Two recent popes are to be canonised on 17 April next year: Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, and Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. Both are being declared saints in haste: conventionally the Church has waited for a few hundred years for the dust to settle, with slow promotion from ‘venerable’ to ‘blessed’, before declaring de fide that a soul is with God in Heaven.
To establish that this is indeed the case — that a soul is in Heaven — miracles have to be ascribed to candidates for canonisation. The saints themselves do not perform miracles: this is done by God at their request. He, God, interferes with the laws of nature to cure from terminal illnesses those who have prayed to the candidate. Pope John XXIII has produced only one miracle but Pope Francis has declared that is enough. Pope John Paul II produced a second when a Costa Rican woman, Floribeth Mora, who suffered from a cerebral aneurysm and had been given a month to live, prayed to Karol Wojtyla and on 1 May 2011, the anniversary of his beatification, was cured.
A miracle is defined as ‘an event that apparently contradicts known scientific laws’ and the very idea is therefore thought obnoxious by many in our scientific age. The prima facie absurdity of the idea that some power from outside the space-time continuum could manipulate nature seems a case of intellectually degrading superstition. The Scots philosopher David Hume wrote a chapter on miracles in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in the mid-18th century that has been the default position of sensible people ever since. He was quoted by an eminent physicist, Lawrence Krauss, in the Los Angeles Times to show that Floribeth’s ‘cure’ must be a case of spontaneous remission. ‘For the Catholic church to attribute otherwise unexplained events to miracles, strains credulity so much as to encourage scepticism about its other claims.’ To the convent-educated Libby Purves writing in the Times, belief in miracles is gross superstition.
There are, I suspect, a number of Catholics who find the whole subject a little embarrassing. However, the miraculous is at the heart of their religion — whether it be the Resurrection of Jesus or the teaching on Transubstantiation. Jesus established his credentials as the Son of God by demonstrating a complete control over the physical world, turning water into wine, feeding five thousand with a few loaves and fishes, walking on the water, calming storms, curing lepers, the blind, the paralysed and reviving those who were already dead. The Tetrarch, Herod Antipas, hoped that Jesus would perform some stunts in his presence but was disappointed. The scant references in non-Christian sources refer not to Jesus’s teaching but his miracles: Josephus in his Antiquities calls him ‘a doer of wonderful works’, and the Jewish Talmud calls him a ‘sorcerer’.
Miracles are found throughout the history of the Church, performed by holy men and women when they were living or by their relics when they were dead. In Lourdes, in the Pyrenees, where in 1858, Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have had visions of the Virgin Mary, millions have taken the waters in the hope of a cure. The anti-clerical author Emile Zola wrote a novel, Lourdes, ridiculing the idea of supernatural intervention; but as Ruth Harris wrote in her admirable book on Lourdes, ‘his reworking of the case of Marie Lebranchu’, a woman cured of a hideous tubercular lupus, ‘was palpably untrue’. Professor Krauss, writing in the Los Angeles Times, is also misleading. He states that the percentages of cures from cancer at Lourdes are much the same as those for spontaneous remission in the population at large, but of course only a few of the claimed cures are from cancer.
The arguments used by Hume against miracles have been refuted by later philosophers. The then atheist Antony Flew, wrote G.E.M. Anscombe, appears ‘embarrassed’ by Hume’s reasoning and C.D. Broad ‘simply makes mincemeat of the argument, as unreasonable in itself and in any case inconsistent with Hume’s philosophic position’.
At the heart of the controversy over miracles is whether human beings, because they have the largest brains, not only know more than other creatures but know all that there is to be known. Embarrassed by the credulity shown by the faithful in the past, the church applies strict criteria in the validation of miracles. However, even the most scrupulous investigations will not persuade today’s militant sceptics to look at the scientifically inexplicable with open minds.
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