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The First Annual Catholic Congress: Essays and Papers

New Haven, Connecticut, November 3-5, 1925

Philadelphia: Published by the Central Conference of Associated Catholic Priests, 1926.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011

Faith Healing
of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City

The term "Faith Healing" may properly be employed to describe any cures that are apparently caused by faith rather than by medicine, rest, diet, baths, special exercises, or surgical operations. The faith of the sick person may be directed toward a fellow human being, an object, a supposed medicine, a holy place, a religious practice, one of the saints, or God himself. In this brief paper I propose first to review hastily the evidence for faith healing, and then we shall try to discover the probable cause or explanation of these cures.

I. It is important for a right understanding of this question that we recognize at the outset that faith healing is by no means confined to the devotees of the Catholic Church or even the Christian religion. It is as universal as the human race. Abimalech and his wife and her maidservants were cured because of the prayers of Abraham. Moses cured his sister Miriam of leprosy. Elijah and Elisha healed the sick and brought back the dead to life. The Old Testament abounds in instances of faith healing. Nor was faith healing limited to the Jews. In Egypt, Babylonia, India, China, and amid the ancient civilization of Greece and Rome, cures were wrought through charms and amulets, through prayer offered at sacred shrines, through the touch of priests and other holy men. The so-called medicine men of the American Indians, as of other [141/142] primitive races, were really ministers of religion. Indeed, healing was everywhere a function of religion long before medicine became a separate science.

The Gospels contain accounts of many miraculous cures performed by our Lord, especially in the earlier part of His ministry. He commanded His Apostles not only to preach the Gospel and baptize, but to heal the sick. Healing was one of the charismata, by which we mean special gifts or graces flowing from the love of God to men to enable them to perform certain functions such as discerning of spirits, teaching, prophecy, the working of miracles and healing.

These charismata were mostly limited to the primitive Church. The gift of healing was apparently an exception. Wherever the Catholic religion has held sway there have been thousands of striking cures. Some were wrought by apostles, bishops, abbots, confessors, virgins and martyrs; others through the regular sacramental ministrations of the Church, and through contact with relics and visits to holy places.

In the checkered history of Protestantism there has been hardly a sect that has not boasted of the healing of maladies, otherwise incurable, through the prayers, or sometimes through a single word uttered by an inspired prophet or pastor. To mention only a few of them, such cures have been ascribed to Martin Luther in Germany; to John Knox, Robert Bruce and Patrick Simpson among the Scotch Presbyterians; to Vavasor Powell, Henry Jessey and Hansard Knowlys among the Welsh Baptists; to John Wesley and George Whitefield among the Methodists.

In our own time many new healing cults have sprung up such as Christian Science, Mental Science, New Thought, and others too numerous to mention. [142/143] Undoubtedly many sick people have been restored to health by the healers of these various cults. This, however, does not prove the truth of their teaching. We should always distinguish between facts and the theory that is advanced to account for those facts. We may accept the statement that cures have been performed by these healers, but it does not at all follow that the theory of the cures advanced by them is the true one.

In the Church of England a layman, Mr. James Moore Hickson, has conducted healing missions throughout the world and is alleged to have cured many. In our own country the Emmanuel movement, originated by Dr. Worcester in Emmanuel Church, Boston, has skillfully combined medical treatment and psychotherapy, and has dealt successfully with many cases of functional disorder. The Society of the Nazarene, founded by the Rev. Henry B. Wilson a few years ago, has about seven thousand members in loosely federated groups or prayer circles in many dioceses of the American Church, and has been helpful in bringing consolation and healing to many afflicted souls.

Indeed, faith healing is so universal that it is not limited to the sphere of religion. Every practicing physician can tell us of all sorts of interesting faith cures among his own patients. I knew of a young man who was chopping down a tree, when one of the chips flew up and struck his eye with such force as to cause blindness. An eye specialist made a thorough examination of the eye and could find no organic lesion. He gave the young man a medicine to be applied by drops to his eye several times a day, and assured him that if he used it faithfully the sight would [143/144] gradually come back in about a week. If it did not, he told him he was to come and see him again. In a week the sight gradually returned, as the doctor had predicted. It was not the drops of medicine that restored sight to this man, for they were simply drops of distilled water; it was faith in the doctor's prediction that effected the cure.

M. Coué has taught the world a valuable lesson in the field of auto-suggestion. His formula, "Every day in every way I am getting better and better," to be repeated many times while one is dropping off to sleep or just at the moment of waking in the morning has cured many an ailment.

