The panel will no longer judge whether pilgrims to the French shrine could have benefited from “miracle” healing — a huge shift from the centuries-old way of deciding what makes the cut as a divine cure.
“It seems ‘miracle’ may not be the right word to use any more,” Bishop Jacques Perrier of the Diocese of Tarbes and Lourdes said.
“It’s no longer a black-and-white question.”
The shrine in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains in south-western France draws six million pilgrims a year, many of whom believe that its spring water can heal and even work miracles.
Pope Benedict XVI travelled there in September to celebrate the 150th anniversary of apparitions of the Virgin Mary to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous.
Over the years, more than 7,000 pilgrims have claimed to have been healed after bathing in or drinking Lourdes water. The church has officially deemed 67 cures “miraculous”.
In 1954, the Tarbes-Lourdes diocese created the panel of doctors today known as the International Medical Committee of Lourdes, which one doctor said for years all but decided whether healings were miracles.
But last weekend, the panel decided that from now on it will only rule on whether healing cases were “remarkable”, leaving it to the church to decide whether they are miracles, its secretary Dr Patrick Theillier said.
“It’s a sort of rebellion, if you will, against laws that don’t concern us — and shouldn’t,” he said. “The medical corps must be independent of the ecclesiastic power.
“Before, what we presented to the church was a gift all wrapped up and all the church had to say was ‘I approve,’ without making a lot of effort,” said Dr Theillier.
The church relies on seven criteria devised in 1734 to decide miracle healing, such as the gravity of the ailment, the accuracy of medical diagnosis and the suddenness and durability of the healing.
But applying those so-called Lambertini criteria today is “almost always impossible”, the Notre Dame of Lourdes Sanctuary said.
The church most recently approved a miracle at Lourdes in 2005. Catholic officials said Anna Santaniello of Italy was taken to bathe in the spring on a stretcher and came back on her own two feet, cured of severe heart disease and ailments that had left her unable to walk or speak properly.