by Marco Corvaglia
§ 1. Unscientific Sensationalism
Instead, the most qualified researchers do not resort to sensationalism and know that the possible healings, in themselves, cannot prove anything.
Dr. Claude Kenesi, Professor at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris and member of the Lourdes International Medical Committee (LIMC), treats this problem with prudence and honesty.
If a sick person believes he has been healed at Lourdes, he presents a declaration to the Medical Office, which previously examines the case. To be a member of the Medical Office, it is sufficient to have a degree in medicine.
Since its inception, the Medical Office was open to all passing doctors, both accompanying the pilgrimages of sick people or coming out of curiosity. Today, that is still the case. If it is true that it's necessary to be a doctor to take part in the work of the Medical Office, it is not necessary to be a Catholic or even a believer.
[Yves Chiron, Inchiesta sui miracoli di Lourdes, Lindau, Turin 2006, pp. 77-78]
So, except for the president, the composition of the Office varies, potentially, every day.
Then the documentation is analysed by the Lourdes International Medical Committee, made up of some twenty members appointed by the Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes. Prof. Kenesi observes:
Membership in the Christian religion is not mandatory. But, in fact, members of the Committee at present are all practicing Catholics.
[Claude Kenesi, Les guérisons de Lourdes peuvent-elles être expliquées médicalement ? in VV.AA., Les guérisons inexpliquées sont-elles miraculeuses ?, Les Éditions de l'Atelier, Ivry-sur-Seine 2009, p. 102]
A central role is played by the report drawn up by a member (specialist in the relevant medical branch) for the other colleagues (who, by virtue of things, have mostly other specializations):
The Committee chooses a reporting member from within itself who is a specialist in the disease at issue and charged with studying the dossier. [...] Once the investigation is complete the report is submitted to all members of the Committee where it will inform the decision of the LIMC.
[Chiron, Inchiesta sui miracoli di Lourdes, p. 88]
To say that, on the basis of our present knowledge, a healing is exceptional, a secret ballot (with a majority of two thirds) is needed.
[Kenesi, Les guérisons de Lourdes peuvent-elles être expliquées médicalement ? in VV.AA., Les guérisons inexpliquées sont-elles miraculeuses ?, pp. 103-104]
Professor Kenesi continues:
In Committee, we so often hear this phrase: "Do you guarantee one hundred percent that this is a miracle?" The answer is: "Absolutely not."
Despite the seriousness of our work, the redoubling of tests, the long duration of observation, some uncertainty still persists. Our role, in LIMC, is to make it as small as possible. But we do not reduce it to zero.
[Ibid., p. 107]
Dr. Patrick Theillier, he too a member of the LIMC, answers the question "Can you prove a cure is unexplainable?" this way:
Prove? No. Medicine isn't an exact science, and its results vary with individuals. All we can do is arrive at a majority opinion, through our innermost convictions.
[Patrick Theillier, Talking about Miracles, Redemptorist Pubblications, Chawton 2004, p. 81]
This is one of the reasons why, within the LIMC, only a two-thirds majority, not (as many people believe) unanimity, is required in order to say that a healing is exceptional: physicians are aware that that they can not, in any case, give an absolute certainty. Their findings are only an opinion, although qualified (then a second, theological, evaluation is required for the healing to be proclaimed as miraculous by the Church).
A similar situation occurs when it comes to the evalution of the healings attributed to the saints during the canonization process. The President of the Consulta Medica at the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, Dr. Patrizio Polisca, interviewed by the Catholic journalist John Thavis, highlighted it:
The Consulta Medica does not ask from science an absolute judgement on a miracle--that’s not the role of medical experts, Polisca explained. In fact, it does not insist on an unanimous decision by its seven members; a majority of five positive votes is enough to move a miracle forward.
[John Thavis, The Vatican Prophecies. Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions and Miracles in the Modern Age, Viking, New York 2015, p. 189]
Dr. Theillier observes also the following:
A patient can only recover from a curable disease. The miracle does not force nature. We have never seen a person suffering from Down syndrome cured in Lourdes! Ultimately, what I call a miracle may be qualified in medicine as "spontaneous remission." For my part, I believe that the miracle uses the ways of nature, but by means that are not yet known to medicine.
[Statement of Dr. Patrick Theillier in : Xavier Ternisien, Le dernier miraculé de Lourdes, "Le Monde", 21 December 2002]
The disparity of views among doctors can be very deep and the opinion of one or more of them cannot be automatically regarded as the opinion of the scientific community as a whole.