Every priest who has had extensive experience in pastoral work can testify to many cases of healing which can only be attributed to faith. Sometimes it has apparently been the prayers of the priest with the sick people that have led to their recovery; at other times, prayer combined with the laying on of hands. We all know of instances in which the receiving of Holy Communion has accomplished wonders, presumably because it has brought the sick person into contact with the healing power of Christ. Extraordinary physical results have often followed from the unburdening of a soul through sacramental confession. What priest has not witnessed strange things after administering the sacrament of Unction to one who appeared to be at the point of death?

Last summer I made a visit to the famous shrine of our Lady of Lourdes, in southern France. Surely you know the story of Bernadette the shepherdess, how in the year 1858 she was favored with miraculous apparitions of our Lady. During one of these apparitions our Lady commanded her to scratch with her [144/145] fingers on the ground. Water began to flow and has never ceased flowing from that spot. That is the miraculous healing stream of Lourdes. Our Lady commanded that a church should be built on the spot. Today there are three churches built over the grotto where the Virgin appeared. A continuous influx of pilgrims, often numbering forty thousand a week, come to visit this holy shrine. A huge hospital has been erected near by, and the staff of physicians keep a record of all the sick people who come there for cure. The sick are carefully examined on their arrival and the doctors keep in touch with them for a year after they profess to be cured. Not all the sick who take the baths at Lourdes are made well; and of those who do receive benefit, not all experience a permanent cure. Yet the percentage of permanent cures is sufficiently large to be a convincing demonstration of the power of faith to heal the sick. I myself talked with two young working men, one of whom had thrown away his crutches, and the other had exchanged his crutches for a cane after three weeks spent at Lourdes. I was deeply impressed with the genuine atmosphere of devotion which surrounded this sacred shrine. Everyone was reverent and intensely in earnest. I felt that even if many sick folk who came there were not cured, they had been at any rate immensely benefitted by the prayers and the concentrated acts of faith which they had made in this holy place, so redolent of the sweet purity and humble faith of our gracious Lady St. Mary.

Can we endorse as unreservedly the healing missions that have been held during the past few years in many of our cities? Many of us have our doubts. To begin with, they depend too much on the alleged [145/146] healing power of some striking human personality. At Lourdes one felt that it was not even Our Lady whom the sick were depending upon to cure them, but God.

The chief objection to these healing missions is that they savour too much of the old-fashioned evangelical revival meetings. In both cases those present are deeply moved by an emotional enthusiasm, and under the spell of that enthusiasm they think they are converted or cured. A few months later the excitement is over, the enthusiasm has died out, and many have slipped back into their previous condition of indifference or unbelief.

Moreover, serious harm may have been inflicted upon their interior life because their emotions have been stirred without coming to fruition in any good act. The last state of these men is often worse than the first. Dr. C. R. Brown, Dean of the Yale Divinity School, in his book entitled "Faith and Health," published in 1924, (p. 55), states that a man of private means investigated one hundred cases among those who claimed to have been cured in Mr. Hickson's missions. He found that over two-thirds of these people died in less than two years after suffering from the diseases which the physicians had pronounced incurable, but of which the patients themselves thought they had been cured by faith. These people were no doubt honest, and probably they felt better, and therefore, influenced by the excitement of the crowd and personal ministrations of this earnest healer, declared themselves cured. Later they slipped back to where they were before.

II. From our study of the facts before us we may reasonably conclude that there are countless instances of genuine cures which may be attributed to faith. [146/147] These are to be found in all races, in all ages, and in all religions. What is the cause of these cures? We say they are caused by faith. Does this mean that the cures are induced by the psychophysical effects of faith, or that they may be ascribed to the direct miraculous action of God?

Unfortunately that is a question which we cannot answer. We cannot prove the supernatural in the field of healing, except in the case of some plainly miraculous cure, such as would be the immediate mending of a fractured bone, which could not be accounted for on physical grounds. Where is the evidence for such miraculous cures outside of the evidence of miraculous cures recorded in the Gospel? Most of the cures wrought by our Lord, though not all of them, we need not hesitate to call miraculous. The instantaneous healing of a leper, for instance, is necessarily miraculous. When, however, we are told of miraculous cures being performed to-day, we must carefully scrutinize the evidence. Let us not be gullible enough to believe every story we hear about miraculous cures, even from religious enthusiasts. The late Friedrich von Hugel once remarked that perfect truthfulness was "the most delicately difficult of all the virtues for the average institutional religionist."

