A curiously interesting episode that deserves a place in the history of Papal Physicians occurred during Alderotti’s life. One of the Popes elected to fill the Papal chair had been earlier in life a physician. This was the famous Peter of Spain, though he was really a Portuguese, who, under the name of John XXI., occupied the Papal throne during the years 1276-1277. Peter of Spain had been one of the most distinguished natural scientists of this interesting century. Dr. J. B. Petella, in an article published in Janus about ten years ago, entitled A Critical and Historical Study of the Knowledge of Ophthalmology of a Philosopher Physician who became Pope, gives an excellent account of the life of Pope John XXI. 

Petella does not hesitate to say of him that he was “one of the most renowned personages of Europe during the thirteenth century, from the point of view of the triple evolution of his extraordinary mind, which caused him to make his mark in the physical sciences, in the metaphysical sciences, and in the religious world. In him there was an incarnation of the savant of the time, and he must be considered the most perfect encyclopedist of the Middle Ages in their first renascence.”

Anyone who reads Dr. Petella’s account of this book by Pope John XXI. will be surprised at how much was known about diseases of the eye at the middle of the thirteenth century. For instance, hardening of the eye is spoken of as a very serious affection, so that there seems to be no doubt that the condition now known as glaucoma was recognized and its bad prognosis appreciated. His account of the external anatomy of the eye, eight coats of which he describes, beginning with the conjunctiva and ending with the retina, is quite complete. The eye is said to have eight muscles, the levator of the upper eyelid and the sphincter muscle of the eye being counted among them. The other muscles are picturesquely described as reins, that is, guiding ribbons for the eye. Cataract is described as water descending into the eye, and two forms of it are distinguished–one traumatic, due to external causes, and the other due to internal causes. Lachrimal fistula is described and its causes discussed. Various forms of blepharitis are touched upon. Many suggestions are made for the treatment of trichiasis. That a man who was as distinguished in medicine as Peter of Spain should have been elected Pope, is the best possible proof that there was no opposition between science and religion during the thirteenth century.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Most of what historical writers generally, who follow the old traditions of the medieval eclipse of medicine, have to say with regard to the supposed Papal opposition to the development of medical science, is founded on the assumption that men who believed in miracles and in the efficacy of prayer for the relief of disease could not possibly be interested to any serious degree in scientific medicine…Once more, as in the case of the supposed failure of surgery to develop during the Middle Ages, it is a deduction that has been made from certain supposed principles, and not an induction from the actual facts as we know them. Such historians would be the first to emphasize the narrowness of the schoolmen for their supposed dependence on deduction, but what they have to say on medical history is entirely deductive, and unfortunately from premises that will not stand in the presence of the story of the wonderful rise and development of medical science and medical education, mainly under the patronage of ecclesiastics, in the Middle Ages.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

When psychiatrists talk slightingly of the old-time methods of caring for the insane, it is well to recall that, considering the conditions and limitations of scientific knowledge, they seem to have done very well in those times. It has been the custom of critics to hold up to ridicule that insane patients were sometimes taken to special shrines in order that their ills might be cured by the direct interposition of Heaven; or that the devil supposed to possess them, might be driven out. It must not be forgotten, however, that such procedures were of supreme utility in mild cases viewed merely from the human standpoint, and without any appeal to the supernatural. The journey to a favorite shrine, undertaken under conditions that gave variety to life and new interests, together with the hope aroused while there, were sufficient to help the patient physically and, not infrequently, mentally.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

I would not wish to produce the impression, however, that Italy was the only place in Europe in which dissections were freely done during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. There is no doubt that anatomy and surgery and every branch of medicine was cultivated much more assiduously and with much better opportunities provided for students down in Italy, than anywhere else in the world. This of itself alone shows the utter absurdity of the declarations that the Church was opposed to medical progress in any way, since the nearer the center of Christendom, the more ardor there was for investigation and the more liberty to pursue original researches. Other countries also began to wake up to the spirit of progress in medical education that was abroad. In France there were two centers of interest in anatomy. One of these was at Montpelier, the other at Paris. It is interesting to note, however, that the men to whom anatomical progress is due at these universities obtained their training, or at least had taken advantage of the special opportunities provided for anatomical investigation to be had, in the Italian cities. Guy de Chauliac I have already mentioned. He is spoken of as the Father of Modern Surgery, and there is no doubt that he did much to set surgery on a very practical basis and to make anatomy a fundamental feature of the training for it. He declared that it was absurd to think that surgeons could do good work unless they knew their anatomy.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

[T]he arguments advanced to show the opposition of the Catholic Church to science are founded on actual ignorance of the history of science or misunderstandings of particular incidents of that history. Not only was there no policy of opposition to science, but on the contrary encouragement of interest in scientific subjects, patronage of scientific workers and even definite endowment of scientific research by the ecclesiastical authorities. The tradition of Church opposition to science is founded especially on lack of knowledge of what was done for science in the medieval period and a misunderstanding of the medieval universities. This tradition owed its origin partly to the Renaissance, which, having rediscovered Greek, despised whatever Western Europe had accomplished during the preceding centuries and spoke of all that was done as Gothic, as if only worthy of barbarous Gothic ancestors.

