The miracles of Lourdes
THE CATHOLIC SANCTUARY IN THE CONTEXT OF SCIENTIFIC LITERATURE: THE MIRACLES OF LOURDES
In the night from 28 February to 1 March 1858, Bernadette Soubirous was with a good number of people at a grotto in Lourdes, near Tarbes, France, when she reported that for the twelfth time the Virgin Mary was appearing. Among those present was Catherine Latapie, a 38-year-old woman, who two years before had fallen from a tree and had hurt her arm, that became paralyzed.
When the Marian phenomenon finished, Catherine Latapie, with great difficulty, climbed the grotto up to a spring discovered by Bernadette three days earlier. She put her hand into the water, and miraculously, she completely recovered the mobility of her right arm, paralyzed until then. Since then Lourdes has grown in popularity to become one of the most visited Catholic pilgrimage destinations in the world.
Alexis Carrel, medical director of the Rockefeller Institute and winner of the The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1912, confessed that he visited the site in 1903. He had the opportunity to be near a woman who had a very painful abdominal tumor; the famous physician wrote that he could experience how, in less than a day, the patient recovered.
From 1858 until today, the Catholic Church has recognized a total of 69 miraculous cures at Lourdes, most recently in 2013.
On 6 December 2007 Pope Benedict XVI authorized special indulgences to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Apparition of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes. Thus, Catholics who visited the place between 8 December 2007 and 8 December 2008 received an indulgence, that the Church teaches can reduce time in the Purgatory. The decree was signed by Cardinal Francis Stafford, who heads the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court dealing with indulgences and matters of conscience.
DEFINITION OF MIRACLE
The modern definition of Catholic miracle dates from 1747, when another Pope Benedict, the number XIV, established the following criteria for a healing be considered miraculous:
1) The disease must be serious, incurable, or at least very difficult to cure.
2) The disease must not be preceded by any improvement.
3) No remedy have been used, or remedies employed have been useless.
4) The healing must be sudden or almost instantaneous.
5) The healing must be perfect, complete, absolute.
6) The disease must end and should not return. For this reason, no case is ever admitted as cured except after a period of one year or more.
7) The healing must occur in conjunction with a religious act, whether from the sick person (prayer, pilgrimage, etc.) or from someone else (blessing, prayer, etc.).
By order of Pope Pius X, since 1905 exists in the Sanctuary of Lourdes a Medical Bureau headed by a senior physician. This doctor receives claims of miracle cures by each person such blessed and begins the case study process.
If the case looks real, this chief doctor arranges a meeting with all the doctors present in the sanctuary that day, whether or not Catholics.
If the chief doctor and the other doctors so gathered find the case favorable, the documentation is sent to the International Committee of Lourdes. This committee is comprised of about 20 members, each respected in their own field. It exists since 1947 and from 1954 on it acquired an international dimension. The chair is occupied jointly by the Bishop appointed to Tarbes and Lourdes and one of the members, designated by the bishop.
The Committee then appoints a member that will be responsible for a detailed examination of the case, and of reviewing all published literature on the subject. This specialist may consult with colleagues from outside the Committee. Normally the healed person is not involved in this phase.
The International Committee of Lourdes meets once a year, in the European autumn (September to December). They examine the documentation and when everything is in order (which can take a long time) the committee decides, by casting votes, whether it declares or refuses to confirm that, this healing in particular, is inexplicable according to current scientific knowledge. A two-thirds majority is required for the case to win.
The result of the vote is sent to the bishop of the diocese where the healed person resides. The local bishop can then organize his own medical committee to study the conclusion submitted by the International Committee of Lourdes.
It is the local bishop who finally decides whether the healing is eligible to be called a "miracle", as the word is understood in the Catholic religion.
EFFECTIVENESS OF LOURDES
First of all, the 69 miracles attributed to Lourdes are actually 68, because unfortunately in 1970 a patient with Budd-Chiari syndrome died of this rare liver disease after the Church had declared her cured in 1963.
It is interesting to compare this number with other numbers. Already by its 50 years anniversary in 1908, the Shrine was receiving more than one million people per year. At an age of a little more than a century, in 1974, it was estimated that among the pilgrims there were arriving about 50 000 patients per year. Ten years later this number increased to 65 000, and the Medical Office estimated that, by then, had passed through the Sanctuary about two million patients since its inauguration. The number of miracles reached 64. Since then there were 4 more miracles and the patients keep coming.
Currently, in the scientific literature, the largest database of unexplained healings (not only in Lourdes but anywhere in the world and in all circumstances) is a report by Brendan O'Regan and Caryle Hirshberg titled "Spontaneous remission: the spectrum of self-repair", published by the "Institute of Noetic Sciences" in 1993. By reviewing more than 3500 references in more than 800 publications in 20 languages (a work which took them about 10 years), they found 1574 cases reported in the medical literature since 1918. This is 20 times the number of cases arising from Lourdes. In fact, among the 1574 cases cited in the report, for 1508 there is no Catholic miracle associated.
Several authors speculate that the phenomenon of improvement, or even spontaneous cure of many diseases considered serious and incurable, could be due to some yet undiscovered mechanism of the human organism, possibly related to the immune system, which in certain cases and under certain conditions would be much more active and effective than in others. However, the phenomenon is rare.
There are no data on the incidence of these natural spontaneous cures in the general population, but authors like Steven Novella and other give figures (not confirmed) that for cancer it would be 1 case per 100 000 patients.
The files at Lourdes also contain cases of cancer cures: it happened 3 (three) times in the last 150 years. This figure is so low that many have begun to wonder if the probability of dying in a crash en route to the Sanctuary is not greater than the probability of being saved when there. The final meditation is up to each reader.
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Originally published in ABC Color, on 31 August 2008. Photograph: The underground Basilica of St. Pius X, Lourdes, France, 20 August 2004. Photo credit: Fabio Alessandro Locati (original license, of the photo only, obtained at: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en). With permission from Fabio Alessandro Locati.