05 Feb 2018 / 10:26

Orthodox religion, unorthodox medicine: The rise of Romania’s Christian doctors

Sorana Stanescu
Oasa and Bucharest

A new breed of Romanian doctors wants to place faith at the heart of their practice, alarming those who believe religion and medicine do not mix.

Cardiologist Ciprian Fisca barely got any sleep on last night’s shift, and his next one starts early tomorrow morning. But right now, eight hours before he returns to hospital, there is nowhere he would rather be than in the kitchen of a religious retreat, deep in rural Transylvania, peeling horse-radishes.

The 27-year-old is volunteering his services as a kitchen-hand in the isolated retreat of St John the Evangelist, helping the priests with tomorrow’s meal. Among the small group assisting with the catering are a pharmacy student and Ciprian’s younger sister, who hopes to study medicine herself.

The retreat consists of a modest church surrounded by modern-looking buildings currently under construction, including a canteen, conference centre and accommodation facilities. The transformation of this remote site hints at the revival of the Romanian Orthodox Church, flexing its muscles after half a century of communist dictatorship. Once associated with the elderly and the rural poor, the Church now attracts educated youth in the cities, including a conspicuous following of doctors and medical students.

 Group photo Oasa medical camp, August 2017

(credit: Facebook group for Sibiu Youth Organisation)

For a new generation of devout Romanian doctors, faith is not just a private matter – it also informs their work. “If you’re a doctor, God needs to be the head of your department,” Ciprian says.

The Church is promoting a type of medical practice that combines centuries-old teachings with its stance on contemporary questions of lifestyle, morality and sexuality. Doctors that follow this form of “Christian medicine” typically endorse the apparent health benefits of prayer and fasting, advocated by the Church, while sharing the Church’s view of abortion, contraception and homosexuality as grave sins.

This has alarmed many in the medical profession who believe religion and medicine should not mix. These critics view the Church’s opposition to abortion and contraception as incompatible with modern medical ethics, and they are suspicious of its enthusiasm for alternative or relatively untested therapies such as prayer and fasting.

Gabriel Diaconu, a psychiatrist and commentator for Viata Medicala, Romania’s most widely-read medical journal, says that while doctors have every right to be religious, faith must be left out of their practice. “There are doctors that play for classical orchestras in their spare time, but they don’t bring their cello into the operating room,” he says.

‘Faith and the Romanian nation’

The retreat of St John the Evangelist is managed by the monks of the Oasa monastery, high in the Carpathian mountains. For more than a decade, the monks have hosted annual summer camps for devout young Romanians who are looking to better understand their faith and get a taste of monastic life. Having started off with one or two camps, the monks now organise some ten such events every year, welcoming more than a thousand guests, aged between 18 and 30.

This year for the first time, the monks hosted a camp exclusively for doctors and medical students. Ciprian was one of the 170 guests. Amiable and neatly bearded, he wears a rosary on his wrist and long gave up watching TV in order to make time for medicine and voluntary work. He describes Oasa as “his spiritual birthplace”.

An average day at the camp begins and ends with a church service. Part of the schedule is devoted to lectures on religious themes and lessons in Biblical music and patriotic singing. Guests may also be assigned tasks such as chopping wood and cleaning toilets. Meals are frugal and conversation at mealtimes is discouraged. There is no TV or internet and the use of mobile phones is practically impossible, given the weak coverage. At 9.30 pm, the lights are turned off. The guests sleep in dormitories segregated by gender.

Oasa seems far removed from Romania’s everyday political turmoil and economic woes. On summer mornings, the crisp mountain air smells of pine and freshly mown grass. Were World War Three to break out, the news would probably reach here last.

The proposal for a camp for doctors and medical students was put forward by Teodora Span, an articulate woman in her early twenties from the city of Sibiu. She came up with the idea after noticing how many guests at the regular summer camps were medical students, like her. Although her father is a priest, Teodora says she did not regard herself as a devout Christian until she started visiting Oasa as a teenager and “began thinking seriously about faith and the Romanian nation”. At the monastery, she leads the guests in rehearsals of patriotic songs, demonstrating a gift for singing.

‘School systems brainwash you’

The programme for the medical students’ camp included a workshop on first-aid techniques, as well as lectures on abortion, the links between diet and disease, the Orthodox Christian lifestyle, and the emergence of “a new paradigm” in the treatment of cancer.

The star speaker was Dr Pavel Chirila, a 71-year-old physician and entrepreneur known for his conservative Christian beliefs and for his Bucharest clinic offering homeopathic treatments – a form of alternative medicine that has been debunked by recent studies. The doctor is a strident critic of the government’s measles vaccination programme, although he avoided mentioning this in his talk. Romania this year saw its worst measles outbreak in decades. Some 10,000 people were infected with the virus and 35 died, most of them infants.

