The Other Side of Miracle Cures and So-Called Miracles

‘All too often, I think people confuse the noun “miracle” with the adjective “miraculous”.
That which is miraculous need not be a miracle’

‘Saints should always be presumed guilty until proved innocent’ — George Orwell

As a doctor I am interested, as I am sure all doctors must be, in any news about miracles and miracle cures, especially when they are associated with high profiles. Such was the case about the recent canonisation of Mother Teresa by the Pope last week, an event which obtained free international press and dominated worldwide news while it lasted. I was even more interested because I studied in the city, Kolkata, where Mother Teresa had established her Missionaries of Charity, though I must admit that during all the six years I spent there I never heard about her or her work.

While believers uncritically lapped up the miracles based on which the sainthood was bestowed, as was to be expected, the more rational and scientifically minded went about doing a bit of serious homework. They came up with articles and observations that provided some valid alternative views about what late Christopher Hitchens had described, upon the beatification of Mother Teresa by Pope Jean Paul II as ‘the abject surrender, on the part of the church, to the forces of showbiz, superstition, and populism’.

This was in an article that he wrote with a rather scathing title ‘The fanatic, fraudulent Mother Teresa’, and which Philip Almond, Professorial Research Fellow in the History of Religious Thought, The University of Queensland in his own article ‘Questioning the ‘miracles’ of Saint Teresa’ in ‘The Conversation’ of September 2, 2016 referred to.

The criticisms fell into four categories: questioning the veracity of the ‘miracles’ and emphasizing the scientific dimension, wondering why God is selective in his interventions or non-interventions, pointing out Mother Teresa’s ambiguity on issues taken up by the Catholic Church, and querying some of the aspects of her works and their financing.

Thus, Christopher Hitchens alludes to the ‘fakery’ of the alleged miracle cure of a cancerous tumour in a Bengali woman’s abdomen. In fact, her physician said that she didn’t have a cancerous tumor in the first place, but a tuberculous cyst that was cured by a course of anti-TB medicine, and he underlines that the physician was NOT interviewed by the Vatican.

However, he digs the nail further when he states: ‘It used to be that a person could not even be nominated for “beatification,” the first step to “sainthood,” until five years after his or her death. This was to guard against local or popular enthusiasm in the promotion of dubious characters. The pope nominated Mother Teresa a year after her death in 1997. It also used to be that an apparatus of inquiry was set in train, including the scrutiny of an advocatus diaboli or “devil’s advocate,” to test any extraordinary claims. The pope has abolished this office and has created more instant saints than all his predecessors combined as far back as the 16th century’.

He goes on to note her ‘taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return)’. He asks: “Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been – she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself – and her order always refused to publish any audit’. No answers have been forthcoming.

As for Philip Almond, he is clear that ‘the absence of a scientific explanation should not propel us to uncritically endorse divine intervention as the cause of these events’, which is a position that I align with. We know so little about the fundamentals of the workings of living things at the genetic or molecular, let alone the atomic level. But we know is that the minutest of tweaks at any of these levels can tip the balance 180 degrees, so filling that unknown space with the theory of ‘the God of the Gaps’, that is plug God in as an explanation is rather risky and quite problematic. For the simple reason that, as Phillip Almond notes, ‘if a scientific explanation were to come about tomorrow, the miracle would then be shown not to have occurred. The arena of God’s activity has significantly shrunk over the last 300 years as a consequence of this theory’.

Indeed, as a blog noted: ‘God used to be in the business of throwing thunderbolts. Now it is a weather event. God used to send plagues. Now we battle pathogens (microbes causing disease) we can see and know are real. God used to move the planets and make the sun rise. Nowadays, gravity and the Earth’s rotation do the job’.

Further, Almond is also uncomfortable with ‘God’s apparent disinclination to intervene more often. If God can heal the sick on one occasion, why is he not more active on other occasions of incurable illness? And if he can act on occasion to cure illnesses, why can’t he intervene to stop earthquakes and other natural disasters?’ concluding that ‘God’s apparent disinclination to act as often as he might, and probably should, raises awkward questions about whether he is unwilling to act or whether he is incapable of doing so’.

In Kolkata, someone who was interviewed said that because she was a Westerner and Christian, she got more attention and attracted donations (which have apparently dwindled after her death, supporting this contention), and that there were other local organisations doing as much or even more work and that didn’t get attention or recognition. Others were sour that she had ‘marketed the poverty’ of Kolkata as if this was the main thing there. This seems to resonate with Christopher Hitchens’s view that ‘Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction’. Strong words indeed!

As for me, I would go along with the view that ‘people such as Mother Teresa need no divine turbo boost’. It is enough of a miracle for me that a young woman barely out of her teens left her homeland and travelled to a country so unknown and so foreign to her to go and take care of people in the streets. Having lived and travelled in India since 1965, and especially having sojourned in Kolkata, I am only too aware of the indifference of many Indians to the sufferings of their compatriots. I have experienced it first hand, and hung my head in shame for them.

I have also read about the many Indians who have set up foundations that are very active in diverse fields (health education, sanitation, provision of water, etc.) so as to uplift millions of their compatriots, and this is certainly very commendable. But one picture keeps coming back: that of Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, who travelled to India in their private plane, sitting with sex-workers in the red light area of New Delhi, having come to assist them in fighting AIDS. When, I had wondered, would I see an Indian equivalent of Bill Gates do the same?

As a commentator noted: ‘All too often, I think people confuse the noun “miracle” with the adjective “miraculous”. That which is miraculous need not be a miracle’. Whether or not the miracles claimed as such were genuine or not is to me immaterial. Irrespective of the criticisms, I think that what Mother Teresa did for the destitute and the neglected in Kolkata was truly miraculous, something which, given the sheer size of the population of India, many more Indians need to be involved in.

And one last thing, doctor’s word: there is no such thing as a miracle cure.

RN Gopee

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