Life of a Neuro Pope

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.

His post-mortem miracles have allegedly involved, on one occasion, curing a woman of a ‘brain aneurysm’, and on another, curing a nun of Parkinson’s disease.

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.

Pope John Paul II also commented on neuroscientific issues. He defended dualism – the belief that the mind and brain are separate entities in a 1996 address, saying:

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.

9 thoughts on “Life of a Neuro Pope”

  1. Hi,

    Interesting read. I don’t know on what basis John Paul’s claimed brain and mind to be two separate entities but we know, thanks to science, that they are both one thing (enclosed in our skull). For sure his view of evolution wasn’t science based so his theories are just…well, theories.

    BTW, Church need “miracles” just like fish needs water. Nothing new here.

    1. Given that JPII had training in the philosophy of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, I doubt he was a “dualist” in the sense that you’re thinking.
      No ghost encased in a shell. The soul is the form of the body, not a substance distinct from it.

    2. In what way does science confirm the separation of the mind and brain. Whether the mind exist is debatable. Is it just a metaphysical idea that we still keep because Neuroscience is new and complex enough that culture has not had time to catch up to it yet

      1. Not sure what the etiquette on posting links is for this blog, but here are two very relevant ones

    3. Also thinking the mind is enclosed in the brain seems like more of a conceptual reality than a physical one. Without blood and oxygen a brain is pretty useless .

    1. Unfortunately, yes.. for as long as practitioners remain adamant about scientific accuracy [many specialisations have flaws unattended to it’s almost like talking to a brick for change], miracles will continue to occur – the problem here is not that miracles happen or not but should it have really originated from a misdiagnosis; well, what of the plenty who may be “cursed” from having died from being treated for something else when it may be another problem they’re experiencing, suffering all the way onto their death?

  2. I would like to think that we are more than the result of chemical reactions going on in our brains. Sort of leaves the door open for blaming behavioral issues on chemical imbalances.

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