Chirila gave a wide-ranging lecture, covering lifestyle tips and cancer therapies. He also spoke of homosexuality as a source of many illnesses, describing it as a “trend” promoted by the West. Chirila is a founding member of the Coalition for Family, a conservative civic initiative that is trying to change the constitution so that it defines marriage exclusively as a union between “a man and a woman”, making same-sex marriages impossible in Romania.

Lecture at the Oasa medical camp with Priest Iustin Miron (left) and Dr Andreas Vythoulkas
(credit: Facebook group for Sibiu Youth Organisation)

Another speaker at the Oasa camp, biophysicist Virgiliu Gheorghe, attacked mainstream medical education. “All school systems are meant to brainwash you,” he told the audience. In an audio recording of the lecture heard by BIRN, Gheorghe also spoke of fasting as a therapy for illnesses including schizophrenia and cancer.

The rise of “Christian medicine” is a “backward step”, according to Dr Mihai Craiu, a paediatrics professor at the Carol Davilla Medical University in Bucharest. A practising Christian himself, he describes modern medicine as a gift from God, and he criticises the arrogance of those who advocate treatments based on old beliefs. “I don’t think any of the fundamental religions of the world forbid medical progress,” he told BIRN.

Diaconu, the psychiatrist and commentator for Viata Medicala, says all doctors are entitled to express their opinions – but it was ethically unsound to do so without providing solid evidence. “The dissemination of information with no medical proof is contrary to good practice,” he said. And while doctors are also entitled to take part in spiritual retreats, he said they should not replace medical practice with “pseudo-medicine”.

In phone interviews with BIRN, both Gheorghe and Chirila defended their lectures at Oasa, presenting themselves as advocates of a more spiritual approach to medicine that was unpopular with the medical establishment.

Gheorghe told BIRN that he had not been arguing for fasting as a substitute for conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Rather, he said, fasting could be a supplementary therapy, working alongside these treatments. He also rejected any suggestion that he was promoting pseudo-science, saying that this label was commonly used to belittle research that had not been endorsed by major pharmaceutical companies.

Chirila also rejected any suggestion that he was practising pseudo-science, despite the many recent medical studies casting doubt on the therapeutic value of homeopathy. “It’s their problem, not mine,” he said, of his critics. “I don’t care who contests my methods. I myself contest any medicine that has such strong side-effects that it kills a patient before your eyes.” Asked about his stance on homosexuality, Chirila said he did not have any “resentment” towards homosexuals and treated them with “empathy”.

Nonetheless, the opinions he expressed in his lecture are echoed by those who attended the camp. “Homosexuality is not natural,” Ciprian says. “It’s abnormal.”

Such views have provoked alarm in secular and liberal circles. While critics do not dispute any doctor’s right to practice their faith in private, they see the rise of “Christian medicine” as a threat to science and society. They accuse the Church of trying to promote its conservative agenda through the medical profession.

“As long as medical students’ Christian beliefs are a personal matter, it’s not a problem,” says Toma Patrascu, the president of the Romanian Humanist-Secular Association. “But when you get one hundred people with the same attitude in the same place, it’s no longer a personal issue but a public one. A confederation is more than the sum of its parts. It has a will of its own.”

A spokesman for the Alba Iulia Archiepiscopate, which oversees the Oasa monastery, dismissed fears about the indoctrination of medical students, insisting that the summer camp was simply fulfilling an obvious mission. “We represent the Church, so we promote the well-known moral and cultural values of the Church and Christianity,” Priest Oliviu Botoi told BIRN. “We couldn’t present a conference on the principles of atheism, for example.” He added that young people had the right to promote “principles that are rooted not just in a Romanian tradition, but in a European one – a Christian tradition.”

Incubators of nationalism

“Christian medicine” is indeed gaining prominence in Romania. The field commands its own section in bookshops and its leading practitioners make highly publicised appearances at conferences and on TV screens, quoting from the Bible to support their claims about the therapeutic benefits of prayer and fasting, or to attack the sins of abortion and homosexuality.

The popularity of “Christian medicine” can be viewed as a local facet of a broad historical trend – the revival of the Orthodox Church in eastern European countries that were formerly under communist rule. More recently, Romania has been caught up in another regional phenomenon – the resurgence of nationalism and the backlash against the liberal values associated with the European Union. In this climate, the Church’s conservative message, with its emphasis on national identity and traditions, has seemed particularly apt.

Professor Cristian Parvulescu, dean of the political science faculty at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest, argues that the medical students’ embrace of the Church and nationalism has historic echoes. In the early 20th century, Romanian universities and medical schools were a breeding ground for ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic ideologies. In 1922, students at the medical school in Cluj forbade their Jewish classmates – who made up half the class – from performing autopsies on the bodies of Christians. The unrest that followed eventually led to proposals for limiting the number of Jewish students in universities.

