Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Death by communion wafer?

- René Descartes, 100 French Francs (1942)

I was reminded of a review by bible scholar Ben Witherington of the book Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason (Descartes Bones - Can You Dig Them?) when I saw today that the mystery of Descartes' death has been attributed to murder by poisoned communion wafer. Here's the story in the Guardian ....


Descartes was 'poisoned by Catholic priest'

René Descartes died not from natural causes but from a fatal dose of arsenic administered by a Catholic missionary working in Stockholm, it has been claimed. Photograph: Corbis

For more than three and a half centuries, the death of René Descartes one winter's day in Stockholm has been attributed to the ravages of pneumonia on a body unused to the Scandinavian chill. But in a book released after years spent combing the archives of Paris and the Swedish capital, one Cartesian expert has a more sinister theory about how the French philosopher came to his end.

According to Theodor Ebert, an academic at the University of Erlangen, Descartes died not through natural causes but from an arsenic-laced communion wafer given to him by a Catholic priest.

Ebert believes that Jacques Viogué, a missionary working in Stockholm, administered the poison because he feared Descartes's radical theological ideas would derail an expected conversion to Catholicism by the monarch of protestant Sweden. "Viogué knew of Queen Christina's Catholic tendencies. It is very likely that he saw in Descartes an obstacle to the Queen's conversion to the Catholic faith," Ebert told Le Nouvel Observateur newspaper.

Though raised as a Catholic, Descartes, who had been summoned in 1649 to tutor Queen Christina, was regarded with suspicion by many of his theological coreligionists. His theories were viewed as incompatible with the belief of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine served during the Eucharist become the flesh and blood of Christ. "Viogué was convinced that … his metaphysics were more in line with Calvinist 'heresy'," said Ebert. The theory of foul play has been greeted with caution by scholars. Since Descartes's death on 11 February 1650, pneumonia has been blamed for robbing the world of the so-called father of modern philosophy.

Ebert rejects this as incompatible with the facts. In a letter written after his patient's death, Descartes's doctor, Van Wullen, described having found something wrong – which Ebert believes to be blood – in the philosopher's urine. "That is not a symptom of pneumonia; it is a symptom of poisoning, chiefly of arsenic," said Ebert, adding that Descartes asked his doctor to prescribe an emetic. "What conclusion is to be drawn other than the philosopher, who was well-acquainted with the medicine of his day, believed he had been poisoned?"


I've never liked Descartes myself, if for no other reason than his attitude towards animals. As Wikipedia states ... he believed that only humans have minds. This led him to the belief that animals cannot feel pain, and Descartes' practice of vivisection (the dissection of live animals) became widely used throughout Europe until the Enlightenment.

But would (other) Catholics have wanted him dead? Although he did consider himself (at least publicly) to be Catholic, some thought of him as a Deist or an atheist, and to again quote Wikipedia ... Contemporary Blaise Pascal said that "I cannot forgive Descartes; in all his philosophy, Descartes did his best to dispense with God. But Descartes could not avoid prodding God to set the world in motion with a snap of his lordly fingers; after that, he had no more use for God."

But, on the other hand ...Stephen Gaukroger's biography of Descartes reports that "he had a deep religious faith as a Catholic, which he retained to his dying day, along with a resolute, passionate desire to discover the truth." After Descartes died in Sweden, Queen Christina abdicated her throne to convert to Roman Catholicism (Swedish law required a Protestant ruler.) The only Roman Catholic she had prolonged contact with was Descartes, who was her personal tutor.

I saw a post about this at a First Things blog too, and most of the commentors to the post seemed to believe the idea unthinkable .... not the part about a priest murdering someone, but the part where the priest would adulterate a host to do so. As one of them wrote .... An arsenic-laced communion wafer? It would have to be an accident – there’s no substance to the charge. :)


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