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The stigmata are wounds believed to duplicate the wounds of Jesus' crucifixion that appear on the hands and feet, and sometimes on the side and head, of a person. The fact that the stigmata appear differently on its victims is strong evidence that the wounds are not genuinely miraculous (Wilson).
St. Francis of Assisi (1182 - 1226), devoted to imitate Jesus in all ways, apparently inflicted himself with wounds and perpetrated the first stigmatic fraud. There have been several hundred others since, including Magdalena de la Cruz (1487-1560) of Spain (who admitted her fraud when she became seriously ill) and Therese Neumann of Bavaria (1898-1962). The latter reportedly survived for 35 years eating only the "bread" of the Holy Eucharist at mass each morning. She was also said to be clairvoyant and capable of astral projection. One of the more recent stigmatics, Fr. James Bruce, claimed not only to have Jesus's wounds but also that religious statues wept in his presence. This was in 1992 in a suburb of Washington, D.C., where strange things are common. Needless to say, he packed the pews. He now runs a parish in rural Virginia where the miracles have ceased.
Self-inflicted wounds are common among people with certain kinds of brain disorders. Claiming that the wounds are miraculous is rare and is more likely due to excessive religiosity than to a diseased brain, though both could be at work in some cases.
The likelihood that the wounds are psychosomatic (psychogenic purpuras), manifested by tortured souls, seems less likely than hoaxing in most cases. There are two main reasons for believing the stigmata are usually self-inflicted, rather than psychosomatic or miraculous. One, no stigmatic ever manifests these wounds from start to finish in the presence of others. Only when they are unwatched do they start to bleed. (There is one apparent exception to this rule: Catia Rivas. Close examination of her behavior, however, shows that she's really not an exception after all.) And two, Hume's rule in "Of Miracles" is that when an alleged miracle occurs we ask ourselves which would be more miraculous, the alleged miracle or that we are being hoaxed? Reasonableness requires us to go with the lesser of two miracles, the least improbable, and conclude that we are witnessing not miracles but pious frauds. All 32 or so recorded cases of stigmata have been Roman Catholics and all but four of those cases were women. No case of stigmata is known to have occurred before the thirteenth century,* when the crucified Jesus became a standard icon of Christianity in the west. Reasonableness seems to require the non-miraculous explanation.
One of the latest to be added to the list of alleged stigmatics is Audrey Santo, a child who has been in a coma since 1987 when she was three years old. What kind of people are inspired by the concept of a god who would render a child comatose and then inflict wounds on her? Joe Nickell thinks he has the answer.
People seem to hunger for some tangible religious experience, and wherever there is such profound want there is the opportunity for what may be called "pious fraud." Money is rarely the primary motive, the usual impetus being to seemingly triumph over adversity, renew the faith of believers, and confound the doubters.
People also don't want to think their god would allow purposeless and gratuitous pain. They like to feel important and please those with power over them. What could be more special than being chosen to suffer the Savior's wounds and torments? What could please such a god more than being a living proof of this god's existence? Well, being honest and truthful might be a good start.
books and articles
What's the deal with stigmata? Cecil Adams, the Straight Dope
POPE RUNNING "SAINT FACTORY"? JOHN PAUL BEATIFIES MONK ACCUSED OF MENTAL ILLNESS, FRAUD, PHILANDERING (an unflattering portrayal of Padre Pio, the stigmatic with a crazed following, who died with no signs of any wounds, though he claimed to have been afflicted for some 50 years with the wounds of Jesus)
The Stigmata of Lilian Bernas by Joe Nickell
Last updated 06-Oct-2013