Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints, and Healing in the Modern World by Jacalyn Duffin. New York, Oxford University Press, 2009, 285 pp. ISBM 978-0-19-533650-4

The reviewer is MICHAEL GROSSO a co-author of Irreducible Mind, 2007.

The author of this book is a physician and historian of medicine at Queens University, Ontario. Drawing on Vatican archives and texts from the Vatican library, she has critically reviewed four centuries of testimony that bear on the topic of “medical miracles.” The idea of this research came to her after she was invited to examine the medical records of a patient in remission from acute leukemia. Only later did she discover this patient’s story was part of the canonization process of the first Canadian-born saint, Marie-Marguerite d’Youville. Unlike most previous studies of miracles, this book focuses on the truth value of miracle claims -- in this review, a term referring to a paranormal event in the context of religious belief.

To be canonized the saint must prove his or her miracle-producing prowess. The range of miracles reported throughout Church history is wide, (see for example the writings of Herbert Thurston.i) But there is a good reason for focusing on medical miracles; they can be ratified or rejected in light of modern science. The phenomenon of miraculous healing is stable across history, although there are changes of emphasis; for example, in modern times more doctors are brought into the process of certifying the miracle. Duffin observes that healing miracles speak to something universal in the human condition, the struggle against death.

The process of certifying who is a saint keeps evolving, and has kept pace with the modern world. The thinking of the popes and the physicians has become more refined; nevertheless, i processi (examinations of testimony) continue to bear miraculous fruit. So it appears, according to Duffin, that we have a robust phenomenon worthy of study; among the fourteen hundred cases she collected from 1588 to 1999, were people of forty-eight countries from Australia to Uruguay.

In saint-making, science and religion embrace temporarily, uniting in their submission to evidence -- the positios (bound testimonies), dubios (doubts, questions), and riti processi. The physician does not pronounce a healing as miraculous. His only duty is to give the best scientific account of it; if he gives a credible explanation of the “miracle,” it will be discarded or laid aside. If he does confess genuine epistemic wonder about the healing, the door remains open for the Church to acknowledge its miraculous status.

The author devotes a chapter to the supplicants. Who are the people who plead for and receive miracles? Of the four centuries of cases studied, the majority were common people of all classes and ages, not elites; one notes the catholicity of miracles. The miracle-happening is a product of many contingencies. “A potential saint can be invoked only by those familiar with her deeds and reputation” (p.36) Miracle-making, in these accounts, is a byproduct of tangible localities and experienced intimacies.

The chapter opens by describing a woman in agony, supplicating a being she believes, begs, and hopes will heal her; it’s a powerful image of what religion is about at its wrenching core: the soul in extremis crying out for help -- on a wing and a prayer. The woman in this story had a huge, hard tumor in her left breast. “For twenty days and nights, Maria prayed to the uncanonized Paolo, witnessed by the woman who shared her bed” (p. 37). The pain continued but by morning the tumor had vanished. In looking at the data in support of the cause of the saint, Duffin is laying the groundwork for a different way of theorizing the origin of religion. For surely such experiences are bound to generate strong “religious” or “spiritual” beliefs.

Chapter Three deals with the types of miracle covered in the author’s data base. Most are inexplicable, often very rapid cures of diseases ranging from cancer to tuberculosis. This sort of thing goes back to the Christian gospels where Jesus is repeatedly said to have made the blind see and the lame walk and even the dead rise. The tradition continues on through Medieval times (when the cult of Mary inspires new waves of miraculous performance), and increasingly into the twentieth century, in spite of the growing sophistication of medical science.

The miraculous extension of human performance occurs in ways other than healing people: e.g., healing animals, expelling demons, escaping from captivity, converting souls, levitating, etc.. Duffin notes that in the latter part of the twentieth century there was a spike in miracles of iatrogenic disease and death, a creative response to risk of fatal error in our medicalized society (p.99). Some of the nonmedical miracles like the multiplication of food – Sai Baba is known for this practical talentii-- will doubtless drive some readers beyond their boggle-thresholds.

There is also the bizarre, transcendently grotesque business of incorruptibility. The dead bodies of saints speak to us in queer ways; by remaining in an unnatural state of non-decay; by emitting unexplained fragrances; by occasionally retaining the warmth of living bodies and exuding fragrant oils; and by sometimes ejecting from different orifices warm blood and sometimes by moving limbs.iii I am not aware of any systematic medical research into these necrological wonders; the field is open for the intrepid explorer, though one hopes the Church would permit hands-on scrutiny of saintly incorruption.

