Tuesday, April 26, 2016

DNA and Eucharistic Miracles -- A Criminal Trial Lawyer's Perspective

Update: neither Church Militant TV nor National Catholic Register have corrected the factual mistakes in their articles, despite being alerted to them by the Bear. CMTV is still repeating the Catholic urban legend that DNA tests were performed on the Lanciano miracle and the alleged Buenos miracle resulting in an exact match. NCR is still linking to forensic psychologists as the party that supposedly did the Buenos Aires DNA tests. "Catholic" and "journalism" seems to have a disconnect.

Miraculous DNA in the News

There has been a rash of stories in the Catholic media about Eucharistic miracles being tested for DNA. Some cases are well-documented, some are not documented at all, and others are, frankly, likely to be urban legends.

The Bear has just written a very long examination of the 1996 alleged Eucharistic miracle in Buenos Aires that explores that case and more general issues in detail. The investigation appears to be have been doomed from the start by early decisions from the archdiocese. (Jorge Bergoglio was then auxiliary bishop.) It has not been approved by the Church.

It has, however been cited in an assuredly false remark in an April 24, 2016 Church Militant TV story that the Buenos Aires sample was compared with a sample from the famous 8th century Lanciano miracle,' and resulted in a "DNA match." This appears to be a Catholic urban legend repeated from combox to blog for some time. Perhaps the mix-up began when the blood types were said to have been the same.

The Bear has already written more than anyone would want to know about all this and won't repeat it here.


This article should not be taken as an attack on the reality of any Church-approved Eucharistic miracle. That is far from the Bear's point. It is, rather, a fun little illustration of the messy realities of DNA testing. DNA is a very useful tool. But it is not the right tool for every task. And even if you've got the right task, you must know how to use it properly. DNA testing is not magic. The Bear's opinion is that, currently, it is certainly not being used properly by the Church, and is damaging, rather than bolstering, the credibility of Eucharistic miracles for anyone but avid Catholic CSI fans.

Poles Do it Right (But Bear Still Pondering)

On April 17, 2016, his Excellency Zbigniew Kiernikowski of the Diocese of Legica, Poland made an an amazing announcement. (Use your browser to translate.)

Finally, in the judgment of the Department of Forensic Medicine states: "The histopathological tissue fragments were found containing fragmented part of the skeletal muscle. (...) The whole image (...) is the most similar to the heart muscle "(...), as amended, which" often accompanied by agony." Genetic studies indicate the origin of human tissue.

Unlike the supposed Buenos Aires DNA test, we have the names of the laboratories and at least an excerpt from the report. By the way, this is how scientists really deliver findings: in careful, precise language that does not go beyond their observations. (Not dramatic hearsay related on a YouTube video by a professional miracle-hunter selling his books at a speaking engagement.)

Thanks to reader "laurel," whose search fu is strong, the Bear can share this:

According to the Catholic Herald a study was performed by Department of Forensic Medicine in Wroclaw in 2014. A subsequent study performed by the Department of Forensic Medicine of the Pomeranian Medical University in Szczecin.

So, it appears that this was all legitimately done. However, the Bear has often had to attempt to refute DNA evidence in court, and knows that DNA is very good at some things, limited in others, and subject to a variety of issues that may confound the most competent testing. To illustrate this, he will talk about a very strange dream you had last night...

CSI: Bear's Woodlands

What you looked like in your dream.
In your dream, you were a defense lawyer in a death penalty case. That part seems really weird to you now, since you support the death penalty, but somehow it didn't at the time. Sitting next to you at trial was Johnny Diamond, accused of murdering Trudy Doyle. If you lose, Johnny's taking a dirt nap. Worse, your reputation will be tarnished.

Fortunately -- somehow -- there is no confession, there are no eyewitnesses, nothing caught on the videocamera down at the Quickie-Mart, no fingerprints, no trace evidence, and the NSA surveillance satellite in geosynchronous orbit over Trudy's house couldn't penetrate the cloud cover that day. In short  -- dey got nuttin' on Johnny.

Except a DNA match.

A sweet young lady who appears to be about seventeen years old confidently takes the stand. The prosecutor begins establishing the witnesses' impressive credentials as a DNA expert. (She's seventeen. How is this possible?) You quickly rise up on your hind legs and stipulate to her qualifications, because you know how this scene ends. Might as well appear magnanimous and unconcerned.

