The Catholic Church is making money by encouraging vulnerable people to travel to Lourdes

by Michael Nugent on November 4, 2014

I debated Doctor Michael Moran on BBC Radio Ulster last week. He is a medical doctor on the committee that evaluates miracles at Lourdes. I will be debating him again in a few weeks on RTE, along with others in a panel discussion about miracles, so I am reviewing what I know about Lourdes.

In 2007 Pope Benedict gave Catholics a special time-limited promotional offer: if they visited Lourdes during 2008, they would get a free indulgence that would get them early release from Purgatory, and get them faster to heaven, after they died.

This is not an extreme example of Catholicism. Encouraging seriously sick people to travel great distances, in the hope of a miracle cure, is very much part of mainstream Catholic practice.

Just a few months before this special offer, the Vatican had started its own official airline, with the launch slogan ‘I’m Searching for Your Face, Lord’, and Vatican logos on the headrests and air hostess’s uniforms. The inaugural flight just happened to travel to Lourdes.

The Miraculous Business of Lourdes

Lourdes is big business. About five million people travel there every year, and it has more hotels than anywhere else in France except Paris.

And all because, just over a century and a half ago, fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous was one of a spate of French and Spanish children who claimed to have seen the virgin mother of the Catholic god.

In Bernadette’s case, she thought she saw a small young lady, standing on a niche in a rock, wearing a white veil and blue sash, with a yellow rose on each foot, holding a set of rosary beads. Within a year, people were claiming to have been cured of illnesses at Lourdes, and in 1862 the Catholic Church officially recognized seven of these cures as being miracles.

Since then the Church has added another 62 alleged miracles to the list. This supposed supernatural figure seems to have cured mostly younger people, who are arguably more capable of being healed naturally anyway. Half were under thirty, the youngest a baby suffering from malnutrition, three-quarters were under forty, and since 1950 she has cured only one person aged over fifty.

When the miracles have supposedly happened

For those who believe this, the mother of their god seems to have paced her 69 interventions somewhat randomly:

  • There were seven miracles in 1858 alone.
  • Then none for seventeen years.
  • Then she cured a fractured leg in 1875.
  • Then a leisurely four more in the next fourteen years through 1889.
  • Then a feast of 28 cures in 21 years through 1911.
  • Then a famine of just two in 36 years through 1936.
  • Then a steady twenty cures in the next 23 years through 1959.
  • Since 1960, the virgin mother has cured only seven people in half a century.
  • She has cured nobody since 1989, her strike rate coincidentally dropping as medical science is improving.

When the church has recognised these miracles

Also of interest is the sequence in which the Church has officially recognized the 69 cures. They started with seven in 1862, added 33 more in a flurry of activity from 1907 to 1913, then seemed to forget about it for about thirty years, added 22 more from 1946 to 1965, then another gap of eleven years, followed by just seven in the last forty years.

In the same pattern as the alleged cures themselves, the Church is recognizing less of them as being miracles as medical science is improving.

  • In 1862 seven miracles were recognised, all from 1858.

Then there was a big gap. There were no miracles recognised for the next 45 years, between 1862 and 1907. That was followed by a burst of 33 miracles recognised in the following seven years, with twenty in the same year of 1908.

  • In 1907 two miracles were recognised, from 1893 to 1897.
  • In 1908 twenty miracles were recognised, from 1875 to 1905.
  • In 1909 one miracle was recognised, from 1905.
  • In 1910 four miracles were recognised, from 1891 to 1909.
  • In 1911 one miracle was recognised, from 1908.
  • In 1912 four miracles were recognised, from 1882 to 1901.
  • In 1913 one miracle was recognised, from 1910.

Then there was another big gap. There were no miracles recognised for the next 33 years, between 1913 and 1946. In practice, the recognitions recommenced after the International Medical Committee of Lourdes was founded in 1947. For the next 18 years, there was an average of one recognised miracle every year.

