Belief and Unbelief I: Emile Zola at Lourdes

Since the time of Newton, the discoveries of science have been used as a stick with which to beat on religious faith. Newton, Darwin, and others described a mechanistic universe which seemed to have no need of a Creator. The response of theologians was a reminder that science is the study of nature; it can have nothing to say about what, if anything, is outside nature. The religious camp also argued that the discoveries of science demonstrated, in the words of the great Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, “that there runs through Nature unmistakable evidences of thought… unaccountable on any other basis than that they owe their existence to the workings of intelligence.” But the materialists went on to dominate the intellectual marketplace. The trinity which presides over the modern mind is not the mystical one; Darwin, Marx, and Freud all attacked the idea of a Creator on the basis of a “scientific” materialism.

But since the turn of the century, science, in the words of Chesterton, has been racing toward the supernatural like an express train. Physicists discussing quantum mechanics or the origin of the universe sound like zen mystics, while popular books about their work have titles like “The Tao of Physics.” Although it might be argued that the notion of intelligent design in creation should lead to the Summa Theologiae rather than Eastern paradoxes, it is nonetheless clear that science no longer supports the smug assertion that the universe has always been a closed system with nothing for a Creator to do.

The proverbial man on the street, however, remains stuck in the late nineteenth century so far as his understanding of these issues goes. He is a victim of a syndrome described by Francis Bacon, who said that while a little science can lead one away from God, more science leads one back again. In most cases, the modern rejection of the supernatural is not even based on a memory of high school science; rather, it is on the level of those anti-clerical journalists of a hundred years ago who asked how anyone in an age of steam engines and telegraphs could believe in God.

This train of thought reached a kind of perfection in the person of Emile Zola, the late nineteenth-century French novelist. Even the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which is not untouched by the same crude materialism, describes Zola’s belief that science had cleared up all the mysteries of the universe as credulous. This brand of “scientism,” in the context of a highly clerical nineteenth-century French Church, made Zola a bitter enemy of Catholicism. At the height of his fame in the early 1890s, he set out to write a number of scurrilous anti-clerical novels. But unwittingly this most “truthful” of writers managed to turn himself into a parable—or anti-parable, if you will—about the lengths certain minds will go to deny the existence of God.

There was no point of Catholic devotion more ridiculous to him that the belief that the Virgin Mary had appeared in the little French town of Lourdes in 1858 and that miraculous cures had occurred there since then. An indefatigable researcher, Zola went down to Lourdes in August 1892, to gather material for a scathing indictment. But the unexpected happened: he witnessed a miracle. And his reaction—psychologists today might call it “cognitive dissonance”—was one of those instances that in a flash reveal an intellectual epoch, much as Henry VIII’s desecration of the tomb of St. Thomas Becket says more about what was at stake in the English Reformation than a library of historical monographs.

As is the case today, thousands of invalids made their way down to Lourdes at the time Zola went there. And as is still the case, only a minute fraction could hope for a cure. To regard Lourdes as a “miracle factory” is to miss the point; it is a place of spiritual pilgrimage. When Mary appeared to Bernadette, she did not promise cures; she simply said that people should come to pray and do penance. Catholics, of course, are not obliged to believe in any supernatural occurrence since the death of the last apostle. Nonetheless, from the beginning there have been healings at Lourdes which can only be described as miraculous. (There is also the matter of St. Bernadette’s incorrupt body, which lies in a glass sarcophagus in the chapel of her convent at Nevers.) The Lourdes Medical Bureau has always been cautious on this score and has thus far recognized only 65 “cures” after the most rigorous medical scrutiny.

Zola attached himself to an 18-year-old girl named Marie Lemarchand who was afflicted with three seemingly incurable diseases: an advanced stage of lupus, pulmonary tuberculosis, and leg ulcerations the size of an adult’s hand. Zola describes the girl’s face on the way to Lourdes as being eaten away by the lupus: “The whole was a frightful distorted mass of matter and oozing blood.” The girl went into the baths and emerged completely cured. One of the doctors present wrote, “On her return from the baths I at once followed her to the hospital. I recognized her well although her face was entirely changed.” The doctors who examined her could also find nothing wrong with her lungs, both of which had been infected with tuberculosis, causing the patient to cough and spit blood. Sixteen years later, she was still in perfect health and the cure was designated as official.

Zola was there when she came out of the baths. He had said, “I only want to see a cut finger dipped in water and come out healed.” The President of the Medical Bureau, Dr. Boissarie, was standing beside him. “Ah, Monsieur Zola, behold the case of your dreams!” “I don’t want to look at her,” replied Zola. “To me she is still ugly.” And he walked away.

Zola subsequently witnessed a second cure at Lourdes, that of a Mlle. Lebranchu, who was suffering from the final stages of tuberculosis. He told Dr. Boissarie, “Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle.” He put the second cure in his novel Lourdes (1894), but depicted the woman as relapsing into her former condition on her way home, the implication being that the cure was neither permanent nor supernatural, but rather a case of autosuggestion in an hysterical religious atmosphere.

But Zola, who remained in communication with the woman long after her recovery, was perfectly aware that there had been no relapse. When Dr. Boissarie questioned him as to the honesty of his account, pointing out that Zola had said that he had come to Lourdes to make an impartial investigation, Zola replied that he was an artist and could do whatever he liked with his material.

Most modern scientific detractors of the supernatural are not privileged to witness this sort of miracle. But they share Zola’s dishonesty when they distort what science has been able to prove in order to undermine religion. And their determination to rid the universe of a creator makes nonsense of their claims of objectivity. Darwin’s great German disciple Weissmann declared that natural selection must be defended as the mechanism of evolution in no matter what fantastic fashion, because “it is the only alternative to design.” This is Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s position, if you cut through all the rhetoric. No matter how much evidence comes forth that the universe cannot be the result of a blind, random process, people like Gould and Carl Sagan cling to a crude scientific materialism which they dispense to a large audience in nice, homeopathic doses.

It is sometimes asked why God does not produce more miracles in order to make it easier for people to believe. The story of Zola at Lourdes gives one possible answer. If you choose to seal yourself off from the supernatural, no miracle is going to make a difference. This was true in the time of Christ; after the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, many disciples deserted him because of the “scandal” of the eucharistic discourse.

As Robert Hugh Benson remarked in a beautiful little book about Lourdes in 1914, there are people who will not be convinced until the last judgment—and “even when the last trumpet sounds… some of them, when they have recovered from their first astonishment, will make remarks about aural phenomena.”

  • George Sim Johnston

    George Sim Johnston is the author of "Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution" (Our Sunday Visitor).

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