Lourdes: A Simple Theory

It’s okay to be skeptical about cures at Lourdes.

According to the Church, St. Bernadette’s apparitions and the miracles associated with them are private and not a requirement of Catholic belief. Thoroughgoing secularists cannot accept the idea of miracles, of course, but the corollary of that isn’t that devout persons must accept every assertion of a miracle as valid.

Still, millions of pilgrims travel to Lourdes each year, and the site has become a place of devotion, despite the fact that very few cures are actually effected: in 150 years, the Church (through the offices of the Lourdes Medical Bureau) has certified just seventy as possibly miraculous (i.e. scientifically inexplicable) – and that’s out of seven thousand alleged healings. Is one percent significant? Probably, since the scientific analysis of each confirmed healing is extremely rigorous. Of course skeptics will say the Lourdes experience simply triggers a mysterious psycho-biological response that causes some diseases to remit.

A recent French film by Austrian director Jessica Hausner (starring the hardworking Sylvie Testud: ten movies in the last two years!) looks at Lourdes and – surprise, surprise – does so with sardonic skepticism. One reviewer wrote that the movie winks at the “absurdity of miracle hunting [and] . . . ultimately eschews rigorous religious inquiry to study the mechanics of envy and frustrated desire.” (Although it won top prize at the Vienna International Film Festival, Lourdes appeared so briefly in New York City that it was gone before film buffs such as I had even heard about it.)

These days, you expect ironic bemusement when it comes to Lourdes. It’s hard to swallow the spectacle of something such as LourdesMiracleWater.org, which offers a 1.25-ounce bottle of Authentic Lourdes Spring Water free with every purchase of perfume, crucifixes, meditation stones, and seashells – holy hardware.

The Road to Lourdes (And Other Miracles of Faith)

But when actress Loretta Young went to Lourdes in 1956, things were different. She didn’t go seeking a cure or shouldering a burden of doubt, but to film several episodes of her popular TV show. The result was the earnest tale of Alice Ward (Miss Young), a dying, agnostic, and angry woman who (by chance?) comes to Lourdes. The closest thing to a cure in her case comes towards the end when she quits smoking. She never does drink or bathe in the water, never kneels to pray, and never has a moment in which she discovers faith, although she does find hope, which is actually what most get from visits to Lourdes.

[There are actually four shows on the DVD version: in the others Miss Young plays “Sister Ann,” head nurse at a Catholic hospital. These sharply written, black-and-white treasures are as good in their way as the more popular episodes of The Twilight Zone, except The Loretta Young Show has a moral center that isn’t fantasy. By the way, these Young shows were sponsored by the Toni Company – after Procter & Gamble pulled sponsorship because the Lourdes story was judged too religious. Fans of AMC’s Mad Men will love the Toni ads.]

Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson (author of The Lord of the World, a novel often discussed here) wrote a book called Lourdes (1908), a chronicle of a summer journey there – one that also began in skepticism. He’d been Catholic for five years (he was the convert son of the Archbishop of Canterbury) when he made his pilgrimage in a “a long-drawn procession – carts and foot  passengers, oxen, horses, dogs, and children – drawing nearer every minute toward that ring of solemn blue hills that barred the view to Spain.” He was unimpressed with what he saw, until he said Mass in the Crypt, where daily 4000 came to receive Communion. And at the Grotto spring itself he saw the faces of two-thousand pilgrims: “white and drawn with pain, or horribly scarred . . . ‘waiting for some man to put them into the water.’ I saw men and women of all nations and all ranks attending upon them, carrying them tenderly, fanning their faces, wiping their lips, giving them to drink of the Grotto water.”

The Grotto as Benson saw it in 1908

Of the doctors he met at the Medical Bureau:

I saw again and again sixty or seventy men, dead silent, staring, listening with all their ears, while some poor uneducated man or woman, smiling radiantly, gave a little history or answered the abrupt kindly questions of the presiding doctor.

Benson saw a number of cures he considered genuinely miraculous (many of which he relates) but about which he cautions that no Bureau confirmation had yet been made. And then he asks the key question, one persistent to this day: “If so many are cured, why are not all?” His answer recognizes that in His life Jesus didn’t cure every sick person he met, and that even some witnessing those miracles remained unconvinced. Many won’t be convinced of the Truth until the last trumpet blows, and even then: “I believe that some of them, when they have recovered from their first astonishment, will make remarks about aural phenomena.”

But for the rest of us . . . who have received the gift of faith, in however small a measure, Lourdes is enough. Christ and His Mother are with us. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever. Is not that, after all, the simplest theory?

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. That’s Occam’s razor: entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity. Simply put: the simplest theory is best.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.