  • In 1946 one miracle was recognised, from 1937.
  • In 1948 one miracle was recognised, from 1943.
  • In 1949 one miracle was recognised, from 1938.
  • In 1950 one miracle was recognised, from 1948.
  • In 1951 one miracle was recognised, from 1937.
  • In 1952 two miracles were recognised, from 1947.
  • In 1953 one miracle was recognised, from 1950.
  • In 1955 two miracles were recognised, from 1950.
  • In 1956 two miracles were recognised, from 1952 to 1954.
  • In 1957 one miracle was recognised, from 1924.
  • In 1958 two miracles were recognised, from 1930 to 1947.
  • In 1959 one miracle was recognised, from 1945.
  • In 1960 two miracles were recognised, from 1948 to 1952.
  • In 1961 one miracle was recognised, from 1963.
  • In 1963 one miracle was recognised, from 1954.
  • In 1965 two miracles were recognised, from 1958 to 1959.

Then there was another gap. There were no miracles recognised for the next eleven years, between 1965 and 1976. Since then, the average has dropped from twenty in 1908 alone, to about one a year in the 1940s to 1960s, to just less than two a decade in the past fifty years.

  • In 1976 one miracle was recognised, from 1963.
  • In 1978 one miracle was recognised, from 1970.
  • In 1989 one miracle was recognised, from 1976.
  • In 1999 one miracle was recognised, from 1987.
  • In 2005 one miracle was recognised, from 1952.
  • In 2012 one miracle was recognised, from 1965.
  • In 2013 one miracle was recognised, from 1989.

Unethical behaviour exploiting vulnerable people

Just to be clear, I believe that everyone has right to believe whatever they want to believe, however absurd those beliefs may seem to others. However, when those beliefs cause people to behave in way that unfairly exploits vulnerable people, then others have a right to challenge them to justify that behavior, and to justify the underlying beliefs.

I believe that it is unethical, in the early twenty-first century, that wealthy organizations like the Catholic Church can promote commercial ventures using unsubstantiated sales pitches about supernatural rewards.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 aleprechaunist November 4, 2014 at 7:36 am

I remember being taken to Knock when I was a kid. Even at a young age I thought it was incredibly cheesy and tacky, with endless stalls selling religious trinkets and geegaws. I imagine Lourdes must be similar if not worse.

2 William Skyvington November 4, 2014 at 8:07 am

Over recent years, the Virgin has often cast deluges upon Lourdes. Nobody’s making much money any more. See my blog article: http://skyvington.blogspot.fr/2013/06/riverside-mud.html

3 Matt Cavanaugh November 4, 2014 at 3:41 pm

Are these trips booked through the Johann Tetzel Travel Agency?

4 Dara Hogan November 4, 2014 at 4:35 pm

As Victor Hugo remarked on visiting Lourdes many years ago: “I see lots of abandoned crutches – but no wooden legs”!

5 William Skyvington November 4, 2014 at 4:55 pm

@Dara: In the case of a full-blown miracle concerning an individual who once walked with a wooden leg, the original wood is transformed transparently into the flesh, bones and muscles of the miraculous new leg. This is the familiar doctrine of transubstantiation: exactly the same everyday process that turns wafers and wine into the flesh and blood of our lord. An ignoramus such as Victor Hugo, unversed in theology, could hardly be expected to know this.

6 Carrie November 4, 2014 at 9:57 pm

Oh my goodness yes that is unethical.

That was a good debate; I know that you will have another good one. You do such thorough research, thanks for letting us see.

7 Dara Hogan November 4, 2014 at 10:48 pm

Thanks, William Skyvington – very succinct scientific analysis of what happens when miracles take place. We are so much better informed now. PS – it probably should be “Our Lord” rather than “our lord”. These little details are important to some people! :-)

8 Lancelot Gobbo November 5, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Thank you, WS—hilarious!

Thirty odd years ago, in the dark ages, my wife went as trip physician on a “Jumbulance” (a coach converted into a multi-person ambulance) from London to Lourdes. She’s not a catholic, but was willing to be helpful. No miracles, one death on board, and a lot of tasteless knick-knacks bought, mostly plastic BVMs filled with holy water. I wonder if the poor chap who died of his disease on the bus is still in purgatory as he failed to travel during a limited time special promotion? Seems unfair, but I doubt if the dead have been radicalised into unions just yet so I guess he’s stuck.

