On April 27, 2014, two former popes—John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli, 1881–1963) and John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla, 1920–2005)—were made saints of the Roman Catholic Church. As such, they are believed to have acquired the supernatural power of intercession with God—that is, they may be prayed to in hopes of receiving some blessing, such as a cure for an illness. But how are saints created?
In the Christian tradition, a saint is someone with exceptional holiness. Before the end of the first century, those martyred for their faith (martys is Greek for “witness”) were likely to be canonized. Over time, not only martyrs but missionaries of the faith, bishops of great zeal, Christian rulers, founders of religious orders, and others were raised to sainthood. Their tombs became pilgrimage sites, their relics believed to be imbued with magical power. (In this light the church has conserved a vial of John Paul II’s blood and a piece of the skin of John XXIII.)
Three elements that came to identify a saint by the fifth century and that would eventually become codified in the canonization process were reputation (particularly as a martyr), legends (telling of exemplary virtue), and miracles (allegedly worked by the saint, especially posthumously) (Woodward 1990, 50–86). There came to be saints who exhibited, supposedly supernaturally, the wounds of Christ (St. Francis of Assisi, ca. 1181–1226, being the first of many), or who allegedly demonstrated such other remarkable powers as the ability to fly (Joseph of Copertino, 1603–1663) (Coulson 1960, 187–188, 276–277). When testimonials were needed to establish miracles for beatification (the first step in the process) or for canonization purposes, the faithful were happy to give them. For example, when the Church wished to certify that Hyacinth (“the Apostle of Poland,” 1185–1257) had indeed walked on the water of the river Vistula, no fewer than 408 persons attested that they were able—centuries later—to see the intended saint’s footprints still remaining on the water (Nickell 2014)!
John Paul II canonized numerous saints and beatified over 1,300 people—more than had all of his predecessors taken together. In 2008, following complaints that the congregation for the causes of saints was becoming a “saint factory,” the Vatican instituted stricter procedures.
Today, two miracles are required for canonization (down from three—ironically by order of Pope John Paul II himself). The current preference is for healing miracles—no doubt in part because they are easier to obtain and less likely to involve magic tricks. (For instance, Padre Pìo’s most famous “miracle”—exhibiting the stigmata, for which there is much evidence of trickery—was ignored, in favor of two alleged healings: one for beatification, the other for final canonization [Nickell 2013, 335–340].)
The major criterion for a healing to be classified as a miracle is that, in addition to being instantaneous and permanent, it be “medically inexplicable.” This is an attempt to use negative evidence. Claimants are therefore engaging in a logical fallacy called argumentum ad ignorantiam “an argument from ignorance.” That is, one cannot draw a conclusion from a lack of knowledge: “We don’t know why her symptoms went away; therefore, it was a miracle.”
In fact, such cases do have alternate explanations: some illnesses (such as multiple sclerosis) are known to show spontaneous remission. Other “cures” may be attributable to misdiagnosis, psychosomatic conditions, prior medical treatment, the body’s own healing power, and other effects. Some illnesses and their cures may be faked, for a variety of reasons (Nickell 2013, 175–222).
It was thus two requisite “medically inexplicable” cures that qualified to make Pope John Paul II a saint. Only one was required for Pope John XXIII, a second being waived (as discussed later). Here we look at each in turn, beginning with John Paul.
For years before he was diagnosed in 2001, Pope John Paul II had been observed with symptoms of apparent Parkinson’s disease. By 1996, he was unable to walk without the aid of a stick, and he could not control the tremors of his left hand. Media speculation prompted the Vatican to admit that the pope suffered from an “extrapyramidal neurological disorder”—referring to the family of degenerative nervous disorders to which Parkinson’s belongs, without actually using the term itself (“Poperazzi problems” 1996; “Vatican” 2006).
With added knee and hip debilities, the ailing pope visited Lourdes, the French healing shrine, in August 2004. Far from being healed, he struggled through Mass, gasping and trembling. In a rare reference to his own condition, he assured other ill pilgrims that he shared their suffering. Poignant as was that statement, it nevertheless underscored the fact that the claimed healing powers of Lourdes—and of various other shrines he visited, prayers he made, and holy relics he kissed—were ineffective, even for the head of the church that promotes claims of such miracles. He died the following year.
