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.

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