9 John November 10, 2014 at 7:19 pm

There speaks the voice of ignorance and intolerance. No one is compelled to go to Lourdes. It is entirely voluntary. If you don’t want to go and prefer instead to drink yourself silly at Sunday brunches with fellow bigots, that is your right. I wouldn’t dream of interfering. So, kindly don’t interfere with Catholics’ rights to go to Lourdes.

The vast majority go initially because they have had it recommended by a friend. Most go back time and again because they find it a joyous and wonderful experience. and spiritually uplifting. Since the new Pope, the numbers going on pilgrimages are rising. Last year about six million went and the vast majority could not be remotely described as vulnerable. People from every country in the world, even countries that are under atheist marxist control and where Catholics and other Christians have to practice their religion in secret. Lots of businessmen and professional people go there. I went last year for the third time. Among my dining companions in the hotel were a professor of computing from Indiana, a pizza shop manager from London, and a very smartly-dressed model and her husband from Savannah. Hardly what you’d call vulnerable. Although I am far too old for such things now, lots of men actually meet their future wives at Lourdes, and for any man hoping to do that, the class of lady they’ll meet on a Lourdes trip is miles above what they’ll find in some sleazy Dublin nightclub, both physically and spiritually. There are vulnerable and sick people too, of course. Most find it a wonderful experience and rejoice in the friendship and love they find at Lourdes. It certainly beats a one-way trip to the Dignitas clinic just over the border in Switzerland, which is no doubt where vulnerable and sick will be compelled to go if the atheists ever take power.

On the plus side, the open warfare between the Nugentists and Myersists is truly wonderful. I can’t get enough of it and. Please keep it going for a long time. If I was a better Catholic I’d pray to Our Lady for a peaceful and amicable settlement between the two warring factions. But, being a humble sinner, I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy them being at each others’ throats.

10 Ciarán P November 10, 2014 at 7:51 pm

I’d like to weigh in from a personal point of view. When I was younger, around 13 or 14, I visited Lourdes on one of the many pilgrimages they have. I’ve been disabled my entire life, and right around this time, my life was changing for the worse and I had come to terms with my disability, for the most part. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. Needless to say, I was misled about the emphasis of the pilgrimage, as when I arrived, the stench of artificial hope was nauseating. The message was of being cured. As a burgeoning atheist, reasoning and rationalising that the rest of my life wasn’t going to be easy, having this message being bombarded at me and the other pilgrims was upsetting. I knew there was no being capable of genetic manipulation sitting in a cave, but the manipulative tugging of heart strings still hurt. The commercialisation of the entire place was the icing on the cake. Thinking back, I can hardly stomach the experience and the dishonest seeds of hope it plants in people. Vulnerable people who are looking for some answers about why life is being so unfair. This might not be at all relevant, but I heartily agree with the article, Michael. It’s another form of abuse, in my opinion, that’s still being continued.

11 Sherry December 26, 2015 at 11:38 am

I always knew there was a God but does he rlaley listen to our prayers. I now believe he does. I was diagnosed with Cushin Syndrome and had a tumor in my head. I could not believe it but the lab work and the MRI confirmed it. I was advised that I had to go to the Mayo Clinic. Meeting with the doctor there and they did all their test and found that the tumor died and cortisones had gone back to normal. I did not need to have surgery! I was shocked and so was the doctor. I was cured. It will take sometime for my body to get back to normal. I will no longer have high blood pressure and I might not be a diabetic. That to me was wonderful news and I knew then that God had listened to all my prayers, my friends and family prayers. I do believe now that Miracles do happen. There is hope for me in this life.

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