Chapter Four reviews the key player in the drama of miraculous certification: the doctor. “I quickly learned,” writes Duffin, “that the Vatican does not and never did recognize healing miracles in people who eschew orthodox medicine to rely solely on faith.” The alleged miracle needs to be tested by reason, observation, and the whole web of customarily justified beliefs; only in light of these do we have standards for calling something “transcendent” or “paranormal” or “miraculous.”

Duffin documents the growing importance of the physician in the miracle-attributing process. The number of doctors involved has gradually increased over the centuries. The maximum number of physicians involved in assessing a single miracle was nineteen in 1926, as part of testimony for the “cause” of Joaquina de Vedruna, who was beatified in 1940. Gradually, the testimony of physicians begins to override that of the person to whom the miracle occurred (p.121). In some of Duffin’s cases, doctors themselves were recipients of a miracle. She documents in detail the growing use of technology in the diagnosis and therapeutics of miracle cases, emphasizing the scientific credentials of the process. “Miraculously cured patients were treated with the best modalities available, be it drugs or surgery” (p.127).

In a curious ex-voto painting (reproduced on page 128) we observe a man obtaining radiation therapy as he invokes the Virgin, looking over him from a cloud formation in a corner of the room: nice kitsch proclaiming the marriage of science and the miraculous. But other examples are cited of drugs and surgery being rejected by supplicants who were then miraculously healed (p.129).

The doctors don’t have to be believing Catholics; many have been Jewish or nonbelievers. Disagreement among doctors over an alleged case in effect “falsifies” the miracle claim (p.135). Sometimes there are rivalries between doctors, which adds to the democratic élan of the process. Some doctors resist the whole idea of miracles; but in the end doctors are key players in the saint-certifying process. Personal differences must be laid aside in forming medical opinions; for “. . . doctors serve as essential witnesses from science,” observes Duffin, “the polar opposite of religion” (p.140). So the attempt to certify miracles is willy-nilly an attempt to unite science and religion, a happy coincidence of opposites.

What about the criteria for a miracle? The physicians find three things indicative; the healing must be “complete, durable, and instantaneous” (p.140). The extraordinary speed of recovery was frequently encountered, and is what makes the physician throw up his hands, and say, “I can’t explain this; it’s beyond the reach of scientific thought.”

Dr. Duffin offers a fascinating chapter on the dramatic nature of miraculous healings. For example, the doctors had given up on an infant whose death they said would occur in moments, and indeed the child seems to have expired. The mother in desperation swifts the child away in her arms to the tomb of the nearest saint. “Then she fell on her knees, sobbing and praying fervently to the spirit of the man inside, asking him to intercede with God to spare the child’s life” (p.145). An hour or so later the child revives and is restored to health, and the community – and witnesses of the miracle -- give joyful thanks. All this is intensely dramatic -- the agony, the invocation, the miracle, the joy, the communal celebration.

Invocation transcends solitary prayer; it embeds itself in corporeal performances, e.g., the whole family prays for intercession near the entombed body of a saint. Spiritual transcendence is rooted in and nourished by the concrete, the sensuous, the particular: it is this lock of saint’s hair that is coveted for its spiritual power. Sometimes the supplicant went so far as to press the afflicted parts of her body on the marble of the saint’s tomb or its incorrupt corpse (or part thereof) if possible. The journey to the tomb of the saint was often arduous, thus intensifying the felt appeal for help. The tomb of the saint, the pilgrimage there, the relics, novenas, images, vigils, sacred lamps, anointing with oil, all served to focus and heighten the drama of miracle-making. Miraculous power is pragmatic and pluralistic, and Duffin details the role of dreams and visions, and ends by discussing the importance of thanksgiving in the miracle drama.

The conclusion summarizes the reasons and specific sense in which Duffin accepts the reality of unexplained healings, and I leave her nuanced argument to the reader to consider in detail. Perhaps the most striking conclusion of the book concerns the stability and durability of extraordinary healings through the last four centuries.

One thing the author wisely leaves open: given that a healing is “miraculous” in the sense of being unexplained, to what shall we ascribe it? God or some unknown human, some purely natural capacities? Or . . . ? She leaves this to her readers to decide if they feel they must; it is a matter of interpretation, an act of faith.

The book contains a valuable Appendix on the author’s sources and methods, charts and tables summarizing numerous data, and reproductions of artworks by fine artists and ordinary people expressing thanks and vows.

This is pioneering research with great theoretical and practical interest; it should engage anyone curious about the unknown limits of human capacity.

i Thurston, H. (1952) The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism. London: Burns Oates.

ii Haraldson, E. (1987) ‘Miracles Are My Calling Cards’. London: Century

iii Cruz, J.C. (1977) The Incorruptibles. Rockford, Ill.: Tan Books