Monday, April 5, 2010

Saintly ‘science’: When doctors and doubters are called upon to prove miracles

by Daniel Kaszor

By Charles Lewis

Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist, lapsed Anglican and firm atheist, was desperate for work in the mid-1980s when she took on a small contract in Ottawa to interpret a set of laboratory slides for a colleague and write a report.

She was given no information about the patient and assumed her report would be used in a malpractice lawsuit, which is common for that kind of blind medical analysis.

Instead, her findings and subsequent oral testimony became the last piece of “evidence” of a miracle in the 200-year cause for canonization of Marie-Marguerite d’Youville, the first Canadian to be made a saint.

That an atheist scientist would be conscripted to the cause is not unusual in the complicated business of proving sainthood.

Dr. Ronald Kleinman, also an atheist, was a top pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital in March 1987 when he treated a little girl who was moments from death. The result of what he witnessed that day became critical medical evidence that led to Edith Stein being declared a saint.

For the religious, this is the time of year to think about miracles. During Passover, Jews remember God’s miraculous intervention to free their ancestors from slavery; Christians remember the ultimate miracle of Jesus rising from the dead on Easter Sunday.

In an increasingly secular society, the word miracle is thrown around easily, with phrases like “miracle cures” and “miracle landings” used as stand-ins for what are essentially remarkably lucky tales of human survival.

To the non-religious, the very notion of “proving” a miracle as a requirement of sainthood seems a bit absurd, for how to prove something that defies explanation?

Yet there is a rigour to both the language and the entire process used by the Catholic Church in the business of proving miracles. Convinced that Christ is surrounded by a galaxy of living saints, and that they hear our prayers, the Church even uses medicine and non-believers to prove that science cannot provide an earthly answer.

A cadre of bishops, priests, canon lawyers and even the pope himself is involved in the process, which requires a miracle be “identified,” “investigated” and ultimately “confirmed.”

During the last millennium, saint-making went from what Catholic scholar Lawrence Cunningham has called “fantastic folktales … appended with imagination” to the “bureaucratization of sanctity.”

The increased severity was in part a result of the Protestant Reformation, whose leaders saw saint-making as so much hokum. As a result, the Church adopted more skepticism of reports of miracles and began to demand more medical evidence as science advanced -- and eventually, recruiting scientists to that cause.

“What really blew me away was the Church really seemed interested in not being a dupe,” said Dr. Duffin, now a professor at Queen’s University. “So in fact the Church was lending credence to science.”


In 1986, Dr. Duffin had just returned to Canada from France after three years.

“Another doctor offered me a contract and I eagerly accepted it because I was trying to prove myself as a credible hematologist. It was a way back into medicine.”

She was given a series of slides from the late 1970s that spanned a period of 18 months. Dr. Duffin assessed the patient was a young woman who had acute myeloblastic leukemia, “the most aggressive leukemia known.”

Dr. Duffin knew that survival barely went past two years. “I reasonably imagined that this woman was dead.”

Instead, the story told by the slides was that the patient had been very sick, she was treated, then went into remission and then relapsed. She then was treated and went into remission again, something “that is really hard to do.”

The next few slides should have shown an almost instant relapse, she said.

“But then the next slide was a remission, and the next, and the next and the next.”

Dr. Duffin wrote her report to Dr. Jeanne Drouin, explaining what she had observed, but unable to offer any explanation.

“I said, is this a lawsuit? And then for the hell of it I asked, is this a miracle? And the doctor said, it is a miracle.”

The patient, Dr. Drouin said, was still alive. (In fact, the patient is alive today.)

“I was like thunderstruck that the woman was alive. But I was not going to say this was a miracle.”

Dr. Drouin was the treating physician for the patient. Unbeknownst to her, the patient, who was a young girl, had been praying to Marie-Marguerite d’Youville, who at that point was one step from sainthood. There had been one credited miracle attached to Marie-Marguerite, which elevated her to beatified in 1959.

Marie-Marguerite founded the Sisters of Charity in Quebec in the early 18th Century and since her death in 1771 her fellow nuns had been pushing her cause. One of the nuns was the aunt of the girl dying of cancer. She encouraged her niece to ask Marie-Marguerite to intervene with God for a miracle.

