The Straight Dope

Is there anything to the phenomenon known as "stigmata," i.e., when people inexplicably develop the same type of bloody wounds inflicted on Jesus on the cross? -- R.T., New York, New York

Maybe I shouldn't tell you this, but I have these scaly patches on my palm that have been known to bleed. At first I thought they were caused by winter dryness. But now I know. They're stigmata.

As you might guess, Cecil is pretty dubious about this stigmata thing. The first definite case (there may have been a couple of earlier ones) was Saint Francis of Assisi in 1224. Records as of 1894 show 321 cases, and there have been many more since. The Italian stigmatic Padre Pio died in 1968; in 1997 he was declared "venerable," a step on the road to sainthood. In 1992 a stigmatic Catholic turned up in, of all places, suburban Washington, D.C. Not only did Fr. James Bruse have wounds, but religious statues wept and changed colors in his presence, and several people he blessed were said to have been healed.

Lest you get the wrong idea, stigmata aren't some wacky variant on getting your ears pierced. The wounds supposedly just appear. And sometimes keep on appearing. One of the classic cases of the Nineteenth Century, Louise Lateau, got them every Friday for fifteen years.

The question isn't whether the stigmata are self-inflicted. Of course they're self-inflicted. Even if I were disposed to to believe in divine intervention, the variety in the appearance and location of the wounds on different stigmatics argues strongly that this is a matter of, how shall I say, human handiwork. In some cases the wounds have duplicated those of Jesus as depicted at the stigmatic's local church.

The real issue is whether the wounds are psychosomatic -- that is, a physical manifestation of the stigmatic's tortured psyche -- or else got there by more conventional (i.e., fraudulent) means. Plenty of cases have been shown to be hoaxes, but with others you can't be sure. Tantalizing evidence comes to us from medical journals, which report numerous cases of "psychogenic purpuras." These are instances of nonreligious stigmata, in which patients with emotional disorders experience unexplained painful bruising and swelling and occasionally even bleeding through apparently intact skin. One theory blames "autoerythrocyte sensitization," in which individuals react pathologically to their own blood.

Stigmatics are often tormented souls. Many of the religious ones deny themselves to the point of masochism. The nonreligious ones are frequently on the operating table or the shrink's couch for a laundry list of ailments. Reading some of the accounts makes you think that if anybody were likely to get psychosomatic wounds, these would be the guys.

On the other hand, the fact that many stigmatics are emotionally unbalanced means you can't rule out the possibility that they're simply hurting themselves when no one's looking. It's virtually impossible to keep an eye on someone every second of the day, and observers are often naive about what they do see. One scientist thought he'd proved something when Lateau's hands bled even though the scientist had covered them with bandages and gloves. But he forgot to mention the fact that the bandages were perforated with pinpricks. In 1973 doctors reported a ten-year-old girl in California who was briefly stigmatic. They thought the chances she was faking were "almost nil," but when they attempted to observe her, the bleeding appeared only when she was alone.

Whether you believe in psychosomatic wounds or not, nobody's arguing that even the most intense hysteric can make things happen from the other side of the room. That's what makes reports of multimedia miracles so suspicious, as in the case of the stigmatic Father Bruse and his weeping statues. Bruse had been something of a character in his youth, having thrice gotten himself into the Guinness Book of World Records for most consecutive hours riding a roller coaster. In a time of declining church attendance, his ability to conjure up signs and wonders kept the pews packed every Sunday.

When we spoke he told me nothing unusual had happened since he'd been made paster of a rural Virginia parish in 1995. We had the following exchange:

Me: Father, not to be melodramatic about this, but it seems to me that if I lied about something like this and deceived the faithful, I would be trifling with my soul. On your honor as a priest, did you fake this?

Father Bruse: What?

Me: Did you fake the stigmata and the tears?

Father Bruse: No, no, no.

To which I can only say again: I'll be damned. Or he will.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at cecil@chireader.com; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

 
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