Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is Newman’s Miracle Credible? A Response to John Cornwell

Sul sito ufficiale della Causa di Canonizzazione i padri dell'Oratorio di Birmingham hanno pubblicato oggi questa dettagliata replica all'articolo di John Cornwell apparso la scorsa settimana.

John Cornwell (author of Hitler’s Pope about Pope Pius XII) is at it again. In The Sunday Times (’Why Cardinal Newman is no saint’, May 9 2010) he has published an elaborate but unconvincing attack on Newman’s miraculous healing of Deacon Jack Sullivan.

With his book on Newman due out at the end of the month, it’s hard to resist the thought that Cornwell has unveiled his case against the miracle with an eye to enhancing his sales. But there is more to it than that. Cornwell’s tendentious reading of contemporary Catholicism, and his disconcerting disdain for Pope Benedict XVI, both on display in his article, constitute his wider agenda.

The real issue is Newman’s doctrine of conscience. With the intellectual case for Catholic dissent now in ruins (thanks to this Papacy and the last), its increasingly few remaining enthusiasts (who retain, nonetheless, disproportionate influence) are desperate to recruit Newman to their cause. If only they could liberate Newman from the machinations of Vatican saint-making, their vision of Newman as the conscience-driven ‘patron sinner’ of Catholic dissent will gain in credibility.

So Cornwell has assembled an impressive array of experts to suggest that nothing medically inexplicable was involved in the Newman miracle. Before turning to his detailed arguments, however, which are presented with an appearance of great rigour, it is worth getting a feel for the value which Cornwell accords to accuracy and candour in the incidentals of his case.

And here we find a festival of inaccuracy. Cornwell claims that after a period of remission, Sullivan’s pain returned ‘in May’ 2001; in fact, it was on April 22. Sullivan’s healing took place not nine days after his operation, as Cornwell asserts, but after six days, on August 15. The Pope will beatify Newman on Sunday September 19, not as Cornwell asserts on Saturday 18.

Contrary to Cornwell’s assertion, the Catholic Church does not think that Beatification implies that a person ‘went straight to heaven’. Nor does the Church think that he or she has ‘literally proved his or her influence with God by persuading the Almighty to perform just one ‘testable’ miracle.’

Again, Newman certainly wanted his body rapidly to decompose, but not as Cornwell asserts in order ‘to thwart attempts to make a cult of his remains’ (thereby ‘cheating the saint-makers…[and]… clerical gravediggers’ as Cornwell puts it). A contemporary report from the Birmingham Daily Post of August 20 1890 makes clear that Newman favoured the rapid decomposition of his remains because of ‘his reverence for the letter of the Divine Word; which, as he conceived, enjoins us to facilitate rather than impede the operation of the law ‘Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’.’

Such misinformation is surely something more than a mere mistake? The most telling instance is perhaps his claim (conveyed with a clear implication of insider status) that what he describes as that ‘rare kind of book’, the official analysis of Newman’s miracle in the Positio Super Miro, ‘came into my hands…not so long ago’. It was in fact given to him by the Birmingham Oratory, as a gesture of good will, during a lunchtime visit he paid to us one sunny Sunday in early July 2009.

The Oratory has in this way made gifts of the Positio to many different people, by no means only to ‘a hand-full of bona-fide researchers with a specialist interest in Newman’, as Cornwell suggests. The Positio is not secluded away by the Vatican and the Oratory. It is in the public domain. Anyone can read it who wants to.

Given all this, we are entitled to approach the intricate arguments in which his case against Newman’s miracle consists with a certain caution. Is he really concerned with arriving at the truth, or intent on raising a smokescreen, to baffle and disconcert the believer and exhilarate the sceptic?

The nub of Cornwell’s case against Newman’s miracle is that in approving it the Vatican’s experts ignored one of the most important of their own norms. The norm states that no one who is healed miraculously should have undergone medically ‘effective treatment’. But Sullivan, Cornwell points out, underwent laminectomy for his spinal stenosis. On this basis alone, he suggests, Sullivan’s case should have been dismissed.

Once the significance of the laminectomy is liberated from Vatican suppression, Cornwell argues, it is no surprise that the independent specialists whom he has assembled (’remote from the supernatural and the Vatican ambit’) find nothing medically inexplicable in Sullivan’s post-operative recovery.

Even at a first glance, there is something implausible in Cornwell’s argument. However cynical about Rome one wants to be, is it credible to suggest that the Vatican experts, who know that everything relating to the case, including their own reasonings and conclusions, will be placed in the public domain, nonetheless conspired to suppress Sullivan’s ‘effective treatment’ in order to portray his healing as medically inexplicable?

Of course not. Sullivan’s laminectomy and its importance have not been suppressed; on the contrary they are open to view. So what is the truth?

