The Church’s Attitude Toward Miracles

FR. PETER M.J. STRAVINSKAS

Since the Enlightenment, many Christians have sought to provide dependable criteria for discerning the authenticity of the miracles.

The Jews of old and Christians up through the 18th century had little or no problem with the concept of miracles in general, nor with the possibility of their occurrence in their own time and place. All that changed dramatically under the influence of the rationalism fostered by the Enlightenment, with names like Descartes, Spinoza, Voltaire, and Hume as the prime protagonists. What happened? To no small degree, Luther — with his stress on sola scriptura and his concomitant rejection of magisterial authority and of philosophy as an aid in seeking the truth — may well have paved the way.

How so? With the major scientific developments of the Renaissance, many theories of the origins of the universe and its daily functioning, taken for granted in biblical terms for centuries, came under scrutiny. Many biblical teachings were found untenable in the light of those scientific discoveries. With that, Scripture itself came under fire as a trustworthy guide for modern men, as reason alone — understood as empirical, scientifically provable data — came to be seen as the only valid source of knowledge. With no Magisterium to safeguard the Word and its interpretation, Scripture was, in a manner of speaking, left hanging. And, the very first aspects of biblical writing to be attacked were the miracles. Liberal Protestantism was born as it breathlessly tried to keep pace with the onslaughts of science and rationalism, seen in phenomena like Bultmann's efforts at so-called "de-mythologization."

This led to the birth of Fundamentalism as an attempt to maintain traditional Christian beliefs despite the mounting evidence seemingly arrayed against it. One of the approaches was a kind of fideism, which is belief based on some authority, even if there is no rational support for it and even if rationality appears to disprove it categorically. The proverb attributed to Tertullian and Anselm came back in full force: Credo quia absurdam est (I believe because it is absurd!). This type of "in-your-face" act of faith did little to enhance the image of traditional Christians, and started to paint a picture which continues to be popular today of ignorant, down-home yokels who can't even speak standard English.

Pius principles

Now, where was the Catholic Church during all this, you ask? For the most part, she was busy seeking to save herself from various political revolutions that had devastated the vineyard in countries like France, Germany, and Italy, with problems yet to surface in Spain and Mexico. She was trying to survive. However, she was not totally absent from the battle, especially during the pontificates of Pope Pius IX and Pope St. Pius X. The liberalism against which Newman had fought as a Protestant was beginning to make inroads into Catholicism, and Pius IX was determined to stave off these incursions. And so, we find the Pope taking the bull by the horns in his 1846 encyclical, Qui Pluribus, going right to the root of the problem:

"They [the proponents of rationalism] assert that faith is contrary to reason. Surely nothing more foolish, more impious, more opposed to reason itself can be imagined. For, though faith is above reason, there can never be found a real contradiction or disagreement between them, as both of them originate from the same source of immutable and eternal truth, from the good and great God, and both so help each other that right reason demonstrates, safeguards, and defends the truth of faith, whereas faith frees reason from all errors and through the knowledge of divine things enlightens, strengthens, and perfects it."

He went on, even more confidently: "This faith is confirmed through the birth, the life, the death, the resurrection, the wisdom, the miracles, and prophecies of its author and fulfiller, Christ Jesus." In his 1864 Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX condemned in no uncertain terms the following propositions: "The prophecies and miracles set forth in the narration of the Sacred Scriptures are poetical fictions; the mysteries of the Christian Faith are the outcome of philosophical reflections, in the books of both Testaments mythical tales are contained; Jesus Christ Himself is a mythical fiction." Six year later, Vatican I set forth a comprehensive and compelling explanation and defense of the compatibility of faith and reason in its Dogmatic Constitution concerning the Catholic Faith (Dei Filius, 1870).

Allow me to underscore how carefully the Church maneuvered between the Scylla of unbridled rationalism and the Charybdis of unthinking fideism. Reason is not the enemy of Christian faith, but it is not a reality unto itself, either. This theme will return many times in the following century, notably in our present Holy Father's writings, exemplified most powerfully in Fides et Ratio (1998). Beyond that, Vatican I calls forth miracles as proof — dare we say, scientific proof — for the intelligibility of faith. The Council condemns the position that miracles — even those recorded in the Bible — are not possible.

These principles found their way into St. Pius X's Oath Against the Errors of Modernism (1910), as the oath-taker professes, in positive form: "I recognize the exterior proofs of revelation, that is to say, the divine works, mainly the miracles and prophecies, as sure signs of the divine origin of the Christian religion, and I hold that they are well adapted to the understanding of all ages and of all men, also those of the present time."

