A buddy of mine at work said that back in the middle ages the Catholic Church forbid using dead bodies to learn about medicine. He said that because the Church claimed to be infallible and that it was a sin to use dead bodies for research, it would have prevented important breakthroughs but for people who disobeyed the Church. He did not specify a particular time in history. Do you know if this is true?
No, this is not true. Anti-Catholics usually allege that Pope Boniface VIII condemned cadaver research in his proclamation De Sepulturis. However this is a distortion of what the document actually stated.
It is very commonly accepted that there was an interruption in the development of anatomical knowledge about the beginning of the fourteenth century because of a papal decree forbidding dissection. The statement that such a decree was promulgated is to be found in nearly every history of medicine published in English, and has been made much of in books on the supposed opposition of science and religion. There was no such decree, however, and the declaration that the development of anatomy was interfered with by the ecclesiastical authorities is founded on nothing more substantial than a misunderstanding of the purport of a decree of Pope Boniface VIII. In the year 1300 this Pope issued the Bull “De Sepulturis”. The title of the Bull runs as follows: “Persons cutting up the bodies of the dead, barbarously cooking them in order that the bones being separated from the flesh may be carried for burial into their own countries are by the very fact excommunicated.” The only possible explanation of the misunderstanding that the Bull forbade dissection is that some one read only the first part of the title and considered that as one of the methods of preparing bones for study in anatomy was by boiling them in order to be able to remove the flesh from them easily, that this decree forbade such practices thereafter.
As Robert P. Lockwood points out in Cadavers, Calvin, and Anti-Catholicism:
The reality is that no ban involving the dissection of cadavers for medical research was ever issued by Boniface. De Sepulturis actually referred to a practice of corpse abuse that probably existed at the time. The document condemns cutting up the bodies of the dead, cooking them so that the bones would be separated from the flesh, then carrying the bones back for burial in their homelands.
In De Sepulturis, Pope Boniface said that anyone committing such a barbarous act would be excommunicated. The condemnation had nothing to do with the dissection of cadavers for medical research, but dealt rather with abuse of a corpse—laws which exist in every state of the Union today.