Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints, and Healing in the Modern World

May 28, 2009

As Jacalyn Duffin points out, it is rare to find a modern Western medical clinician studying the role of religion in medicine and healing. She addresses this taboo head-on in her analysis of records of healing miracles in the Vatican archives since 1588. Witness statements by individuals who believe they have been healed by the intercession of a would-be saint, together with the testimony of medical professionals to confirm that this healing could not have been achieved by merely "medical means", still form a key part of the canonisation process in the Roman Catholic Church.

The early Protestants saw saints as symbols of superstition and idolatry and emblematic of all that was wrong with the Catholic Church. But in the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church "rebranded" saints, developing more elaborate procedures and attempting to show incontrovertibly that the intercession of saints was a reality. Even today, the Vatican continues to beatify candidates and, if a further miracle is proven, canonisation occurs rapidly. One of the book's appendices lists some 20 canonisations and 70 beatifications in the 1990s alone.

Duffin begins, however, with the medieval origins of the process for being recognised as a saint in the Catholic Church. This section is admittedly very brief, and more could have been said on the medieval process. In the chapter "Making Saints", she discusses the 17th-century papal doctor and writer Paolo Zacchia, arguably the first expert medical witness.

This is followed by an analysis of the gender, nationality and social background of those who believed they had been miraculously healed through the intercession of a would-be saint. She draws attention to the occasional accounts submitted by relatives of the holy man or woman. The promotion of family members as saints has its roots in medieval Christianity, but in the early modern era it seems to have harmed rather than helped the cause for sainthood. Most striking is the great increase in the number of women reporting miracles: from the late 18th century onwards nearly twice as many women as men claimed to have been miraculously cured.

Equally intriguing are statistics on the types of diseases listed in the Vatican's accounts of healing miracles. Duffin is rightly sensitive to the problem of retro-diagnosing diseases such as tuberculosis, which was clinically defined only in the 1830s. The number of doctors involved in any one case for beatification or canonisation increased greatly over time. Nurses, midwives, dentists and pharmacists were also called to testify.

All the testimony, however, is given within the organisational and narrative framework of the papal process for beatification and canonisation. Duffin notes that although many of the features of miracle accounts changed over time, such as the types of illnesses described or the way in which a patient might appeal for the help of a would-be saint, the essentials remained the same: despairing patients and doctors, a heartfelt appeal to a would-be saint, followed by a rapid cure.

Duffin concludes that while the Catholic Church has embraced medical knowledge in its quest to prove miracles, the response of the medical profession has been more ambivalent. This is a well-researched and thought-provoking book, ranging confidently over four centuries of history. As Duffin estimates that she analysed only one third of the total documentation, a rich archive remains for those patient enough to await the reopening of the Vatican library after its lengthy restoration.

Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints, and Healing in the Modern World

By Jacalyn Duffin. Oxford University Press 304pp, £16.99. ISBN 9780195336504. Published 12 February 2009

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