The New York Times has it’s knickers in a knot because the Vatican is going to do an “investigation” of the convents in the US.

Such visitations are fairly routine: The Vatican just finished one on the seminaries, and is scheduled to do one on a church group whose founder was found to be swinging both ways and spending money on his honeys.

None of this is new. In an institution that has been around two thousand years and has a billion members, scandals happen all the time.

Religious orders, religious revivals, and institutions of all sorts tend to have a 200 year cycle of reform, flowering, laxity, and then either another revival/reform or they disappear.

So the US nuns are into the laxity part of the cycle, and the Vatican is worried about the lack of prayer life in some orders, the life style of those living outside in apartments, and the tendency of some nuns to be more enthusiastic about political causes and New Age ideas than about the life saving news of Jesus as Savior.

I have no problem if someone wants to go into political causes, but when I see nuns wafting to weirdo conferences using the hard earned money of working families, I sort of shake my head.

As for living alone in an apartment: There are religious orders (called “secular institutes”, and also “Third orders”) that do this, so why don’t they just leave and join an organization whose rules are made for such callings? (Possible answer: Because they might actually have to pay their own bills if they did?)

Of course, the nuns that are worried about the visit all think of themselves as “pioneers” being “prosecuted” by the church.

Didn’t Teresa of Avila, who saw the lax life of nuns who spent more time visiting in the parlor than praying, get into trouble with the Inquisition when she founded a new convent that actually lived in poverty, chastity and obedience and spent most of their time praying?

Ah yes. But Teresa and her sisters were women of prayer, not like one progressive sister who told me about her “meditation” times, but that she only prayed “when she felt like it”.

And Teresa is famous for her common sense…
If you read the entire Times article, the straw that broke the camel’s back to prompt the Vatican sending visitors was that a lot of nuns were using Reiki, a Japanese version of faith healing.

Here in the Philippines, our bishops tend to be a bit lax about Asian cultural beliefs like Feng Shui,  stressing they are cultural and psychological wisdom, not religion, and hence compatible with belief in God or Jesus.

So isn’t Reiki is just an Asian variation on faith healing? After all, faith healing has a long history in Christianity, especially among pious believers, including nuns, who often lack strict scientific or philosophical training.

In the past, it was novenas, relics, and shrines. Nowadays it tends more to “New Age” stuff, like the enneagram, therapeutic touch, and Reiki.

But to a physician, they are merely a variation of hypnosis and the power of suggestion: the well known “placebo effect”.So why the problem with Reiki?

According to the Skeptic’s dictionary

Reiki healers differ from acupuncturists in that they do not try to unblock a person’s ki, but to channel the ki of the universe so that the client or patient heals.

No wonder it raised the hackles of the Vatican.

They got upset not because it was nonsense, but that the nonsense undermined the ancient ideas of Christianity.

Reiki presupposes a “life force” as the basis for reality, not a personal God who cares for us. Reiki implies that if you study enough, you can manipulate the life force and produce miracles. Christianity sees a God who cares for us, but one that gives humans the freedom to better ourselves with science, but who also allows (for unknown reasons) suffering to exist.

But Reiki, like some faith healers, includes another belief: That if you are sick, or if you don’t get healed,  it’s your own damned fault for not believing enough.

What nonsense. This essay doesn’t have enough room to discuss “the problem of pain”, but the idea that it’s your own fault if you are sick was discarded by the Judeo Christian world as far back as the book of Job.

As for nuns with their reiki” or their “therapeutic touch”, I am angry, because I’ve seen such nonsense harm my patients, only to have the nuns later brag to me about how they “helped” them.

Quacks are quacks. And we docs have to pick up the pieces.

There are patients who don’t take their cancer treatments at all, because they are convinced some magic herb works. Or they spend thousands on highly publicized “miracle” cures that don’t work (e.g. Farah Fawcet on stem cell treatment). There are psychiatric patient who stop their medicine because some healer told them their problem was spiritual, not biochemical.

For women who belong to a church that seeks God in both  faith and reason to go back to a superstition that not only denies a personal deity but one that makes them feel powerful over the vulnerable is a bit too much for me.

Throw ’em all out, I say, before they harm more of my patients.

Or maybe they should be sent to Africa and try to heal some terminally ill HIV patients  with their magic touch.

Nope, I doubt they will, because not only wouldn’t Reiki or theraputic touch cure HIV,  but they might be shamed by seeing the African sisters who are truly dedicated to God  doing less pleasant things like changing soiled bedsheets or cleaning up dirty smelly wounds: actions that actually help the patients.

One final note for those who believe in miracles. I’ve seen three actual miracles in 40 years of my medical practice, and a dozen cases of “miracles” that can be explained by science, out of approximately 150,000 office or hospital visits.

So I’ll keep my faith in medicine, not relics or reiki, thank you.

Most physicians, because we face suffering and death every day, we quickly learn to know that we aren’t God, the one who heals, but merely the imperfect instrument someone up there uses to help the sick.

As the surgeon Pare once said: I treated him, God Healed him.

Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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