If the proverb “Physician heal thyself” (Luke 4:23) should seem to apply, to the embarrassment of the Church and the pope’s legacy, one can therefore appreciate the irony of a case that seems to vanquish the problem. That is the supposedly instantaneous and permanent cure—from Parkinson’s itself, no less—bestowed on a French nun after she prayed to the late pontiff.
If this sounds too good to be true, it may well be. The nun—who first wished to remain anonymous—was Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, who worked at a hospital in Paris. Beginning in 2001, she and the pope would share a series of remarkable coincidences (if such they were) that would ultimately seem revealing:
Onset. In June 2001, no doubt well aware of speculation that the pope’s tremors indicated Parkinson’s, she was herself diagnosed with the disease. Subsequently, she said, “It was difficult for me to watch John Paul II on television.” Engaging in magical thinking, she added, “However, I felt very close to him in prayer and knew he could understand what I was going through.”
Location. She states that “The disease had affected the whole left side of my body, creating great difficulties for me as I am left-handed.” The location was noteworthy, since, as we have seen, the pope had been observed by 1996 with an uncontrollable tremor in his left hand.
Development. “After three years,” she says (the pope’s diagnosis being acknowledged by the Vatican in 2003) she experienced “an aggravation of the symptoms.”
Worsening Condition. Strikingly, beginning on April 2, 2005—the very day of the pope’s death—her condition “began to worsen” and continued to do so “week by week.”
“Miracle.” Finally, after Pope Benedict XVI initiated the cause to beatify John Paul, and all the nun’s sisters throughout France and Africa began to pray for her to be cured by the late pontiff’s intercession, she suddenly experienced a remission of her symptoms during the night of June 23, 2005, the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Thereupon she stopped taking her medicines (Sister Marie 2011; Pope John Paul II 2014). As she would later tell a reporter, “I am cured, but it is up to the church to say whether it was a miracle or not” (qtd. in Pope John Paul II 2014).
As these continuous parallels suggest, Sister Marie’s reputed Parkinson’s disease seems to have been eerily responsive to John Paul’s. Could it have been a copycat phenomenon? I am not suggesting malingering, but rather conversion disorder (previously called hysteria). This is a neurotic reaction wherein a person’s anxiety is converted unconsciously into any of a great variety of symptoms, including blindness, deafness, muteness, vertigo, paralysis (sometimes affecting only one side of the body), motor symptoms such as tics and tremors, and many, many others. Conversion symptoms may stem from an immature personality, may bring the patient certain benefits such as attention or sympathy, and may be eliminated by suggestion or narcosis (Goldenson 1970, 260–263). I have personally investigated an outbreak of several cases of twitching illness that were diagnosed as conversion disorder (Nickell 2012).
Now, true Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that usually afflicts the elderly, being most prevalent among those aged seventy-five to eighty-five (Taber’s 2001, 1519). Its common symptoms include tremors, slow movement, stiffness, cramped handwriting, and other signs. However, it can be difficult to accurately diagnose because there are other conditions with similar symptoms, according to the National Parkinson Foundation (“About Parkinson’s” 2006).
As reported by The Guardian (citing a Polish newspaper), three years after Sister Marie claimed to have been miraculously healed she had relapsed. The paper stated “that the 49-year-old nun had become sick again with the same illness” (Hooper 2010). One of the doctors investigating her case was of the opinion that she had not actually suffered from Parkinson’s, observing that a similar nervous disease could go into remission. Whatever the actual facts of the matter, the nun’s “miracle” claim was ultimately accepted, and in January 2011 Pope John Paul II was beatified. Only one more miracle was required for sainthood.
The second miracle attributed to John Paul’s intercession was also somewhat suspicious in its manifestation: It took place on May 1, 2011, “just after” the actual rite of beatification for the late pope (Pope John Paul II 2014).
