FASCINATING AND IMPORTANT STUFF. GS
ZENIT, The world seen from Rome
Medicine and Miracles
Book Offers Answers for Sceptics
By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, MAY 30, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Catholics are accustomed to hearing
about miracles and people being cured through the intercession of the
saints, but today's materialistic culture often looks on this with
British author John Cornwell has a book on Cardinal John Henry Newman
coming out at the end of May, and the Sunday Times recently gave him a
lengthy space to voice his doubts about the validity of the miracle
that was approved by the Vatican as the basis for Newman's
beatification this coming September.
In his May 9 piece Cornwell states that the Vatican documentation of
the miracle "enters the realms of astonishingly arcane medieval
language and mindset." Cornwell then proceeds to cast doubt on the
medical reliability of the cure, not forgetting to add in for good
measure numerous sweeping criticisms of Benedict XVI.
Cornwell is not alone in casting aspersions on the use of miraculous
cures. Last December, after Rome announced the approval of the miracle
required for the canonization of Australia's Sister Mary Mackillop, a
medical specialist in Sydney, David Goldstein, expressed his doubts. In
an article published Dec. 22 in the Australian newspaper, he said that
it is impossible to determine if improvements in patients were the
result of prayers.
The Anglican bishop of North Sydney, Glenn Davies, was also critical,
according to a Dec. 24 report in the Australian. "Who can prove that
the reported miracles were actually the work of Mary McKillop?" Bishop
Fortunately, a handy guide to dealing with these and similar objections
was published last year by Jacalyn Duffin, a physician who holds the
Hannah Chair for the history of medicine at Queen's University,
Ontario, Canada. In her book "Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints, and
Healing in the Modern World" (Oxford University Press), she examined
1,400 miracles cited in canonizations from 1588 to 1999.
Her curiosity about miracles was sparked by being asked to examine
tissue samples she subsequently found out were part of a canonization
process. On receiving as a present a copy of the "positio," the
documentation of the miracle, Duffin suddenly realized that such files
must exist for every canonized saint.
During several stays in Rome she researched hundreds of these records.
Duffin calculated that she was able to review from a third to a half of
all miracles deposited in the Vatican archives since the rules
governing canonizations were laid down in 1588.
The new regulations that were part of the Counter-Reformation reforms
required careful gathering of evidence and a scrupulous examination of
the material by medical and scientific experts. Paolo Zacchia
(1584-1659) played an important part in formulating the guidelines,
In his writings he presented an explanation of the different types of
miracles and defined that for a healing to be deemed miraculous it
should be of an incurable illness and the recovery should be complete
and instantaneous. Duffin noted that medical experts working for the
Vatican continued to cite Zacchia until well into the 20th century.
Some criticize physical healings as the basis for declaring saints, but
Duffin commented that the need for credible evidence pushed the
selection process toward healings as there could be independent
witnesses, including doctors.
Over time there were changes in some of the modalities of the
canonization process, but considering the records of the last four
centuries, Duffin declared that she was impressed by the remarkable
stability in the commitment to science.
In fact, the Church has consistently relied on a scientific scepticism
to test the validity of the miracles. In the records of the miracles
that Duffin examined she found that clerics readily deferred to the
opinion of scientists. The religious authorities withheld a judgment of
supernatural activity until they were convinced that the experts were
prepared to label the events as inexplicable.
"Religion relies on the best of human wisdom before it imposes a
judgment from inspired doctrine," Duffin stated.
One point that she added to this relationship between religion and
science was that religion tends to more comfortable with science than
In the processes some physicians were discomforted, as if their
cooperation would constitute a betrayal of their commitment to the idea
of Western medicine that rejects the proposal that diseases or cures
are of divine origin.
Duffin noted that in the 19th century, Catholics and Protestants argued
over the matter of whether an absence of an explanation for a cure does
really mean that the event is a miracle. That debate continues, she
added, as when one of her colleagues explained that while we may not
know the natural explanation, one must exist.
But, Duffin objected, such an attitude does not really address the most
crucial question when it comes to medical miracles. The positivist
attitude that refuses to accept miracles takes the position that if
something is wondrous we must reject it as an illusion or lying,
because there is only the natural world. Such confidence in a natural
explanation is, in fact, a belief masquerading as fact, Duffin argued.
In other words, to assert that a miracle simply cannot occur is no more
rational and no less than an act of faith than is the assertion that
miracles can happen.
The difference between the religious and positivist approaches lies in
the interpretation of the evidence, Duffin commented. The medical canon
is immersed in an antideistic tradition, while for religion all
plausible scientific explanations must be eliminated, after which they
are prepared to declare a miracle.
In both approaches what is left is that which is unknown, but the
religious observers are prepared to accept divine agency.
While some may refuse to admit the possibility of divine intervention,
the Catholic Church is certainly careful to utilize all of medicine's
resources so as to eliminate any natural explanations of cures. In one
of the book's chapters Duffin examined the use of medical knowledge in
the canonization process.
For a start, the Vatican does not recognize healing miracles in people
who have refused orthodox medicine to rely solely on faith. The
intervention of doctors provides objective medical evidence that avoids
any possible manipulation of the case in question.
In her studies of the files, Duffin found that the predominance of
testimony by doctors increases through time. The files she reviewed
showed that in the 17th century an average of one doctor was named in
each record, but only a small proportion of them gave evidence in
person. After 1700, however, at least a third or more of the physicians
mentioned in a record provided testimony in person.
In the second half of the 17th century, the evidence of the physicians
treating the patient was supplemented by independent medical observers.
Eventually the number of expert doctors consulted increased until it
matched or even surpassed the attending physicians.
Duffin also pointed out that the Church does not rely exclusively on
Catholic doctors. The inquiries examined the faith of all witnesses,
doctors included. As prior to the 20th century, most of the miracles
came from European countries where the majority of the doctors were
Catholic. Many, nevertheless, admitted they did not regularly practice
their faith, and a couple had even been excommunicated. None, however,
were disqualified from being witnesses.
In more recent times doctors who were of other faiths, or who openly
profess to be of no religion, have testified.
In the end a miracle is only declared when the doctors are prepared to
admit their own ignorance as to how a person recovered when the best
scientific medicine failed. An admission that the contemporary
mentality of pride in modern knowledge and science finds hard to make.