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Defining the miraculous

The Catholic Church employs a strict standard when evaluating and validating miracles as authentic supernatural events worthy of the belief of the faithful.

In the film Miracles from Heaven, a mother, played by Jennifer Garner, prays for the healing of her young daughter, Annabelle, who suffers from a rare life-threatening gastrointestinal disease. In the most dramatic scene of the film, the girl, playing in an old tree with her sister, falls from a great height and hits her head, resulting in a concussion. She is rushed to the hospital and, after testing, doctors declare her to be in perfect health — not only did the fall not harm her, but her previous health issues have miraculously disappeared.

This incredible miracle story has left audiences inspired and amazed, but it is interesting to note that the example of this cure would not pass the strict medical criteria of the Catholic Church. When it comes to validating healing miracles that are used in the canonizations of saints or those that pass the scrutiny of the Lourdes Medical Commission at the famed site of the 1858 apparitions to St. Bernadette Soubirous, the criteria used to determine them to be medically inexplicable are extremely strict.

For the cure to be considered miraculous, the disease must be serious and impossible (or at least very difficult) to cure by human means and not be in a stage at which it is liable to disappear shortly by itself. No medical treatment must have been given, or it must be certain that the treatment given has no reference to the cure. The healing must be spontaneous, complete and permanent — all conditions which apply to Annabelle’s incredible recovery. But the final criteria is not met — because it was produced by another crisis (or disease) it would make it possible that the cure was wholly or partially natural.

Because of these nearly impossible standards, the Lourdes Medical Commission, while documenting over 8,000 extraordinary cures, has only validated 69 of them. When the Vatican investigates a miracle worked through the intercession of a would-be saint as part of the evaluation of whether this person has lived a life of heroic virtue and is with God, interceding for us, the same set of rules is employed.

Medical miracles by themselves are difficult to validate with so many strict guidelines, but in canonization causes an additional difficulty lies in that the prayers to a potential saint must be only directed exclusively to that singular person (not to other saints in addition). It almost seems to be a miracle that they find any miracles suitable for use in canonizations. The medical commission for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints features over 60 doctors in various specialties, and, locally, the investigation is spearheaded by an uninvolved doctor appointed by the bishop.

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