Faith Versus Medicine
The tomb of St Mariam Thresia in ThrissurPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

Faith Versus Medicine

A medical doctor is caught in the crossfire between the demands of science and faith in Kerala

“Dr Srinavasan hasn’t given a written explanation yet,” says Dr Sugathan ME, President of IMA’s (Indian Medical Association) Kerala chapter.

Dr Srinivasan, a neonatologist of the Amala Institute of Medical Sciences, Thrissur, reportedly certified the miracle performed by Sister Mariam Thresia who was recently sainted by the Vatican.

He came under fire for allegedly vouching for a medical miracle in 2009 when a newborn with respiratory ailment under his treatment was cured “unusually fast”. This paved the way for the Vatican to elevate Sister Mariam Thresia to the status of saint.

The controversy has now seen the IMA president Dr Sugathan calling on doctors to avoid lending credibility to unscientific medicine in the latest issue of IMA Kerala’s monthly magazine. The secretary of the IMA Kerala Chapter Dr Sulphi Noohu had earlier asked the Church not to rely on medical miracles for canonisation.

A local daily had carried a report which quoted Dr VK Srinivasan of having vouched for the miracle, which kicked off the controversy. Secretary of IMA Kerala, Dr Sulphi N questioned the alleged testimonial given by Dr Srinivasan to the medical recovery over a Facebook post.

This ended with IMA’s Kerala chapter asking Dr Srinivasan to give an explanation to the ethics committee of IMA.

Dr Sreenivasan meanwhile was in Vatican attending the canonisation of Sister Mariam Thresia along with a large delegation from India headed by V Muraleedharan, Minister of State (MoS) for External Affairs and a former President of BJP in Kerala.

The delegation also included Thrissur MP TN Prathapan of the Congress party, as well as third-generation family members of Sister Mariam Thresia. Over 60 nuns from Holy Family congregation also took part apart from Christopher Jolly, the then newborn child from Thrissur, whose unusually fast recovery in 2009 was held as a medical miracle paving way for canonising of Sister Mariam Thresia.

V Muraleedharan’s attendance did not go down well with many of BJP’s core support base on twitter going by the response it generated.

Interestingly, in his 'Mann ki Baat' radio programme last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too referred to Sister Mariam Thresia. He even said it was a matter of pride for every Indian that she was being declared a saint.

The local newspaper report that kicked off the controversy
The local newspaper report that kicked off the controversy

“Dr Srinivasan has conveyed over phone that he hasn’t said anything as reported by Malayala Manorama which first carried a report citing him,” says Dr Sugathan.

“Had he accepted his mistake or apologised, we could have accommodated it and moved on. Now, further measures have to be looked into. Like maybe if the reporter has a recording of the conversation. For now, we are awaiting a written explanation from Dr Srinivasan,” he says.

“His response was delayed as he and his wife returned from Vatican only a few days back. IMA is against magic healing. Only after scientifically monitored studies are conducted, do we approve a method - either after trials or even as experimental pre-trials,” says Dr Sugathan.

“IMA is a scientific body. But sometimes like the general public, doctors too have their own faiths and beliefs. The line gets blurred as a result. But faith should never become an alternative treatment in itself. We are not against any one community or belief system. We all pray before operations but prayer should never replace treatment,” he adds.

“What Dr Srinivasan has said is that he hasn’t given any testimony for the miracle. The hospital management gave the case sheet to the medical board in Vatican and they approved the elevation. Holy Family congregation seems to have taken the initiative,” says Dr Sugathan.

Sister Mariam Thresia Chiramel, who died in 1926, hails from Thrissur district in Kerala. The congregation of Holy Family, founded by Mariam Thresia in 1914 is part of the Syro Malabar Church which is the second largest Eastern Catholic Church in the world.

But with just over five million members worldwide, the church has a miniscule presence within the 1.2 billion Roman Catholic Church worldwide.

Native Christianity in Kerala, collectively called as the St Thomas Christians, has often had to fight to keep its identity alive right from the days of the arrival of the Portuguese to the Synod of Diamper in 1599 which ordered all the texts of the Syrian Nasranis to be burned.

It ended in the Coonan Cross Oath of 1653, considered as the first protest of locals against Europeans in India when the Portuguese tried to enforce the Roman pope on the native Christians who followed eastern rites.

Today, many churches of Kerala face the threat of losing their identity within the bigger Christian identity. With continuing outward migrations from the state, the threat is felt more outside Kerala.

“The Syro-Malabar church has no sizeable existence outside Kerala,” says Varghese Mannathu who has been once closely associated with the Church. “Almost all other Catholic churches in India outside of Kerala follow the Latin rite.”