The key point is this. Newman’s miracle was not healing Jack Sullivan of his spinal stenosis. It consisted in Sullivan’s instantaneous, complete and lasting freedom from pain and restoration of unrestricted mobility. The Vatican experts could not have been clearer on this point: ‘the judgement of non-explicability’, they say, ‘refers exclusively to the immediate recovery of post-operative function, absolutely not foreseen in the specific case.’

It is in this light that the question of whether Sullivan’s laminectomy counts as ‘effective treatment’ needs to be assessed. From the moment he made his short but intense prayer to Cardinal Newman on August 15 2001, Sullivan was instantaneously, completely and lastingly free of pain and enjoyed unrestricted mobility. Now are these among the range of effects which laminectomy could conceivably produce? If not, then there is no reason to regard the laminectomy as ‘effective treatment’.

That is presumably why Dr De Rosa, whom the Vatican has employed as a medical expert, implies (in words Cornwell quotes) that an investigation is necessary to determine whether something counts as ‘effective treatment’. ‘We have to be satisfied‘, Dr De Rosa explains, ‘that effective treatment has not been applied.’ The key question is not whether treatment has taken place, but whether, if it has, it could conceivably explain the healing in question.

Cornwell’s theory about the question of ‘effective treatment’ therefore reduces to a much less ominous consideration. Was Sullivan’s healing conceivably a result of his laminectomy? The Vatican’s experts decided it was not; Cornwell’s experts, he claims, say that it was.

But do they? We need to look very closely at what they say.

Mr Powell of University College Hospital says that after laminectomy ‘most patients…walk out happy at two days’. But what does ‘walking out happy’ mean? Does Cornwell intend us to conclude that Sullivan’s recovery was normal?

It would seem so. But then what are we to make of the testimony of Sullivan’s surgeon Mr Banco? He has said that in 15 years of practice he had treated over 1500 patients like Sullivan without ever witnessing a post-operative recovery at all comparable. Does this, as Cornwell implies, contradict Mr Powell? Not at all. Mr Powell says, in effect, that laminectomy is a procedure that typically leads to significant improvement in a patient’s condition. Presumably Mr Banco agrees, else why would he have performed so many laminectomies? But for Mr Banco the exceptional character of Sullivan’s recovery was different, indeed inexplicable. What Mr Powell says is not inconsistent with that.

What of Mr Powell’s remarks concerning possible non-surgical factors underlying post-operative pain relief? He mentions ‘bending over a supermarket shopping trolley…good physiotherapy…[or] relaxing holidays in warm places’.

Sullivan, however, didn’t recover in a supermarket or on holiday. On the day of his healing he was in hospital, in excruciating pain, barely able to move, and the day before had had to be carried back to his bed shortly after his session of physiotherapy had begun.

Cornwell doesn’t tell us any of this, leaving it to his readers to conclude that the kinds of factors mentioned by Mr Powell must have been operative in Sullivan’s healing. But they weren’t. Immobilised by pain, Sullivan said a short prayer to Cardinal Newman while doubled up at his hospital bedside. His pain and immobility instantly vanished, and have never returned. Mr Powell’s remarks, which Cornwell orchestrates to discredit Sullivan’s experience, in truth simply fail to engage with it.

Doubly so, in fact, since Mr Powell speaks in this context only of relief that is ‘fairly quick’ or lasts ‘for a significant period’. Does Cornwell not see that all this leaves Sullivan’s healing untouched?

Mrs Fernandez of Addenbrooke’s seems no more useful to Cornwell than Mr Powell. A careful reading of her testimony shows that she is mostly considering pre-operative spontaneous improvement, because she speaks about patients cancelling their surgery. According to Mrs Fernandez, such ’spontaneous improvement…is not uncommon’. But what degrees of improvement? Cornwell doesn’t say, although he must realise that unless Mrs Fernandez means instantaneous, complete and lasting improvement, her testimony is simply not to the point.

Patients who cancel, she tells us, ‘generally return some time later, but not always.’ Cornwell wants us to think that the reason some of them don’t is that, even without surgery, they have recovered just as Sullivan recovered. But this is obviously a non sequitur. There may be various reasons why some people choose not to return. Surgery is unappealing, and even quite high levels of pain can be managed. What light does any of this shed on Jack Sullivan?.

As for post-operative recovery, Mrs Fernandez says ‘improvement is expected in 60-70% of patients’. This means that like Mr Powell, and Sullivan’s surgeon Mr Banco, Mrs Fernandez knows that laminectomy is a generally successful procedure. No one denies it, but in Cornwell’s article the crucial question is left hanging. Does laminectomy in Mrs Fernandez’s experience ever produce instantaneous, complete and lasting freedom from pain and immobility? One suspects Cornwell didn’t ask. ‘Full recovery from surgery’, she tells us, ‘with full improvement can take some time.’ Although Cornwell wants us to think otherwise, this is too vague for his purposes. What exactly is ‘full improvement’? And is it ever instantaneous?

