ARTICLES

Fr. Réginald-Omez

Born at Tourcoin in 1895. Member of the Order of St Dominic since 1913. He was a Doctor of Theology of the Dominican University at Le Saulchoir and a Doctor of Philosophy of the Dominican University at Rome. He was author of numerous articles and books on psychology, parapsychology and related subjects, notably Peuton Communiquer Avec Les Morts? published in 1955. He contributed to Médecine et Merveilleux which appeared in 1957. He was also chaplain to the French Association of Catholic Writers.

Psychical Research and Religion: Two Clearly Demarcated Fields

 - Fr. Réginald-Omez -

         BEFORE EXAMINING the problem of any possible conflict between psychical research and religion it is necessary clearly to distinguish between psychical research itself, defined as the critical scientific study of paranormal phenomena with a view to establishing their existence and their nature, and a sort of metapsychology which is, in fact, a system of religion or philosophy, such as spiritualism or occultism. Adherents of such systems do not usually adopt a scientific attitude or use scientific methods of searching for objective truth; they are apt to behave in a partisan fashion, seeking to find in the facts at their disposal the confirmation or illustration of their teachings which are based not on experimental proof but on so-called revelations or messages attributed to higher beings or discarnate spirits.

We have seen already how much harm has been done to genuine psychical research by these ardent enthusiasts who have attempted to use it to further their own theories, or whose main concern has been to obstruct all such critical work as might eliminate the necessity for elaborate occultist systems, or lay bare the emptiness of spiritualist phenomena.

With these distinctions in mind, let us see in what ways psychical research and religion can come into contact, colliding or cooperating with one another.

As far as basic theory is concerned, if each of these questing activities of the human spirit were confined to its own field, they would have no occasion to meet. The religious point of view is on a different plane from that of parapsychology. Miracles spring from causes far above those natural forces which belong to the sphere of the latter. Doubtless psychical research will, and should, on occasion examine paranormal phenomena whose ultimate cause is supernatural; but it cannot reach or detect the supernatural as such, since this is beyond its competence.

In a work written in 1954, Merveilleux métapsychique et miracle chrétien (Psi-phenomena and Christian Miracles) Fr. de Tonquedec set himself to throw light on the contrast between these two sets of apparently similar phenomena. Among his most significant remarks are (p. 65): "Parapsychological phenomena are derived from natural causes and circumstances, physical, physiological or psychological, and therefore bear the mark of determinism"; and again "Parapsychology as a whole remains within the realm of determinism, while Christian miracle springs from beyond this realm in spontaneous obedience to the liberty of its author, God."

Despite the supernatural appearance borne in certain cases by psychical phenomena they remain by definition part of the natural order. It can therefore be postulated that parapsychology can have no more occasion to come into conflict with religion than do medicine or psychiatry, astronomy or palaeontology. While these disciplines remain in their own field without touching on questions of faith or morals they cannot be opposed to religion.[1] Science as such studies no more than data and their causes or antecedents in the order of nature. If an occurrence is supernatural in origin, science can establish that it has happened and analyse the circumstances which precede and accompany it; but it cannot discover the ultimate explanation, which lies outside its terms of reference.

[1] It is only honest, surely, to recognize that the difficulty lies precisely in delimiting the frontiers of each discipline. It is for instance useless and wrong to gloss over the fact that however mistaken Galileo may have been in his theological ideas, where astronomy was in question his views were more accurate than those of the theologians who condemned him. Their respective fields had not been distinguished. [Trans.]

Psychical research works of integrity themselves recognize this; let us quote only one of them, M. Robert Amadou, the former editor of La Revue métapsychique, and author of La Parapsychologie. After having asserted on p. 321 of his book that "parapsychology gives more embarrassment than support to spiritualism", he adds "and as for that vital principle itself, to which some attribute the psi-function, what has it in common with the image of God, created for eternal beatitude?"[2]

[2] This is a rather schizophrenic distinction. Whatever "the vital principle" may be, it is clearly part of the entire human being; and the entire human being is created to that end. [Trans.]

In parapsychology (p. 322) "there is nothing that can shed any light for us on the soul and its survival, the soul and its immortality. For the immortal soul, the divine spark within us, is neither the dwelling place nor the cause of parapsychological phenomena"; (p. 293) "We have to dissect something sacred when we adopt the attitude of psychical research. But the sacred which can be dissected is not genuinely sacred. Let us thank psychical research for effecting a necessary purification."

Psychical research cannot therefore rule out the possibility of intervention by forces outside the natural order, without trespassing beyond its own field, and losing competence and authority alike. It can and should however put this question on one side, while it attempts to establish the reality of the phenomena submitted for analysis, and to find an explanation valid in terms of man's natural faculties, normal or supernormal. Psychical research as an experimental science does not have to take into account either miraculous agencies or the normal and religious circumstances of any given phenomenon, and is not concerned with any religious or philosophical theories put forward to explain the occurrence of that phenomenon.

