Friday, January 14, 2011

Faith Healing and Miracle Cures
The NYT reported that the late Pope John Paul II is going to be beatified this spring.Vatican investigators (doctors, theologians, canon lawyers, scientists) have determined that JP2 interceded two months after his death to miraculously cure a nun of Parkinson's disease.

Here's the best part:

The nun has said she felt reborn when she woke up two months after John Paul died, cured of the disease that had made walking, writing and driving a car nearly impossible. She and her fellow sisters of the Congregation of Little Sisters of Catholic Maternity Wards had prayed to John Paul, who also suffered from Parkinson's.

Aside from the fact that this is a great mainstream demonstration that faith healing remains a thriving therapeutic system--something that I have to remind my students of every year--this is a fantastic example of the elasticity of the concept of miracle cure. Whenever I teach courses on medieval medicine and healing, my students often initially expect that a miracle cure will be immediate, total, and irreversible. They are astonished (and skeptical) when they learn that patients and supplicants had elastic ideas about miracle cures. While there are plenty of examples of dramatic, overnight cures at shrines (often characterized by copious amounts of blood, pus, or other bodily fluids, or loud noises), it's not uncommon for people to report miraculous cures that happened months after a visit to a shrine or prayers. Sometimes they were what we might consider partial (for example, decreased frequency or intensity of headaches) or short-term.

From the article, it seems as though Sister Marie Simon-Pierre and her fellow sisters prayed to JP2 for a cure for some time. The procedures for verifying and ratifying miracles are stricter and more centralized than in medieval Europe, but the fact that Sister Marie Simon-Pierre was cured two months after the former pope's death demonstrates that patients still have more expansive ideas about what constitutes a cure (and when) than we might expect.


Brian said...

Great topic, raises so many questions. The idea of contemporary, bona fide doctors working with Vatican people to verify these miracle cures is pretty amazing. Or is it? I guess if the definition of miraculous is "not explainable by science," then statistically a certain number of miracle cures must happen all the time. The cause of the cure--what ostensibly matters most--actually matters least, since it can't be verified. Right?

E. R. Truitt said...

I met an astrophysicist a few years ago who, as a Jesuit, was stationed at the Vatican observatory in Rome. That was pretty confusing for me.

I think that the definition of a miracle depends on who's talking about it. For people who do not believe in the active intervention of the divine (or who don't believe in the divine) in daily events, then a miraculous recovery is one that is not explained by science. For others, it's a direct result of the intervention of the divine (though saints). For one group, the cause doesn't matter, just the outcome; for the other, the cause is what makes something a miracle. But the Vatican has scads of experts to determine if miraculous recoveries are actually due to holy intervention rather than, say, an initial misdiagnosis.

Canonization proceedings are great historical resources--all kinds of weird facts and expert testimony and eyewitness narratives. I haven't worked with them that much, though. I tend to prefer the somewhat overheated prose of hagiographies or miracle books.

Brian said...

"I tend to prefer the somewhat overheated prose of hagiographies or miracle books."

Great first line of a short story!

E. R. Truitt said...

Brian, take it. It's yours. What's the story about, I wonder?

Anonymous said...

And just this weekend, my brother-in-law was opining on the many films made of miracle counters/verifiers (with or without the dubious involvement of Anthony Hopkins)...
I wonder, do those cured reach beyond the official, Vatican-sponsored experts and sometimes offer themselves up as subjects for traditional medical study? Might they consider that something they could do for the greater good -- for instance, a Parkinson's sufferer volunteering him- or herself for study if the symptoms dramatically ease up? If there's something physiological and measurable going on, that could be used to help other patients. Or do they tend to hoard their experience, keeping it in the confines of the Church? If Sister Simon-Pierre has actually significantly improved, I can't help but wish that she would volunteer as a case study.

E. R. Truitt said...

Jen, that's a great question, and one I have no idea about. I will investigate through other channels. But that said, my guess is that most people who attribute their cure to divine intervention would simply tell others to do the same: pray.

I know there's been a lot of research on the brains of Buddhist monks while they're meditating, so there's scientific evidence about the interplay of religious practice and physical change.

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