Not all miracles are official: How the Catholic Church certifies divine interventions

The recent testimony of a teen girl who claims to have regained her sight is one of thousands of reports of supernatural healings evaluated in a pontifical process first created during the Middle Ages and modified over subsequent centuries.

Jornada Mundial de la Juventud
A group of priests accompanies a sick woman in a wheelchair at the entrance to the grotto of the sanctuary of Lourdes in France, where thousands of pilgrims arrive every year in search of a cure for their illnesses.LIONEL BONAVENTURE (AFP)
Julio Núñez

Rumors of the Virgin’s miracle spread like wildfire at World Youth Day (WYD). The annual event, which took place this August in Lisbon, Portugal, drew hundreds of thousands of Catholics to the capital city to see Pope Francis. In an audio message that circulated from cell phone to cell phone in a matter of hours, a girl named Jimena, a 16-year-old Opus Dei member from Madrid, shared her testimony: “This morning I woke up like I’ve woken up for the past two and a half years: with super blurry vision, just horrible. I went to Mass with my friends, all of us attending WYD. I was super nervous, and after taking communion I started to cry, a lot, because it was the last day of the novena, and I wanted to be cured. I asked God to please help me. And when I opened my eyes, I could see perfectly.” The miracle came, Jimena said, after she had prayed for nine days to Our Lady of the Snows and had taken communion at the Sanctuary of Fátima, a holy shrine located 74.6 miles (120 kilometers) from the Portuguese capital. Her story prompted the president of the Spanish Episcopal Conference (CEE), Cardinal Juan José Omella, to declare it a miracle hours later during a press conference. “This is a major event for the girl,” he said “We could call it miracle: ‘I couldn’t see, now I do.’ We’ll leave it to the doctors to explain the rest. But for her, she’ll be returning home able to see. So praise God.”

For Omella, Jimena’s story may constitute a miracle, but for the Catholic Church — an authority on the supernatural — the teenager’s story does not qualify the event for such a divine designation on its own. As an institution that promotes concepts like the resurrection of the dead and the Holy Trinity, a belief in miracles has been central to the Church for centuries, but there are specific protocols for determining whether something does or does not constitute one. The process, of course, exists outside of any scientific or rational system of verification, but the Church maintains strict standards nonetheless: of the 8,000 miracle healings reported by the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France in the last 165 years, for example, only 70 have been deemed official miracles by ecclesiastical authorities.

The Vatican has a procedure for certifying what is, and what is not, a miracle. The process is enshrined in a pontifical law that regulates “the cause of canonization of a Servant of God” — that is, the steps required to proclaim someone blessed or a saint. “To achieve this, a person must be deceased and must have performed either one miracle, to be beatified, or two miracles, to be canonized, and this pontifical constitution also regulates how the miracles themselves are certified,” explains Javier López Goicoechea, a canonist and professor in Ecclesiastical Law at the Complutense University of Madrid. The pontifical norms he describes were first instituted by the Church during the Middle Ages, and have been modified over the centuries by successive popes. The most recent reform was in 2016, when Pope Francis limited the number of miracle verification requests a person can make to three.

The seven criteria for certifying a miracle

The spectrum of types of miracle healings is broad, ranging from the resurrection of someone who has died, to regaining the use of a leg, to healing conditions like blindness or cancer. But according to papal norms, to qualify as miracles, a case must meet seven specific requirements as defined by the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, the department of the Vatican in charge of carrying out the assessment. The parameters are as follows: the illness must be incurable, or have a very poor prognosis; it must be witnessed and documented by medical authorities; it must be “organic,” meaning that psychological, psychiatric, or other mental conditions do not qualify; the patient must not have received any treatment that might account for the recovery; the healing must be sudden and immediate; there must be a full recovery of all vital functions, not merely a regression of symptoms; and, finally, the cure must be lasting and definitive.

Jimena’s case, for example, does not pass the test. The 95% blindness she had suffered for two years — which was so bad, by her account, that she had been forced to learn Braille — is known as an accommodative spasm, an eye ailment normally caused by stress that can disappear with treatment, or on its own. Sources from the Spanish Episcopal Conference, who echo Omella’s statement that we should listen to what the doctors say, confirm that “it is unlikely any investigation will be opened” into Jimena’s miracle. In any case, as López Goicoechea explains, the certification of miracles is always tied to a process of beatification, and the vast majority of alleged healings by the Virgin are rarely certified.

