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.