“Stigmata” are bodily marks in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus. The first reported case of stigmata was that of St. Francis of Assisi in 1224 (they are not known to have occurred before Assisi), and there have been many more reported cases since, the most famous recent example being that of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, which was the subject of the Sunday Monitor article by Joseph Musisi Mwanje on November 7th titled “Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, the Pierced Saint”.
As a phenomenon, even the Catholic Church has traditionally been very suspicious of, and skeptical about, stigmata – as Mwanje pointed out. Many of the alleged cases have been dismissed as hoaxes not just by secular skeptics but even by the Catholic Church itself. For this reason, even the Vatican is usually careful when looking into many alleged claims of stigmata.
Take the example of Magdalena de la Cruz (1487-1560), a Franciscan nun from Spain, who admitted while seriously ill that she had faked her stigmata. Then there is, Maria de la Visitacion, a Portuguese nun, who in 1587 was caught by a fellow nun painting the stigmatic wounds onto her hands. Cases like these, and numerous others, have been dismissed as frauds by the Catholic Church. The question arises, what then makes the specific case of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina any more plausible, or compelling, than these hoaxes?
In his article Mwanje says:
“Father Pio’s wounds were the subject of intense and life-long medical curiosity by, among others, three renowned doctors: Prof Luigi Romanelli, Dr Luigi Festa and Prof Antonio Bignami (who did not believe in God). No medical cause could be found to explain the phenomenon. For 50 years, the wounds were never subject to infection. Instead they remained stationary, unchanging, not tending to heal, not becoming gangrenous or emitting a foul odour.”
All the alleged reports pertaining to the medical examination Padre Pio received have the said doctors examining the hands of Padre Pio, and simply confirming that there were wounds of some kind on it, and nothing more. Now, even if we assumed (for the sake of argument) that they actually said the things that have traditionally been attributed to them regarding this case (i.e. that wounds were allegedly present), their inability to immediately diagnose a specific cause of Padre Pio’s wounds does not render its cause supernatural (to argue that it is would simply be an argument from ignorance).
Padre Pio was never placed under 24-hour surveillance where all his movements and activities could be monitored to see whether or not he was not self-inflicting the wounds on his hands, or using chemicals such as carbolic acid to keep the wounds open (as allegations suggest). This is not a trivial matter. Because we are aware of cases of self-inflicted stigmata, for a specific case to be proven genuine, round the clock monitoring would be necessary to rule out self-infliction. This was not done in the case of Padre Pio, and has not been done for any known stigmatic to date.
Indeed, even today there are so many cases of people claiming to have had stigmatic experiences. Not surprisingly, many of these claims come from Catholics, for whom stories of stigmata have been part of the popular religious tradition for centuries. This should tell you something.
But we must ask… why don’t these stigmatics ever volunteer themselves for scientific research? Why don’t they volunteer themselves to be placed in an isolated room full of video cameras over a period of time, with them having absolutely no access to knives, razorblades or any sharp instruments, or chemicals that can cause skin irritation or breaking of skin? This way, if a stigmata occurred, we would all be able to watch it happen in real time. With this basic control in place, many of the usual methods of self-inflicted stigmata would have been ruled out, and we’d have to start wondering about could be causing it. But we’re not even there yet, as no such thorough scientific investigation in the history of stigmata or the Catholic Church has ever taken place.
Example of a faked stigmata. From: Instant Skeptic
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. As far as stigmata are concerned, all we have are anecdotes from uncritical witnesses, or clergy, usually Catholic, who naturally have a vested interested in propagating the alleged miracle story. As such, their testimonies cannot be relied upon to be objective. Scientific observation under controlled conditions is the only way of demonstrating that these stigmata are genuine. If Catholics are serious about demonstrating that stories of stigmata are genuine, they should rise to this challenge.
Pious fraud is defined as..
“fraud contrived and executed to benefit the church or accomplish some good end, upon the theory that the end justified the means.”
It shouldn’t come as news that some believers fake miracles, or invent stories pertaining to alleged miracles. (Remember the pastor caught with an electronic ‘shocking’ gadget?) I personally recall my days as a conservative Christian, where I took many liberties with how I recounted events in my life to my fellow believers. I often exaggerated my personal experiences to ‘spice up’ my testimonies. For example, if I was narrating a story of how ‘God’ healed me from my headache, I’d often neglect to include the fact that I had taken some pills, drank some water, and lay down to rest prior to saying my prayer. Those details weren’t important, or so I thought then. I just liked how narrating stories like these seemed to encourage and inspire others, and so each time I narrated this story, I’d spice it up even more to elicit even bigger cheers from the crowd. Even when I clearly knew I wasn’t being entirely honest (e.g. lying by omission), in my mind I felt that the end justified the means. I lied in order to encourage their faith. Stigmata are pretty much the same thing, but taken to extremes – because in the case of stigmata, believers have been known to fake it outright.
Until a scientific investigation (in the manner described) into cases of stigmata have been carried out and verified through replicated experimentation, stories of stigmata should be dismissed as pious frauds – which we have every reason to believe they are.
This essay has been forwarded to Sunday Monitor for consideration. I have been informed that it may be published this Sunday.
UPDATE: It was published.