In acting thus, it adopts an attitude like that of the Bureau des Constatations médicales de Lourdes, of which more will be said presently. In this committee, recruited only from doctors - of whom over 1,500 pass through Lourdes every year - there can be no question of miracles, only of paranormal cures which cannot be explained scientifically. Every doctor is admitted whatever his religious convictions or materialist opinions, or even his morality. The only things to be considered are his medical qualifications and his specialized knowledge.

The committee makes no inquiry whatsoever into the religious circumstances which may have accompanied or preceded the cures submitted to it. This medical body has to set aside all religious and political considerations, and concentrate solely on the following three questions:

1. Was this person ill? What was the exact diagnosis of his condition?
2. Is this person in fact cured?
3. Does this cure go beyond the processes of nature as we know them?

If the three answers are in the affirmative, the committee cannot of itself decide that the cure is miraculous; that is not its business. It must, in such a case, send the medical dossier on to a higher commission, composed of scientists and theologians, sitting in Paris; this body alone is competent to investigate the religious background and circumstances of the case, and to decide for or against the possibility of a miracle. Its conclusions are then submitted to the bishop of the diocese to which the patient belongs. Only he is authorized to make the final decision.

In this way the Bureau works, like the parapsychologist, on the purely natural and scientific level, without touching in any way on the part that supernatural agencies may have played in paranormal healing.

Where trustworthy and conscientious psychical research workers are concerned we should avoid imitating the attitude of certain timorous and wavering Lourdes pilgrims who will hesitate to bring some apparently miraculous cure to the attention of the Bureau des Constatations lest that committee of doctors should deny, or at the very least abstain from recognizing, the supernatural character of that cure. A true faith in the miraculous has no fear of an objective critical study of a supposed miracle where it is entrusted to men of intellectual integrity, free from the prejudices and preoccupations of the partisan materialist scientists of the nineteenth century.

True miracle has nothing to fear from true science.

Although it is true to say that religion has nothing to fear from parapsychology one cannot be so categorical about parapsychologists, for these are not only minds in search of truth, but men, complex human beings, full of different tendencies, opinions, prejudices, passions, men who tackle parapsychological problems with a whole host of preconceived ideas which, even if repressed into the subconscious by a genuine wish for objectivity, remain active and capable of distorting the data received.

It must be said that the overwhelming majority of those who have devoted themselves to psychical research have in France been either spiritualists or materialists. Their partisan anti-religious attitude did not fail to influence their work and to show itself in a certain unseasonable aggressiveness not always sufficiently held in check by their more objective colleagues. It has already been noted that M. Jean Meyer, who financed the first French centres for psychical research, was a "militant spiritualist" who exercised a most unfortunate influence on the general trend of their investigations and publications.

M. Charles Richet was not a religious man. A destructive agnosticism pervaded his approach to all religious concepts, and his scepticism with regard to the possibility of divine intervention was obvious. He put Christian and pagan miracles on the same plane. It seemed to him that, once all that sprang from simplicity and credulity had been obviated, what remained was a matter of psi, that little explored function of the human organism.

Of Joan of Arc he wrote: "Her voices and her visions were perceived by no one else, so that it must be admitted that they were subjective. It would be an over-simplification to suppose that they were ordinary hallucinations, for these hallucinations were followed by too many hard facts and duly verified predictions to be dismissed as the delirium of a madwoman... One can hardly doubt that Joan was inspired. It is best to admit, as a probability, without drawing any conclusions, that Joan of Arc had certain psychic powers." But the case of the saint is cited between those of analogous paranormal phenomena associated with Cicero, Tacitus and Brutus on the one hand, and instances of the divination evinced by sleepwalkers, of haunted houses, and table-turning, on the other.

As for the cures at Lourdes, after quoting some of the most remarkable such as those of De Rudder, and Gargam, Charles Richet concludes, "even if these case records are accurate, they cannot be said to prove the existence of a new parapsychological force. All they show is that the central nervous system possesses, under certain conditions, a new and altogether extraordinary power over organic phenomena." The assumption that there can be no possibility of supernatural intervention is extremely striking.