“The nuns always believed Marie-Marguerite was a saint, so they always advised everyone to pray to her. They had miracles that the Vatican had rejected because there never was a physician willing to testify.”

Two years later, a panel of bishops and priests came to Ottawa to get Dr. Duffin’s oral testimony.

“They never asked me to say this was a miracle,” said Dr. Duffin. “They wanted to know if I had a scientific explanation for why this patient was still alive. I realized they weren’t asking me to endorse their beliefs. They didn’t care if I was a believer or not, they cared about the science.”

The bishops and priests were convinced the woman was “cured,” but Dr. Duffin balked at that.

“And I said I just couldn’t accept that she is cured and it is bothering me that you’re saying she’s cured. How are you going to feel if you submit this to the Vatican, call it a cure and it’s finally accepted and then she relapses after you’ve made her a saint?

“So I said to them, why don’t you just stop using the word cured and say she has had a miraculously prolonged second remission? And they did. And the Vatican approved it.”

She was so moved by the experience, she began research on a book, Medical Miracles, which shows how religion and medicine move in lockstep: the record of miracles is a record of the change in medical science. She said the book also shows how physicians used the best knowledge available during their lifetimes to try to explain the inexplicable.

“Catholic audiences go nuts when I say I’m still an atheist,” said Dr. Duffin, who laughs a lot when she tells about her role in saint-making. “They say, ‘How can you not be a believer having done all you’ve done?’

“I’m an atheist, but one who believes in miracles. I’m prepared to believe there can be more than one truth out there at any given time.”


When Edith Stein became a nun in Germany she changed her name to Teresia Benedicta of the Cross. She was murdered on Aug. 9, 1942.

It was the name that Emmanuel McCarthy and his wife chose for their 13th child. Everyone called the child Benedicta.

On March 20, 1987, Fr. McCarthy, a Catholic priest but part of an Eastern rite order that allows its clergy to marry, rushed his daughter to hospital after she ingested about 16 doses of Tylenol.

The moment the McCarthys realized how sick their daughter was, they began praying to Edith Stein for an intercession. They asked all their friends and family to do the same.

Dr. Kleinman said he expected the two-year-old to die, but he did not tell the parents. She had multi-organ failure along with infection.

“I almost never tell the parent there is no hope,” Dr. Kleinman said.

Four days later Benedicta was fine and her grateful family took her home, convinced that Edith Stein had healed the girl. The story made its way into the local newspaper and eventually came to the attention of the Carmelite nuns who had long been pushing the cause for Edith Stein’s sainthood.

Dr. Kleinman was unaware of the many prayers of intercession that had been offered up, but it would not have changed his opinion even if he had known.

“There’s a lot we don’t know, so I wouldn’t call it a miracle.”

Edith Stein was beatified on May 1, 1987. Because she was considered a martyr, no miracle was needed for that step. But to become a saint, one was still required.

In 1992, five years after his strange hospital experience with the girl who should have died, Dr. Kleinman was asked to testify at a hearing at the Archdiocese of Boston. The canonical hearing wanted to find out if there was any known medical reason for the child’s cure. The inquiry took more than five hours. Five years later, Dr. Kleinman was summoned to Rome to answer similar questions and testified for six hours.

He told both tribunals: “We know there is a hidden capacity to survive and when it comes it’s for reasons we don’t understand. There is some hidden capacity to regenerate and for resilience that we don’t have a way of measuring. So my view of this case was I expected she would die and was very gratified that she didn’t and I couldn’t provide an answer beyond that.”

He too was impressed with how thorough and thoughtful the process was. He said the canonization at the Vatican was one of the greatest highlights of his life.

“I don’t believe in miracles in the Catholic sense. I don’t believe in saints or intercession. I was blunt in saying that to the tribunals. But I said that I’m enough of a humanist and a scientist to feel that miraculous things happen beyond my understanding.”

National Post

[Photo: Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist, played a key role in the 200-year cause for canonization of Marie-Marguerite d’Youville, the first Canadian to be made a saint. “I’m an atheist, but one who believes in miracles,” says Duffin. “I’m prepared to believe there can be more than one truth out there.” Lars Hagberg for National Post]

1 comment:

Fr. John Mary, ISJ said...

God is so good, so loving, so present; may these scientists receive the gift of faith!