Shortly after President Barack Obama visited wounded Arizona Rep. Gabriella Giffords in the hospital and prayed for her, “she opened her eyes for the first time.” The speed of her recovery ever since has been remarkable. Did Obama’s visit cause Giffords’ consequent healing? Atheists and others who deny any spiritual reality will likely call the events a mere coincidence, but we believers have to use more complex criteria.
It has always been tempting to attribute events to God’s will as either reward or punishment, à la the various Jeremiads on 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, or later the claim that George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection was God’s reward for virtue in pursuing war against Muslims. These Evangelical sources have been silent about God working through President Obama, although — as a Catholic in the pews of my parish observed — “If she had taken a turn for the worse after the president’s visit, we would not have heard the end of it.”
Catholic theology has long since ditched the caricature of God as some hidden “Wizard of Oz” pushing buttons and pulling levers to control human events. Reducing God to such a mundane image is easy to ridicule. It is not the way Catholic America understands Divine Providence, especially for healing of the sick. Jesus, of course, was a healer and curing the sick is repeated in the Scriptures for his disciples and in Catholic tradition for his saints — although not every cure is necessarily considered a miracle. We also have to recognize that non-Catholics and non-Christians such as Santeria priestesses and Native American shamans cure people. In sum, healing by prayer is a spiritualized human event that is more than just “Catholic.”
Thanks to the II Vatican Council and the Catholic Charismatic Movement, contemporary Catholic America views healing through prayers and the laying on of hands as parts of everyday religion. My pastor at St. Luke’s, Fr. Tom, says that he has witnessed similar astounding responses “many times in the hospital setting.” But saying that such healing events are common doesn’t mean they are coincidental. Even when non-believers contort themselves to speak of electro-magnetic waves caused by those praying as an escape from admitting that the spiritual order exists, they testify to the frequency with which the spirit heals human body.
Thus, if Obama, a man with a strong personality and a deep faith, touched the spirit of Rep. Giffords with his prayer that does not make him into a saint. [I could just as easily have posed this question about daily communicant Nancy Pelosi, the Catholic Kirsten Gillibrand and the Jewish Debbie Wasserman Shultz who were actually in the room when Gabby opened her eyes. Moreover, her husband has also been present in the hospital room. Still, the point is the same, no matter the person present.]
What invites belief is the impact upon the sick that can be bestowed by each of us individually and more concretely all of us united in prayer.
There are some reliable medical sources that have suggested prayer should be included in a physician’s bedside manner. It is not just a matter of consolation to those hoping for the sick person to recover — prayer and a religious presence actually produce a more positive effect upon those who are ill. Rather than divorce prayer from medical science, therefore, we should integrate them as two different but compatible resources for healing. Albert Einstein stated “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” And Einstein was no dummy.
In Catholic tradition, not to mention the practices of many other faiths, visiting the sick is encouraged. We call it one of the Corporal Works of Mercy. At a time when there is so much rancor in the nation, it is comforting to see leaders of different religions and political identities join in a religious act. In this case, it would seem that coincidence alone does not explain the positive results of the president’s hospital visit: faith does. Hopefully, the healing begun in Tucson will apply as well to the entire nation.