The catholic church has very recently beatified late Pope John Paul II. As one of the requirements for this, the church required at least one miracle attributed to the candidate. In this case, a nun is claimed to have been cured from Parkinson's disease after praying to the late pope.

Since in general I know of no evidence suggesting that praying to dead people can cure you of diseases, my question would be: Is there a known scientific explanation for this alleged miracle? Did this event happen in the first place?

  • 16
    The easiest way to answer this is basically to say that "miracles" cannot be (by definition) explained. If they could be explained, they are not miracles.
    – picakhu
    May 4 '11 at 20:47
  • 4
    Yes and no. I agree that any claim of a miracle is, in essence, an argumentum ad ignorantiam. If there is no natural explanation, a supernatural is still not valid. However, I am already skeptical about the claim that there is no natural explanation. I wonder if in this specific example, we even have a natural answer that is just ignored.
    – Lagerbaer
    May 4 '11 at 20:53
  • 16
    I'm sorry, I can't answer your question, but I have an extension: If praying to someone heals somebody, how can the healing be attributed to the person to which the prayer was addressed? If the pope was already dead, how should he heal her? Shouldn't we say, the nun triggered the miracle? How do we know it wasn't a holy waterfall, a star at the firmament or a healing wondercat which crossed the roof of her house? May 5 '11 at 0:50
  • 13
    As a side note, it's a pity that the prayer of a billion Catholics for several years didn't miraculously cure Pope John Paul II of Parkinsons, though.
    – Sklivvz
    Mar 30 '12 at 20:03
  • 3
    @Sklivvz - Pope John Paul was able to best carry out god's will by demonstrating how to die with dignity and piety. I detest the catholic church but fully respect the leadership he was able to show in this regard. Sometimes god's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers - Garth Brooks
    – Chad
    Aug 23 '12 at 13:39

Did this event happen?

According to the Vatican it did:

Pope Benedict XVI has formally approved a miracle attributed to his late predecessor, paving the way to John Paul II's beatification on 1 May.

The Vatican credits him with the miraculous cure of a nun said to have had Parkinson's Disease.

So an actual event did happen, with a real person.

Is there a known scientific explanation for this alleged miracle?

The sister herself claims that she was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2001.

There is currently no known cure for Parkinson's disease source 1, source 2.

So there are only a few possibilities:

  • She was misdiagnosed
  • She has become one of the first people in history to have beaten Parkinson's
  • It's all a hoax

For the second option we don't have enough evidence, we only have her anecdotal story. There is no lab test that can be done to confirm Parkinson's source 1, source 2.

Based on the information presented, unless the Vatican has access to technology the rest of the world doesn't, the Vatican would have to decide based on testimony of those around the Sister.

So you are left with three choices: believe that she was cured based on testimony (because there is no other way of finding out post-event), assume that it was a misunderstanding or decide that it is all a lie.

  • 6
    Even if it was option 2, we don't know if it was because she prayed in a certain way or even if she did...
    – Oddthinking
    Aug 23 '12 at 5:14
  • 1
    @Oddthinking - And the point being... we never will. As mentioned, you can either take her word for it or not, there is no way of proving this. Also want to point out that she said she prayed to him (read link 2).
    – going
    Aug 23 '12 at 5:25
  • 1
    True. I was agreeing with your conclusion that we only have her anecdotal story that she beat Parkinson's, and was further emphasizing that, also, we only have her anecdotal story that she prayed to John Paul II. And even if she is right about the disease and telling the truth about the prayers, we only have the 'post hoc ergo prompter hoc' fallacy to support the idea that the prayer made a difference. As you suggest, with this evidence, we will never be able to conclude it was a "miracle", except to take it on faith.
    – Oddthinking
    Aug 23 '12 at 6:18
  • I supoose one could find out which doctor Diagnosed her with Parkinsons, and from doctors who may have treated her whilst she was supposedly suffering, and see if there is any testimony there. Would probably not be conclusive proof either way, but would produce extra info.
    – NotJarvis
    Aug 23 '12 at 13:40
  • I.e., basically proving or disproving it is a matter of faith. Aug 27 '14 at 11:36

The Catholic Church approved the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II after a Catholic nun, Marie Simon-Pierre, reported being cured of Parkinson's disease after praying to John Paul II. Wikipedia reports that the validity of the beatification has been criticised on a number of grounds, including a suggestion that the unusual rapidity with which it proceeded might be intended to deflect criticism of John Paul's failure to respond effectively to the scandal of sexual abuse.