However, even if we do believe that well authenticated cures are due to the psychophysical effects of faith upon the bodily organism, that does not necessarily mean that they are not wrought by God. Surely the all-wise and omnipotent Creator may act upon His creatures through psychic forces quite as easily as by direct intervention. The Gospel accounts of our Lord's miracles of healing lead us to believe that He worked chiefly through the faith of the sick people who came [147/148] to Him. "Thy faith hath made thee whole," our Lord said to the woman with the issue of blood. "According to your faith be it unto you," He said to the two blind men. In some of the cities of Galilee He could do no mighty works because of their unbelief. Is it not possible then that God may cure to-day, as in the centuries gone by, through faith? Or, to put it in another way, may we not believe that through the faith of the sick person God effects certain changes in the physical constitution which lead to recovery?

M. Coué holds that cures are effected through the imagination; Mr. Hickson, through the laying on of hands and the receiving of the sacraments; Professor Freud, through the unconscious mind and the removing of mental complexes; Dr. Banks, through suggestive therapeutics and the companionship of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the most reasonable explanation is that offered by Dr. R. S. Cabot, of the Massachusetts General Hospital, who says: "It is possible that the clue to the action of prayer may be found in the emotions. Beneficient emotions, such as faith and love, may act chemically to produce health." Here we come very near to the solution of the mystery. Religion apparently tends to create a buoyant, hopeful emotional condition, which in turn brings about chemical changes in the body which are conducive to health.

In a recent collective work by leading modern scientists, entitled "Evolution in the Light of Modern Knowledge," in the chapter on Biology by Conwy Lloyd Morgan, there is the following statement which bears on the question at issue:

"The manner in which the internal organs respond under some exciting nerve-influence in large measure depends on the bio-chemical influence of the internal [148/149] secretions of 'endocrine' glands (containing hormones) which are conveyed to the responding organs by the blood-stream. Excess or deficiency of the bio-chemical products of the thyroid or the adrenal glands may profoundly modify the biological story; and there is concomitant modification of the story of emotional enjoyment."

We believe that God will ultimately reward all those who have ignorantly sought after Him,—whether in heathen sacrificial rites, in pagan lustrations and sacramental feasts, in the consulting of prophetic seers and oracles, in mystic contemplation, and in every sincere moral effort toward the conquest of the animal self.

May we not also believe that God rewards with better health in this life all who according to their lights strive to avoid the dark ways of unbelief, despair and hatred, and follow rather the radiant paths of faith, hope, and charity? Faith in a doctor or a priest is a step in the right direction; so God rewards that. How much better is faith in God?

God works not only through His covenanted people Israel, or the Holy Catholic Church. All supernatural movements in the history of the world may be traced to the Spirit of God as their origin and source. He prepared them before we were conscious of them. It is He who rules the progress of the world and the history of souls, and slowly transforms all into His image. Caesar did not know when he went into Gaul that the Spirit marched before him and prepared the way for Christ. Augustus did not know when he planned the general divisions of his empire that he was the instrument of the Spirit in creating the future dioceses of the Catholic Church. Alexander [149/150] never knew why he led his Macedonian troops beyond the confines of the kingdom of Porus; and Carthage little suspected that she had a divine mission to fulfill. So in this matter of healing we may rightly assume that God uses all men everywhere who are unconsciously working in harmony with His beneficent purposes.

As Catholic Christians we are not likely to fall into the error of believing that all sickness and suffering are contrary to the will of God, still less of believing that they are the work of the devil.

We cannot always be sure that it may not be for our own highest development that we should be for a time subject to severe pain or perhaps a long lingering illness. We cannot say that we know enough about the divine Will to be certain that it is always in accordance with God's will that we should enjoy perfect health. Every effort that we make therefore towards physical recovery from sickness, whether for ourselves or for others, must be conditioned by the provision,—if it be God's will. With that condition always in mind, we should rejoice that we are able to associate our faith that we shall continue in health or, if sick, that our health will be restored, with the Source of all health and goodness, Jesus Christ, and the power of His Resurrection. It is not only that we believe that faith in Him will help us to recover from illness, but also that it will be conducive to the general preservation of health perhaps for many years.

It is a fact not to be ignored in this connection that there is no class of men who enjoy better health than the clergy of the Church. They are the best risks for life insurance companies. I have no statistics at [150/151] hand which enable me to compare the health of Catholic priests with that of Protestant ministers; therefore I do not make any assertion on the subject. But I do make bold to say that if we persevere in the practice of the Catholic religion, cleansing our souls when necessary through sacramental confession, receiving the Holy Communion as frequently as possible, and persistently laboring for the development of the interior life of prayer and devotion, we may always count on having at our disposal three of the best medicines that God has provided for humanity: Confidence, Cheerfulness, and Hope.

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