Conference Agenda

8A: Roundtable Modern Medicine and Catholicism: Historiographical Challenges
Thursday, 09/Sept/2021:
3:15pm - 4:30pm

Session Chair: Prof. Jacalyn Duffin, Queen's University


Modern Medicine and Catholicism: Historiographical Challenges

Chair(s): Duffin, Jacalyn (History of Medicine, Queen's University, Kingston, Canada)

Presenter(s): Betta, Emmanuel (Dept. of History, Cultures, Religions, Sapienza University, Rome, Italy), Wall, Barbra M. (Eleanor Crowder Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry (ECBCNHI), University of Virginia, US), Devos, Isabelle (Social History since 1750 Research Group, History Department, Ghent University, Belgium), Van Osselaer, Tine (Ruusbroeckgenootschap and History Department, University of Antwerp, Belgium), Wils, Kaat (Research Group Cultural History since 1750, KU Leuven)

Over the last two decades, the topic of Western biomedicine and religion has gained firm ground among medical, social and cultural historians. They started to shape a field that in an earlier stage seemed above all of interest to scholars in religious studies or in other domains within the health humanities. The first systematic historical overview of the question, published in 1986 and republished in 1998, Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions was emblematic of this tendency in which a religious perspective dominated. This changed in the decades afterwards. Historians started to approach the topic more critically, aiming to take distance from both confessional approaches and interpretations of the past that were implicitly informed by a ‘conflict’ narrative – a narrative which assumed an incompatibility between modern biomedicine and religion, and whose power might explain why it took so long for medical historiography to integrate religion in its own right into its research questions. New attempts at systematic overviews, such as Gary Ferngren’s Medicine and Religion: A Historical Introduction (2013) were sided by edited volumes such as Medicine and Religion in Enlightenment Europe (2007), by Ole Peter Grell and Andrew Cunningham, and Médecine et Religion. Compétitions, Collaborations, Conflits (2013) by Maria Pia Donato and colleagues. This historiography is certainly not blind to the many instances of conflict or tension between medical and religious practices or beliefs, but it also sheds light on phenomena of separate coexistence and on examples of mutual influence and collaboration.

In this roundtable, we aim to discuss the state of the art and the future agenda of the historiography of Catholicism and biomedicine in Europe and the United States. As Catholicism epitomizes the ‘backward’ character of religion within a popular narrative of conflict, it constitutes an interesting case to assess the state and the needs of historical research on the question. Attention will be paid to the themes of conflict, coexistence and collaboration, with specific interest in the role of tradition and adaptation. While tradition indeed plays a central role within the Catholic church, for instance within moral theology, which grounds Catholic medical ethics, overestimating its impact runs the risk of de-historicizing Catholicism, as if its positions haven’t changed over time. The same goes for the centralized and hierarchically organized character of the Catholic church. Historians have to take this distinguishing feature into account, but it shouldn’t make them blind for the many ways in which national and local churches and Catholics adapted to different political, social and cultural circumstances. Differences between center and periphery and majority and minority churches indeed account for very different historical positions of Catholics and their relationship with modern medicine. This also raises the question to what degree we can strive for a unified history of biomedicine and Catholicism and what challenges are part of such an endeavor.