Can Miracles Be (Dis)Proven?

Catholic Canonizations

With Mother Teresa’s recent canonization and elevation to Saint Teresa of Calcutta, I’ve had quite a few friends and family members asking me how exactly the Catholic Church goes about making someone a saint.

In answering that question, there are a couple of important distinctions which must be made. The first distinction that we should make is that the Catholic Church doesn’t make someone a saint, rather they declare them to be a saint. In other words the process of canonization is a process of recognizing an individuals sainthood, not a process of conferring sainthood to an individual.

The other distinction which must be made is that saints are not some special class of super Christians. As Christians we are all called to be saints, sancti, holy ones.

All of us.

Sainthood is the end-goal of the Christian life. Everyone who enters heaven will do so as a saint. [Tweet This]

Venerable, Blessed, or Saint

With those two points in mind, the process by which the Church officially recognizes someone as a saint (one who has lived a holy life on this earth and is with God in heaven) has changed over the centuries. The process of canonization has existed since the 10th century, but considerable changes were made to the process by Saint Pope John Paul II in 1983. Currently, the process begins with the local bishop who will investigate the candidate’s life and writings for heroic virtue (or martyrdom) and orthodoxy of doctrine. Next a panel of theologians at the Vatican evaluates the candidate. After approval by the panel and cardinals of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the pope proclaims the candidate “venerable.”

The next step, beatification, requires evidence of one miracle (except in the case of martyrs). Since miracles are considered proof that the person is in heaven and can intercede for us, the miracle must take place after the candidate’s death and as a result of a specific petition to the candidate. When the pope proclaims the candidate beatified or “blessed,” the person can be venerated by a particular region or group of people with whom the person holds special importance.

Only after a second verified miracle will the pope canonize the saint (this includes martyrs as well). The title of saint tells us that the person has lived a holy life, is in heaven, and is to be honored by the universal Church.

Since verified miracles play such an important role in the canonization of a saint, let’s turn our attention to the subject of this article.

What Constitutes a Miracle?

A miracle can be defined as, “A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.” or, A highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.” In either case it would seem that a miracle is typically viewed as being a “welcome” event, although I would argue that this would be entirely dependent on the observer’s point of view. For instance, Pharaoh may not have considered the miraculous plagues a welcome event…

Regardless, many people object to the very possibility of miracles citing either a personal disbelief in the existence of any divine agency, a philosophical view which precludes the miraculous, a claim that miracles are incompatible with the laws of science or nature, or a historical objection which denies the possibility of determining that any historical event can be identified as miraculous in nature.

Take for instance the words of Scottish philosopher David Hume, “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”

Bart Ehrman, a popular textual critic of the New Testament, attempts to separate the historical question from the philosophical question stating,“Even if there are otherwise good sources for a miraculous event the very nature of the historical discipline prevents the historian from arguing for its probability. By their very nature miracles are the least probable occurrence in any given instance.” 

But, at least part of the difficulty lies in how we define a miracle.

Two Definitions

If we refer back to the definitions given for the word miracle above we will see that a miracle can be an event that is inexplicable by scientific means, i.e. violates the laws of nature, or an improbable or rare event. But it’s important at the outset to know these are two different definitions. It would be a “rare or improbable event” if the Cubs won the World Series, and we might very well call it a miracle, but we wouldn’t really mean that any laws of nature were violated or that divine providence was in any way involved.

Conversely, well over a billion Christians believe that a literal miracle happens at communion when the bread and wine becomes Christ’s body and blood. They believe that this happens by divine agency in a manner inexplicable by scientific means. For Catholics in particular this miracle takes place countless times every day as Mass is celebrated around the world. According to these Christians it is an event which violates the laws of nature, but it’s not exactly rare or improbable.

Often times critics of the miraculous tend to conflate these two very different meanings of the word “miracle” arriving at a sort of nonsensical hybrid. There are two definitions for the word duck. One definition describes a bird that likes water, while the other definition refers to bending over or bowing down to dodge something. If however, we were to say that a duck is a bird that likes water and always bows down to avoid something, we would be conflating the two meanings. I’m looking at you Mr. Ehrman…

For the purposes of this article I don’t really want to go into a detailed defense of miracles, but for those who are interested Dr. William Lane Craig has written a pretty thorough defense on his site Reasonable Faith: The Problem of Miracles: A Historical and Philosophical Perspective. I’ve also found C.S. Lewis’ book Miracles to be well worth reading.

Can Miracles Be (Dis)Proven?

With all of this in mind, many people are surprised to see the lengths to which the Catholic Church will go in an effort to disprove miracles. And yes, you read that last sentence right.

The other day the New York Times published a wonderful little OP-ED piece written in the wake of Mother Teresa’s canonization. It was written by a  hematologist and historian who self-identifies as an atheist – I’ve linked to it here: Pondering Miracles, Medical and Religious

In the article Jacalyn Duffin relates how she was contacted to provide a hematology report for a patient diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. It was a blind reading. She was unaware of who was requesting the report and she was also unaware of who the patient was. All she had to go on was the data that she was presented with. She assumed that her report would be used as evidence in a medical lawsuit. As it turned out, it was the Vatican who had requested the report.

“The tribunal that questioned me was not juridical, but ecclesiastical. I was not asked about my faith. (For the record, I’m an atheist.) I was not asked if it was a miracle. I was asked if I could explain it scientifically.”

