This article appears in the May 2006 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly
Lourdes Medical Association
Dr. Patrick Theiller
Thank you very much for inviting my wife and me to this 32nd Annual Conference of the Lourdes Medical Association. We are delighted to be with you. It is my first time in Great Britain since I took up my post in the Medical Bureau. It has taken me a long time to make my journey here to be with you who are so numerous in coming to help the sick pilgrims in Lourdes. It is a great joy for me to be with you for this meeting in such a wonderful setting. ,
In the time I have, while allowing you the chance to ask questions, I would like to reflect with you on the credibility of miraculous cures, for a medical doctor, thus a scientist, who professes to be a believer, that is, recognising the existence of a God who is Creator and Master of everything.
Admittedly, the modern person, who is a believer and filled with technical rationality, believes, in spite of the miracles, rather than because of them, having the tendency to relegate them to the order of myths! Moreover, who today is in a position to verify it?
For the non-believer expert, a miracle - in the true sense of the word - is truly a non-sense. Pere H. Bouillard wrote: "Not only is science unable to confirm a miracle, it cannot even imagine the notion. In effect, it can only perceive it and define it as an accident, an anomaly, something that cannot be reduced to a system constructed by itself."
For science, in effect, a miracle is a non-sense. Science cannot even perceive the idea of a miracle; it would appear to be both impossible and contradictory.
The notion of a miracle.
First of all we must understand what a miracle is.
In the Bible, miracles are signs of God toward humanity, of a God who is both transcendent (the Other) and imminent (the loving Father) maintaining (holding in his hand) his creation at every moment, without discord, with the final purpose of divinising humanity in the fullness of creation.
A miracle is a religious term that can be considered on condition of admitting that there is not only a beginning to the world (explained by science, which has described the how), but as well an origin of divine character (which reveals the why); and that this creation has continued, enveloping the whole evolution of the world and living species. We see it; the scientific argument is that of casuistry, while that of faith is more about finality.
There are many different kinds of miracles in the Bible. Jesus cures all types of illness and diseases; he even brought the dead back to life. All the miracles were to prepare them spiritually for the one miracle that counts - his death and resurrection from the dead which form the basis of the Church.
This is why the Roman Catholic church keeps miracles as part of her doctrine.
The Miraculous Cures
The miracles that interest us, as doctors, are the miraculous cures.
To understand better my reasoning it is necessary to define precisely what is a miraculous cure.
We must, first of all, emphasise that they are not marvels or exceptions to the laws of nature that risk making a miracle into a scientific challenge, instead of being a recognition of divine intervention.
So, what is a miraculous cure?
Miraculous cures form part of "unexplained cures" today, generally described as "spontaneous remissions" and thus to be differentiated.
An unexplained cure is the unexpected passage from a pathological state to a healthy state. It is a fact, a fact that is recordable and that can be analysed, especially by medical science, accepting that medicine is not an exact science because it is propounded by individuals who all have their own points of view. As well, these phenomena of spontaneous remissions have the tendency to be put to one side insofar as they are exceptions to the laws or nature, of no interest, simply being part of the Gaussian curve, "in-significant" in the true meaning of the word.
It is the contrary for miraculous cures. Certainly, they are "spontaneous remissions", unexplained cures, by all the studies that can be carried out, which is the first indispensable requirement; but there is also another closely linked condition, the issue of the context: it leads the beneficiary and those who witness it to seek or recognise a spiritual significance to the event.
Two sides must be taken into consideration to certify a cure at Lourdes:
- The abnormal fact: the phenomenon of the cure itself, which is characterised in that it was unexpected according to normal medical expectations that should form part of the full medical enquiry.
- The sign, which invites us to believe in the special intervention of God through the intermediary of Our Lady of Lourdes (for cures in Lourdes), recognised by the Church on the word of the person who was cured.
With an unexpected cure it is essential to keep in mind these two approaches: the abnormal fact and the sign. We must distinguish but not separate them. This leads to an enquiry with a two angled approach, one which is specifically medical by the medical profession and the other which is pastoral: to recognise the faith and prayer context that gives meaning to the cure.
The miracle of a cure is the intelligent use of naturally created physical remedies culminating in what we call a cure.
Cures are not against the laws or the determination of nature, in no way an attack on natural laws. On the contrary, they consist in re-establishing normal physiological laws. They are super- or supra-natural according to theologians.
Ultimately, we can say that the only miraculous cure is for that which is potentially physiologically curable, by an unknown mechanism, immediate, complete and surpassing our understanding, but so that the beneficiary must always feel it and testify to it.
From this, I would like to conclude by giving you a definition of a miracle attributed to the French philosopher, Claude Tresmontant:
"A miracle is an action or operation of the Creator to prove that he is obviously free to do what he wishes, except for what is absurd or contradictory, in his creation: the creator cannot make a square circle. But he can continue his creative work. He, who invented, composed and created the retina several hundred millions years ago, can, if it pleases him, regenerate or recreate a damaged retina. Who could stop him?"
Dr. Patrick Theiller is the Director of the Medical Bureau of The Lourdes Hospitalité