Ask CUF: What Does the Church Teach About Alternative Healing Methods?

I have a friend who has been using alternative medicines, such as homeopathy, hypnosis, and acupunture. What does the Church teach about these healing methods?

Homeopathy, founded by Samuel Friedrich Christian Hahnemann (1755-1843), is a branch of medicine that takes a different approach to healing the body than that propounded by practitioners of conventional medicine. Though some in the medical field may disagree with aspects of this method, it does not appear to propose hypotheses or techniques that are at odds with Church teaching.

Homeopathy is based on the idea of “fight­ing like with like” that was used as far back as the Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 bc), but not developed scientifically until the 18th and 19th centuries. The method treats sickness by giving minute doses of the disease (or a substance, which, if given to a healthy person, would produce the same symptoms) that is being treated. This stimulates the body’s own immune system to fight the disease in question. Homeopathy, therefore, would fall under the category of science because of the physical nature of its origins.

The Church teaches that “science and technology are precious resources when placed at the service of man and promote his inte­gral development for the benefit of all” (Cat­echism, no. 2293). They are to be valued when the method is valid and the conclusions do not “override moral laws” (Catechism, no. 159).

With hypnosis, three points must be con­sidered when evaluating the morality of a pro­posed use: the freedom of the one hypnotized, the morals of the hypnotist and the purpose for its use. Furthermore, there are general issues concerning hypnotism that affect the three points noted above:

Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and respon­sible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an in­alienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. (Catechism, no. 1738)

As expressed in the above quotation, the freedom of the individual is intrinsically linked to the image of God. Abuses of this freedom are moral evils. Thus, the evils of drunkenness, drug highs, and the like, are based on this premise. Likewise, when one willfully subjects oneself to a lessening or com­plete loss of freedom due to hypnosis, it can become an occasion of sin.

The moral and ethical character of the hypnotist directly affects the dangers of scan­dal and abuse. Professional counselors must maintain a code of ethics that respects their clients’ freedom. Hypnotists who do not ad­here to a Christian anthropology pose a great risk of violating the freedom and dignity of those they hypnotize. Critical elements of a Christian anthropology include not only a belief in free will, but the practice of protect­ing it. Those who do not adhere to the ethical standards of their profession also pose a risk of scandal and abuse. Those who claim to be hypnotists with no link to a helping profes­sion, but use the phenomenon for social enter­tainment or furthering of self, pose a great risk of scandal. This last risk is grave due to the public display of jest at the expense of respect due the person, who is created in the image and likeness of God.

Based on these principles and the opinions of the Holy See in the later part of the 19th century, moral theology affirms that “one may submit to hypnotic treatment for a grave rea­son, if suitable precautions against its abuse are taken and if there is no superstition or scandal” (H. Davis, SJ, Manual of Moral and Pastoral Theology, p. 19). Grave reasons would include the need for hypnosis to treat psychological illness or neurosis. Necessary precautions in­clude having a reliable witness present who would ensure no wrongful abuse of the one hypnotized while their freedom is diminished. Further, the moral and ethical standards of the hypnotist must be well-established.

The Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue produced in 2003 “Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian reflection on the ‘New Age.’” The context of the following para­graph, which mentions hypnosis, is that New Age includes the idea of a oneness as opposed to individuals. Hypnosis is included in a list of techniques used with the intent of transcend­ing a person’s individuality and entering a state of oneness. This document is a “reflection,” which indicates theological opinion. However, while the method and intention of the New Age use of hypnosis might be different than that of hypnosis used for amusement, the Pon­tifical Councils’ caveat regarding vulnerability should not be dismissed:

The point of New Age techniques is to reproduce mystical states at will, as if it were a matter of laboratory material. Rebirth, biofeedback, sen­sory isolation, holotropic breathing, hypnosis, mantras, fasting, sleep de­privation and transcendental medi­tation are attempts to control these states and to experience them con­tinuously. These practices all create an atmosphere of psychic weakness (and vulnerability). . . . “We are au­thentic when we ‘take charge of’ our­selves, when our choice and reactions flow spontaneously from our deepest needs, when our behaviour and ex­pressed feelings reflect our personal wholeness (no. 4, footnotes omitted).

Acupuncture is a medical treatment tradi­tional to China, Japan, and some other Asian countries. Records of acupuncture’s use date to over 2,000 years ago, and there is evidence that it has been practiced for 4,000 years or more. Essentially, acupuncture is based on the theory that stimulation of certain points in the body with needles (or in the case of acupres­sure, applied pressure) affects other parts of the body and that this stimulus can be used medicinally. The needles may be warmed with burning herbs or carry a slight electrical charge to enhance the stimulus in some acu­puncture variations. According to practitio­ners, acupuncture can be used to treat a variety of conditions, such as pain, anxiety, arthritis, migraines and many others.

In Chinese tradition, it has been believed that acupuncture could alter the flow of Qi, an intangible life force or energy, through the body. Based on Taoist philosophy, acupunc­turists believed that elemental forces like Qi, Yin, and Yang needed to be at equilibrium in the body, because unbalance could cause ill­ness and bad luck. If equilibrium was lost, acupuncture might be used to restore it. Catholics do not believe in the Taoist phi­losophy underlying this traditional Chinese medicine, but that does not mean the medi­cine itself—apart from the philosophy—can­not work and be beneficial. For example, the sixteenth-century astronomer Tycho Braehe held the incorrect theory that the earth was the center of the universe, but his error in theory does not change the fact that his measure­ments of planetary positions were extremely accurate for his time.

There are many modern scientific theories of how and why acupuncture works that are not based on Taoist beliefs. Some believe that the stimulus of certain points through acupuncture augments the immune system, for example, increasing the count of white blood cells. Yet another theory holds that it changes the levels of different neurotransmitters, or that the impulses of the nervous system can be closed off to a degree. It is not yet fully understood.

The question remains: Is acupuncture harmful to Catholics? This depends on what is meant by acupuncture. If people use the word acupuncture to mean this method of medi­cal treatment with needles, these practices are not inherently questionable. If, on the other hand, acupuncture also means accepting non- Christian beliefs, extreme caution should be used, because this could be potentially harm­ful. To accept a non-Christian cosmology or theological system is, so to speak, to take a step backwards. Any belief that is opposed Catholic teaching must, of course, be avoided.

In sum, the practice of medicinal acupunc­ture, if it is not accompanied by a dubious theological system, is not inherently problem­atic. As long as the medical practice respects the dignity of the person and the freedom of his will, and meets the Church’s various guide­lines for medical treatment (c.f. Catechism nos. 2288-2298), it may be helpful.

You may also consider looking into Cath­olic books on medical morality. The general principle that underlies these questions is the distinction between an empirical and physi­cal science, and one based upon spiritual beliefs. Legitimate medical practices have a material basis for their techniques, unlike ones that are based on “spiritual energies” or other foundations that are antithetical to the Catholic faith. Some of the techniques—such as acupuncture—originated from an incor­rect religious or philosophical framework, yet the techniques themselves stand alone from a material point of view, and therefore have legitimate scientific and moral standing.

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