The late Pope John Paul II is to be made a saint by the Catholic church after having two miracles confirmed – both of which allegedly involved curing neurological disorders.
As Popes go, John Paul was particularly interested in neuroscience and seems to have continued his interest in the, er, afterlife.
The neurosurgeon involved in the latter cases was recently interviewed about the case to explain why he thinks it was a miracle – rather than, for example, a misdiagnosis.
However, this was not the first time it was claimed that the late Pope miraculously aided a neuroscientist. He beatified 17th Century neuroscientist Nicolas Steno who became the first brain specialist to start his journey toward sainthood.
Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.
But perhaps paradoxically he also supported the medical consensus on death being ‘brain death’ rather than respiratory failure – noting in the year 2000 that the “complete and irreversible cessation of all brain activity” was an acceptable definition.
However, this issue clearly troubled him for some time after, because in 2006 he convened a conference of medics and neuroscientists to debate exactly this issue, producing the famous ‘Signs of Death’ publication from the Vatican.
He also commented on cases of people in coma-like persistent vegetative states, saying that even without their ‘higher functions’ that may have been affected by brain damage, they should be always be treated to keep them alive.
John Paul’s interest in the brain may have had a personal aspect. He developed Parkinson’s disease himself which was not made public for many years.
Nevertheless, he was not the first Pope to have a neurological disorder. Pope Pius IX had epilepsy – something else which was barely mentioned by the Vatican during his time as the head of the Catholic Church.
In fact, even now they only describe his condition as “a disease not well diagnosed, which some called epilepsy” – possibly because it is still associated with possession by cultures across the world.