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QUESTIONING THE CURES OF LOURDES
The shrine of Lourdes in France. Following legendary appearances of Jesus' mother to Bernadette there in 1858, reports of remarkable healings started to appear. A small minority of them were sanctioned as true miracles by the Catholic Church. Bernadette herself did not believe the reports probably because the apparition never promised cures.
Source: The Third Day by Arnold Lunn
The alleged miracles of Lourdes have a special claim to scientific consideration for two reasons. First, because the cures are examined by a specially constituted committee of doctors. Christian Scientists are notoriously unfriendly to medical scrutiny, but doctors, irrespective of religion or nationality, are invited to serve on the medical Bureau des Constatations which was established in 1882 to test the alleged miraculous cures at Lourdes. In peace-time a yearly average of about 500 doctors visit Lourdes and as many as sixty doctors have been present at the examination of an alleged miracle. The record office of the Bureau keeps the case-sheet of those whose cures it has studied, and the certificates brought by the patients from their own doctors are deposited with the reports of the examining doctors at Lourdes. The permanence of the cure is only conceded if the subsequent history of the cure has been recorded for a period of years.
In the second place the evidence for supernormal cures at Lourdes is of quite a different character to the evidence for alleged "Faith cures", such as those claimed by the Christian Scientists. The British Medical Association appointed in 1909 a committee of doctors and clergymen to examine the claims of Christian Science, and this committee reported in 1914 that there was no evidence for the cure of organic diseases. The Christian Scientists who replied that an unbiased tribute to the effectiveness of cures wrought without medical assistance could hardly be expected from a committee of doctors, should refer to the findings of the committee of doctors at Lourdes, and to the classic work "Preuves Medicales du Miracle" by Dr. Le Bec, the senior surgeon of a Paris hospital who was president for many years of the Bureau des Constatations. The Rev. F. Woodlock's pamphlet, "The Miracles at Lourdes," from which the following cases are taken is a useful summary of the more important cases mentioned by Dr. Le Bec.
Among the more remarkable cures cited by Dr. Le Bec the following may be cited.
Before she left for Lourdes Joachine was given a certificate that she was suffering from a dislocated right hip-joint, contraction of the tibial muscles so as to produce the effect of a club-foot, and an ulcer covering two-thirds of the external surface of the right calf. Suppuration was free and the pus extremely foul. The bone was necrosed.
Joachine's ulcer was perfectly cured at the second bath; the foot, the hip-joint, and the knee cured on the following day. She weighed four stone three pound on arriving at Lourdes; a few years later she weighed eleven stone ten pound.
Suffering from consumption in the final stage, evening temperatures 102 and 105. Daily blood spitting, and many lung cavities. The girl's condition was elaborately described by Zola who traveled to Lourdes with her. She is "La Grivotte" of his novel. Zola saw her restored to health after her first bath. Her restoration to health was attested by the declaration of thirty doctors. I have already described Zola's reaction to the miraculous cure of Marie Lemarchand, and quoted his characteristic reaction: "were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle". In his novel Zola falsifies the facts about Mlle. Lebranchu, for, though he knew that there had been no relapse, his "La Grivotte" has a relapse and dies.
There are over three hundred cases of the cure of consumption in the records of the office. There are many instances of the cure of blindness, full details of which are given in Le Bec's book.
A remarkable case reported in the Faith Healing number of the British Medical Journal in 1910 is the case of Marie Borel.
Marie Borel arrived at Lourdes after having been confined to bed for thirty months with ankylosed vertebral column, purulent cystitis of the bladder, and six pyostercoral fistulae. For five months the entire waste product of her body passed through these fistulae. In the course of a day at Lourdes these six fistulae closed up spontaneously with no treatment beyond the application, with prayer, of a little spring water. The purulent cystitis of the bladder was cured at the same time.
Peter de Rudder.
De Rudder was a Belgian farm laborer whose left leg was shattered in 1867 by the fall of a tree. Seven years passed and the bones had not united. De Rudder's doctors advised amputation but De Rudder determined to ask our Lady of Lourdes, venerated at the shrine of Oostacker, near Ghent, to cure his leg. His doctor, Van Hoestenberghe, who returned to the Faith as a result of the miracle, had given up the case. He testified to De Rudder's condition before the cure in the following words.
"I declare on my conscience and on my soul:
"1. I have examined De Rudder a dozen times and my last visit was two or three months before the cure.
"2. Each time I was able to make the ends of the bones come out of the wound: they were deprived of their periosteum, there was necrosis, the suppuration was fetid and abundant and has passed along the tendons....
"3. At each examination I introduced two fingers to the bottom of the wound, and always felt a separation of 4 to 5 centimeters between the broken parts, and this right across their breadth. I was able to turn them about easily.
"4. A large sequestrum had come away at the beginning and little bits of bone often came away during these years."