Suddenly the jury (who has been mostly nodding off, except for 6 and 8 who have been making eyes at each other) is wide awake. DNA. Just like CSI!

Oh how many times has the Bear listened to a prosecutor's labored "questioning" during jury selection about how CSI isn't real life. Prosecutors have nightmares about CSI. They attend grueling week-long-seminars at taxpayer expense in Hawaii just to learn how to deal with a television show.*

The Prosecution's DNA Evidence

Of course, with your vast experience, you know when it comes to comparing a "standard" or known sample with an "unknown" sample, DNA results are virtually unassailable. The "unknown" was DNA recovered from a straw in a Big Gulp found at the crime scene. The "standard" is a cheek swab from Johnny. The Big Gulp straw and cheek swab have already been admitted into evidence. The DNA expert cooly lays out everything she did, starting with the receipt of the two pieces of evidence at her lab. It is an impressive performance. Then comes the prosecutor's coup de grace.

"Were you able to determine to within a reasonable degree of scientific certainty the probability that the DNA recovered from Exhibit 18, the straw, and Exhibit 42, the cheek swab from the defendant came from the same person?"

"Yes, I was."

"And what is that probability?"

"The probability that both samples came from the same person is 847-trillion to one."

"Do you know approximately how may people are on this planet?"

"Yes. Approximately 7.4 billion."

The prosecutor thanks her for her testimony, and as he returns to counsel table he looks at you and mouths loser.

A Much Easier Way?

Why are we going through all this rigamarole? It would be a lot easier for the prosecutor just to stand before the jury and say, "Ladies and gentleman, I want you to know that we have had highly qualified people test DNA recovered in this case, and they have determined that the Big Gulp DNA and the defendant's DNA match. Thank you."

Why is it we don't use science that way in any trial? You don't have to be dreaming to know that it wouldn't seem very fair to the other side, or helpful to the fact-finders. Instinctively, don't you feel everyone should lay their cards on the table in such an important matter? If the prosecutor refused to provide everything to the other side, first of all, he would probably be disbarred, but, more importantly, the jury wouldn't know what to make of the evidence.

Worse, the defense lawyer might stand up and say, "We tried to obtain all the materials related to this DNA testing, but the prosecutor flat-out refused to give it us. Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, we don't know what to make of hiding evidence. All we can say is that we had no opportunity to read any reports, view any results, or speak to the DNA expert. So, I'm sorry, but you're just going to have to reach your verdict solely on the basis of whatever you make from this unfortunate situation."

You probably see where the Bear is going with this, and are thinking, "That's all well and good for a trial, but this isn't a trial. This is a miracle being tested by the Church, who is the fact-finder. The Church doesn't owe anyone anything." We'll revisit this later. Meanwhile, let's get back to your exciting dream.

Oh, and, by the way, what if the prosecutor just said, blah, blah, "and determined the DNA on the straw came from a human being?"

The Defense Strikes Back

It looks bad, doesn't it? The DNA evidence nails your client.

This is where DNA shines. Comparing two samples. But in your dream, you're good. You know that's true only at the end of the DNA pipeline, the one spilling all neat and tidy and scientific into the courtroom from the lips of a perky little DNA expert that the jury wants to adopt. Sure, it looks pretty solid now, but you have some cards up your sleeve.

You and your own DNA expert have been poring over all the testing information provided. It is, after all, science, and everybody has an interest in reliability (right and right?). The process is completely transparent. Everything is available to you. You're glad for Rule 417** that lists a ridiculous number of DNA-related items the prosecution had to turn over to you. (Included in previous article, but also footnoted here.)

You have mostly concentrated on the other, non-scientific end for problems with:

  • chain-of-custody (was there ever an opportunity to tamper with the evidence?)
  • innocent presence (is there a good explanation why the DNA should be wherever it was taken from?)
  • contamination (could some other DNA be confusing results?)
  • lab problems (bench contamination, software glitches, failure to certify, etc., etc.) to reduce Miss Perky to tears on the witness stand (please no, don't make the jurors hate you).

DNA testing per se cannot answer any of these questions.