The process, when initiated, can last from several years to several centuries, and begins with the diocese where the alleged miracle occurred. The bishop decides — either ex officio or because an individual or an institution has requested it — whether to open a process of canonization and, with it, the certification of reported miracles. If the decision is to move forward, the bishop then appoints a “postulator” (this can be a natural person or a juridical one, like a congregation), who is in charge of gathering detailed information about the candidate’s life and the alleged miraculous healings: documentary evidence as well as interviews with eyewitnesses and other people with relevant testimony, such as doctors who attended to the healed person. The bishop must also commission two medical reports, provided by two specialists of his own choosing. All this documentation is then sent to the Vatican.

At the Vatican, a group of seven specialists — doctors and other experts — review the reports and formulate a “scientific” opinion. First, each expert individually drafts a diagnosis and then presents it to his or her colleagues. After some discussion, the group writes a report summarizing the conclusions of each doctor’s assessment. Then, they take a vote: if it has a qualified majority (at least five of the seven experts, or four of six), the case is classified as a miracle and is then sent to a commission of theologians who ratify the decision.

“We should note that the medical specialists chosen for these commissions are all in-house,” says López Goicoechea. “For example, in the case of the miracles of José María de Escrivá [saint and founder of Opus Dei], the committee members were from the Clínica de Navarra, that is, from Opus Dei. They are not independent or critical of the process.” The canonist is convinced that if the cases from 50, 100 or 200 years ago were to be scrutinized by a modern medical review, 99% of the alleged miracles would have reasonable medical explanations. “But the current Church is not going to retract those decisions,” he says. “Instead, what they do is stop talking about the cases, hoping they will fall into oblivion.”

For López Goicoechea, a case like Jimena’s reflects a larger conflict between two visions of Catholicism: one led by Pope Francis, who supports a rational and critical faith, and another, which still follows the model of John Paul II, clinging to these kinds of supernatural interventions. “The notion that a sick person should seek help at a shrine seems to me like a very dangerous idea,” López Goicoechea says. “Even more so after what we went through with the pandemic, with the anti-vaccine people. Because this is basically along those same lines.”

The Vatican’s cut

López Goicoechea points out another issue that prevents the Church from identifying “an objective cause” of miracles: money. The price to beatify someone is currently €17,000 ($18,640) (with another thousand euros tacked on per additional miracle), according to the fee rates published by the Vatican, the institution that profits. A decade ago, as part of the Vatican leaks scandal known as Vatileaks, however, several Italian media outlets reported that the total cost in some cases (including the price of hiring experts, lawyers, etc.) could run as much as half a million euros. The reports prompted Pope Francis to establish new monetary regulations for the process in 2016, including a rule that payments must be made by bank transfer.

Lourdes is another example of the big business of miracles. The French sanctuary — which extends over 55 hectares, includes 28 places of worship, and has 320 employees — welcomes more than three million worshippers a year and is the second most visited Catholic site after the Vatican, according to data published on its website. Everything there is focused on the alleged healing power of the Virgin. “When you are sick: believe in the impossible...” one of the slogans on the shrine’s website reads.

The Marian sanctuary also maintains an on-site “medical office” to authenticate (with a similar process as the Vatican’s) the reports of miracle healing from pilgrims who travel to the shrine in search of cures. The presence of this office, as López Goicoechea explains, is unusual. “There’s an understanding that by offering this, the shrine has a status that attracts more worshipers,” he says.

This influx of pilgrims has economic benefits for the Church as well: a candle costs €7.50 ($8.20), a medallion is €6.30 ($6.90), and a replica carving of the Virgin runs almost €80 ($87.70), according to the institution’s online store. This marketing extends to unofficial stores throughout the town where the sanctuary is located. Among other items, these businesses offer — for €25 ($27.40) a liter — bottles of holy water with alleged healing powers. And then, of course, there are the usual profits made from what worshippers spend on lodging, food and other services. Troubled by this proliferation of money-making ventures, in 2019, the Pope decided to intervene and sent a delegate to the sanctuary to “emphasize the importance of the spiritual over the temptations of the business and financial aspect, and to promote the popular devotion that is the traditional purpose of the sanctuaries.”

López Goicoechea says that Pope Francis’ actions are aimed at suppressing the superstition and quackery that surrounds many of these supposed miracles and Marian apparitions, which closely resemble the practices of evangelical religions, where miraculous healings by priests during Eucharistic celebrations are common. “Another issue is the false hope that many of the faithful may feel, thinking that, if they pray to a saint or to the Virgin, they will be healed,” he says. “As well as the disappointment of wondering why, if they are good Christians, they have not been granted a miracle while others who are not as faithful have.”

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