This testimony was confirmed by witnesses who saw De Rudder a few days before the cure, and on the way to Oostacker. The driver of the train on which he traveled to Oostacker observed the broken leg swinging to and fro and remarked "there goes a man who is going to lose his leg". De Rudder entered the Grotto and began to pray. Suddenly he felt a strange sensation. He rose, forgetting his crutches, without which he had not taken a single step for eight years, knelt before the statue of Our Lady, and, rising unaided, walked three times round the Grotto. He was cured. He was immediately taken to a neighboring chateau. The restored limb was examined; the two wounds had healed up, leaving two scars. The broken bones had suddenly been united. There was no shortening of the leg, in spite of the fact that De Rudder had lost substantial pieces of bone. The cure was attested by the entire village. The case was examined and re-examined by various doctors, and the bones, when exhumed, after De Rudder's death, fully support the above history of the case.
Haldane, after reading the Catholic Truth Society pamphlet, "A Modern Miracle," wrote: "I think the odds are that the bones were united, and the septic wounds healed, in a few hours, the most probable alternative being a pious fraud enacted by a large number of people. The only remarkable element in the cure is its speed."
This is much as if someone were to remark "the only remarkable fact about the Resurrection was that Christ rose from the dead." Medical science can no more explain the instantaneous mending of a fracture which had defied the doctors for years than the resurrection of a man who has died.
I am only concerned for the moment to establish the fact that cures, inexplicable by medical science, have taken place at Lourdes. Cures take place at Lourdes which cannot be explained as the results of "suggestion". Small children and babies, incapable of profiting by "mental" treatment, have been cured at Lourdes of organic diseases, as for example the cure of a double club-foot in a two-year-old child, the miracle occurring as the father, Dr. Aumaitre, held the child's feet in the water. Men have been cured when unconscious, or asleep.
The Lourdes water has been analyzed and is ordinary spring-water with no radio-activity. Many cures occur without its intervention.
Let me conclude with a quotation from a remarkable book, "Man the Unknown," which created a sensation in the U.S.A., for Alexis Carrel is one of the most distinguished of modern scientists, a Nobel prize-winner, and one of the more eminent members of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. There are many passages in his book which no convinced Catholic could write, but Carrel is descended from French Catholic stock and he approaches these problems without the provincial limitations of those scientists who are all influenced by the materialistic fashion of the nineteenth century.
"The author knows", writes Carrel, "that miracles are as far from scientific orthodoxy as mysticity.... But science has to explore the entire field of reality.... He (Carrel) began this study in 1902, at a time when documents were scarce, when it was difficult for a young doctor, and dangerous for his future career, to become interested in such a subject.
"In all countries, at all times, people have believed in the existence of miracles.... But after the great impetus of science during the nineteenth century, such belief completely disappeared. It was generally admitted, not only that miracles did not exist, but that they could not exist. As the laws of thermodynamics make perpetual motion impossible, physiological laws oppose miracles. Such is still the attitude of most physiologists and physicians. However, in view of the facts observed during the last fifty years this attitude cannot be sustained. The most important cases of miraculous healing have been recorded by the Medical Bureau of Lourdes. Our present conception of the influence of prayer upon pathological lesions is based on the observation of patients who have been cured almost instantaneously of various affections, such as peritoneal tuberculosis, cold abscesses, osteitis, suppurating wounds, lungs, cancer, etc. The process of healing changes little from one individual to another. Often, an acute pain. Then a sudden sensation of being cured. In a few seconds, a few minutes, at the most a few hours, wounds are cicatrized, pathological symptoms disappear, appetite returns.... The only condition indispensable to the occurrence of the phenomenon is prayer. But there is no need for the patient himself to pray, or even to have any religious faith. It is sufficient that someone around him be in a state of prayer. Such facts are of profound significance. They show the reality of certain relations, of still unknown nature, between psychological and organic processes. They prove the objective importance of the spiritual activities, which hygienists, physicians, educators, and sociologists have almost always neglected to study. They open to man a new world" (italics mine).
"Science", writes Carrel, "has to explore the entire field of reality." "There are few among our ecclesiastics and theologians", writes Dr. Inge, "who would spend five minutes in investigating any alleged supernatural occurrence in our own time. It would be assumed that, if true, it must be ascribed to some obscure natural cause.... There is still enough superstition left to win a certain vogue for miraculous cures at Lourdes."
It is interesting to contrast the verdict of the scientists with the verdict of the theologians. Haldane, as we have seen, believes that some of the Lourdes miracles are "possibly true and worth investigating". Alexis Carrel began to investigate them in 1902, and came to the conclusion that many of the Lourdes miracles were genuine. Dr. Inge, who professes great reverence for the scientific method, approves the refusal to "waste five minutes in investigating" an alleged miracle.
COMMENT: This shows that religion and science are irreconcilable. Science is used as a ladder to a destination. The destination is, "This cannot be explained." Then the ladder is thrown away. It is only window-dressing.
It is wrong to use science to examine somebody's condition and recovery to get it to say that its wisdom is no good in the face of this stunning recuperation. Then a miracle is hauled in. It is manipulative.
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