Cadavers, Calvin, and Anti-Catholicism


Every writer knows that a solid gold metaphor can be more powerful than a fact. At the same time, some of our most pervasive metaphors can convey their own prejudices disguised as fact. Catholic urban legends—distortions of history or pure inventions cloaked in the guise of history—are the very stuff of living cultural metaphors in America. You can’t go a week reading your local urban newspaper without a column, editorial or letter to the editor invoking the Inquisition, Galileo, the alleged silence of Pius XII, or the Crusades as rhetorical shorthand to attack a Catholic position. Catholic urban legends are meant to provide a definitive judgment on any Catholic position without ever having to discuss that position itself. A Catholic urban legend properly raised will trump facts any day of the week.

Nowhere is this truer today than in the area of medical and scientific ethics. Few actually debate physician-assisted suicide on its own grounds. Instead, "Don’t Let Them Shove Their Religion Down Your Throat" committees are established to cloud the issue with a host of irrelevant, but culturally effective, diatribes based on Catholic urban legends.

Specter of the Dark Ages

In 2006, when President Bush seemed determined to exercise his first veto over legislation that would extend federal support for embryonic stem cell research, Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania rose to speak on the Senate floor. The Senator argued for medical research that would destroy human embryos, a position the Catholic Church—and numerous ethicists—oppose.

Senator Specter quickly called up a host of Catholic urban legends, his alleged point being that long-standing religious objections to scientific advancement had historically set back medical development for centuries. According to the Senator, faith-based opposition to embryonic stem cell research must not block fantastical cures for virtually every malady afflicting mankind (including, by the way, preventing Senator Specter’s dentist from allowing him to grow a third set of teeth). Here’s a classic paragraph from his talk, spoken gravely from the Senate floor:

Michael Servetus has research on human anatomy. Pope Boniface VII banned the practice of cadaver dissection in the 1200s. This stopped the practice for 300 years and greatly slowed the accumulation of education regarding human anatomy. Finally, in the 1500s, Michael Servetus used cadaver dissection to study blood circulation. He was tried and imprisoned by the Catholic Church. (U.S. Senate July 17, 2006, Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005)

Senator Specter’s history was as weak as both his science and his teeth. Let’s look more closely at the history involved.

The Facts Exhumed

As far as can be understood, the senator was actually referring to Pope Boniface VIII, not Boniface VII. Boniface VII was an "anti-pope" who claimed to occupy the papacy in the late tenth century. That Boniface said nothing about the dissection of cadavers.

Pope Boniface VIII, Benedetto Caetani, was pope from 1294 to 1303. He was a tough pontiff, waging a protracted war of nerves with the French king over the rights of the Church and the authority of the papacy. The French king finally had him seized and he died a short time thereafter.

Nonetheless, during his reign Pope Boniface also undertook important steps in Church history. He proclaimed the first Holy Year in 1300, catalogued the papal library, and reorganized the Vatican archives. He also published Liber Sextus Decretalium in 1298, a vital collection in the history of Canon Law.

What about the dissection of cadavers, supposedly proscribed in a document called De Sepulturis? Did Boniface order that cadavers not be used for medical research, a ban that would land Michael Servetus in jail under Church authority 200 years later?

The reality is that no ban involving the dissection of cadavers for medical research was ever issued by Boniface. De Sepulturis actually referred to a practice of corpse abuse that probably existed at the time. The document condemns cutting up the bodies of the dead, cooking them so that the bones would be separated from the flesh, then carrying the bones back for burial in their homelands.

In De Sepulturis, Pope Boniface said that anyone committing such a barbarous act would be excommunicated. The condemnation had nothing to do with the dissection of cadavers for medical research, but dealt rather with abuse of a corpse—laws which exist in every state of the Union today.

Contrary to Senator Specter’s analysis, virtually all of the early work on anatomy took place at Church-sponsored universities throughout the period that he claimed dissection was condemned, 1300 to 1500. In fact, no historical evidence exists of any widespread dissection ban by the Church. Guy de Chauliac, a fourteenth-century surgeon and doctor who is considered one of the "fathers" of anatomical studies, served three popes as personal physician. He openly encouraged the use of dissection in the study of human anatomy and would hardly have been allowed to do so if such practices were condemned by his employers. Rather than serving as some kind of obstacle to medical advancement, the Church was the source of medical research for centuries.

Church documents of the period do reflect one concern: that clerics not be involved in conducting surgical procedures. This had nothing to do with any fears that surgical procedures were immoral, rather that early surgery was perceived as a secular profession. Additionally, the Church had moral qualms over the danger of botched surgery and what that could mean to the reputation of clergy. The Church believed, therefore, that surgery was best left to the laity. But it certainly did not condemn surgery, anatomical studies, or the dissection of cadavers as part of that study.