Your Epically Devastating Cross Examination

You're good. You don't even need notes. After a pleasant greeting to the witness, you gently start to go in for the kill.

Gaps in chain-of-custody. You establish that the chain-of-custody of the Big Gulp straw has gaps. For example, according to the log sheet that goes with every item of evidence, a fingerprint expert checked out the cup and straw, but there is no record of him ever putting it back in the evidence vault. There's a two-week gap before someone else recorded checking it out. The bag had been sealed, but not dated or initialed by whoever sealed it last. The witness has to admit she has no way of knowing where it was or what happened to it during any gaps. Heck, nobody knows if it is even the same Big Gulp straw!

Mixed DNA. You also noted that her findings indicate there was DNA from more than one person. While she explains there are ways around that, she has to admit issues with contamination are always possible. (You know that your own expert is going to have a lot to say about that, and other issues, and suppress a smirk.)

Lab contamination -- chain of custody and lab notes would seem to indicate that several items of evidence had been opened during the same time, some of which indisputably belonged to Johnny. She admits that she and another technician were working together due to time constraints, and she "can't rule out" contamination on the bench or leftover genetic material in the equipment. She admits that this violated the relevant professional standards, but says state budget cuts have put a lot of pressure on the crime lab to meet the growing needs of police.

Outdated Software. You ask her why she used Geno-O-Matic 4.5 software, when the current version was 5.0. She seems flustered and admits she was not aware of the upgrade or what issues it might have addressed. You show her (almost sympathetically) reports indicating that the lab she works at was cited for numerous deviations from state requirements. Yes, she says, but those have all been corrected.

Mysterious phone call. Next, you produce a phone log from two weeks before the trial began, showing that she called the lead detective in the case about "an urgent matter relating to the test results." She says she does not remember what that was about or talking with the detective.

Final Question -- knowing you can lead on cross, you say this to the DNA expert. "In fact, it is true that your DNA tests can say that Johnny Diamond's DNA may be on that straw, but you can't say Johnny Diamond was at Trudy Doyle's house, can you." Of course, the answer is no.

The Bear will spare this poor young lady further humiliation from your devastating cross-examination. (You were kind of mean.) The prosecutor makes a half-hearted effort to rehabilitate his witness, but you can see he is badly shaken. As she leaves the stand the file in her hand is trembling, and the jurors are glaring at the prosecutor and shaking their heads.

Finally, the Defense's Case

Innocent presence. You produce three witnesses who were Trudy Doyle's neighbors who testify that Johnny was a frequent visitor. Trudy often complained to them that he left his Big Gulps on the table when he left.

Alibi -- Two nurses from the hospital testified that Johnny was with his sick mother during the window established for Trudy's death.

Contrary expert findings -- But you have saved your best witness for last. Your own expert -- every bit as qualified, if not more so. He challenges several of the state's expert's procedures and findings, never disputing the DNA results per se, based on the data provided, but badly hurting their reliability. He testifies indignantly that he wanted to do independent testing, but was informed that the Big Gulp sample was so small it had been "consumed in testing," and so there was no way to double-check the state's test.

The Verdict

In your dream, as you await the verdict at a bar on the corner next to the courthouse, you wonder how it will turn out. Just on the DNA match, it appeared that Johnny's goose was cooked. 

But DNA is not magic. Even at its best -- comparing knowns and unknowns -- in the end, it's only as good as the samples and procedures, and, most of all, the other evidence in the case. You never once directly said the DNA findings on the Big Gulp and your client were wrong. But you did make the most of its vulnerabilities, raised questions in the jurors' minds. Best of all, you were able to say "so what?" about the Big Gulp straw because of factors that had nothing to do with DNA: innocent presence and alibi.

A good lawyer like you beats bad science any day of the week.

In your dream, you were called back into the courtroom after only twenty minutes. You stood with Johnny for the verdict. The bailiff handed the verdict sheet to the judge, who examined it inscrutably, then transferred it back to the jury foreman, who rose to deliver the verdict.***

Then you woke up. But you found yourself with a new, insider's appreciation for the realities of DNA testing.

Catholic Science, Catholic Journalism?