For example, in 2013, during the process of canonization of John Paul II, the Vatican Consulta Medica recognised as inexplicable the healing of a woman from Costa Rica, Floribeth Mora Diaz, who had been diagnosed with an aneurysm of the right cerebral artery and hemorrhage at the Calderón Guardia Hospital in San José.
Other doctors, however, argued that the healing could be attribute to a spontaneous thrombosis of the aneurysm (i.e., the formation of a blood clot within the dilated artery).
Le quotidien du médecin of 24 July 2013 reads:
According to the postulator of the cause, Msgr. Slawomir Oder, "the Cartesian rigour" by which clinical data were examined and the ecclesiastical investigation conducted by the local bishop made it possible to conclude that it was a miracle. In France, Catholic doctors are more cautious. [...] Prof. Louis Puybasset, head of the neurointensive surgical service at the Pitié-Salpetriere hospital (Paris) [...] contests the finding of Dr. Alejandro Roman Vargas, neurosurgeon at the Calderon hospital, according to whom the traces of the aneurysm had disappeared "without any scientific explanation": "Cases of spontaneous thrombosis of intracranial aneurysms are documented", says Prof. Puybasset, who warns against "drifting towards magical thinking“.
[Questions sur une deuxième « guérison inexpliquée » attribuée à Jean-Paul II, by Christian Delahaye, "Lequotidiendumedecin.fr", 24/07/2013]
Speaking of Sister Marie Simon-Pierre’s recovery from Parkinson's disease (that can be subject to misdiagnosis) - recognised as inexplicable by the Consulta Medica in 2010 (during the John Paul II's beatification process) - Dr. Polisca expressed himself as follows:
We consulted the best Parkinson's experts in the field, and they gave their best judgement. But it can never be an absolute judgement, because medicine is always evolving.
[Thavis, The Vatican Prophecies, p. 191]
Over 90% of Lourdes miracles recognized by the Church occurred by the 1960s: apparently, the level of scientific knowledge has a strong influence on the proclamations of miracles.
Dr. André Trifaud, former professor at the Faculty of Medicine in Marseilles and, like Prof. Kenesi, member of the Lourdes International Medical Committee, goes into this aspect:
Regarding the medical sciences, until the first half of the twentieth century we could base ourselves on certainties inaccessible to doubt and overlook the possibility that the puzzle posed by a recovery was interpreted as a lack of scientific knowledge.
It has been necessary to definitely turn a page: the one that wanted to bind the recognition of a miraculous cure to a conclusive scientific certainty. [...]
Nowadays there are no more doubts about the fact that many spontaneous healings from cancer have a natural origin. [...]
As a child I was taught that the miracle can not be "coercive".
[André Trifaud, Les énigmes scientifiques des guérisons miraculeuses, in Guérisons et miracles. Rapports du Congrès International de Lourdes, 22, 23 et 24 octobre 1993, Centre Catholique des Médecins Français e Association Médicale Internationale de Lourdes, Alençon 1994, pp. 65-68]
Also Prof. Charles Chassagnon of the Lourdes International Medical Committee, wrote of "great difficulties in saying that a cure is inexplicable from the medical point of view, given the existing studies on spontaneous recovery from cancer and other malignant processes, the influence of psychological factors, even in diseases markedly organic, and the limits of current scientific knowledge "[F. Alonso Fernandez, Estigmas, levitaciones y extasis, Ediciones Temas de Hoy, Madrid 1993, p. 11. The reference is to Ch. Chassagnon, "Les miracles de Lourdes", Psychologie Médicale, 1988, 20, 5, pp. 653-656].
It is needless to add comments on sidereal distance that separates this objective, fair and scientifically founded vision of the matter from sensationalism on which television, popular press and propagandists play.
§ 2. The point of view of psychoneuroendocrineimmunology
The immune system’s dynamics and psychosomatic reactions are still not fully understood. However, it is proven that the emotional state affects the immune system.
Therefore, a highly accepted scientific hypothesis in the field of psychoneuroendocrineimmunology (PNEI) is that in some (however rare) cases, a highly emotional religious experience can determine a so-called "charismatic shock", with positive effects on the immune system, resulting in a facilitation of the healing process.
In 1996 Roger Pilon, M.D., at that time director of Lourdes’ Medical Bureau, wrote:
Psychosomatics is far from having revealed all of its complexity. Currently, it provides attractive explanations for certain surprising healings.
[Roger Pilon, Le miracle, un don de Dieu, ("The Miracle, a Gift From God"), Lourdes Magazine, 53, 1996, p. 11]
The somatization of psychological problems deserves a separate mention.