Another large factor, however, in the creation of this tradition and one which meant more for us here in America than the Renaissance, was the religious revolt of the sixteenth century in Germany which has been called the Reformation. The reformers made it a point to minimize, if not actually to misrepresent, what had been accomplished under the old Church regime, and this Protestant tradition lived on here in America with much more vitality even than in Europe.

The consequence was the bringing up of a series of generations, who, if not actually believing as so many absurdly did, that the Pope of Rome was the Scarlet Woman and the Church the Babylon of the Apocalypse, were quite sure at least that no good could possibly have come out of the Nazareth of pre-Reformation times. It is only in recent years that we have come to recognize that all the talk about the Dark Ages is, as John Fiske said, simply due to ignorance of the time and its accomplishment. The later medieval period might well be called the “Bright Ages” for its art and architecture, its magnificent literature, its interest in education and in scholarship, its development of democracy and its formulation of the great laws and constitutions by which the rights of men were guaranteed in practically every country in Europe. Just as soon as this true state of affairs with regard to the medieval period is recognized, then all question of any policy of Church opposition to education and science disappears.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Apparently the writers who insist on the incompatibility of the belief in miracles with devotion to scientific medicine do not realize that the greater number of thinking physicians during the last seven centuries, and quite down to our own day, have been ready to confess their belief in the possibility of miraculous healing, yet have tried to do everything in their power to relieve suffering and cure human ills by the natural means at their command. Their attitude has been very much that attributed to Ignatius of Loyola, who said to the members of his order: “Do everything that you can with the idea that everything depends on you, and then hope for results just as if everything depended on God.” There is no lack of logic in this; and the physician of the present day who realizes his impotency in the presence of so many of the serious ailments of mankind is not a scoffer at the attitude of mind that looks for help from prayer; but if he is sensible, welcomes the placidity of mind this will give his patient, even if he does not, as many actually do, however, believe in the possible interposition of supernatural forces.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Among the Protestant faiths it is subjectivism—embodied in the principle of private interpretation—and the lack of a central, infallible teaching authority which render them so frequently “up to date” ; deprived of a captain and torn from its moorings, the ship of Protestantism drifts along the currents, while Greek Orthodoxy stays in a drydock of immobility. Catholicism now has to sail against the wind and against the currents. This is the reason why it so frequently seems out of tune with the spirit of the times—frequently but, perhaps, not always and not forever; because we are again beginning to live in an age of dogmatic affirmations. Even Protestant neo-orthodoxy is partly a reaction against liberal conformism, in an age when the failure of a Roussellian humanitarianism and of shadowy ethical notions without a religious foundation are so evident.

While Luther rejected rationality in the strongest terms, and thus fostered the rise of fideism and subjectivism, Catholic theology emphasized reason and logic very firmly. Yet it must also be added that the Church has always been apprehensive about the misuse of reason; this stand has not been affected by the strongly rationalistic and realistic character of Catholic theology since the days of St. Thomas. In contradiction to St. Thomas (and to Luther, after all) the Church often seemed to take the position that man is rather stupid than wicked. Protestantism, though rather pessimistic about the spiritual qualities of the “sin-cripple,” nevertheless gave him the Bible without explanatory footnotes, trusting in his intelligence (or “inspiration”).

Catholicism, on the other hand, frequently tended to adopt the view that a superficial half education was much worse than no education at all, and thus in Catholic countries we saw (and sometimes still see) a large number of illiterates side by side with an intellectual elite of high standards. The Protestant goal of education is usually one of good averages—the optimum for a democracy. In democracies there will always be resentment and contempt for the “highbrow” and the illiterate, the intellectual and the “peasant.” A comparison of the French Canadians with their English-speaking co-nationals, or of Americans with Argentines, will confirm this. The strong intellectualization of the professional classes in French Canada contributes to the incompatibility between the two “races.” In Quebec City, for instance, the poems of Claudel are sold at Woolworth’s and Kresge’s.

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Liberty or Equality: The Challenge of Our Time (1940)