrary, it has no claim on our reception and obedience at all. And so what is true in medical science might in all cases be carried out, were man a mere animal or brute without a soul; but since he is a rational, responsible being, a thing may be ever so true in medicine, yet may be unlawful in fact, in consequence of the higher law of morals and religion having come to some different conclusion. Now I must be allowed some few words to express, or rather to suggest, more fully what I mean.

The whole universe comes from the good God. It is His creation; it is good; it is all good, as being the work of the Good, though good only in its degree, and not after His Infinite Perfection. The physical nature of man is good; nor can there be any thing sinful in itself in acting according to that nature. Every natural appetite or function is lawful, speaking abstractedly. No natural feeling or act is in itself sinful. There can be no doubt of all this; and there can be no doubt that science can determine what is natural, what tends to the preservation of a healthy state of nature, and what on the contrary is injurious to nature. Thus the medical student has a vast field of knowledge spread out before him, true, because knowledge, and innocent, because true.

So much in the abstract—but when we come to fact, it may easily happen that what is in itself innocent may not be innocent to this or that person, or in this or that mode or degree. Again, it may easily happen that the impressions made on a man's mind by his own science may be indefinitely more vivid and operative than the {511} enunciations of truths belonging to some other branch of knowledge, which strike indeed his ear, but do not come home to him, are not fixed in his memory, are not imprinted on his imagination. And in the profession before us, a medical student may realize far more powerfully and habitually that certain acts are advisable in themselves according to the law of physical nature, than the fact that they are forbidden according to the law of some higher science, as theology; or again, that they are accidentally wrong, as being, though lawful in themselves, wrong in this or that individual, or under the circumstances of the case.

Now to recur to the instance I have already given: it is supposable that that Sister of Charity, who, for the sake of her soul, would not obey the law of self-preservation as regards her body, might cause her medical adviser great irritation and disgust. His own particular profession might have so engrossed his mind, and the truth of its maxims have so penetrated it, that he could not understand or admit any other or any higher system. He might in process of time have become simply dead to all religions truths, because such truths were not present to him, and those of his own science were ever present. And observe, his fault would be, not that of taking error for truth, for what he relied on was truth—but in not understanding that there were other truths, and those higher than his own.

Take another case, in which there will often in particular circumstances be considerable differences of opinion among really religious men, but which does not cease on that account to illustrate the point I am insisting on. A patient is dying: the priest wishes to be introduced, lest he should die without due preparation: the medical man says that the thought of religion will disturb his mind {512} and imperil his recovery. Now in the particular case, the one party or the other may be right in urging his own view of what ought to be done. I am merely directing attention to the principle involved in it. Here are the representatives of two great sciences, Religion and Medicine. Each says what is true in his own science, each will think he has a right to insist on seeing that the truth which he himself is maintaining is carried out in action; whereas, one of the two sciences is above the other, and the end of Religion is indefinitely higher than the end of Medicine. And, however the decision ought to go, in the particular case, as to introducing the subject of religion or not, I think the priest ought to have that decision; just as a Governor-General, not a Commander-in-Chief, would have the ultimate decision, were politics and strategics to come into collision.

You will easily understand, Gentlemen, that I dare not pursue my subject into those details, which are of the greater importance for the very reason that they cannot be spoken of. A medical philosopher, who has so simply fixed his intellect on his own science as to have forgotten the existence of any other, will view man, who is the subject of his contemplation, as a being who has little more to do than to be born, to grow, to eat, to drink, to walk, to reproduce his kind, and to die. He sees him born as other animals are born; he sees life leave him, with all those phenomena of annihilation which accompany the death of a brute. He compares his structure, his organs, his functions, with those of other animals, and his own range of science leads to the discovery of no facts which are sufficient to convince him that there is any difference in kind between the human animal and them. His practice, then, is according to his facts and his theory. Such a person will think himself free to give {513} advice, and to insist upon rules, which are quite insufferable to any religious mind, and simply antagonistic to faith and morals. It is not, I repeat, that he says what is untrue, supposing that man were an animal and nothing else: but he thinks that whatever is true in his own science is at once lawful in practice—as if there were not a number of rival sciences in the great circle of philosophy, as if there were not a number of conflicting views and objects in human nature to be taken into account and reconciled, or as if it were his duty to forget all but his own; whereas

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I have known in England the most detestable advice given to young persons by eminent physicians, in consequence of this contracted view of man and his destinies. God forbid that I should measure the professional habits of Catholics by the rules of practice of those who were not! but it is plain that what is actually carried out where religion is not known, exists as a temptation and a danger in the Science of Medicine itself, where religion is known ever so well.


