Written because during C&C Saints the issue of the certified miracles that are required to show that a Saint was in position to nag Himself in person, so to speak; that would require figuring out what a miracle is, and then what it takes, and even a basic summary is worth its own post. So here’s a post, only slightly re-written.
Literally, it’s from the the Latin for “wonderful”. As we are using it, it’s close– wonder-workers, things done by supernatural power, specifically those things done by the power of God. There are several Greek terms at the link for specific meanings if anybody wants to go and break it out.
A miracle is a thing done by the power of God. An event in the natural world that is not of the natural world, so to speak.
A slight misunderstanding can enter because our culture is so very different from that of…well, pretty much any other time. It’s very easy for us to mistake someone doing a thing using someone else’s power for someone doing a thing under their own power– most of the examples we can think of outside of a religious context are government matters, be it an on-duty police officer acting as an agent of the law or a soldier acting as an agent of the country. Things like, say, the little boy at my daughter’s Sunday school who use to have leukemia, until the morning he came down and caught his mother crying because they’d run out of options. He informed her that an angel had come in a dream and told him that he didn’t have it anymore… we don’t really have a strong analog for that kind of acting-as-the-authoritative-representative type of behavior. It was God’s doing, but it’s tempting– from what I’ve observed in our modern world-view, trying to contrast it to things I read about the past– to attribute the power to whoever you interact with; think of it like being grateful to the mailman when your grandmother sends you a lovely birthday gift.
On the flip side, there’s the temptation to go the over-attributing route– “every breath I take is a miracle.” It works as a way to get at a deeper meaning, in some cases, but it’s not the sort of “miracle” we’re talking about.
Some things I think were miracles are kind of silly– for example, my car’s brakes failed, quite suddenly. That sounds more like bad luck than anything good, much less a miracle, until I add that the brake light came on two blocks from the only mechanic I could possibly use, and that the next day I was starting a 300+ mile trip that was mostly mountain passes with stone wall on one side, and deadly drops on the other, and that the mechanic assured me it was impossible that I’d only felt anything odd with the brakes immediately before the light came on and I brought it in, because it was a slow leak. He turned a lovely shade of white when I told him where I was going to be driving the next day, though, and informed me that if I really hadn’t had the light come on until just then, I still would’ve known all about it on that trip….. While that may be a miracle, it’s rather hard to investigate and prove, which is a requirement for a miracle to be used for a cause of sainthood.
As C. S. Lewis said, a virgin birth is only identifiably miraculous if you know that virgins do not generally give birth.
So, there are miracles. (Catholic Answers has a lovely tract on this, Do Miracles Still Occur?) When the Church has sufficiently proven a miracle, it’s called being certified. I know that there’s probably someone simmering right now, because miracles can’t be proven. That may or may not be true, depending on what one means by “proving” and what assumptions are built in– for example, a while back I rolled my eyes as I scrolled past something or other on Facebook that was supposed to be dedicated to figuring out who Jesus’ human father was. If someone starts with the assumption that miracles can’t happen, that they’re impossible, then correct– you can’t prove a miracle. That’s not an argument, it’s a premise, a starting assumption. The complementary mistake is to assume that everything happens is through God’s intervention unless there’s an acceptable alternative. The Church uses, understandably enough, the standard of there being no natural explanation. An individual could also use a standard of there being no evidence of a natural explanation.
I’ll use the example of the kid who had leukemia, which handily enough is in the same class as most of the miracles used for saints’ causes these days, and tag them with how they’d view “proving” a miracle.
A Proving Impossible stance would be that the years of medical history the boy had were either incorrect– perhaps he didn’t have leukemia, or they missed all the signs of a more standard remission pattern, or there’s a currently unknown but totally natural cause of over-night leukemia remission in some cases that are so obscure we simply don’t have a large enough sample to identify the cause. This would be the stance of those who take a method of inquiry into reality as a total description of reality– usually self-identified as “scientific” or “rational” or, sometimes “skeptical.” As is probably clear even with my writing ability, I do not think highly of this, viewing it as an assertion that a road cannot exist because it’s not on the map.
A Proving Presumed stance would be that all remissions are miracles unless it was in predictable, direct response to a treatment.
A Proving Possible would hold that those remissions where a treatment just suddenly starts working, or works better than expected, might be a miracle.
A Proving Proof is what the Church uses, and it involves bugging the heck out of all the experts, especially very skeptical ones, to try to find any other explanation. It’s a matter of testing to try to find something that is definitely a miracle, not find stuff that could be a miracle, so that anyone who does an honest inquiry– asks the question and is willing to take yes for an answer– can believe.
Alright, so it’s definitely a miracle. Does that mean that I, as an observant, practicing Catholic, must believe in a specific miracle?
Big hint: apparitions are found “worthy of belief.”
Some miracles, we must believe in– like the Eucharistic Miracle. Transubstantiation– if you don’t believe that this is His body, then you’ve got a rather big problem.
We also must believe that miracles are possible, and identifiable as miracles, per the first Vatican Council– no wiggle room with being able to go “oh, miracles happen, but there’s no way we could really know for sure.” Look, if you check out that case of the girl who was born without pupils, who was– obviously– blind, but is objectively not blind after interaction with Padre Pio, and she still has no pupils, then you are really, really reaching, and should do some soul searching. (Gemma Di Giorgi, although obviously she’s a lady, now, not a girl. Yes, still alive.)
That said, these miracles are to aid for us to believe. (Paging Catholic Answers again, on Private Revelation!) Unless a miracle has been explicitly taught by the justly applied power of the Church as requiring belief, you don’t have to believe it. I can find nothing that says a Decree of a Miracle– the thing needed for a miracle to “count” for sainthood– is binding, and it’s important to note that the saint being in heaven is what is stated infallibly in the case of sainthood, and they are required so someone can be canonized, it’s not automatic. Keeping with the whole “two sides” theme, if you find yourself hitting someone over the head to get them to accept even an approved miracle, it’s time for some soul searching on yourself.
Just like with the saints, the purpose is to bring us to God– not to become some little god in themselves.