To be certain a miracle cure occurred, we would have to be certain Sister Marie Simon-Pierre ever really suffered from Parkinson's disease, but this has yet to be proven. The disease usually affects people much older than Simon-Pierre and can not be demonstrated with certainty other than by an autopsy. There is no lab test that will clearly identify the disease, but brain scans are sometimes used to rule out other disorders that could give rise to similar symptoms. The progress of the illness over time may reveal it is not Parkinson's disease, and some authorities recommend that the diagnosis be periodically reviewed. People diagnosed with Parkinson's may be given levodopa and resulting relief of motor impairment tends to confirm diagnosis. It would seem that either Simon-Pierre was not given this treatment, or that it was ineffective, since she says, "From April 2, 2005, I began to worsen week by week, I grew worse day by day." This does not necessarily prove that she did not have Parkinson's disease, but is one ground for doubt.

Diagnosis of Parkinson's disease can at best be established from the presence of a number of indicators, two of which are response to levodopa for at least five years and clinical course of at least ten years. Sister Simon-Pierre reports a period of around four years from initial diagnosis to cure, but does not mention levodopa treatment, so this does not tell us whether this test was considered. Again, since she only had symptoms for four years from the time of diagnosis, the second text fails. It is possible, particularly given the early onset (Most individuals with Parkinson's disease are diagnosed when they are 60 years old or older, but early-onset Parkinson's disease also occurs), that Sister Simon-Pierre suffered from another neurological disease which has similar symptoms as Parkinson's but which can be cured.

Sister Simon-Pierre insisted that her cure was complete and instantaneous, but has never publicly explained who first diagnosed her with Parkinson's disease and how that diagnosis was confirmed. After the miracle, we of course have investigations that show her free of the disease, although there are unconfirmed reports that she subsequently had a relapse. What is really important is not whether she is free of Parkinson's disease now, but whether she ever suffered from the disease in the first place.

  • 2
    Please provide some references to support your claims.
    – Oddthinking
    Apr 28 '15 at 0:49
  • 2
    Even with references, would this add anything to the existing answer? Apr 28 '15 at 2:25
  • 2
    @dmckee I hope in the last couple of hours I have improved the answer, as well as adding references, sufficiently to answer your question. Apr 28 '15 at 2:36

The question is intrinsically acceding to the deceit of the system: it is questioning one specific "miracle" rather than the concept of "miracle" itself. If you view the broader concept itself you better understand where miracles come form. Because there's a fairly easy explanation for pretty much any (medical) miracle: survivorship bias and cherry picking.

You take one "one-in-a-million chance" and then run it several million times, and the odds become very good that you'll get at least one success. Hooray, miracle! Pay no attention to the millions of failures behind the curtain.

For example, let's run some Parkinson's statistics. They estimate that there are approximately 10 million people with Parkinson's worldwide. Let's suppose the disease is independent of religion, or at least the Catholic religion. Since approximately 16% of the world's population is Catholic, that gives approximately 1.6 million Catholics afflicted with Parkinson's. If it were a "one-in-a-million chance" (taken quite literally) to be cured in some sense during a given span of time (including the possibility that you never really had it, but had something else, as well as some intervening phenomenon resulting in a temporary suppression of symptoms, etc.), we'd expect there to be about 1.6 Catholics in the world to experience a sudden cure during that time span.

Now we could start throwing in other factors: how many of those had actually met/contacted/touched the Pope or been prayed for by him, how many of those were actively praying to be cured, how many of those were thinking of the Pope in particular, how many would convincingly claim they were, etc. It becomes increasingly hard to estimate all of the variables, but there's one inescapable fact: this was for just one disease! There are many horrible (and incurable) diseases in the world. The NHC estimates some 40% of Americans alone have a chronic (and essentially incurable) disease. When you actually start looking at all of the possibilities, you realize it becomes rather more miraculous for no one to have had a "miracle" cure from anything at all. It becomes rather expected that one or two of the survivors will point to the same globally prominent thing to explain their good fortune.

So your explanation in this case is that by some chance event (or calculated deception) some Catholic had something wrong with them, but then didn't, and happened to believe that the head of their religion was involved. I have no idea what that chance event was (nor do I have any evidence of a deception, to be clear), but this isn't necessary to understand that a success that exists essentially by the law of large numbers was singled out, and a massive pile of failures was ignored.

  • 1
    This is an answer based purely on a theoretical model. We expect answers to be based on empirical evidence rather than speculative predictions
    – Oddthinking
    Aug 8 '17 at 7:38
  • 1
    @Oddthinking Empirical evidence like statistics about diseases and population demographics? How about the mathematics that analyzes and makes meaningful any and all empirical evidence? Cherry picking and survivorship bias are hardly some abstract nonsense. They are legitimate issues in science and would-be science, and must be accounted for to have proper empirical info. And I take the OP's statement about not knowing any evidence for how praying to dead people can help you out as a cue that explaining how easy it is find coincidences in large populations is appropriate and instructive. Aug 8 '17 at 7:49
  • 1
    Have a read of our welcome post. I think it links to the endless discussions about why pure maths, pure logic, pure theory and pure common sense answers are not permitted here.
    – Oddthinking
    Aug 8 '17 at 14:15

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .