Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Is Acupuncture Acceptable for Catholics?

by Susan Brinkmann


This article by Susan Brinkmann is the fifth in a multi-part series dealing with various New Age philosophies. In this installment the author provides historical information on the origins of acupuncture — a traditional form of Chinese medicine — and whether or not its use is compatible with the Catholic faith.

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Colorado Catholic Herald

Publisher & Date

Diocese of Colorado Springs, September 7, 2007

In July 1971, while accompanying Henry Kissinger to China, The New York Times columnist James Reston had an emergency appendectomy. Afterward at the Anti-Imperialist Hospital in Peking, doctors treated his pain with a traditional form of Chinese medicine known as acupuncture.

"I was in considerable discomfort if not pain during the second night after the operation," Reston wrote shortly after his return to the United States. "Li Chang-yuan, doctor of acupuncture at the hospital, with my approval, inserted three long, thin needles into the outer part of my right elbow and below my knees, and manipulated them in order to stimulate the intestine and relieve the pressure and distension of the stomach.

"Meanwhile, Doctor Li lit two pieces of an herb called ai, which looked like the burning stumps of a broken, cheap cigar, and held them close to my abdomen while occasionally twirling the needles into action. All this took about 20 minutes, during which I remember thinking that it was a rather complicated way to get rid of gas in the stomach. But there was noticeable relaxation of the pressure and distension within an hour and no recurrence of the problem thereafter."

Many people in the medical field, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), believe that event is what precipitated what is now a 20-year surge of interest in acupuncture in the United States.

A report from a Consensus Development Conference on Acupuncture held at the NIH in 1997 stated that acupuncture is being widely practiced by thousands of physicians, dentists, acupuncturists and other practitioners in the U.S.

According to the largest and most comprehensive survey of complementary and alternative medicine in use by American adults, the 2002 National Health Institute Survey, "an estimated 8.2 million U.S. adults had . . . used acupuncture [at some time] and an estimated 2.1 million U.S. adults had used acupuncture in the previous year."

How Does Acupuncture Work?

The Chinese theory behind acupuncture as a medical treatment is very different from the kind of acupuncture used in Western medicine.

"Traditional Chinese acupuncture is based on the theory that the body is a delicate balance of two opposing and inseparable forces: yin and yang," says the NIH Web site for Complementary and Alternative Medicines. "Yin represents the cold, slow or passive principle, while yang represents the hot, excited or active principle."

It goes on to explain that the Chinese believe health is achieved by maintaining the body in a balanced state, and that the disease is caused by an internal imbalance of yin and yang.

"This imbalance leads to blockage in the flow of qi (energy) along pathways know as meridians," according to the NIH site. "It is believed that there are 12 main meridians and eight secondary meridians, and that there are more than 2,000 acupuncture points on the human body that connect with them."

Chinese practitioners believe that by inserting extremely fine needles into those points in various combinations, a person’s energy flow may be re-balanced, thus allowing the body’s natural healing mechanisms to take over.

Because there is no anatomical or other physically verifiable basis for the existence of acupuncture points, qi or meridians, the Western version of acupuncture is not based on the concept of yin and yang, but on neuroscience. Today, science believes acupuncture may work in three ways: by releasing endorphins, which are part of the body’s natural pain-control system; by stimulating nerves in the spinal cord that release pain-suppressing neurotransmitters; or by the naturally occurring increase in blood flow in the needle-puncture area, which removes toxic substances.

Origin of Acupuncture

The word "acupuncture" is derived from the Latin acus meaning "needle" and pungere meaning "prick." The origins of Chinese acupuncture are uncertain. There is some archeological evidence of its practice during the Han dynasty (202 B.C. to 220 A.D.) with the first mention of it a century earlier in the Yellow Emperor’s "Classic of Internal Medicine," a history of acupuncture that was completed around 305 B.C.

However, hieroglyphics dating back to 1000 B.C. have been found what may be an indication that acupuncture was in use much earlier. There is also some speculation surrounding the discovery of Otzi, a 5,000-year-old mummy with over 50 tattoos on his body, some indicated on established acupuncture points.

Other scientists believe there is evidence to support the practice of acupuncture in Eurasia during the early Bronze Age. In an article that appeared in the British medical journal, The Lancet, researches said, "We hypothesized that there might have been a medical system similar to acupuncture (Chinese Zhensiu: needling and burning) that was practices in Central Europe 5,200 years ago. . . . This raises the possibility of acupuncture having originated in the Eurasian continent at least 2,000 years earlier than previously recognized."

Can Catholics Use It?

The Western form of acupuncture, which is based on science and not Taoism, is acceptable for use by Christians. However, the traditional Chinese acupuncture belief system is not compatible with Christianity.

"The philosophical thinking behind acupuncture comes from Taoism and the concept of the yin and yang, and of being at one with the forces in the universe through meditation," the Irish Theological Commission wrote in 1994 in its document, "A Catholic Response to the New Age Phenomenon."

Christians believe man is a union of body and soul, and that the soul is an essential form — not an energy force. The belief that one can meditate and be at one with the forces of the universe is based in pantheism, the belief that the universe, God and nature are all equivalent.

At present, there are many unlicensed practitioners who may be practicing a blended version of Western and Chinese acupuncture.

"The New Age movement has no difficulty with acupuncture because it accepts the Eastern philosophy behind it," the theological commission said. "But what about Christians? Can they accept the help and not be affected by its religious content? Many believe they can.

"The general principle in this matter is that these practices are not bad in themselves, and dissociated from their original context, can be practiced by Catholics with due discretion."

Father Lawrence J. Gesy, the cult consultant for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the lead author of "Today’s Destructive Cults and Movements," says those seeking an acupuncturist should "make sure the person who is doing the acupuncture is medically licensed."

According to the Mayo Clinic Web site, there are about 3,000 medical doctors in the U.S. who use acupuncture as part of their clinical practice. No individual needs to resort to a New Age practitioner in order to enjoy the benefits of acupuncture.

"Those who are into the Chinese-god concept of acupuncture usually have charts up, or will talk about gods and energy levels," Father Gesy said. "These people are 'channeling.' The needle becomes their channel from the source of the energy of the gods into that person."

Acupuncture works without the religious component, and is a much better bargain for Christians because it comes all the benefits, but none of the spiritual risks.

(This article originally appeared in The Catholic Standard and Times, the Philadalphia archdiocesan newspaper.)

Other articles in this series:

PART I: Popular Movement Is One of the Most Pressing Challenges to Christian Faith

PART II: Divination: Consulting Psychics and Mediums

PART III: Reiki and Healing Touch

PART IV: The Enneagram: What's Your Number?

PART V: Is Acupuncture Acceptable for Catholics?

PART VI: Bewitched by Wicca

PART VII: Ouija Boards and Tarot Cards

PART VIII: Energy Medicine: Part One — The Science

PART IX: Energy Medicine: Part Two — The Theology

PART X: The Exercise of Religion: Yoga

Ten questions to help you determine 'Christian or New Age?'

© The Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs

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