Doctor of Heresy

So what is the story of Michael Servetus? Did he end up in trouble with Church authorities because of research on cadavers and, as a result, set medical knowledge of the circulation of blood and human anatomy back for years?

Because of his arrogance and generally repellent personality, Michael Servetus (1511-1553) had the unique ability to unite all sides in the early years of the Reformation. Virtually every Protestant dissenter, as well as authorities within the Church, came to loathe him.

He was born in Spain and, as a young man, was well educated. After reading the Koran, Servetus fixated on the idea that belief in the Trinity caused an otherwise unnecessary division among Christians, Jews and Muslims. Christianity, Servetus believed, was thinly disguised polytheism.

Caught up in the ferment of conflicting interpretations of the faith once the authority of the Church had been rejected, he combined his anti-Trinitarian views with a newly discovered Protestantism. The result was his work De Trinitatis Erroribus. In it, he argued that Jesus was not equal and co-eternal with the Father but essentially the adopted Son of God, a kind of Arianism rediscovered for his own time. Jesus was a human prophet; the Trinity was a sham created not by the writers of the Gospels but by Greek philosophy. As with many of the alleged reformers, he saw himself as calling for a return to the simple faith of the Gospels. In reality, he was abandoning the Gospels entirely.

His work was not well received among the Protestants, to say the least, and he fled to France. Adopting the name Miguel de Villeneuve, he went to the University of Paris, where he studied geography, astrology and medicine. It was there that he met and undertook dissection with his fellow student Vesalius (1514-1564) who went on to be a leader in the growing understanding of human anatomy and circulation.

At some point in his research, Servetus discovered pulmonary circulation—the passage of blood from the heart to the lungs and back. This discovery was not formally published until 1553, when Servetus included it in the theological work called Cristianismi Restitutio that would lead to his death in Geneva.

His theological passions never left him, so Servetus had begun writing to John Calvin, the Protestant leader of Geneva. Calvin, no charmer himself, grew to detest him. The matter of his heresy was only part of the problem. Servetus himself was condescending and personally abusive. Calvin would write of him, "If he comes here…I will never permit him to depart alive."

Servetus had decided that Christ was returning to earth soon to lead a final battle, as described in Revelation. Servetus believed he would be one of the warriors in the battle, serving under his namesake Michael the Archangel. As the philosopher Will Durant explained, "Servetus was a bit more insane than the average of his time" (The Story of Civilization, VI:481).

Serving as physician to the archbishop of Vienne, Servetus was able to arrange a secret publication of Cristianismi Restitutio. A copy found its way into the hands of John Calvin, who recognized the author as Servetus. Servetus was charged with heresy in Lyons, but the proof was with Calvin in Geneva, as no copy of the book existed in Lyons. In one of the stranger twists in history, Calvin apparently so detested Servetus’ theology that he had the book delivered to the Catholic Church authorities.

Day of Reckoning

The Church condemned Servetus, but he escaped from prison after only three days of incarceration. He fled across the French border into Geneva, where he showed up at one of Calvin’s reformed churches and was promptly arrested for heresy.

His trial did not go well. With his usual tactlessness, he announced his anti-Trinitarian views and confirmed his belief that infant baptism was an invention of the devil. For Calvin, enough was enough.

Servetus had no friends within the Protestant community, all of whose leaders saw him as a dangerous radical. Martin Luther had condemned him vociferously, as did the judges in Geneva. Calvin wanted him executed by sword, but the Protestant judges who had endured his rants during the trial had him burned at the stake on October 27, 1553, just outside Geneva.

In the midst of this chaotic life, Servetus had discovered the rudiments of pulmonary circulation. But was he imprisoned by the Catholic Church for conducting illegal dissections of cadavers as the urban legend cited by Senator Specter claimed? No: The dissection of cadavers was not condemned by the Church and, in fact, was commonplace in Church-sponsored universities.

Servetus got in trouble for his bizarre theology, a theology deplored not only by the Church—which only managed to imprison him for three days before he escaped over a garden wall—but by the Protestant dissenters who eventually killed him for that theology.

The problems of Michael Servetus had nothing to do with his dissection of cadavers for medical research. In fact, Servetus developed a proper understanding of the circulation of blood because of the foundation that had been built under the auspices of Church-sponsored study and research for centuries.


Robert P. Lockwood, director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, is  the author of A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Midlife Conversation about What Really Matters (Loyola Press).

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 3.