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July 20, 2006


Tom Piatak

Arlen Specter is a disgrace. He should never have received one more penny from the RNC after the way he torpedoed Robert Bork and thereby saved the abomination known as Roe v Wade.


We are Catholic, hear us roar
We won't take it anymore
And we'll factcheck you, you silly, silly man.

Little Gidding

Calvin had Servetus burned because he was a Unitarian, as I remember. Strange that Calvinism, when stood on its head, looks like UUism. Just ask all those Puritan descendents in New England who turned themselves and now many of their Catholic neighbors as well into UU gnostics.


In the words George Orwell attributed to The Party in 1984, "Who controls the past, controls the future."

Amy, you are absolutely right that the Catholic (and secular!) press needs to correct these historical errors. Individually they sound like quibbles, but they have a real impact on how people perceive the Church and contemporary issues.

James Kabala

The Calvinsts also executed him for his theological beliefs, of course.


Call me a troglodyte, but I'm not absolutely sure that cadaver dissection presents no moral issues. I'm not making it a crusade, mind you, but I'm not entirely clear how using a cadaver for research is wholly different from using a cadaver for, say, food.

Be that as it may, Boniface VIII has historically had a lot of company. An example that springs to mind: in nineteenth century Scotland, the notorious grave robbers Burke and Hare made a nice living selling stolen corpses to medical schools; they could do that because the law mostly prohibited cadaver donation. I'm by no means an expert is this rather grisly field, but it seems unlikely that Scotland was unique or even in unusual in this regard.

Of course, there isn't much mileage in bashing 19th century Presbyterians, so Specter went back another six centuries to find a more exploitable villain. I suppose we should be flattered.


I didn't read carefully enough: it seems Specter's not just bashing long-dead popes, he's bashing them inaccurately. In which case I can only ask, if we enlightened Catholics have always been gung-ho for anatomical research, where did those 19th century Presbyterians get their squeamishishness?

And one more question: if dissection was so routine, why it take until the 17th century for William Harvey to describe the circulation of the blood? Deep waters, these, too deep for me. Sandra Miesel, speak to us.


Maybe Senator Robert Byrd could get together with Senator Specter and form a bi-partisan history re-writing committee for the benefit of the anti-life types and good ol' fashioned Catholic-bashing. No hoods required.

Cornelius AMDG

I've been hearing this claim for 5 years. Here's a summary of some research on the issue. Sorry for the length.

First, the Church doesn't seem to have ever banned dissection. I found a number of such allegations on the Internet, but most were cursory references on websites with a real axe to grind against the Catholic Church (e.g., "Interview with an Atheist" http://www.geocities.com/forbidden_area/interv.html). The most thorough discussion I found was on "The Catholic Encyclopedia" (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01457e.htm), which denied that such a ban ever existed. A number of independent sources (listed below) confirmed what the Catholic Encyclopedia says.

It appears that there long was a taboo against tampering with the human body dating back to Greek and Roman religions, and at least one early Church Father, Tertullian (who lived around 200 A.D.), condemned the dissections conducted by the ancient Greek scientist, Herophilus. Tertullian described Herophilus as "that physician or butcher who dissected six hundred men in order to find out nature, who killed men in order to learn the structure of their frame..." That statement, however, seems to condemn primarily the killing of humans in order to conduct dissection, a practice not without relevance to the current stem-cell debate. One non-religious source describes the ancient pre-Christian practice as follows:

With the increased knowledge of anatomy came also corresponding advances in surgery, and many experimental operations are said to have been performed upon condemned criminals who were handed over to the surgeons by the Ptolemies. While many modern writers have attempted to discredit these assertions, it is not improbable that such operations were performed. In an age when human life was held so cheap, and among a people accustomed to torturing condemned prisoners for comparatively slight offences, it is not unlikely that the surgeons were allowed to inflict perhaps less painful tortures in the cause of science. Furthermore, we know that condemned criminals were sometimes handed over to the medical profession to be "operated upon and killed in whatever way they thought best" even as late as the sixteenth century. Tertullian[1] probably exaggerates, however, when he puts the number of such victims in Alexandria at six hundred. (For full discussion, see http://www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/sci/history/AHistoryofScienceVolumeI/chap34.html.)