Cornwell, however, has a final card to play. Professor Kirsch of Hull University says that ‘blocking pain despite continued physical pathology does seem more like a placebo effect than a miracle.’

His reference to pain relief during ‘continued physical pathology’ suggests that Professor Kirsch is commenting on Sullivan’s pre-operative freedom from pain between June 2000 and April 2001. This is because no one knows about Sullivan’s post-operative physical pathology. In the earlier period, despite Sullivan’s freedom from pain, various scans did indeed reveal continuing spinal stenosis. In late April, Sullivan’s pain returned, worse than before, and his laminectomy on August 9 was intended to rectify his underlying condition. But its success is unknown, because since his laminectomy Sullivan has not been scanned.

Therefore when Cornwell asserts that ‘the underlying physical condition, [the] stenosis, was rectified by the laminectomy operation of August 2001′, he is saying more than we know. The extent of the rectification has not been determined.

Professor Kirsch, in any case, seems not to be commenting on Sullivan’s actual healing. He is commenting on an earlier, transient period of relief. Is it this transience, perhaps, that for Professor Kirsch makes an explanation in terms of ‘the placebo effect’ preferable to invoking the miraculous?

Cornwell doesn’t give this question the time of day. Taking up what Professor Kirsch has said, he asserts that the placebo effect ‘would certainly explain Sullivan’s alleviation of pain in both 2000 and 2001′. But would it? What evidence is there that the placebo effect might explain the instantaneous and enduring freedom from pain and immobility that Sullivan had enjoyed since August 2001?

In this connection, Cornwell introduces the well-known effects of ‘hypnosis, relaxation and altered states of mind’. Might these phenomena help us to understand Sullivan’s prayer to Newman? Cornwell wants us to think so, but he doesn’t tell us what Sullivan’s prayer actually consisted in. Fortunately, Sullivan has: ‘Please Cardinal Newman’, he prayed, ‘help me to walk so I can return to my Diaconate classes and be ordained.’

Now is this modest utterance something which might have induced an ‘altered state of mind’ sufficient to produce and sustain, over nine years, complete freedom from debilitating pain and immobility?

Over the preceding thirteen months Sullivan had doubtless said dozens of such prayers. Why would this one in particular suddenly function, so dramatically and definitively, as a placebo?

Besides which, Cornwell knows very well, from Dr De Rosa, that the Vatican experts ‘immediately discard’ any case suspected of involving ‘autosuggestion, hypnosis [or] psychology’. We have seen how unfounded is Cornwell’s claim that the Vatican by-passed the exclusion of ‘effective treatment’. Is he suggesting that they evaded ‘the placebo effect’ as well?

Having looked at Cornwell’s case against Newman’s miracle, then, we are entitled to conclude that for all its show of sophistication it just doesn’t add up.

But will Cornwell mind? His ultimate target is not Sullivan or Newman, or even the Vatican experts. His animus seems to be directed against the Pope himself. Cornwell’s attack on Newman’s miracle is all about discrediting ‘the papal role as final adjudicator of the scientifically tested supernatural’; and with it ‘the traditionalist wing of Catholicism’ which the Pope represents, and in particular his desire to ‘[sanitise] Newman’s progressive Catholicism in preparation for the beatification.’

He all but challenges Pope Benedict, when he comes to the UK in September, to take as his theme Newman’s supposedly ‘progressive’ and ‘dissenting’ reflections on Conscience and the Papacy. The Holy Father has meditated deeply upon this very question, so let us hope that (even if inadvertently) he responds to Cornwell’s provocation.

In the meantime, perhaps Cornwell himself could do some thinking about the very question with which he taunts the Pope. What text could be more appropriate for Cornwell’s meditation (and for all who think like him) than Newman’s explanation of how an authentic conscience is clarified and completed by the Papal Magisterium?

we shall find that it is by the universal sense of right and wrong, the consciousness of transgression, the pangs of guilt, and the dread of retribution, as first principles deeply lodged in the hearts of men…that [the Pope] has gained his footing in the world and achieved his success. It is his claim to come from the Divine Lawgiver, in order to elicit, protect, and enforce those truths which the Lawgiver has sown in our very nature, it is this and this only that is the explanation of his length of life…The championship of the Moral Law and of conscience is his raison d’être. The fact of his mission is the answer to the complaints of those who feel the insufficiency of the natural light; and the insufficiency of that light is the justification of his mission.

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