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Sunday, May 27, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Modern miracles and the medieval mind

by Daphne Caruana Galizia

In the hoopla surrounding the canonisation of the late Fr Gorg Preca, there appears to be no room for the minority – a minority that I suspect is much larger than it seems – who have no truck with saints and miracles. Though I know that it might severely prejudice my relationship with St Anthony, who often finds my keys in return for a small consideration, I will try to give voice to the views of that minority, before they are squashed in the stampede of pilgrims (wearing matching caps and ponchos) of the crowd to Rome.

When an older woman relative who wishes to remain unnamed tried to persuade me from writing about this subject lest I offend people’s sentiments, I told her cheerfully that if I had wanted to live in a place where rational discussion of religious manifestations and mania was off the agenda, then I would become a columnist in Saudi Arabia. So gird your loins and hop aboard for the ride.

The reasoning that goes “we do not have a scientific explanation, therefore it is a miracle” is a logical fallacy. So, too, is this reasoning: “Spontaneous recovery began after the parents started praying to Fr Preca and placed one of his relics on the baby’s body. Therefore the relic and the prayer caused the recovery”. That is what is known as a non sequitur. It is like saying that because the front door slammed at the same time the washing-machine broke down, then the slamming of the front door is the reason you are wasting your morning waiting for a technician. For all we know, the spontaneous recovery may have happened in any case, with or without the glove and prayer. Oddly, there has been no discussion of the reported statement that the baby had a 90 per cent chance of dying, and not a 100 per cent certainty, if he did not get a liver transplant. That means a 10 per cent chance of survival, and he survived – though the miracle, apparently, lies not in the survival but in the recovery.

The fact that the best liver doctors in the world cannot find a scientific explanation for the spontaneous recovery of a baby with severe liver failure does not mean that a scientific explanation does not exist.

It only means that one has not been found yet. There may not be one – hence a miracle, if you believe in such things – but there may very well be one which the present state of knowledge has not allowed doctors to discover. It is arrogant to assume that we know everything there is to know about the human body, and the human liver in particular, and that no such scientific explanation may emerge in the next one, two or even three hundred years – if not the next 10 years.

And here’s the crux of the problem, an echo of Christian Europe’s medieval past in which belief in miraculous cures hindered the development of medicine. With Fr Gorg Preca installed as a saint on the basis of his miraculous curing of a baby boy’s liver, the stage is set for active discouragement of medical research over the years to come into any possible scientific reason for the baby’s spontaneous recovery. It seems to me and to the self-gagged minority that there are sound reasons for such research, not the least of which are the many people with liver failure who would like to know that there is a cure other than the spurious one of placing on their sick bodies a glove touched to a holy man’s cadaver, while desperate relatives pray hard.

If such research is undertaken, and proves to be successful many years down the line, then this will mean difficulties as to Fr Gorg Preca’s status in the saintly firmament. Yet what would be of the greatest benefit to humanity: perseverance in trying to find a scientific explanation for the spontaneous recovery of a sick liver, in the light of new knowledge that may yet emerge, or insisting on belief that it was a miracle, so that Malta can get its own saint after having repeatedly failed to win the Eurovision Song Contest?

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Instead of draping a strange bubble of distorted reality around us, we in the Preca minority prefer to put things into a rational context. Somebody asked me whether I need to have an explanation for everything. No, I don’t. It is those who have decided that this is a miracle who are in need of an explanation, and they have found one: Dun Gorg did it. I, on the other hand, am perfectly content to be without an explanation pending the possibility that one may be found that is of benefit to the human race. Lest I be misjudged, it is not that I wish for a scientific explanation so that the canonisation of Fr Preca may be undermined – the more saints that might help me find my keys, the better – but that given the choice between a scientific explanation which holds out hope for others who suffer, and a miracle, I would opt for the former without a moment’s hesitation. This would mean that the promoters of Fr Preca would have to find another miracle elsewhere, but so what? Better a cure for liver failure than a saint for Malta. Yet we are operating here on the assumption that there will never be a scientific explanation. This is perplexing, given that we live among a wealth of knowledge, medical and otherwise, that our grandparents’ generation, doctors and surgeons included, would never have thought possible.