According to the DSM-5 (the reference manual for psychiatrists from around the world) the so-called "conversion disorder" can cause paralysis and blindness of psychological origin.
§ 3. The Others' Miracles
In ancient Greece there were several temples of the god Asclepius, where the sick confidently used to go and where, as far as we know, sometimes they were healed in a seemingly miraculous way. But, to come to the present day, Muslims ascribe several miraculous healings to the waters of the Zamzam well in La Mecca. In Mashad, Iran, the archives of the mosque dedicated to Imam Reza (eighth direct descendant of Ali, cousin of Mohammad) contain records of alleged miraculous healing that span one hundred years, and are accompanied by certified medical documentation. Another mosque that contains documented records of healings is that of Jamkaran, in Qum, also in Iran.
For instance, the female writer Leila Lahlou lived in Casablanca, Morocco, with her husband Abdelmalek Lahlou and two sons, Nadia and Karim. She was diagnosed with breast cancer that had metastatized to her lungs. The severe diagnosis was confirmed in Brussels, Belgium, by oncologists Drs. Tagnon and Vokaer (Brugmann University Hospital) and in Paris, Avicenne Hospital, by Dr. Israël [Cf. F. Malti-Douglas, Medicines of the Soul, University of California Press, 2001, pp. 84-85, 206 n. 27 and 39].
She decided along with her husband to make the humra, ie the so-called "small pilgrimage" to Mecca.
On the small pilgrimage, Leila follows for four days an ascetic regimen in which her daily intake consists of nothing but some bread, an egg, and holy water from Zamzam.
[Fedwa Malti-Douglas, Medicines of the Soul, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles 2001, p. 97]
On the fifth day, she discovered that the lumps in her body had disappeared. Leila came back to the European physicians:
The examinations were all negative, a fact that leaves the physicians confused and surprised.
[Ibid., p. 82]
In the following months, however, the disease recurred severely. One night Leila dreamed of Muhammad healing her. She woke up and was feeling well again. She was healed (actually, it can be supposed that the cause-effect relationship should be reversed: since she begins to feel good, Leila dreams of Muhammad who heals her).
Leila presented the account of the facts and the medical records in a book published in two versions: Arabic and French (Falâ Tansa Allâh, Matba'at al-Najâh al-Jadîda, Casablanca 1984; N'oublie pas Dieu, Imprimerie Najah El Jadida, Casablanca 1987).
Leila Lahlou would die of intestinal cancer in 1991, almost a decade after the above accounted facts [Cf. Malti-Douglas, Medicines of the Soul, p. 118].
§ 4. About Spontaneous Remissions...
Sometimes, even the risk of fraudulent behavior cannot be totally excluded (the patient might have had a spontaneous remission before the pilgrimage but he or she claims that has recovered during the pilgrimage, to be seen as a miraculously-healed person).
In any case, we must not forget that spontaneous (and inexplicable on the basis of current medical knowledge) remissions are well know in certain diseases, even serious.
For example, In the case of multiple sclerosis, spontaneous remission is quite common: about 20 per cent of the patients suffer from its benign form, which heals completely, while another 25 per cent suffer from the form called "remitting" that recurs even after years [Cf. Jürg Kesselring, Multiple Sklerose, Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1993, p. 242 and Clive P. Hawkins, Jerry S. Wolinsky, Principles of Treatments in Multiple Sclerosis, Butterworth-Heinemann, Burlington 2000, p. 324].
Dr. Caryle Hischberg, director of the Remission Project at the Institute of Noetic Science, in her classic book Remarkable Recovery noticed:
There are no medical publications devoted to the study of extraordinary recoveries, […] there is no national database to register unexplained recoveries. We don’t know how often they occur. […]
It has been estimated that only ten percent of the remarkable recoveries is reported to specialist journals, and this is probably a conservative estimate.
[C. Hirshberg, M. I. Barasch, Guarigioni straordinarie (original title: "Remarkable Recoveries") Mondadori, Milan 1995, pp. 17-27, passim]
In their 1993 book Spontaneous Remission. An Annotated Bibliography, coauthored with Dr. Brendan O’Reagan, Dr. Hirschberg collected the available references about many spontaneous remissions, reported in 800 scientific journal around the world.
The book can be freely consulted by downloading its individual chapters as PDF files by clicking on thhis link: qui: Spontaneous Remission. An Annotated Bibliography.
Published on 6 July 2009. Last update: 30 March 2020