Forty years later, Pope Pius XII picked up the same themes in Humani Generis:

"Difficulties may occur to the human mind also in forming a firm judgment concerning the credibility of the Catholic faith, though we are provided by God with such a wealth of wonderful exterior signs by which the divine origin of the Christian religion can be proved with certainty even by the natural light of reasons alone. But a man may be guided by prejudice, he may be influenced by his ill intentions, and so he can turn away from, and resist not only the evidence of the exterior signs which is plain to the eyes, but also the heavenly inspirations which God convey to our minds."

You may have noticed a somewhat different tone to Pius XII's work — more assured, less defensive. What can account for the change in tone? First, the shrine of Our Lady at Lourdes had become far more than a magnet for the credulous. Events had been occurring there for nearly a century that continued to stymie the most proficient doctors and scientists. The miraculous could not be so easily cast aside, as some had earlier supposed. Second, during the 40s, excavations under St. Peter's Basilica were making more and more certain the historicity of the Apostle Peter's stay in Rome, after nearly two centuries of unrelenting ridicule. In other words, Catholic claims were being substantiated by archaeological finds, showing — among other things — that perhaps the early Christians and medieval Church were not so gullible after all. A fruitful dialogue was being forged between science and religion, precisely on the ground of miracle and prophecy.

With tremendous confidence, then, Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio can proclaim an undeniable fact of contemporary life; "As a result of the crisis of rationalism, what has appeared finally is nihilism." In other words, men first became uncomfortable with faith, then with reason, and now they are left completely unmoored from every aspect of human living. The Holy Father emphasizes the vital link between faith and reason, despite the challenges of the last 200 years.

Pilgrims beware

This review of magisterial documents makes clear that the Church accepts the reality of the miraculous, both historically and as a present possibility. For what purpose? St. Thomas Aquinas sums it up well: "Not indeed for the declaration of any new doctrine of faith, but for the direction of human acts." And what are the criteria?

Since the Enlightenment, many Christians have sought to provide dependable criteria for discerning the authenticity of the miracles. In our own time, the 1978 document from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith lists several objective, verifiable criteria to determine the legitimacy of an alleged supernatural occurrence. Let me summarize the process and the norms:

  1. The case is normally handled by the bishop of the place where the event(s) supposedly take place, as he appoints a commission of experts — theological, medical, psychological — to investigate everything and everyone concerned.
  2. Moral certitude ought to exist that the event is miraculous, that is, that normal human explanations fail, at least initially.
  3. The persons involved should be mentally fit, moral, and obedient to ecclesiastical authority. There should be no suspicion that financial gain could be a motivation.
  4. The content of the message must be in conformity with Catholic doctrine, whether on the part of the seer or on the part of the conveyor of the message (e.g., Our Lord, Our Lady, or some other saint).
  5. One must be able to point to "good fruit" resulting from it and enduring: conversions, deeper commitment to prayer, and an increase in personal charity.

Throughout this often lengthy and detailed process, Church authorities operate from what we might call a "hermeneutic of suspicion." In other words, the claim must be proved, not presumed. This posture frequently surprises people — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — who seem to imagine that the Church would just be delighted with the prospect of another prodigy. This was certainly the shocked reaction to my statements on the Fox special on which I appeared this summer: "What do you mean the Church is cautious or even suspicious?" But, in fact, she is.

When an investigation is finished, the commission provides the competent ecclesiastic authority its determination as to whether the alleged occurrence is "worthy of belief." Consider the following information for the 20th century's 386 alleged Marian apparitions: In 299 cases (77 percent), the Church has declared that there was insufficient evidence to make a determination; a negative judgment has been made in 79 instances (20 percent); a paltry eight cases (or 2 percent!) have received ecclesiastical approval: Fatima (Portugal), Beauraing (Belgium), Banneux (Belgium), Akita (Japan), Syarcusa (Italy), Zeitoun (Egypt), Manila (Philippines, according to some sources), and Betania (Venezuela). If we go back farther, our list is not substantially expanded, as we obtain the following: Guadalupe (1531), Rue de Bac (Miraculous Medal, 1830), La Salette (1846), Lourdes (1858), and Pontmain (1871).