* * *

St Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan who lived in the fourth century, wrote that “the precepts of medicine are contrary to celestial science, watching and prayer.” The belief that underpins this statement, that medicine is at odds with religious faith, underscored Christian medieval attitudes towards the furtherance of medical knowledge. In Islam, which started off so well by pushing science forward, the same was to happen several hundred years in the future. At atmosphere was created in medieval Europe in which the development of medical science was checked – mainly because miraculous cures had become an essential component of the Christian belief system. The evolution begun so long before by Hippocrates, and continued by Herophilos, one of the founders of the great medical school at Alexandria, was broken. As one historian described it, writing in the 19th century: “Medical science, trying to advance, was like a ship becalmed in the Sargasso Sea: both the atmosphere about it and the medium through which it must move resisted all progress. Instead of reliance upon observation, experience, experiment and thought, attention was turned to supernatural agencies.”

* * *

The story of the miraculous cure was rushed to the wires by the Catholic News Service, the Catholic religion’s equivalent of Reuters or Associated Press (top stories yesterday: Vatican expands mission to saving planet, not just souls; Pope names North Americans to two Vatican offices). A breathless report by a CNS reporter found its way, in a heavily edited version with careful quote-marks wrapped round words like “miraculous recovery”, to The Daily Telegraph, under the same reporter’s by-line. The Daily Telegraph’s report was quoted in turn by one of Malta’s newspapers. Along the way, we lost the original context in which Anil Dhawan, the professor of paediatric hepatology (liver problems in children, to you and me) was quoted – though you can read the original Catholic News Service story on line.

This doctor, an internationally-respected authority in his field, was the man who examined the sick baby. He is a devout Hindu, who was speaking to a reporter from the Catholic News Service, and not from The Daily Telegraph. That is the context, and this is what he said: “I was involved in the process, and I want to see it through completely for my own learning and curiosity. You can always learn from different faiths... I respect all the faiths and I have a lot to learn from every single faith, and I am sure my religion also believes in things like this. Some of them are not of human explanation. When you are a scientist, you are supposed to believe in things that are black and white, but, unfortunately, life is not always like that.” He said he accepted that occasionally events happened in medicine that could not be explained scientifically: “We say, ‘Yes, we could not do much more ourselves to help somebody, and yes, it could be somebody else who helped them.’ And ultimately, we are grateful to that person.” Dhawan said that before this case, he knew very little about how the Catholic Church recognised saints. But he said he had since spent much time reading about the process and took particular interest in the cause of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (because he is Indian).

Catholics are taught to believe in the absolutism of the one true universal church, and yet here is a Hindu doctor, speaking carefully about respecting all faiths, Catholicism alongside Islam and Buddhism, and feeling no qualms at all –rather, pleasure - about his involvement in the certifying of a Catholic miracle and the making of a Catholic saint. Maybe one day a Catholic doctor might return the favour for the making of a Hindu saint – who knows? Miracles do happen.

* * *

In Europe, Christian belief in the miraculous evolved in medieval times from similar belief in paganism. Just as people were ‘cured’ in the temples of Aesculapius, so they were ‘cured’ at the shrines of saints and by touching saint’s relics in the Middle Ages - and so they continue to be ‘cured’ now in the shrines of yet other saints and by coming into contact with even more relics. Belief in this baby’s miraculous recovery after being touched with the relic of a holy man comes all the way down to us in a direct line of thinking from the culture of medieval Europe. I am not critical of this – merely fascinated at an intellectual level by the survival of what is, essentially, a core of medieval thinking in the full onslaught of the 21st century.

The miracles of 3000 years ago were attested to in votive tablets, solemnly giving names, dates and details, hung in temples before images of gods. Medieval miracles were recorded by similar tablets hung before effigies of saints. But miraculous cures were ascribed not just to gods and saints. The early Christian church developed a stream of miraculous cures wrought by water – wells, pools, streams, springs and lakes. Here, too, the old types persisted; healing waters are present in all ancient religions. And today – plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Everything changes, and everything stays the same. Pilgrims wash themselves in the waters of Lourdes and others touch small items of clothing to holy cadavers, rendering them into relics with potentially miraculous qualities, just as a medieval matron dying of consumption might have taken courage from a small square of lace purported to be the handkerchief of St Paul. And the effigies of saints in our churches remain bedecked with votive offerings in the thousands-of-years-old tradition of jewellery and other precious item. St Anthony must be very annoyed indeed at the stinginess of my fifty cents.

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This time next week, we shall be awash with news reports about the canonisation of Malta’s first saint, coming at us live from the television and staring up at us from the newspapers’ front pages. I recommend the performance of this simple task to keep you in touch with reality: alongside your Maltese newspapers, buy a London broadsheet or two to put things into perspective.