The room where St Mariam Thresia breathed her last
The room where St Mariam Thresia breathed her lastPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

And it is in this world that the Church has finally got recognition by way of four of its clergy being elevated as saints - Sister Alphonsa Muttathupadathu, Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara, Sister Evuprasiamma Eluvathingal and now Sister Mariam Thresia Chiramel, all characterised by their Syriac-Malayalam names.

Other than the four, only Mother Theresa has been given sainthood amongst those sharing a connection with India in the modern era.

“In a world of fair skinned saints of the Catholic Church, who does it hurt to have a few Indians there?” asks Varghese laughing. “Until recently, Martin Luther King was the only one we knew of as a Christian man of colour,” he says hinting at the overwhelming European character of Christianity today.

“Our Church’s existence within western Christianity is a fairly recent phenomenon. Earlier, though the community here was older than most western communities, we were not part of the Catholic church.”And the integration to the Catholic Church came with a disowning of the many older traditions, some forcefully, while others wore out over time. “When it comes to sainthood, the Vatican is the last word.

The Pope enjoys supremacy in such decisions. Before the Portuguese came here, there were only Nasrani Christians in Kerala who followed Antioch and Chaldean rites and were part of the Oriental church. Many saints of oriental churches were not accepted by the Roman Catholic Church. We didn’t have any native saints for such an old community. Apart from the four now,” says Varghese.

“One reason was that there was no seminary in Kerala prior to Portuguese arrival. The clergy would come from afar.”

Holy Family congregation in Thrissur
Holy Family congregation in ThrissurPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

Mangalappuzha Seminary near Aluva was one of the first seminaries in Kerala set up by the westerners. Before that, the seminary in Goa was where the missionaries had based themselves out of.

And it was against the priests of the Goan seminary and their forceful pronouncements denouncing native Christian practices that the Oath of the Coonan Cross addressed their rebellion against in 1653. While some accepted Catholicism thereafter, other communities continue to deny the Pope’s authority to date.

For the Syro-Malabar Church which adopted Catholicism, the sainthood is not just a recognition from Christianity’s highest authorities.

Economic Benefits Of Sainthood

Apart from bringing together the community and deepening the roots of faith, there are economic benefits which follow.

Tojo Thommana, who is a Tour Manager with Olive Holidays in nearby town of Irinjalakuda, 13 km from the St Mariam Thresia Pilgrim Centre, says that the sainthood will promote tourism in the area.

“We for sure will benefit,” says Tojo who earlier arranged packaged tour for native Christians to the holy lands in the Mediterranean and to the Vatican.

“Already, a few foreign tourists who were planning to visit Kochi have shown interest in a visit to the saint’s birthplace. We are also trying to include it in the local tourism circuit. People within Kerala have started enquiring on how to visit the place. With time it will become more popular,” he says.

The additional influx of tourists will also mean increased income by means of alms for the church and the convent nearby where Sister Mariam Thresia lived and died.

The growth of Barananganam near Pala in Kottayam district of Kerala as a pilgrim centre associated with St Alphonsa, the first Indian to be canonised, is a living example of how sainthood transforms a place. Apart from the added influx around the religious holidays, Baranganam now sees thousands of visitors year round.

With a fourth native saint, all within Kerala, the religious tourism trail for Christians in Kerala will thus see a further expansion.

While even many believers like Varghese Mannathu hold the sainthood as proof of the increasing influence of the clergy from Kerala in Rome, a direct result of a declining church in its traditional strongholds such as Europe, the sainthood has pitched faith against medical science in Kerala.

Spokesperson for the Syro-Malabar church, Father Varghese Vallikatt, refused to comment saying, “I haven’t studied the case properly.”

The Need To Inculcate Scientific Temper

“If a medicine is given to 10 patients with the same symptoms, nine may respond well but there is always a chance one sees worsening of condition. At the same time, one might respond dramatically faster than usual,” says Dr Sugathan. “Western Medicine is not an exact science. If out of 100 patients treated, 80% see cure of symptoms, it is considered a success,” he adds.

“Dramatic improvement cannot be attributed to healing. It will be an unscientific conclusion. Such conclusions will push people towards healing and magical treatments. If a doctor vouches for a miracle like Dr Srinivasan has allegedly done, the message that goes out is that for respiratory distress among newly borns, St Mariam Thresia is the cure.”

The President’s column in IMA Kerala’s monthly magazine
The President’s column in IMA Kerala’s monthly magazine

“Dr Srinivasan is saying that he hasn’t given any testimony. There is no undersigned statement yet,” reiterates Dr Sugathan. “We are waiting for that still.”

When contacted, Dr Srinivasan said, “I have no comments.”

Whether Dr Srinavasan vouched for the miracle or not, that he chose to attend the elevation of Sister Mariam Thresia to sainthood poses some difficult questions for the medical community.

“So let us not be unequivocal in our stand and let us be cent per cent confident of our scientific system. This will help the society in the long run by inculcating scientific temper among the masses,” concludes the President’s column in the IMA’s magazine.

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