Why Émile Zola Was So Frightened of Our Lady of Lourdes

‘For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.’ ― Franz Werfel, ‘The Song of Bernadette’

St. Bernadette Soubirous ca. 1858 (l) and Émile Zola ca. 1865
St. Bernadette Soubirous ca. 1858 (l) and Émile Zola ca. 1865 (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“How evil life must be if it were indeed necessary that such imploring cries, such cries of physical and moral wretchedness, should ever and ever ascend to heaven!” ― Émile Zola, Lourdes

I’m not a fan of Émile Zola (1840–1902), the French novelist who is famous for his dissembling, unrestrained animus toward the Catholic Church. He was a contemporary of St. Bernadette of Lourdes and he had many opportunities to speak the truth and honestly report on what he witnessed at Lourdes — but instead, he took the cowardly way out.

On Dec. 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in his bull, Ineffabilis Deus. On Feb. 11, 1858 — three years later — the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous 14 times just outside the village of Lourdes, France.

Those Marian apparitions placed the final nail in the atheist/scientismist coffin. Every atheist wants a miracle wrapped up in a pretty bow in demanda to prove the Church’s claims of God’s existence. However, when offered hard, irrefutable evidence, they shift the goalposts and simply flitter away, pretending they didn’t actually lose a bet.

This is where Zola fits in. He once traveled to Lourdes to research his blasphemous, eponymously entitled novel demanding the smallest miracle which he would dutifully report.

Zola decided to use 18-year-old Marie Lemarchand to prove his point. She was simultaneously afflicted with three incurable diseases: lupus, pulmonary tuberculosis and enormous ulcerations on her leg. Zola described the girl’s face as “a frightful distorted mass of matter and oozing blood.”

The girl went into the sacred baths and emerged completely cured. All three of her diseases were gone. Zola stood in shocked silence at Lemarchand’s complete recovery. The president of the Medical Bureau, Dr. Prosper Gustave Boissarie, stood beside him. “Ah, Monsieur Zola, behold the case of your dreams!” Bitter, dejected and contemptuous, Zola stomped away in a hot huff. “I don’t want to look at her. To me, she is still ugly.”

But Zola wasn’t finished. Dr. Boissarie then introduced him to Marie Lebranchu — another woman who was similarly dying from tuberculosis. She too entered the baths and was also miraculously healed in Zola’s presence. The cynic dismissed the miracle, telling Dr. Boissarie, “Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle.”

In his subsequent 1894 novel Lourdes, Zola depicted Lebranchu (called “La Grivotte” in the book) as a hopelessly neurotic woman afflicted by hysterical delusions whose “cure” was due to her own self-deception. Worse still, Zola depicted the character as dying en route home. In reality, Lebranchu lived in perfect health until she died in 1920. On Zola’s part, this is called mala fides — also known as “dirty pool.”

He further unflatteringly characterized the diligent attending physician Dr. Boissarie, under the name of Dr. Bonamy — an incompetent, moon-eyed quack. Why would a rational person do that? The answer is obvious: a rational person wouldn’t do that at all.

But why let the facts cloud a perfectly functioning, irrational rationalization?

Franciscan friar Roger Bacon notably pointed out that a little bit of misunderstood science can easily lead the undereducated away from God. However, those who studied science are always left with the inevitable, inviolate, ineluctable conclusion that God exists.

Pretending that the Catholic Church is anti-science is nothing more than the cherished contribution of ignorant atheists to the poisoned well that is the “Black Legend.” The Church has never been anti-science. In fact, Copernicus (who was a Catholic priest) refused to publish his heliocentric theory not because of Catholics he might offend — his good friend Pope Paul III actually urged him to publish what he had discovered. Instead, Copernicus was afraid of infuriating men outside the Church, like Luther and Zwingli. (See here, here and here for more on this topic.)

Scientism is the belief that only science can explain the truth and reality of the cosmos. This statement is a self-refutation, because science cannot prove scientism. Scientism is not scientific. Scientific facts don’t care about anyone’s feelings, much less an atheist’s feelings. The miracles at Lourdes are a slap in the face of atheistic scientism. Thus far, Lourdes reports 7,000 miraculous cures. In an over-abundance of caution, the Church has declared only 69 of them to be scientifically inexplicable miracles using the strictest scientific standards of inquiry.

Zola exposed himself as a liar when he distorted science and historical reality in an effort to maintain and prop up his frail atheism. In his hope to rid creation of its Creator, his dissembling was exposed. But regardless of their lies, the universe is too perfectly anthropic — that is, designed to support human life. No matter how much screaming and yelling atheists do, the universe shows itself too complex and fine-tuned for our support and thus can’t be the result of a blind, mindless, random process. And sometimes, the reality of the Creator shines through all of the universe’s orderliness in the form of miracles.