Nearer to our own time J. B. Rhine, who exercises a considerable influence among contemporary psychical research workers, has no scruple in trespassing into the spiritual sphere as a destroyer of all the most essential values of religion. In his book The New World of the Mind (translated into French under the misleading title Le Nouveau Monde de I'Esprit which in itself suggests that he has gone beyond the frontiers of parapsychology), after alluding to "an unprogressive religious leadership", he adds (p. 201): "... to these central questions even the scholarly leadership in all the religious systems simply does not have answers that would satisfy the ordinary standards of evidence of everyday life... In the face of that realization dogmatic religion comes to assume the shape and proportion of a gigantic group delusion, shutting itself off deliberately from the tests of reality by which its position could be verified, and by which its course towards greater positive knowledge would be directed. For in this old attitude is an almost complete abandonment of realism, a surrender to a system of unverified fantasy that in a single isolated individual would be characterized as psychotic."

Of "the unverified authority of ancient manuscripts" (presumably the Bible) he declares: "What magic spell has kept us all stymied so long in religion? What enchantment keeps the world charting formulas that may be rubbish for all it knows?"

Even belief in an afterlife is ridiculed: "Religious ethics have for ages and for many peoples of the world been oriented towards a life beyond the grave... Yet no orthodox Church organization has ever undertaken to get the matter of a future life investigated scientifically, as other problems have been..." Let us stop there; it is enough to justify Fr de Tonquedec's criticism: "We are faced here with the most opaque intellectualism, and in professing it Rhine is not so far as he believes from the materialism against which he struggles with praiseworthy zeal throughout his book."[2]

[2] A number of other points should also be made clear. First, that the French translation of the book, as quoted by Fr Réginald-Omez, is a good deal more anti-religious than the original American text. Second, that in their context the passages cited bear a different connotation from that which they carry as set in isolation here. Thus, in its setting, the paragraph about "a life beyond the grave" could not by any stretch of imagination be thought to "ridicule belief" in that idea. Third, that in "the Churches" to which Dr Rhine is accustomed, one or another of the highly Protestant sects of America, Luther's traditional condemnation of "the harlot Reason" in favour of an obscurantist emotionalism is still followed, and that for Fundamentalists to doubt the literal inspiration of the Bible as it stands (not as it is interpreted by the living authority of the Church) is anathema. The final point, and it is vitally important in a world which can increasingly talk and think only in the idiom of science, is that, as was maintained as far back as the time of St Thomas Aquinas, there are not two incompatible truths, theological and secular. Truth is one; and all that is must ultimately be integrated into that single whole. Truth is one, in however many languages it may be expressed; and it surely cannot be considered irreverent for men to explore, discuss and define what they have discovered in their own terms if these are the only ones intelligible to them. It must be remembered that theological expressions have so often been distorted and misused over centuries of religious controversy that to the majority of mankind they no longer succeed in conveying their original meaning. The axiom that the scientist must not multiply hypotheses must also be borne in mind. Without this indeed it is hard to see how what is due to the natural though little understood activity of the psi-function could be separated even in theory from the miraculous, the direct action of God. It should be plain, moreover, that God can act indirectly through psi, as through any other created thing. Psi is indeed often highly developed as a by-product of contemplation; and there seems no reason to suppose that this was not the case with St Joan, although Richet's remarks are so indignantly dismissed. Bearing all this in mind it seems rather hard to condemn Dr Rhine as anti-religious simply because he finds incomprehensible the ecclesiastical terms he has come across, and wishes to use his own methods and idiom in the attempt to establish the existence alike of psi, of a life beyond the grave, and of God himself. The Times Literary Supplement reviewing The New World of the Mind, in October 1948, noted that it was "written to refute the materialist conception of human personality". The bitter Communist attacks on the works and conclusions of Dr Rhine seem to prove that it has been successful in so doing; this is hardly an anti-religious feat. [Trans.]

Finally, it is well known that Mrs. Eileen Garrett, President of the Parapsychology Foundation, who originated and directed the International Conference for Parapsychological Studies at Utrecht in 1953 was for a time involved in the Spiritualist movement, some of whose idioms are still retained in her book My Life as a Medium, although she has long since left it and adopted an almost completely neutral frame of mind towards the nature of her powers and what they reveal.

These few examples are enough to illustrate the necessary distinction between parapsychology (or psychical research) and parapsychologists (or psychical research workers) before setting out to consider the relationship between this science and religion.

It is of course possible to name psychical research workers untouched by any hostility to religion; witness the following lines by M. Robert Amadou (La Parapsychologie, p. 334): "One merit of parapsychology is that it simultaneously protects us against superstition of various kinds and convinces us that the holy, the mysterious and the supernatural cannot be explained away in terms of their lesser reflections, that shadow is not substance, and that neither man nor the world is God." And again: "This young scientific discipline holds, and will continue to hold, the key to understanding many phenomena. It does not, and it will not ever show that everything in the universe and in man is wholly explicable in terms of the exact sciences."

Source: 

"Psychical Phenomena" by Fr. Réginald-Omez (London: Burns & Oates, 1959).

 

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