If the Church approves a miracle, the Bear is not going to dispute it. But he hopes he has illustrated how DNA results are really the beginning of the process, not the end. We should not be doing "Catholic science" any more than "Catholic journalism." It's just science and journalism, or it's something less. (A complaint the Bear has with some Catholic media that seem to want to have it both ways.) 

Look at the way the Shroud studies were handled. They first established protocols, then performed tests according to accepted science. Reports were published. It was transparent. It was credible and confident. Debate ensued. It remains controversial, but we have benefitted from new insights.

If you like, go here to read medical details relating to the miraculous cure of Danila Castelli at Lourdes, the 69th such cure recognized by a bishop. There is also a detailed video of the doctor explaining it further. Doesn't it enhance credibility to confidently lay it all out so anyone can understand why this was a miracle? The Bear thinks it does, anyway.

The Bear is especially troubled about limiting a report to "human DNA." That's like opening your Bible to the 23rd Psalm and announcing that it has been determined to be a book on ancient Hebrew pastoral poetry.

Were the experts instructed to test only for human / non-human? Did they do more extensive testing, but the findings are being kept from the public for some reason? Or was the sample so degraded or contaminated that's the best they could do? We don't know.

But we ought to be able to tell if the DNA came from a male or female, at least. From pristine DNA directly from fresh tissue, we might be able to get some more interesting results, if we dared to look. But all we get is "human DNA."

Limitations of DNA Testing In Eucharistic Miracles

With today's sensitive PCR testing (which "amplifies" DNA -- think "xerox machine") samples otherwise too small to be tested, can be. It would hardly be surprising to find human DNA on a found host. After all, during mass, it is touched by at least one person, and, most of the time, two. If it's found somewhere and brought to the priest, that's probably at least three. After that, who knows? And, of course, who knows how many people touch unconsecrated hosts along the way? 

Anyone who touched it could have left behind skin cells. (The keys in front of you are simply filthy with gross skin cells.) Think back on the issues of chain of custody and contamination that were so important in your dream. 

DNA claims, for the Bear, raise more questions than they answer. Unless the Church is going to provide information sufficient for an educated person to at least know what was done and what was found, the Bear thinks they should do not do DNA testing at all. 

The CSI Effect

It reminds the Bear of doing murder cases before DNA. Somehow, we managed up until as recently as the 90's, when it started to become widespread. The most famous Eucharistic miracle, Lanciano, was last examined in 1981, before DNA, and the Bear has never heard that it has been tested since.

Now, DNA has done a lot of good, especially in freeing the falsely convicted. But -- and maybe the Bear's just old-fashioned -- it seems like every case has to have DNA testing now, whether it is necessary or not. Trials are routinely delayed -- even past speedy trial clocks -- because crime labs can't keep up with the cases prosecutors keep sending them. It's become another box to check off on your trial preparation checklist.

So now you know why the Bear is so conflicted on DNA testing on Eucharistic miracles. He has fantasized about getting a DNA match between two separate Eucharistic miracles. Just like Church Militant TV mistakenly claimed had happened. Talk about game, set and match. Because, if it were scientifically proved that Catholic priests separated by tine and distance were consecrating Hosts that showed the exact same DNA in supernatural manifestations of blood and tissue, then it would prove the truth of the Catholic Faith beyond a reasonable doubt.

But he is realizing that the Church is probably never going to tell us more than "human DNA," or share the DNA testing data or reports like they typically do the histological findings (as was done by excerpt in Poland). What makes DNA testing any different? 

The Bear doesn't know for sure. But, he can't dismiss the suspicion that the powers that be have decided that the rather messy realities of DNA testing would muddy the waters, and cause controversy. In other words the Bear knows they're hiding 99.9% of the DNA picture, and that rubs the Bear the wrong way. He wishes they would at least tell us why they do not share more on the testing.

They want to be able to mention "human DNA" but they're not willing to earn it.

As it is, rather than DNA adding to a miracle's credibility, unfortunately, for the Bear, it detracts from it. Too many people think DNA testing is magic. To be really credible -- just like CSI -- we have to have DNA. It's almost like it's a scientific imprimatur these days. But in reality, its just another test done by a tech in a lab with results spat out by a computer program. It is not the right tool for every purpose. It is the wrong one for this, at least as currently used.

