Everybody knows about Lourdes, the town in southern France where Bernadette Soubirous (now a saint) said she had eighteen visions of the Virgin Mary beginning in 1858. The Grotto in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes has become a place of worldwide pilgrimage for Catholics (and, I suppose, other Christians) seeking relief from ailments and afflictions. The facility gets over three million visitors a year and as Wikipedia notes,
Yearly from March to October the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is a place of mass pilgrimage from Europe and other parts of the world. The spring water from the grotto is believed by some Catholics to possess healing properties.
An estimated 200 million people have visited the shrine since 1860, and the Roman Catholic Church has officially recognized 69 healings considered miraculous. Cures are examined using Church criteria for authenticity and authentic miracle healing with no physical or psychological basis other than the healing power of the water.
Tours from all over the world are organized to visit the Sanctuary. Connected with this pilgrimage is often the consumption of or bathing in the Lourdes water which wells out of the Grotto.
Of course nobody has, as a reader notes below, been cured of lost eyes or limbs, and I’d prefer a panel of skeptical doctors as opposed to “Church criteria”. Well, so be it.
I was told in an email from a reader one of my favorite shows, CBS’s “60 Minutes”, did a segment on Lourdes and its cures. Here’s the email I got from a reader:
Please ignore this email if you have commented on the 60 Minutes segment on Lourdes, I thought you might say something since I believe you watch 60 Minutes. This Sunday’s show has a segment on Lourdes, emphasizing how medical experts for the church extensively research every claim of a miracle and find very few that are “medically unexplainable” and therefore a bond fide miracle. Correspondent Bill Whitaker is amazed, and fails to ask the tough questions. For example, he never asks about a control group of sick people that don’t go to Lourdes for a cure. Do they have a greater or less number of unexplained cures or recoveries? He doesn’t ask about amputees, does anybody get their limbs back or is that considered impossible for even God?
Here’s the 13½-minute segment that was broadcast. Listen for yourself.
Here are the seven criteria given by the head of the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations for a miracle cure: “Diagnosis of a severe disease with a severe prognosis, person cured suddenly and completely, with no recurrence, and there must be no possible explanation for the cure.” Apparently 1 out of 100 claims of cures qualifies as a “miracle” according to the head medical examiner.
The highlight of the show is a nun (curiously named “Sister Bernadette”) who was diagnosed with cauda equina, an acute medical condition often caused by a herniated disc. She was completely better three days after visiting Lourdes and having heard the voice of either God or Mary within her. The committee of “skeptical” doctors who investigated her case apparently took eight years to decide that her condition was “medically unexplained.” She thus became the “Seventieth Miracle of Lourdes.”
I asked my own doctor, Alex Lickerman—a crack diagnostician—about this, and he watched the whole segment. He said that cauda equina syndrome is a sudden condition that needs immediate medical intervention (it usually causes urinary retention and can lead to permanent paralysis if not recognized and surgically corrected), and he couldn’t understand how the Sister could have had cauda equina syndrome for half her life. He offered two other explanations, neither of which (nor the initial cauda equina syndrome diagnosis) could be diagnosed before her visit to Lourdes without a careful examination of the clinical symptoms, and, critically, an MRI. These alternatives are chronic low back pain and spinal stenosis, which can also be chronic and cause the symptoms experienced by Sister Bernadette.
I quote Alex:
Based on what she said, I couldn’t begin to figure out what she really had. It wasn’t cauda equina syndrome, though, I tell you that.The lead doctor said, “We’re looking for a diagnosis.” The reporting didn’t support a diagnosis of anything other than chronic low back pain. He said they “repeated twice her imagery.” I’d want to see those images. That’s crucial. I’m highly, highly skeptical.
Of course I don’t buy this as a miracle either, for, absent evidence for a supernatural being, a naturalistic explanation has higher priors. Further, if Mary or God wanted to, they could regrow missing limbs or eyes, yet that has never happened. Why is it that diseases that we know never show spontaneous remission are also the ones that divine intervention can’t cure?
But I leave the readers to examine this segment and Sister Bernadette’s case, and to comment below.