Many people don't realize that the majority of apparitions are "imaginative," as opposed to "corporeal." This does not mean that the "imaginative" are unreal or fictional, but that they are not bodily experiences, thus more spiritual or psychological in scope, or even dreams. These supernatural occurrences can be viewed from the prophetic and/or visionary elements involved. Some visions or locutions are simply personal or mystical in nature, in the sense that the message or experience is intended for the individual alone (e.g., St. Gemma Galgani), while others are intended to be shared with the community of the Church (e.g., St. Margaret Mary Alacoque). This latter group calls for action on the part of people beyond the one directly affected. Hence, what may be initially seen as a "private revelation" (which it always remains) does take on a public or communal dimension — and this is where the hierarchical Church has a special responsibility. Even authentic visionaries have mixed truth and falsehood in their message; St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Catherine of Siena come to mind as immediate examples of this.

We see this hierarchical principle operative in the Emmaus story. At the end, the two disciples return to Jerusalem to tell the apostles they have seen the Risen Lord, as have the women who supposedly encountered Him earlier at the tomb. Both the male and female disciples alike are confronted with the assertion: "The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon" (Lk. 24:34). Simply put, their "private" experience had to be validated by apostolic authority. In this instance, what they think they saw has meaning because it corresponds with what the Prince of the Apostles saw as well. And the Church has used this as a measuring rod ever since.

Clothed with the sun

Miracles have both an incarnational and eschatological element. Just as a miracle connects us to the Father's gracious love in the past event of His Son's enfleshment, so too does it make us look forward to the end times. When the Israelites were miraculously cared for by God in the desert, they looked forward with confidence and eagerness to the life to which they were called in the Promised Land. Miracles now in the age of the Church should have a similar effect on us, causing us to look forward with enthusiasm and longing for the fulfillment of God's promises in the life to come.

When we look at miracles this way, we begin to see why so many of the visions, prophecies, and miracles have a Marian dimension, for Our Lady was the very means by which the Incarnation took place and, at the same time, she is the Woman of Revelation 12, clothed with the sun and sign of the Church in glory. Not by chance does the liturgy of Advent direct our attention to both realities: the coming of the Lord at the end of time and His coming as the Babe of Bethlehem. That's why we invoke the Blessed Virgin as Our Lady of the New Advent: As she was intimately associated with preparing Christ's body within her holy womb, similarly is she associated with preparing His Mystical Body, the Church, for that definitive union at the end of time. Of course, Our Lady's whole life is a constant example of how every member of her Son's Church should respond to the call of the Gospel, and her maternal intercession gives us confident assurance that the glory of her Son which she now shares will one day be ours.

Nonetheless, we must admit, with some embarrassment at times, that devotees of Our Lady have occasionally caused incalculable damage by their extravagant claims and untheological assertions.

Pastors and teachers must exercise good pastoral sense in presenting information on apparitions, avoiding the construction of doctrinal conclusions from private apparitions — even approved ones. Preachers, precisely as proclaimers of public revelation, should shy away from a too-ready identification with private revelation, especially when it does little more than arouse human curiosity, let alone when a kind of spiritual "blackmail" begins to surface; that is, the insinuation that refusal to cooperate with the demands of the visionary could or would lead to spiritual ruin.

While our treatment of the miraculous cannot hope to be complete, we should at least allude to the possibility of supernatural happenings which have diabolical origins, such as hauntings or possessions. We should also note in passing how unusual it is to encounter miracles wrought or even alleged to have been wrought outside the Catholic Church. We cannot help but be fascinated by the fact that certain marvels like the cures of Lourdes and the Shroud of Turin have been the object of as much interest among non-believers and among the scientific community as they have among the faithful. However, idle speculation should never be fostered, lest we lose sight of the wisdom of the line which opens that all-time favorite film The Song of Bernadette: "For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible."

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Stravinskas, Fr. Peter M.J. "The Church's Attitude Toward Miracles." Lay Witness (September, 2000).

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.

Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

THE AUTHOR

Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D. S.T.D. is the editor of The Catholic Response Magazine, publisher of Newman House Press, the executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation and founder of the Priestly Society of the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman. He has written and edited many books, including Advent Meditations, Lenten Meditations, The Bible and the Mass, Priestly Celibacy: The Scriptural, Historical, Spiritual, and Psychological Roots, Constitutional Rights and Religious Prejudice: Catholic Education as the Battleground, The Catholic Church and the Bible, The Catholic Encyclopedia (available on CD-ROM), Catholic Dictionary, Mary and the Fundamentalist Challenge, Understanding the Sacraments: A Guide for Prayer and Study, and others.

Copyright © 2000 LayWitness




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