And now, having suggested, as far as I dare, what I consider the consequences of that radical sophism to which the medical profession is exposed, let me go on to say in what way it is corrected by the action of Catholicism upon it.

You will observe, then, Gentlemen, that those higher sciences of which I have spoken, Morals and Religion, are not represented to the intelligence of the world by intimations and notices strong and obvious, such as those {514} which are the foundation of Physical Science. The physical nature lies before us, patent to the sight, ready to the touch, appealing to the senses in so unequivocal a way that the science which is founded upon it is as real to us as the fact of our personal existence. But the phenomena, which are the basis of morals and Religion, have nothing of this luminous evidence. Instead of being obtruded upon our notice, so that we cannot possibly overlook them, they are the dictates either of Conscience or of Faith. They are faint shadows and tracings, certain indeed, but delicate, fragile, and almost evanescent, which the mind recognizes at one time, not at another,—discerns when it is calm, loses when it is in agitation. The reflection of sky and mountains in the lake is a proof that sky and mountains are around it, but the twilight, or the mist, or the sudden storm hurries away the beautiful image, which leaves behind it no memorial of what it was. Something like this are the Moral Law and the informations of Faith, as they present themselves to individual minds. Who can deny the existence of Conscience? who does not feel the force of its injunctions? but how dim is the illumination in which it is invested, and how feeble its influence, compared with that evidence of sight and touch which is the foundation of Physical Science! How easily can we be talked out of our clearest views of duty! how does this or that moral precept crumble into nothing when we rudely handle it! how does the fear of sin pass off from us, as quickly as the glow of modesty dies away from the countenance! and then we say, "It is all superstition." However, after a time we look round, and then to our surprise we see, as before, the same law of duty, the same moral precepts, the same protests against sin, appearing over against us, in their old places, as if they {515} never had been brushed away, like the divine handwriting upon the wall at the banquet. Then perhaps we approach them rudely, and inspect them irreverently, and accost them sceptically, and away they go again, like so many spectres,—shining in their cold beauty, but not presenting themselves bodily to us, for our inspection, so to say, of their hands and their feet. And thus these awful, supernatural, bright, majestic, delicate apparitions, much as we may in our hearts acknowledge their sovereignty, are no match as a foundation of Science for the hard, palpable, material facts which make up the province of Physics. Recurring to my original illustration, it is as if the India Commander-in-Chief, instead of being under the control of a local seat of government at Calcutta, were governed simply from London, or from the moon. In that case, he would be under a strong temptation to neglect the home government, which nevertheless in theory he acknowledged. Such, I say, is the natural condition of mankind:—we depend upon a seat of government which is in another world; we are directed and governed by intimations from above; we need a local government on earth.

That great institution, then, the Catholic Church, has been set up by Divine Mercy, as a present, visible antagonist, and the only possible antagonist, to sight and sense. Conscience, reason, good feeling, the instincts of our moral nature, the traditions of Faith, the conclusions and deductions of philosophical Religion, are no match at all for the stubborn facts (for they are facts, though there are other facts besides them), for the facts, which are the foundation of physical, and in particular of medical, science. Gentlemen, if you feel, as you must feel, the whisper of a law of moral truth within you, and the impulse to believe, be sure there is nothing whatever on {516} earth which can be the sufficient champion of these sovereign authorities of your soul, which can vindicate and preserve them to you, and make you loyal to them, but the Catholic Church. You fear they will go, you see with dismay that they are going, under the continual impression created on your mind by the details of the material science to which you have devoted your lives. It is so—I do not deny it; except under rare and happy circumstances, go they will, unless you have Catholicism to back you up in keeping faithful to them. The world is a rough antagonist of spiritual truth: sometimes with mailed hand, sometimes with pertinacious logic, sometimes with a storm of irresistible facts, it presses on against you. What it says is true perhaps as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth, or the most important truth. These more important truths, which the natural heart admits in their substance, though it cannot maintain,—the being of a God, the certainty of future retribution, the claims of the moral law, the reality of sin, the hope of supernatural help,—of these the Church is in matter of fact the undaunted and the only defender.

