The Ethic of Caring for the Sick

David Bentley Hart explains that the ethic of caring for the sick and needy, establishing hospitals and clinics, was unique historically in Christianity because of what the Bible taught. He writes in Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (p. 29-34):

Admittedly, the condition of lepers in medieval Western society – social and legal, to say nothing of medical – was anything but happy. But scholars less confident of their perspicacity than Le Goff would probably have paused, at least for a moment, to marvel at the very existence of lepers’ hospitals in an age when the fear of contamination was so great, and might have leadenly ascribed the location of these hospitals at the edges of towns to nothing more sinister than the exigencies of quarantine. They might even have noted the amazing willingness of Christian towns to tolerate the proximity (a mere “stone’s throw” away) of persons whom other societies would have banished far from all human habitation, and the willingness of monks, nuns, and even laity to minister to those persons’ needs. There was, after all, a long tradition of Christian monastic hospitals for the destitute and dying, going back to the days of Constantine and stretching from the Syrian and Byzantine East to the Western fringes of Christendom, a tradition that had no real precedent in pagan society…St. Ephraim the Syrian (A.D.C. 306-373), when the city of Edessa was ravaged by plague, established hospitals open to all who were afflicted. St. Basil the Great (A.D. 329-379) founded a hospital in Cappadocia with a ward set aside for the care of lepers, whom he did not disdain to nurse with his own hands. St. Benedict of Nursia (A.D.C. 480-c. 547) opened a free infirmary at Monte Cassino and made care of the sick a paramount duty of his monks. In Rome, the Christian noblewoman and scholar St. Fabiola (d. A.D.C. 399) established the first publish hospital in Western Europe and – despite her wealth and position – often ventured out into the streets personally to seek out those who needed care. St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407), while patriarch of Constantinople, used his influence to fund several such institutions in the city; and in the diakoniai of Constantinople, for centuries, many rich members of the laity labored to care for the poor and ill, bathing the sick, ministering to their needs, assisting them with alms. During the Middle Ages, the Benedictines alone were responsible for more than two thousand hospitals in Western Europe. The twelfth century was particularly remarkable in this regard, especially wherever the Knights of St. John – the Hospitallers – were active. At Montpellier in 1145, for example, the great Hospital of the Holy Spirit was founded, soon becoming a center of medical training and, in 1221, of Montpellier’s faculty of medicine. And, in addition to medical care, these hospitals provided food for the hungry, care for widows and orphans, and distributed alms to all who came in need.…

The ethical presuppositions intrinsic to modernity, for instance, are palliated fragments and haunting echoes of Christian moral theology. Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible. It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe any of these things – they would never have occurred to us – had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren.

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Melinda Penner

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