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“Reverse Skepticism” In The Canonization Process

September 29, 2016 Frontpage No Comments

By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK

I was reading a description of the miracles that were investigated as part of the canonization process for Mother Teresa. The findings were persuasive. One miracle involved the disappearance of an incurable cancer in an Indian woman, the other the recovery of a Brazilian man with a brain infection. In both instances, prayers to Mother Teresa had been offered when the medical authorities had concluded no cure was possible.
Reading these accounts led me to turn over in my mind why these unexplainable cures do not lead nonbelievers to open themselves to the reality of the miraculous, the supernatural, and the power of God in our lives. It is not, from what I can tell, that nonbelievers accuse Church authorities of lying about the miracles. (There may be some of that going on in the fever swamps of anti-Catholic circles, but it is not central to this discussion.) Most of the critics accept that the canonization cures cannot be explained by natural causes. But they argue that there is no reason to conclude that we are looking at a supernatural intercession by a saint.
They point out that there are many instances when people recover from diseases and infirmities in ways that cannot be explained by doctors, when no prayers to saints are part of the scenario. They argue that there are things science does not yet understand about the body’s ability to heal itself, including psychosomatic cures, and that it makes more sense to await the day when scientific explanations are found than to attribute the cures to a saint.
I don’t harbor much hope that we can change the minds of those who think this way. I am convinced that the best we can hope for is an admission from them that the Church is honest and thorough in its investigation of miracles attributed to the intercession of a candidate for sainthood; that no hucksterism is going on; that we are not dealing in the canonization process with anything comparable to the images of the Blessed Mother that people find in streaky windowpanes or shattered tree trunks.
The Church has a good record in this matter. We can point to the Church’s repeated warnings to Catholics about the questionable stories of divine apparitions at places such as Medjugorje. The Church draws lines between these apparitions and what happened at Lourdes and Fatima, which the Church holds to be “worthy of belief.” (This does not mean that a Catholic is “bound” to believe in these Marian apparitions, only that the Church assures us there is no moral danger in doing so.)
A September 7 article in The New York Times has much to offer in this matter. It was written by Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist and historian at Queen’s University in Canada, who in 1987 participated in a cross-examination by the Vatican’s medical committee during the canonization process of Marie-Marguerite d’Youville, the founder of the Order of Sisters of Charity of Montreal and the first Canadian-born saint.
The case in question was a patient with acute myelogenous leukemia, alleged to be cured of her disease as a result of prayers to the future St. Marie-Marguerite. Professor Duffin reported to the commission that “without any medical reason, the patient had experienced a remission.” Duffin noted at the time that she fully expected the patient “to relapse some day sooner or later,” but that, for the moment, the recovery was “remarkable” and “unexplainable medically.”
Duffin was surprised to experience what she called a “reverse skepticism and emphasis on science within the church” in the examination of the patient’s recovery. In fact, she learned that the Vatican had already rejected the story of this miraculous cure, contending that the story of a “first remission, a relapse, and a much longer second remission” left open that the “remission was rare but not impossibly so.”
The Vatican wanted proof that this current remission could not be explained medically. The Church would not accept the claim that the patient’s prayers to d’Youville were the reason for her cure — if there were any other scientific explanation. Writes Duffin, “I was not asked about my faith. (For the record, I’m an atheist.) I was not asked if it was a miracle. I was asked if I could explain it scientifically. I could not, though I had come armed for my testimony with the most up-to-date hematological literature, which showed that long survivals following relapses were not seen.”
As a consequence of this experience, Duffin tells us she conducted a “research project” on “the other miracles used in past canonizations. How many were healings? How many involved up-to-date treatments? How many were attended by skeptical physicians like me? How did all that change through time? And can we explain those outcomes now?”
Duffin went to the Vatican archives to do her research, examining the files of “more than 1,400 miracle investigations — at least one from every canonization between 1588 and 1999. A vast majority — 93 percent overall and 96 percent for the 20th century — were stories of recovery from illness or injury, detailing treatment and testimony from baffled physicians.”
Her conclusion? The Church takes this responsibility seriously. There are no con jobs in the canonization process: “If a sick person recovers through prayer and without medicine,” in the Church’s eyes “that’s nice, but not a miracle.” The patient “had to be sick or dying despite receiving the best of care.”
What of the patient whose cure Duffin examined? “Now almost 40 years later,” writes Duffin, “that mystery woman is still alive and I still cannot explain why. Along with the Vatican, she calls it a miracle.”
It would make for an upbeat ending to discover that Duffin converted as a result of this experience. She did not. She is still an atheist. But the impact of her experience is worth noting: “Why should my inability to offer an explanation” for this woman’s recovery “trump her belief? However they are interpreted, miracles exist, because this is how they are lived in our world.”

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