March 8, 2006
By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters) - The Roman Catholic pilgrimage shrine at Lourdes may introduce a kind of "miracle lite" category for sudden unexplained recoveries because modern medicine increasingly refuses to declare any disease incurable.Every year, dozens of seriously ill people leave the site in southwestern France convinced they have been cured, but the Church does not rate their cases as miracles because its rules say doctors must attest their ailments could not be remedied.
Bishop Jacques Perrier said the Vatican need not change the rules for declaring miracles, but could create a new category of "authentic healings" so those who recover can share the story of their physical and spiritual experiences with others.
The Catholic Church teaches God sometimes performs miracles including cures doctors cannot explain. Sceptics reject this as unscientific and explain sudden recoveries as psychological phenomena or the delayed result of earlier treatment.
Unlike in the past, Perrier said, doctors are now very reluctant to say a disease is incurable -- one of the strict requirements laid down in the 1700s for recognizing miracles. Uncertainty is a key element in modern thinking, he noted.
"Doctors today speak in statistical terms, saying, for example, that the chances of recovery are very slim," he told Reuters. "They have a very hard time saying a disease is completely incurable."
"Most healings may fail to meet this or that criterion for a miracle," he added. "We want to get recognition for a category of authentic healings linked to Lourdes."
Perrier said he was working on a proposal for the new category of Lourdes healings to put to the Vatican for approval.
NO PLOY FOR PILGRIMS
The bishop insisted Catholicism's leading miracle shrine was not considering this to boost pilgrimages to the grotto where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a peasant girl in 1858. "There's been no decline in visits," he said.
Rather, it sensed a lost opportunity since those said to be cured during a Lourdes visit but not declared miracle cases do not get Church approval to share their story in public, for example at retreats or meetings with other Catholics.
Six million people flock annually to the pilgrimage town in the Pyrenees Mountains. About 7,000 have claimed to have been cured since the shrine's medical bureau began keeping records in 1883, but only 66 have been declared miraculously healed.
Perrier says the shrine's International Medical Committee examines possible miracle cases and rejects most of them. The last official miracle, a man said to be cured of multiple sclerosis, was declared in 1999 after 12 years of inquiries.
Sometimes the doctors -- a 20-strong group including Catholics and non-believers -- see an ill person has been healed inexplicably, but do not draw further conclusions, he said.
"They say 'since miracles are by definition religious, it's up to you religious authorities to draw a conclusion. We can only say this is something serious, but don't put us in your place."
"What we want is to authenticate these healings and say the people who say they have been healed are not making it up or swindling people," Perrier said.
"It's meant to give a certain moral guarantee so we don't have just anybody going around claiming to have been healed."