The Bear recommends a moratorium on DNA testing of Eucharistic miracles until these issues are resolved. (This is a reversal of his previous position after thoughtful reflection.)


* The Bear would always wait a moment, looking at the prosecutor as if he were a strange amphibian that had crawled up on his counsel table, then rise up on his hind legs and say this: "The Bear presumes you all can tell the difference between television and real life, and apologizes for insulting your intelligence, but this is a matter the prosecutor has seen fit to raise. Anyone who believes Captain Kirk was the first man on the moon, please raise your hand." After an indulgent nod toward the chuckling prospective jurors, the Bear would pleasantly say, "the record shall reflect that no  one raised their hands." (Objections were invariably denied with a, "If you want to ask stupid questions, then so can he." And yes, the record always shall reflect, because it's the Bear's record and he doesn't need anyone's permission for it reflect.)


** Rule 417. DNA Evidence

(i) Copies of the case file including all reports, memoranda, notes, phone logs, contamination records, and data relating to the testing performed in the case.

(ii) Copies of any autoradiographs, lumigraphs, DQ Alpha Polymarker strips, PCR gel photographs and electropherogams, tabular data, electronic files and other data needed for full evaluation of DNA profiles produced and an opportunity to examine the originals, if requested.

(iii) Copies of any records reflecting compliance with quality control guidelines or standards employed during the testing process utilized in the case.

(iv) Copies of DNA laboratory procedure manuals, DNA testing protocols, DNA quality assurance guidelines or standards, and DNA validation studies.

(v) Proficiency testing results, proof of continuing professional education, current curriculum vitae and job description for examiners, or analysts and technicians involved in the testing and analysis of DNA evidence in the case.

(vi) Reports explaining any discrepancies in the testing, observed defects or laboratory errors in the particular case, as well as the reasons for those and the effects thereof.

(vii) Copies of all chain of custody documents for each item of evidence subjected to DNA testing.

(viii) A statement by the testing laboratory setting forth the method used to calculate the statistical probabilities in the case.

(ix) Copies of the allele frequencies or database for each locus examined.

(x) A list of all commercial or in-house software programs used in the DNA testing, including the name of the software program, manufacturer and version used in the case.

(xi) Copies of all DNA laboratory audits relating to the laboratory performing the particular tests.

***Being such a good lawyer in your dream, you noticed that the jurors all glanced at your client when they were brought into the courtroom. An infallible sign of a not-guilty verdict.


  1. That was much appreciated...
    I suspect you have an unwritten novel within you...and I would be first in line to order it

  2. I will be second in line to order your novel - or go online (just don't use paypal)
    You really write right truthfully and humorously.
    DNA aside, it ain't a miracle if you can explain it.

    1. rather, it ain't a miracle if you can prove it.
      People believe or they don't.

    2. Science could not explain it, and there would always be doubters who claimed fraud, or whatever, but I think it would still be a miracle, even if you proved what is claimed for these miracles.

  3. Since the piece was way overlong anyway, I didn't bring it up, but there is something else troublesome: sacrilege. To test for DNA a lab tech is grinding up a consecrated Host, one, moreover, that may miraculously have a manifestation of Our Lord's Sacred Heart and Blood.

    1. Ah, but you are only grinding up "the accidents" of the host. Of course, if one can only test the "accidents" of any object, how can one ever confirm it to be otherwise? [READERS: "Accidents" (as opposed to "substance") are a philosophical classification from Aristotle which was later employed by Aquinas regarding the Eucharist.] That noted, consecrated hosts have been purloined and laboratory tested (including DNA). It was done by a strange semi-religious group of "atheist creationists" that call their organization "Scientific Raelian." They published the results on the internet in an article entitled "DNA analysis of consecrated sacramental bread refutes Catholic transubstantiation claim." The results show that the bread remains bread.
      Now, some Catholic scientists have appealed to quantum physics, holding the change is on a quantum level. This sounds more like Christ becoming bread and wine, than bread and wine becoming Christ. But maybe that is ‘six of one, and a half dozen of the other.’ As Robert Barron quotes, “It is Jesus really, truly, and substantially present under the signs of the bread and wine.” So, no sign can ever be evidenced apart from a VISIBLY miraculous transformation. And Catholic Answers apologists say that when the host breaks down in your stomach, it ceases to be the body of Christ (transforming back to bread?). Of course, this would seem problematic, since Christ’s resurrected body is eternal, and thus cannot die/be destroyed.
      But if the bread retains all its accidents, how could it also not retain its substance? Is it not possible that the bread and wine become Christ’s body simply by His declaring them so, and/or by indwelling them with the Holy Spirit? After all, we ourselves are members of Christ, sharers in His body by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
      Yes, transubstantiation is not an easy doctrine to rationally support. That’s why Protestant denominations have skewed away from it to a greater or lesser extent. It is also why the Orthodox churches have avoided defining how the change into Christ’s body and blood takes place.

