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.



#1 Bill Archer (Guest) on Thursday December 25, 2008 at 11:09pm

Cause and effect are subject to interpretation. An enterprising business institution would be smart to capitalize on the money making possibilities that such a relationship provides. Exploiting the hopeful and fearful by controlling the interpretation of an event makes the faithfully superstitious a fertile garden to plow. Controlling the interpretation is a marketing strategy.

#2 Marilyn Whetzel (Guest) on Friday December 26, 2008 at 11:07am

Don’t lesser-than-ethical medical profession members utilize this form of marketing?

#3 Bill Archer (Guest) on Friday December 26, 2008 at 8:02pm

I agree! I intended the generic reference when I stated “enterprising business institution”. To be more specific would be to include “lesser than ethical medical members”, lesser than ethical members of any number of religious institutions, lesser than ethical political figures and a myriad of lesser than ethical members of other enterprises.

To be most specific I would certainly reference those who use religion as a means of making more profits for their religious affiliation by offering to increase the probability, at least in the minds of believers, that their spending will get them to that reward of eternal life, in heaven, after death.

The important issue here is the soft and persuasive coercion of religious ideology that capitalizes on the fears of those afflicted with real or imagined “diseases”.  The use of religious sophistry to cause a case of arrested development in an awareness of what actually “is” remains the real travesty.

#4 Peter (Guest) on Friday December 26, 2008 at 8:29pm

This makes perfect sense since Jesus and his dad have now switched over strictly to annual in-the-tortilla appearances. There haven’t been any claims of miraculous cures in at least half a century.

Face it, curing a tot dying of leukemia generates no where near the publicity that an appearance in a pancake at IHOP does.

#5 Vincent (Guest) on Sunday December 28, 2008 at 7:12am

Thank you! Very interesting post

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