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Vatican Letter: The church and the study of human anatomy

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Many readers of the Vatican’s official newspaper might have been taken by surprise in mid-January by an article effusively praising a well-known exhibition of “plastinated” human bodies, which was making an extended stop in Rome.

“Body Worlds,” which L’Osservatore Romano called a “wonderful ode to respect for the body,” is an exhibition of preserved human corpses, displayed in often sporty stances.

The show thus bears many similarities to another show, “Bodies: The Exhibition,” which drew strong criticism a few years back from Catholic bishops in the United States, Canada and England, who expressed concerns over whether the preserved bodies were being exploited or degraded by being on public display.

The different reaction to the show in Rome may stem, at least in part, from promoters’ claims that all of the cadavers in “Body Worlds” are on display with the prior consent of the deceased. By contrast, news reports from 2008 revealed that the “Bodies” exhibition included unclaimed and unidentified cadavers from China — strongly suggesting there was little if any free consent involved.

A life-size figure created out of real bones and colored wax is one of eight anatomical figures commissioned by 18th-century Pope Benedict XIV to teach the general public and artists about the human body. The figures, created by Italian physician-sculptor Ercole Lelli, are in the Poggi Museum in Bologna, Italy. (CNS photo/Poggi Museum)

The Catholic Church has consistently taught that the human body must be treated with respect, in accordance with the preservation of human dignity. Many critics, meanwhile, have said such concerns only put the brakes on science.

In fact, the church and the Vatican have a long history of promoting knowledge of the human body. One 18th-century pope even sponsored a show that might be considered the “Body Worlds” of its day.

Pope Benedict XIV established the first Anatomical Museum in Italy in his hometown of Bologna after he commissioned in 1742, eight life-size wax figures, designed on the basis on human autopsies.

He wanted the museum to educate the public, inspire future anatomists and aid artists with more accurate representations of the human form, said Rebecca Messbarger, an expert in Enlightenment Italy who teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

Before his 1740 election as pope, then-Cardinal Prospero Lambertini socialized with academics, doctors and anatomists, promoted women scholars, acquired and donated scientific instruments, and worked to see Bologna’s Institute of Science become the nerve center of cutting-edge medical science and study. He also established a school of obstetrics and supplied it with terra-cotta and wax models to help train surgeons and midwives.

Medical education was undergoing a huge revolution in the 18th century, as anatomists shed abstract theories about how the body worked, in favor of hands-on study with actual cadavers.

According to Andrea Carlino, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Geneva, Pope Benedict threw his full support behind this new methodology. Carlino noted that the church had never formally prohibited the dissection of the deceased for anatomical study.

At the time, however, the culturally and legally acceptable sources of corpses for scientific study were limited to the unclaimed bodies of the poor, executed criminals and heretics. It was the shortage of cadavers that led to rampant grave robbing.

So Cardinal Lambertini, then archbishop of Bologna, urged his priests to convince parishioners to donate their own and their loved ones’ bodies to science, arguing that anatomical study promoted public health.

Pope Benedict’s interest in and experience with anatomy was the foundation of his four-volume book on canonization and miracles, Messbarger said, in which he referred “as much to the masters of anatomy as to the fathers of the church.”

As Messbarger puts it, the pope knew that “in order to understand the supernatural, you have to understand the natural.” In other words, to determine whether a healing is miraculous or not, it is vital to understand the nature of the disease or illness, what could or could not be cured, and the role the mind might play in the physical manifestation of disease.

Like his 21st-century successor with the same name, the Enlightenment Pope Benedict saw no conflict between faith and reason.

“One of the reasons he’s such a promoter of science is because he really saw the danger of superstition and he wanted people’s faith to be based on Scripture,” Messbarger said. “He wanted a more reasonable expression of faith.”