Natural healing

Source: Catholic Answers 7/2020

St Thomas Acquinas: “There is nothing superstitious or unlawful in employing natural things simply for the purpose of causing certain effects, such as they are thought to have the natural power of producing” (ST II-II:96:2 ad 1). But there was a problem if you were adding magical or superstitious observances to an object’s natural abilities.


The word magic (Latin, magia) comes from the Magi, a Medo-Persian tribe with priestly duties. Originally, “magic” referred to the rituals Magi performed, but it was extended to any foreign or unauthorized rituals. Magus (“magician”) then was applied to people who performed such shady rituals, no matter what their nationality—even Samaritans and Jews (Acts 8:9, 11, 13:6). It’s thus hard to say to what nation the Magi who visited Jesus belonged; we know only that they came “from the east” (Matt. 2:1). In the first century, fields of knowledge we take for granted were not clearly distinguished. Religion, philosophy, science, medicine, and magic were combined in a confusing way. By Aquinas’s day, the distinctions were becoming clearer, and he contributed principles that helped distinguish them.


Our word pharmacy comes from the Greek pharmakon, which could mean a magic potion, a medicine, or a poison. Whichever of the three you wanted in the ancient world, you’d go to a pharmakeus, who would concoct it for you—illustrating just how tangled magic and medicine (and crime) were.

The practice of making such substances was known as pharmakeia. This is the word the New Testament uses when Paul lists sorcery as one of the “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:20) and when John says that the nations were deceived by sorcery and that people did not repent of their sorceries (Rev. 9:21, 18:23). This negative attitude toward pharmakeia was because it involved magic. Ancient pharmacists didn’t just grind up herbs to make medicine. They also recited spells and performed magical procedures over them. This continued in the Middle Ages, and herbology was viewed with suspicion. Yet some plants had curative powers, and Scripture acknowledges that “the Lord created medicines (pharmaka) from the Earth” (Sir. 38:4)—so there had to be something good here. The question was how to disentangle medicine from its magical overlay. Aquinas acknowledged that it’s permitted to use a substance’s natural effects,“but if, in addition, there be employed certain [mystical] characters, words, or any other vain observances which clearly have no efficacy by nature, it will be superstitious and unlawful” (ST II-II:96:2 ad 1).

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