Do miracles happen?

Here’s why

5 October 2013

9:00 AM

5 October 2013

9:00 AM

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.

COSTA RICA-VATICAN-RELIGION-POPE-SAINTS-JOHNPAULII-MORACosta Rican Floribeth Mora — who says she was cured of a serious brain condition by a miracle attributed to late Pope John Paul II  Photo: AFP/Getty

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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  • mikewaller

    In my view, this rapidly falls to Occam’s razor. We are big brained creatures who have developed this characteristic for reasons fully explicable in terms of natural selection. Because our stock in trade is opportunistic problem solving we need the cerebral capacity to undertake this. We also need a sense of self (aka “consciousness”) which affords us the criterion against which to evaluate different options.

    Trouble is, big brains bring with them the realisation that there is no real point to existence and that, on a cosmic scale, our continuing to do so is a matter of supreme inconsequentiality. These being not very pleasant ideas, Gods and miracles are delusions that bring great comfort to many. That said, in a perfect world, “believing” would simply be a matter of personal choice, the uninvited challenging of which by others would be rank bad manners. Sadly, we live in a world in which although secular forces have civilised most Christians, other beliefs continue to bring much suffering. Although clearly undertaken at some personal risk, challenging such ideas even in their most attenuated form seems to me the morally appropriate thing to do.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    I`ll believe in miracles the day you stop sucking your teeth.

  • For those still unaware, the Vatican was co-opted at the top by the KGB in 1958, with the “election” of Pope John XXIII. All Popes since then have been Communist agents of Moscow & allies. In addition, the KGB agent Quislings that controlled the Russian Orthodox Church before the “collapse” of the USSR are to this day still in control. They were never identified and thrown out of that institution after the “collapse” of the USSR. The same is true for all other religious institutions in the other 14 republics of the USSR, including East Bloc nations, proving not only co-option of those religious institutions, but that the “collapses” of the East Bloc and USSR were disinformation operations.

    As for Pope John Paul, we have the case where several hours after Alois Estermann is made head of the Vatican Swiss Guard by John Paul in 1998, Estermann is found dead. Soon after, the European press outed Alois Estermann as a KGB agent, working for Moscow since 1979.

    For those unfamiliar with this subject, the “collapse” of the USSR in 1991 was a strategic ruse under the “Long-Range Policy” (LRP). What is the LRP, you ask? The LRP is the “new” strategy all Communist nations signed onto in 1960 to defeat the West with. The last major disinformation operation under the LRP was the “collapse” of the USSR in 1991. The next major disinformation operation under the LRP will be the fraudulent collapse of the Chinese Communist government. When that occurs, Taiwan will be stymied from not joining the mainland.

    • JohannesHibernicus

      You’re not paranoid are you?

    • bluedixie

      What a load of B……s