Question: Why don't priests heal the sick as our Lord and the Apostles did?
Answer: The charism (spiritual gift) of healing, together with the various other charismatic gifts about which we read in the New Testament did not generally continue much beyond the apostolic era. Presumably, they were given to the Apostles as a means of getting the Church established quickly. By the time Christianity became legal in the Empire, most accounts of spiritual healing are attributed to the Blessed Virgin or to other saints in heaven. Only rarely do we read of living saints with the power to heal, and even more rarely are their healings more than isolated instances.1
Yet, we do hear of miraculous healers and healings in a few cases. The usual guidelines for evaluating mystical phenomena apply to the evaluation of healers as well. While being healed of an ailment is just about always a positively good thing, and something we are justified in praying for, some discernment is necessary in connection with approaching one claiming to be a charismatic healer. To begin with, healing, like other apparently mystical phenomena can come from one of three sources: it may come from God, perhaps through His saints or through a person whom He designates; it may be a purely natural phenomenon, through either physical or psychological means, or both; or it may come from the devil, who is willing to do good in order to tempt and mislead the faithful away from God.
The Church insists that we make reasonable and prudent use of the natural means of maintaining and healing our bodies. These means are what God has given us to use under normal circumstances, and we would be tempting Him if we were to demand miraculous cures without making use of His normal means. Even when ailments seem to be the work of the devil (e.g. demonic possession), the Church always demands that the afflicted first seek treatment from medical practitioners before attempting exorcism. At Lourdes, where a number of genuine miraculous healings have taken place, a medical staff first investigates and examines those who seek a cure from serious illness. (If nothing else, such a preliminary examination removes much of the doubt as to the source of the healing if one takes place.)
Those claiming to heal under miraculous circumstances -- with natural means being ineffective and surely not the cause -- can be evaluated as the Church evaluates mystical phenomena. If a person heals through the power of God, it is certain that God will not allow His power to be used to lead people into error or immorality. In investigating such a claimed healer, the Church would determine where belief in the healer's power might lead Her people. Is the healer preaching false doctrine? or using superstitious means? or leading people away from the Church? or leading them to indifferentism? or to immoral behavior. Clearly, God would not work His power through such a one.
The healer himself would also be investigated. Does he have a general reputation for honesty? Is he known to have been the victim of mental illness? Is there a profit motive to his work (at least beyond supporting himself)? Are there any other motives of personal, family, or community gain? a desire to "be in the limelight"?
Everyone has seen the well dressed faith-healers on television. Do they live inordinately well? Are they leading people away from the Faith, getting them to practice some vague sort of Protestantism in front of the TV instead of attending Mass, sending their money to the "televangelist's" post office box instead of supporting the Church? Do they employ superstitious or unnatural means, or claim the power to force God to heal through some strange rite?
There are, of course, religious practitioners of natural medicine. Catholics are notable among religious people who have done great good with their hospitals and clinics, often staffed by members of the religious orders. But there are religious people who go out of their way to blur the distinction between the natural and the supernatural; some to give prestige to false worship, others to give prestige to dubious medical practices. Such practitioners must be avoided if they are a temptation to false worship, false belief, or moral error. And a prudent person will evaluate their medical technique as well -- some forms of alternative medicine work, but many do not -- none of them are improved by being administered by a priestess, a nun, a witch, or a warlock.
In recent years, even a few Catholic religious have mixed unbecoming or dubious medicine with their church ministry. Apart from "frontier," this seems hardly justifiable. If one really needs a massage, it ought to be possible to find someone other than a priest or a nun to administer it. And Catholicism will benefit not at all by being associated "rainbow therapy" or other dubious ideas on the fringe of alternative medicine. And never should such treatments keep people from obtaining natural medical help from those actually trained to practice it.
Finally, while the Church does not claim to have the power to heal the sick at will, It does support the ailing and the afflicted with Its own proper spiritual helps -- some of which, God willing, may have physical effects. The most obvious of these is, of course, the Sacramental anointing of Extreme Unction: "Let him call in the presbyters of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up, and if he be in sins they shall be forgiven."2 The Roman Ritual supplies priests with blessings for sick adults and children (and animals), for those in the labor of childbirth, and for a number of sacramentals for the sick. The blessing of throats on Saint Blaise day is notable. There is even a Mass formula in the Roman Missal, so that one might have a priest offer a votive Mass (or at least its commemoration) for the sick. If you are ill, make your parish priest aware of your condition. And don't be afraid to ask for the Church's spiritual help -- the beautiful prayers of the Roman Ritual do no good until someone says them.
1. A peculiar exception is the power of healing scrofula (a tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands) said to be accomplished through the touch of the kings of France and England.
2. James v: 14-16.