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How the Church Decides if a Miracle Worker Becomes a Saint

We spoke to a doctor whose job is to scientifically evaluate a supposed miracle.

by Demented Burrocacao
Apr 26 2016, 4:50pm


San Zanobi by Sandro Botticelli. Immagine via Wikimedia Commons

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy

2016 is a Jubilee Year in Rome, which means that the Vatican is coming up with thousands of initiatives aimed at getting Italians more involved with the Catholic Church. Part of this effort was the announcement that Mother Teresa of Calcutta would be canonized as a saint, this coming September.

One fundamental prerequisite for becoming a saint is that the candidate has performed a miracle—one that is scientifically inexplicable. In Mother Teresa's case, her miracle was the healing of a man "suffering from a viral brain infection that resulted in multiple abscesses with hydrocephalus," say Church officials.

Whether an act is a scientifically inexplicable miracle is a question studied and decided by the medical board of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. I contacted a doctor who has a seat on this medical board and asked him to explain to me how they recognize a miracle, and how the process of creating a saint works. That doctor wanted to remain anonymous.

VICE: What are scientifically inexplicable miracles?
Doctor: The miracles we study are always related to sick people, to an illness that has developed a certain way. We try to discern from a scientific perspective whether this development is abnormal. In other words, whether it completely differs from clinical records and from what the medical staff treating the illness had expected to happen.

The process starts when priests or nuns who performed miracles in their life, people who are beatified or are in some phase of beatification, are suggested for sanctification. But no more than a handful of miracles are accepted of all the potential saints nominated by the Roman curia each year. If they are accepted, it's announced during the High Mass at St. Peter's square by the Pope.

What's the difference between being beatified and sanctified?
Beatification is one level lower than sanctification. It's assumed that a blessed person has performed the miracle, but it's just an assumption. The issue is always approached with skepticism, and church officials are very critical: the process is so strict because they need to avoid false or hasty sanctifications. So it's an assumption that a beatified has performed a miracle—if it's on record that they've performed a hundred, that's a different story. But even in that case, if there's no backing by the scientific committee, the Church doesn't proceed with the sanctification process.

So for sanctification, scientific evidence weighs as heavily as faith.
Exactly, every evaluation must include a scientific analysis and a subsequent acceptance or refusal of the medical situation. But it also needs the religious incentive linking the phenomenon to the person's calling upon the gravely sick person. We analyze that.

When does your committee of scientists come in?
After Church officials put a candidate forward, they send off the medical records of the candidate's miracle case, along with reports from possible witnesses claiming that the act was a miracle. The Roman curia analyzes it and, if it's accepted, that's when the medical tribunal comes in.

You've been part of that tribunal—is that right?
Yes, various times. The secretary of the Congregation for Saints brings together six or seven experts from different fields, as well as three prelates who represent the Roman curia—the secretary, the undersecretary, and someone taking notes. At the center of the room there's a lawyer representing the Vatican curia, a notary, and another secretary who writes up a final declaration that must then be countersigned by all those present.

After that, the tribunal starts off with the first speaker—an expert on the case. This expert has studied all the supposed miracles, and has written a report on it. We're talking about a couple of thousand pages for each report. The expert will have read the medical records, and has studied how an illness has developed.

How many of the cases you've evaluated were miracles?
I have done it about ten times now, and there has only been one time I had to conclude a case was scientifically inexplicable. I challenged the other nine. Those challenges have always been accepted by the cardinal and the archbishop within the Roman curia. Obviously, all the specialists present their own conclusions. I've been in some heated debates with other specialists when we'd accuse each other of being too gullible or not critical enough.

What criteria do you use to evaluate those cases?
I try to objectively evaluate all aspects of the illness—its symptomatology, patterns, the results of medical exams, applied therapies, and the effect of the supposed miracle. After that, I look at if and how that outcome holds up today; the cases aren't presented a month after they happen, but five, six, or even ten years after they've first been reported. So we need to take into account how things have progressed since the miracle.

What are the most common illnesses that are cured by a miracle?
Well, of course you have accidents: People drowning, getting shot, electric shocks, or struck by lightning—and surviving. And then there are illnesses people suffer from that, even when properly treated, worsen over time. Then, suddenly, someone seems cured. It isn't just about a life being saved because if you're saved but end up with half your body paralyzed and in a wheelchair, it most certainly isn't a miracle.

Are the accepted miracles ever updated? A miracle that happened in the 15th century can probably be explained by science today.
We only consider cases that have been recorded since the 20th century—all the older cases are simply oral tradition. People saw something happen and say they witnessed it with their own eyes. We can't do anything with that.

Do you believe in miracles?
I've had to acknowledge that they exist. There have been a few rare cases that are just beyond skepticism or criticism or cynicism. There are cases that even today, in 2016, are 100 percent inexplicable from a medical point of view. There's just no escaping from it, how ever hard you try to find an explanation. A lot of those cases involve internal body organs: Something happens to them, and then the next day everything is as it was before—no scalpel marks, no stitches, nothing. How was that possible? It just isn't, scientifically speaking.