Romania’s ultra-nationalist ideologies evolved into the fascist Iron Guard movement, which would be incorporated into the Nazi-allied government of Ion Antonescu. The Iron Guard was also intensely religious, placing the Orthodox Church at the heart of its vision for the Romanian state. Medical schools in Bucharest and Iasi hosted many of the Iron Guard’s early meetings.

When discussing their role models, the medical students interviewed at Oasa last summer did not name any contemporary doctors. Instead, most cited the example of Nicolae Paulescu, a Romanian physician from the early 20th century who is famed for his ground-breaking research on insulin. Paulescu was also an anti-Semite and a leading figure in the fascist politics of his day.

However, theologian Radu Preda cautions against drawing too many parallels between the present and the early 20th century. “We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking: you’re a devoted Christian, hence a nationalist, hence a fascist, racist or anti-Semite,” he says.

A lecturer at the Orthodox Theology Faculty of Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj, Preda emphasises that the conditions that gave rise to fascism in the early 20th century do not exist today. For instance, he says, the students of that era were easy targets for radical ideas because they were the first from their families to attend university.

‘Developing a patient’s spirituality’

Several Oasa alumni have established youth groups in their hometowns, inspired by their stay at the monastery. In Sibiu, Teodora nows runs a group that carries out volunteer work for the elderly, as well as organising trips to Oasa. She says ten of the 80 active members of the group are medical students. Ciprian runs a similar group in his city, Targu Mures, where 40 of the 55 members are medical students. Groups of this kind have also been established in the cities of Timisoara and Cluj, with medical students accounting for roughly a fifth of the membership.

Medical schools do not collect any data that show how many of their students are active in the Church, and the number, relative to the total, is thought to be quite low. Nonetheless, the attendance at this year’s summer camp, as well as the establishment of youth groups by Oasa alumni, point to the growing interest in “Christian medicine”.

“Try introducing a class in Christian medicine [at university] and you might be surprised by the large attendance,” says Bogdan Matei, an assistant professor of physiology in Bucharest. A devout Christian himself, he argues that a doctor’s spiritual training “can help develop the patient’s spirituality”.

Matei links the development of his religious faith with his loss of faith in a medical establishment that he believes to be under the sway of big pharmaceutical firms. “I became a doctor because I wanted to heal people, but I lost that romantic view after six years of medical school,” he says. He also became disillusioned by what he sees as mainstream medicine’s neglect of the soul.

Gaps in the system

The omissions and shortcomings of the Romanian medical establishment may well be a factor behind the rise of “Christian medicine”.

Romanian medical schools have been rocked by a series of high-profile scandals, with senior professors accused of financial fraud and of demanding bribes and sexual favours from their students. “The young doctors are walking into a guild afflicted with accusations of bribery, corruption, crime and theft,” Diaconu says.

Since the turn of the century, more than 15,000 Romanian doctors have migrated abroad – an exodus that has partly been blamed on the tarnished image of the profession. As some disillusioned students have migrated abroad, others have sought guidance from the Church.

“Romania does not welcome its doctors,” Diaconu says. “When you feel rejected and a priest comes to you and says, ‘I have this retreat,’ you go, because it’s good to belong and to feel welcomed.”

Religious dogma appears to be filling in the gaps in the education system, answering needs and questions overlooked in the classroom.

Doctors and medical students interviewed by BIRN said their faith had been re-enforced, rather than challenged, by their medical training. They said the complexity of the human form, as revealed in anatomy classes, was evidence of a divine creator – a common argument for the existence of God, known as the “intelligent design” theory.

They also felt the ethics courses at medical schools steered clear of the spiritual implications of sensitive issues such as abortion or euthanasia. Maria Aluas, a lecturer in bioethics at Iuliu Hatieganu Medical University in Cluj, confirmed this: “Abortion is a matter of morality and we don’t deal with it.”

Abortion is a particularly painful topic in Romania. The practice was outlawed by the communist regime in 1966, along with contraception. Doctors who performed abortions were imprisoned and women who wished to have the procedure had to resort to dangerous methods. Some 10,000 women died as a result, and over 100,000 unwanted children were handed over to decrepit state orphanages.

Abortion and contraception were legalised after the revolution of 1989. However, individual doctors are free to refuse to perform certain procedures, such as abortions, that clash with their personal morals, as is also the case in countries such as the UK and US.

Ciprian argues that Christian doctors do not face daily tests of their religious beliefs, as cases involving abortion or euthanasia are rare. His faith, he says, has a subtle and benign influence on his practice. It makes him more conscientious, and where the patient is also a Christian, it creates an automatic bond.

Ciprian firmly believes that a healthy spiritual life can help the healing process. Sometimes he may discuss this with the patient, but only if he spots the markers of faith, such as a prayer book beside the hospital bed or a rosary on the patient’s wrist – like the one he wears.

Fellow Bio

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Sorana Stanescu

 Sorana Stanescu has worked for the Romanian press and for BBC TV's flagship investigative show, Panorama. 

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