Turning to whether the Church ever banned dissection, I can't find any evidence of such a ban. The only evidence cited for such a ban is a papal bull issued by Pope Boniface VII in 1300 stating that "Persons cutting up the bodies of the dead, barbarously cooking them in order that the bones being separated from the flesh may be carried for burial into their own countries are by the very fact excommunicated." Some people appear to have interpreted that as a general ban on dissection, but that is plainly not the intent of the statement. Moreover, the papal bull clearly didn't stop dissection in practice. At the great universities in Italy, dissection occurred continuously after 1300, though probably not very frequently, which isn't surprising given the limited level of scientific investigation generally at the time. Of course, I doubt the Church encouraged dissection, and I wouldn't be surprised if various Church officials discouraged it informally at various times. Christian theology, unlike pagan theology, sees the body as inherently good and teaches that there will be a bodily, not just a spiritual, resurrection. Because of this, the Church discourages any act that implies the body is simply a thing to be discarded as junk after death.

Independent sources









Second, even to the extent that the Church did discourage dissection, I doubt that it set medicine back very far. In 1800 -- 200 years after dissection became more common in the wake of the Renaissance -- medicine hadn't advanced very far beyond where it was in the Middle Ages. The insights gained by dissection simply weren't very useful without other independent advances such as anesthesia and the development of a fuller understanding of disease and infection.

Third, regardless of how the Church dealt with dissection back in the Middle Ages, the Church's understanding of stem-cell research today is based expressly on an insight provided by science, namely, that at conception, a unique individual is formed -- an individual who will, absent external intervention, develop into a fully formed human.

Mike Potemra

A conservative Catholic once asked me,"Mike, is there any ecumenical initiative you won't endorse?" I replied, "The Catholics and the Calvinists were united in persecuting Servetus. I condemn that ecumenical initative in the strongest terms."

Henry Dieterich

Herbert Butterfield's classic The Origins of Modern Science has an excellent chapter on the theories of the heart up to Harvey and the development of the idea of circulation of the blood. One problem is that no corpse you dissect will have the blood still circulating; in fact, the arteries are often empty. This meant that the evidence of dissection suggested to many writers that the arteries contained not blood but air. Of course, they do carry oxygen to the cells, but not quite in that way.

Sandra Miesel

Burke and Hare the Scottish body snatchers were doing it for the money. The burgeoning medical schools required lots of cadavers in those days before refrigeration. Criminals were the traditional source of cadavers for dissection but bodies of the destitute, unclaimed poor from the workhouses were also taken for this purpose. (This wasn't limited to England. Remember the threat in PORGY AD BESS?) It became an issue of class exploitation until voluntary donations were made legal and encouraged. Read about it in DEATH, DISSECTION, AND THE DESTITUTE by Ruth Richardson.

As far as boiling down bodies for shipment home, this was done with Thomas Aquinas. It took a long time to process his body because he was corpulent.

The bodies of kinds were routinely divided after death with hearts and entrails etc getting separate burials in different places. The tomb effigies of French kings' entrails portray the excised tissue as a curled up round, rather like a giant sweet roll.

Patrick Molloy

If Specter wants to impugn Boniface VIII in a colorful way he might want to investigate B's treatment of his predecessor, Celestine, an instance of cruel and unusual punishment in a Guantanamo-like setting. Dante provides other leads.

Jay Anderson

I'm surprised they bothered going all the way back to the Middle Ages and Rennaissance to criticize the Church. How long before some politician drags the abuse scandal into the stem cell debate?

I can hear it now: "Given its recent history, I'm not sure the Catholic Church is in a position to be lecturing the nation on the ethics and morality of stem cell research ..."

Fr. Phil Bloom

Good discussion. I particularly appreciated Cornelius' research. Pennsylvanians should copy it and send to Senator Specter.

Kevin Jones

"I'm surprised they bothered going all the way back to the Middle Ages and Rennaissance to criticize the Church."

The Galileo controversy will hit its 400th anniversary pretty soon. Perhaps that'll be the rhetorical statute of limitations.


I believe (possibly on insufficient evidence) that the lifelike wax effigies of the body & body parts used in some early-modern Italian medical schools reflected a religious prohibition on dissection. I have also heard of pigs being used as dissection subjects in the same period for the same reason. Does anyone know more?

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