Miracle or fraud? How the Catholic Church decides

By Michael O’Neill | Contributor
Sunday, June 1, 2014

Worshippers light candles and pray in front of a statue of Mary Oct. 8, 2012 after walking through the church grounds during a candlelit rosary procession outside the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wis. People gather at the shrine every year to celebrate the anniversary of a Marian apparition seen by Adele Brise, a young Belgian immigrant woman, three times in October 1859. (CNS photo/Darren Hauck, Reuters)

Miracles are important to each and every one of us. Even skeptics and atheists need to have an explanation for the unexplainable.

We all pray for “miracles” of one sort or another. Perhaps we beg God for an impossible comeback in a football game or beseech St. Anthony for that certainly lost wallet or wedding ring. We hope for the dream job or out-ofour- league spouse and our last and only resort seems to be some sort of divine intervention.

In times of the serious illness of loved ones, we in great faith approach God with our desperate plea that their life might be spared. Sometimes the little coincidences of daily life seem to be miraculous reassurances that we are always under the care, protection and watchful eye of a loving Father.

As Catholics, our own miracle stories, big and small, are all woven into the vast tapestry of a faith tradition that embraces supernatural events and celebrates them in ways that we may not even realize. For any of us that wear a Miraculous Medal or scapular in any of its various colors, we are indirectly recalling the time-honored apparitions of the Virgin Mary that these sacramentals find their origins in. When we pray the rosary, we harken back to the legend that St. Dominic received this devotion in a vision and optionally may be saying between decades the Fatima prayer (“Oh my Jesus …”) given to the child visionaries by Our Lady of the Rosary in the year 1917.

The church throughout its history has been enriched by the fruits of miracles. The apostles were emboldened by Christ himself with a mandate to work miracles. The Roman emperor Constantine first was inspired to legalize Christianity in the year 312 A.D. after witnessing a vision in the sky of the IHS Christogram. Throughout the ages, religious orders like the Servites and Mercedarians have sprung out of the miraculous experiences of their founders.

In addition to marking miracleworking saints on feasts throughout the year, we celebrate the supernatural throughout the Roman calendar with commemorations for Divine Mercy, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Some of the most breathtaking churches of the world have a mystical backstory with nine of the largest 12 places of worship (by square footage) in Christendom tracing their origins to an apparition.

Countless numbers of people per year go on pilgrimage to sites of miracles all over the world including the millions who come to venerate the prodigious image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Additionally, millions of conversions are attributed to this vision on Tepeyac hill, as well as to the Miraculous Medal and other devotions that have stemmed from miraculous beginnings.

The church investigates

Throughout Christian history in countries around the world, church authorities have validated thousands of claims of miraculous events. The majority of the occurrences that have any level of ecclesiastical sanction enjoy a traditional mode of approval. That is, if they occurred in the era prior to the Council of Trent (1545), their approval typically was rooted in enduring tradition resulting from popular acclaim and a strong sensus fidelium.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 17th century that miracle claims were more rigorously investigated and began to rely on science in addition to the prayerful discernment that had marked investigations of the past.

The unspoken goal of such examination is to prove that nothing supernatural is occurring at these places, in order that the faithful might return to a more authentic and grounded practice of their faith. But because there is typically such a tremendous swell of support and interest surrounding a purported miraculous event, the church by necessity must investigate and provide pastoral guidance on the matter.

In the cases of authenticated appearances of the Virgin Mary such as at Fatima and Lourdes, it was the great initial and enduring attraction of the faithful to these claims that enabled them to make such an important and lasting contribution to the fabric of the Catholic faith.

Not all miracles are the same. The most common are medical healings, which can be used for canonization causes. Prospero Lambertini (1675- 1758), who later became Benedict XIV, provided several rules for discernment of private revelations and the miracles needed with the canonization of saints in “De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et de Beatorum Canonizatione” in 1740. The document asserted that the events in question must present themselves to human reason as being truly extraordinary and beyond the scope of natural causes.

Miracles validated for use in canonization causes must involve a serious illness at a stage where it is not liable to disappear on its own or due to medical treatment. The cure must be instantaneous, complete and lasting.

Most miracle types, like weeping icons, do not involve private revelation, this is, messages attributed to God, Mary and the saints. When alleged messages accompany miraculous phenomena, the church takes special care to assess the situation. The most recent document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the current standard that lays out the guidelines for the judgment of apparition claims is the Norms of the Congregation for Proceeding Judging Alleged Apparitions and Revelations approved by Pope Paul VI in 1978.

The document sets out the procedures to be followed in investigating the authenticity of extraordinary claims. The diocesan bishop possesses the right to initiate an investigation and subsequently that country’s national conference of bishops can intervene at his request or that of the faithful. If necessary, the Vatican can then also intervene if the situation involves the church at large or if discernment requires it.

A classic modern example of the progression in the levels of intervening authority is the controversial Medjugorje case in which the famed apparition phenomena beginning in 1981 was first investigated and discouraged by the local ordinary, was later judged to be “not established as supernatural” by the 1991 Zadar Commission of the Yugoslavian bishops, and then was re-examined by a Vatican commission formed on March 26, 2010. (The results of that commission are currently in the hands of Pope Francis who is expected to make some pronouncement later this year.)

What is the process?

The document clarifies the role of church officials in investigating the authenticity of claims of private revelation. First, church officials are called to assess the phenomena themselves and the people who report them, looking for evidence of authenticity. Typically, if the situation merits it, the bishop will assemble a commission comprised of a team of experts in various disciplines to create a report to advise him on how to render judgment. These experts may come from a variety of fields and are most typically theologians, psychologists, psychiatrists, mariologists or anthropologists.

Next they are to study any messages that are associated with the extraordinary reports to ascertain whether they are orthodox in conforming to church teaching.

The third question raised by the document appraises the pastoral implications of the phenomena by studying the “fruits” of the reported apparitions. Such good fruits are considered to be miraculous physical healings, conversions, vocations and a return to the sacraments.

In the most recent episcopal approval of an apparition and the only one in the history of the United States, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay initiated an investigation in 2009 where a team of three renowned Mariologists examined the merits of the 1859 claims of Adele Brise, a Belgian farm worker who reported that she saw the Blessed Virgin Mary on three occasions and began to spread Our Lady’s messages of conversion and catechesis.

After the commission concluded, Ricken decided that there was enough evidence to declare with confidence that this supernatural event was “worthy of belief” and contained nothing contrary to the teachings of the church. He made the historic announcement of approval on Dec. 8, 2010 at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.

Three judgments

There are three traditional categories of ecclesiastical judgments that relate most importantly to the supernatural character of an event: not worthy of belief, approved and the most common, nothing contrary to the faith.

In examining these cases, the investigation keeps an eye out for glaring errors in facts, doctrinal errors attributed to God or Mary, the pursuit of financial gain and, of course, psychological disorders. When an event is declared “worthy of belief,” it has not only been determined to be free of theological error, but also provides a great moral certainty (or at least probability) of a miracle and results in a healthy devotion and spiritual fruits.

Even in the cases of fully approved miracles and apparitions, belief is never required and therefore individual Catholics are free to decide how much emphasis to place on them. A proper perspective must certainly be maintained but it’s hard not to get excited about the great miracles in the history of the church and even the small ones that grace our lives and serve as a reminder that God is indeed there watching out for us.