Lourdes Medical Bureau Rebels

December 25, 2008

An international panel of physicians—appointed by the Catholic Church to identify “miracles” at Lourdes, the French “healing” shrine—has announced it will end the practice.

In 1858, at Lourdes in the French Pyrenees, fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous (1844—1879) claimed to see apparitions of the Virgin Mary, who directed her to the spring in the rear of a grotto. Soon, rumors of miraculous healings there spread. In 1933 the late visionary was canonized as St. Bernadette, although she herself had failed to be aided by the spring’s alleged powers. Sickly as a child, she was bedridden for the last years of her life and died at just thirty-five years of age.

The medical bureau of Lourdes was founded in 1884 and has since recognized sixty-seven “miracle” cures at the site—a pathetically small number given that millions make pilgrimages there each year.

  Miracle , it must be said, is neither a scientific term nor concept. Since the Lourdes claims are derived from those cases said to be “medically inexplicable,” claimants are engaging in a logical fallacy called “arguing from ignorance”—that is, drawing a conclusion based on a lack of knowledge.

Indeed, some of the bureau’s certifications have been branded as vague and unscientific. Moreover, many cases have alternate explanations. For instance, some illnesses such as multiple sclerosis are known to exhibit spontaneous remission. Other reputed cures may be attributable to such factors as misdiagnosis, prior medical treatment, psychosomatic conditions, the body’s own healing mechanisms, and so on.

Also, some types of healings never occur at Lourdes, as indicated by the comment of French writer Anatole France. On a visit to the shrine, seeing the discarded canes and crutches, he exclaimed, “What, what, no wooden legs???” (See Joe Nickell,   Looking for a Miracle , 1998.)

Now, Dr. Patrick Theiller, the secretary of the International Medical Committee of Lourdes, has announced that the panel will no longer be in the “miracle” business. “It’s a sort of rebellion, if you will, against laws that don’t concern us—and shouldn’t,” Theiller told the Associated Press’ Jamey Keaten (for an article published December 3, 2008). He added, “The medical corps must be independent of the ecclesiastic power.” The bishop of the local diocese did acknowledge: “It seems ‘miracle’ may not be the right word to use anymore. It’s no longer a black-and-white question.”

Now, appropriately, the church will be left to decide on so-called miracles; the panel will only indicate whether cases are “remarkable.” And remarkable healings can happen to anyone, independent of religious shrines and supposedly magical water. The $400 million that enrich Lourdes annually could be better spent on medical science than on superstitious beliefs from an earlier time.