The patient was a Costa Rican woman named Floribeth Mora Diaz, who was reportedly healed of a “cerebral fusiform aneurysm.” That is an abnormal, localized dilation of a blood vessel in the brain; fusiform refers to the blood vessel walls dilating approximately equally all around, forming a symmetrically tubular swelling (Taber’s 2001).
Reportedly, in April 2011 Diaz walked into a San Jose hospital complaining of headaches. A neurosurgeon diagnosed an aneurysm, which he felt was inoperable. He sent her home to rest and to take medication for pain. In short order, however, she was healed, according to her doctors. She attributed the “miracle” to her gaze having fallen upon a photograph of John Paul in a newspaper. Later she would say she heard the image speak to her, “Stand up. Don’t be afraid.” She has since abandoned both law studies and work for her family’s security company in order to devote herself exclusively to being the symbol of faith she has become (“Woman allegedly healed” 2014).
While the Associated Press wrote of “the symptoms that she felt brought her to the brink of death three years ago” (“Woman allegedly healed” 2014), Diaz may have had an exaggerated view of her own prognosis at the time. In fact, a cerebral fusiform aneurysm, like she supposedly had, does not usually rupture (“Intracranial aneurysm” 2014). And because high blood pressure is associated with cerebral aneurysms, reducing it (and other associative factors such as smoking, drinking, and using cocaine) may well be therapeutic.
Diaz states that she ignores those who doubt her alleged healing. “Everyone can think what they want,” she told an Associated Press reporter. “What I know is that I am healthy.” Given the paucity of information released about Diaz’s diagnosis, it may be that the “inexplicable” nature of her alleged aneurysm is due to a lack of conclusive evidence for it in the first place. In any event, the argument from medical inexplicability is an “argument from ignorance,” pure and simple.
A single “miracle” is attributed to Pope John Paul XXIII. A second miracle—usually required for canonization—was waived by Pope Francis, on the basis of John’s having called the historic Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), which dramatically changed the church. As with the miracles attributed to John Paul II, the reputed miracle—which occurred in 1966 after an Italian nun suffered unexplained stomach hemorrhages—seemed suspiciously ironic: Pope John had himself died of stomach cancer, despite the church’s healing shrines, relics, and other touted mechanisms.
The nun, Sister Caterina Capitani, was hospitalized and underwent a five-hour operation to remove most of her tumor-studded stomach, along with her pancreas and spleen. Over several days she began to recover but noticed that a fistula (an abnormal opening) had developed on her abdomen, allowing gastric fluid, blood, and a little orange juice she had sipped, to flow out. Later she covered the area with a relic—a piece of the sheet upon which Pope John XXIII had died. Still later, she awakened to a vision of the dead pontiff and found herself healed. She ate ravenously and subsequently returned to a normal life (Allegri 2014).
In fact, Mrs. Capitani, who died in 2010 at age sixty-eight, obviously benefitted from several successful surgeries. It was not a miracle by the deceased Pope John XXIII that removed her stomach tumors; it was medical science. As to the alleged fistula, it may have been nonexistent, a mistaken claim to explain stomach contents that appeared on her abdomen but that may have simply resulted from “a serious crisis of vomiting.” Capitani had a “very high fever” and may have misperceived the situation. She is the source of the second-hand claim, attributed to an unnamed doctor and apparently not otherwise documented (Allegri 2014). Alternately, if it actually existed, the wound had eleven days to heal naturally. Her experience of seeing Pope John standing beside her bed and speaking to her is consistent with a waking dream (which occurs between being fully asleep and awake). As she herself admitted, “I wondered whether it had been a dream” (Allegri 2014).
As these examples demonstrate, there is invariably more to miracle claims than first meets the eye. What is truly objectionable are miraculists’ attempts to trump modern medical science—not only by downplaying science’s role in cures but by choosing remarkable cases so as to emphasize their supposedly “medically inexplicable” nature. No matter how well-intentioned, by attempting to assert superiority over science with supernatural claims and the illogic of arguing from ignorance, one succeeds only in promoting superstition.
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