And, as it turns out, the Vatican works aggressively to disprove the miraculous. According to Jacalyn, the “miracle” in question had already been overturned once by the Vatican’s medical committee who were unconvinced by the story of a first remission, a relapse, and a much longer second remission! Reflecting on this process she writes,

“If a sick person recovers through prayer and without medicine, that’s nice, but not a miracle. She had to be sick or dying despite receiving the best of care. The church finds no incompatibility between scientific medicine and religious faith; for believers, medicine is just one more manifestation of God’s work on earth…Perversely then, this ancient religious process, intended to celebrate exemplary lives [declaring a saint through the process of canonization], is hostage to the relativistic wisdom and temporal opinions of modern science. Physicians, as nonpartisan witnesses and unaligned third parties, are necessary to corroborate the claims of hopeful postulants…I never expected such reverse skepticism and emphasis on science within the church.”

Skepticism As A Path To Faith

Being a skeptic at heart and someone who has always struggled with faith, I found myself strangely drawn by this particular practice of the Catholic Church, this “reverse skepticism and emphasis on science” that Jacalyn refers to. I had grown up in a Christian tradition which often placed an inordinate value on “blind faith” and personal experience. Many of the stories I had heard about various miracles growing up ended up being just that…stories. Basically Christian urban legends that were passed from church to church, always with the claim that the pastor personally knew the person (or a friend of a friend of the person) who had experienced this particular miraculous event.

As we moved from church to church and I began to encounter the same stories with differing details, I found that rather than strengthening my faith, these miraculous stories were actually eroding my belief in any form of divine intervention. I began to question whether even the “miracles” recorded in the bible might not have natural explanations, or wondering if perhaps miracles ceased altogether after the apostolic age.

And then I encountered the Catholic Church. The miraculous stories found within the Catholic tradition were some of the most outlandish I’d ever encountered! Take the reported miracle of the sun at Fatima on October 13, 1917 as an example:

People had gathered to witness the event because three young shepherd children had predicted that at high noon the lady (a marian apparition) who had appeared to them several times would perform a great miracle. After a period of rain, the dark clouds broke and the sun appeared as an opaque, spinning disc in the sky. It was significantly duller than normal, and to cast multicolored lights across the landscape, the people, and the surrounding clouds. The sun was then reported to have careened towards the earth before zig-zagging back to its normal position. The crowds previously wet clothes became “suddenly and completely dry, as well as the wet and muddy ground that had been previously soaked because of the rain that had been falling.”1

Absolute nonsense right?

But here’s the problem, there were between thirty and a hundred thousand witnesses to this miracle, including several newspaper reporters! Estimates of the number present range from 30,000 and 40,000 by Avelino de Almeida, writing for the Portuguese newspaper O Século2, to 100,000, estimated by Dr. Joseph Garrett, professor of natural sciences at the University of Coimbra3, both of whom were present that day.

The most widely cited descriptions of the events reported at Fatima are taken from the writings of John De Marchi, an Italian Catholic priest and researcher. De Marchi spent seven years in Fátima, from 1943 to 1950, conducting research and interviewing the principals at length4. In The Immaculate Heart, published in 1952, De Marchi reports that, “[t]heir ranks (those present on 13 October) included believers and non-believers, pious old ladies and scoffing young men. Hundreds, from these mixed categories, have given formal testimony. Reports do vary; impressions are in minor details confused, but none to our knowledge has directly denied the visible prodigy of the sun.”5

Miracles, when true, are meant to serve as a road from skepticism to faith, an opportunity for people to observe God at work in His world. Will they prove the existence of God beyond doubt for the determined skeptic? Of course not, nor are they meant to, for man’s freedom of choice is carefully guarded by his Creator. But the miracles which have been verified by the Church throughout the centuries do serve as markers along the road to belief. Concrete examples of something other at work in the world, something transcendent; something, perhaps, divine.

Miracles force us to question, but they don’t impose an answer. Man, as ever, is free to view the world as he sees fit. [Tweet This]

The Heart Of The Christian Faith

At the heart of the Christian faith lies a miracle of staggering proportions. A man who is brutally tortured and then publicly executed, is buried in a public tomb guarded by soldiers. Inexplicably, improbably, and in violation of the most central laws of nature he rises from the dead.

St. Paul writing of this event to the Corinthian Church circa AD 54 describes it thus, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”6

Notice the eyewitness nature of the account. Note the invitation to corroborate his story with eyewitnesses who were still living. Note that Christ fulfilled hundreds of prophecies written about the coming Jewish messiah; prophecies written centuries before he was even born.

For those who don’t share an automatic prejudice against the very possibility of miracles we could perhaps rework the two definitions as follows:

  1. A miracle is an event that defies the known laws of science and therefore must be a result of an agency which exists outside of the natural order, OR
  2. A miracle is an event that can be explained by science, but the explanation is so mathematically improbable as a matter of chance that, “God did it” is more likely than, “it just happened.”

I recognize that these definitions require at a minimum an agnostic openness (the possibility of God’s existence); but regardless of definition we are forced to admit that unexplainable events occur.

Events which science cannot explain. Events that carry a weight of testimony such that the counter explanations are indeed more ridiculous than the fact which the miracle endeavors to establish. Events that while improbable are nonetheless true. We can call them miracles, or we can make up another word which we assign as a placeholder, but the very fact that we argue at such lengths over these matters demonstrates that these phenomena exist.

Jacalyn Duffin, although herself an atheist, concludes her article Pondering Miracles, Medical And Religious, with these words. “Now almost 40 years later, that mystery woman is still alive and I still cannot explain why. Along with the Vatican, she calls it a miracle. Why should my inability to offer an explanation trump her belief? However they are interpreted, miracles exist, because that is how they are lived in our world.” 

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  1. De Marchi 1952b:150 

  2. De Marchi 1952a 

  3. De Marchi 1952a:177 

  4. De Marchi, John. True Story of Fatima, Catechetical Guild Educational Society, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1956 

  5. De Marchi 1952b:143 

  6. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 

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