Even those who do not look on her as divine must grant as much as this. I do not ask you for more here than to contemplate and recognize her as a fact,—as other things are facts. She has been eighteen hundred years in the world, and all that time she has been doing battle in the boldest, most obstinate way in the cause of the human race, in maintenance of the undeniable but comparatively obscure truths of Religion. She is always alive, always on the alert, when any enemy whatever attacks them. She has brought them through a thousand perils. Sometimes preaching, sometimes pleading, sometimes arguing,—sometimes exposing her ministers to death, and sometimes though rarely, inflicting blows {517} herself,—by peremptory deeds, by patient concessions,—she has fought on and fulfilled her trust. No wonder so many speak against her, for she deserves it; she has earned the hatred and obloquy of her opponents by her success in opposing them. Those even who speak against her in this day, own that she was of use in a former day. The historians in fashion with us just now, much as they may disown her in their own country, where she is an actual, present, unpleasant, inconvenient monitor, acknowledge that, in the middle ages which are gone, in her were lodged, by her were saved, the fortunes and the hopes of the human race. The very characteristics of her discipline, the very maxims of her policy, which they reprobate now, they perceive to have been of service then. They understand, and candidly avow, that once she was the patron of the arts, the home and sanctuary of letters, the basis of law, the principle of order and government, and the saviour of Christianity itself. They judge clearly enough in the case of others, though they are slow to see the fact in their own age and country; and, while they do not like to be regulated by her, and kept in order by her, themselves, they are very well satisfied that the populations of those former centuries should have been so ruled, and tamed, and taught by her resolute and wise teaching. And be sure of this, that as the generation now alive admits these benefits to have arisen from her presence in a state of society now gone by, so in turn, when the interests and passions of this day are passed away, will future generations ascribe to her a like special beneficial action upon this nineteenth century in which we live. For she is ever the same,—ever young and vigorous, and ever overcoming new errors with the old weapons. {518}

And now I have explained, Gentlemen, why it has been so highly expedient and desirable in a country like this to bring the Faculty of Medicine under the shadow of the Catholic Church. I say "in a country like this;" for, if there be any country which deserves that Science should not run wild, like a planet broken loose from its celestial system, it is a country which can boast of such hereditary faith, of such a persevering confessorship, of such an accumulation of good works, of such a glorious name, as Ireland. Far be it from this country, far be it from the counsels of Divine Mercy, that it should grow in knowledge and not grow in religion! and Catholicism is the strength of Religion, as Science and System are the strength of Knowledge.

Aspirations such as these are met, Gentlemen, I am well aware, by a responsive feeling in your own hearts; but by my putting them into words, thoughts which already exist within you are brought into livelier exercise, and sentiments which exist in many breasts hold inter-communion with each other. Gentlemen, it will be your high office to be the links in your generation between Religion and Science. Return thanks to the Author of all good that He has chosen you for this work. Trust the Church of God implicitly, even when your natural judgment would take a different course from hers, and would induce you to question her prudence or her correctness. Recollect what a hard task she has; how she is sure to be criticized and spoken against, whatever she does;—recollect how much she needs your loyal and tender devotion. Recollect, too, how long is the experience gained in eighteen hundred years, and what a right she has to claim your assent to principles which have {519} had so extended and so triumphant a trial. Thank her that she has kept the faith safe for so many generations, and do your part in helping her to transmit it to generations after you.

For me, if it has been given me to have any share in so great a work, I shall rejoice with a joy, not such indeed as I should feel were I myself a native of this generous land, but with a joy of my own, not the less pure, because I have exerted myself for that which concerns others more nearly than myself. I have had no other motive, as far as I know myself, than to attempt, according to my strength, some service to the cause of Religion, and to be the servant of those to whom as a nation the whole of Christendom is so deeply indebted; and though this University, and the Faculty of Medicine which belongs to it, are as yet only in the commencement of their long career of usefulness, yet while I live, and (I trust) after life, it will ever be a theme of thankfulness for my heart and my lips, that I have been allowed to do even a little, and to witness so much, of the arduous, pleasant, and hopeful toil which has attended on their establishment.

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