    2. The premise of Eucharistic miracles is that they have become the actual body and blood of Christ in that sensible form, not under the accidents of bread and wine. Of course a consecrated host that is not purported to be human tissue would be a poor test subject since no one is arguing anything to the contrary.

      My discussion is therefore limited to supposed Eucharistic Miracles, e.g. Lanciano. Without taking a position on the ultimate issue, I can certainly criticize both the bad science and bad journalism that have surrounded recent claims.

  4. "Update: neither Church Militant TV nor National Catholic Register have corrected the factual mistakes in their articles, despite being alerted to them by the Bear."

    Cf. "People prefer to believe what they prefer to be true." -- Francis Bacon.

    CMTV was alerted in advance about Sungenis and Delano in regard to geocentrism, too, but proceeded to do not just one, but two interviews. Niles was on that bandwagon as well prior to joining CMTV.

    When you have the corner on "how journalism is supposed to be done", why listen to some Bear? Per my other post, while I won't question intentions, the objective implementation of "Catholic" journalism across the whole spectrum is rather dismal.

    1. Yes, a growing peeve of mine that a lot of what passes for Catholic journalism may be Catholic but isn't journalism. I think you are alluding the the person who dismissed ephemerists unless they, like he, had a degree in and extensive experience in secular journalism. It really bugs me to see someone set up on scene somewhere, holding a microphone, giving every indication that he is a journalist, but admittedly not acting like one. But maybe the Bear's just jealous because he was told he had the perfect face for radio.

  5. Bear,
    Great post! Thanks for the "shout out" as well. I especially liked the part where you pointed out that,

    "It would hardly be surprising to find human DNA on a found host. After all, during mass, it is touched by at least one person, and, most of the time, two...."

    That's a very important observation in the case of a Eucharistic Host, especially if the host was touched and distributed by a priest or a male Eucharistic Minister (and I don't even want to go down the thread if it were a female EM). Then, because of contamination, you would get the result, through PCR testing, that it was a human male or possibly a mix of male and female. That's messy and I agree with your recommendation of

    "a moratorium on DNA testing of Eucharistic miracles until these issues are resolved"

    1. What the heck do you do for a living, laurel, if I may ask. Like the Bear you seem knowledgable about everything LOL

    2. Bear,
      I'm retired now but, in a former life I was a physicist at one of the country's leading industrial research labs.

  6. The Bear feels anyone who got to the end of that very long (but admittedly entertaining) article deserves a reward. Well here it is: you know now more about this topic than any of your friends :-)

  7. How can Eucharistic miracles *that involve recognisable flesh and blood* be genuinely from God ? To have the accidents of flesh and blood perceptible to the senses after the Consecration, is a direct denial of the - Divinely-revealed - dogma of Transubstantiation. If called on to choose between an alleged Eucharistic miracle, and the defined dogmatic teaching of the Church, I will take the second without the least hesitation. The Church's dogmas cannot be in error - those who claim to see Eucharistic miracles, have no such protection. Is God going to work even one miracle that makes a lie out of a dogma He has been pleased to reveal to His whole Church ? It would be easier for the heavens and earth to pass away, than for that to happen.

  8. Hello bear. Have you heard anything new on this since?


    1. I have not. I got an email from NCRegister saying they had corrected the mistake. I offered to review their findings. It might be a good time for a followup.

  9. Well please let us know what you find out. I'd like to believe this one.

    1. I would, too. Sadly, the Church does not seem wiling to follow standard forensic protocols on these DNA cases that would warrant an opinion one way or the other.


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