PADRE PIO WAS a capuchin monk and mystic who lived in southern Italy until his death in 1968 at the age of eighty-one. A hero to traditionalist Roman Catholics, he is scheduled to be beatified this May by Pope John Paul II–the penultimate step in the process of being made a saint.

Before a candidate for sainthood can be beatified, the Catholic Church requires testimony of two miracles. In Padre Pio’s case, this requirement was presumably not difficult to fulfill. Not only was he credited with the ability to heal the sick and to be in two places at the same time (a feat known as bilocation)–he also bore stigmata on his hands, feet, and side, which resembled the wounds received by Jesus Christ at the Crucifixion.

Some three hundred cases of stigmatization have been reported, going back to Saint Francis of Assisi, the first known stigmatic, in the thirteenth century. Padre Pio’s stigmata appeared in 1918. Meditating in front of a crucifix, he let out a great cry, and when his brother monks came to his aid, they saw the wounds for the first time. He had them for the rest of his life. At the height of the wounds’ activity, they oozed a cup of blood a day, yet they never became septic; in fact, some who observed them claimed they exuded a roselike aroma.

Though belief in miracles is often thought to be the mark of a primitive mind, the very idea of a miracle entails a certain intellectual refinement, since it presupposes a grasp of natural law as distinct from divine will. That is why it figures only in monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Strictly speaking, a miracle is an infringement on the laws of nature of a kind that only God, if there is a God, would have reason to bring about. The occurrence of such events is thus evidence of God’s existence, which is why religions have traditionally used them to compel belief.

Some philosophers have maintained that miracles in this sense are impossible because the concept is incoherent. A natural law is just a summary of what actually happens in the world, they submit. No regularity violated by a "miracle" can really be a law of nature. The apparent exceptions merely mean that the law must be amended or expanded.

There is a way around this incoherence argument against miracles, however. It is to think of the natural world as a causal system that is normally closed but still subject to occasional supernatural interventions. Under the precise causal conditions covered by the laws of nature, for example, water does not spontaneously change into wine. But with an added nonnatural causal factor present–the invisible activity of God–this transformation could occur without invalidating the relevant laws.

Even if miracles are not ruled out a priori, can we ever have good reason to believe one has occurred? David Hume thought not. "I flatter myself that I have discovered an argument...which, if just, will, with the wise and the learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion," he wrote in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

Hume’s argument goes like this. Suppose we have testimony of a miraculous event. Then there are two possibilities: Either the miracle has occurred or the testimony is false. Which is more likely? If the reported event really is a miracle, it is by definition contrary to the laws of nature. But the laws of nature are supported by a great mass of inductive evidence; exceptions to them are as unlikely as anything can be. The testimony of witnesses, by contrast, has often proved unreliable, for reasons of bias, suggestibility, and outright mendacity. Therefore, in Hume’s words, "no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsity would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish." Even if the witnesses are deemed highly reliable, our conviction that a miracle occurred can never be very strong, since it corresponds to the difference between two improbabilities: that of the miracle itself, and that of the miracle report being false.

Most alleged miracles fall before Hume’s argument, but not Padre Pio’s stigmata. Receiving the wounds of Christ may be a onetime event, but having them is a condition. Unlike most miracles, they hang around–in Padre Pio’s case, for half a century. We do not have to rely on the affidavits of gullible monks and peasants; scientists could go look at them, and did.

In 1919, Padre Pio was examined by Professor A. Bignami, a pathologist from the University of Rome. Bignami decided that the lesions were not fraudulently induced; rather, he attributed them to a disease of the epidermis of neurotic origin, their symmetrical arrangement being accounted for by unconscious suggestion. Lest this explanation be dismissed as the product of a hidebound scientific mind, it should be remarked that physicians have since documented several dozen cases of lesions spontaneously appearing on patients’ skin with no physical explanation. In one case , a thirty-five-year-old man under close hospital observation developed bleeding wounds on his arms corresponding to rope marks he had received nine years earlier while being forcibly restrained. There is as yet no medical model to explain this syndrome, which has been given the name "psychogenic purpura."

Were Padre Pio’s stigmata just another case of psychogenic purpura? If so, they might still be held miraculous, provided one is willing, like some contemporary theologians, to water down the notion of miracle: to define it not as a breach of natural law but as a striking event that evokes a vivid awareness of God in those already disposed to believe. I doubt Hume would have had a problem with that.


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