Fernanda Alfieri

The Weight of the Brain. The Catholic Church in the Face of Physiology and Phrenology (First Half of the Nineteenth Century)

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The aim of this article is to explore the positions of the Roman Congregations of the Index and the Holy Offi ce towards medical science between the late eighteenth and the fi rst half of the nineteenth century. While these institutions seemed to lose power and the capacity to provide persuasive narratives of reality, medicine at that time apparently experienced an opposite trend. Among the emerging branches, physiology proclaimed itself—to quote a contemporary observer—the "science of physical and moral life", the only one capable of giving a comprehensive view of the human, overcoming the impasse between matter and spirit. Craniology and phrenology aimed at explaining individual characteristics through the conformation of the skull and brain convolutions, connecting body and behavior. I will try to examine the treatment such disciplines received from the mentioned Congregations, framing the positions of their members both within the context of the doctrine and the coeval medical debate. While they condemned the underlying idea of the individual promoted by physiology and phrenology as materialistic, some other members of the clergy attempted to creatively appropriate this notion for purposes of pastoral care.


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