The science of miracles

130712 John Paul II

In the same week as two popes were named to be canonised, here is an appropriate look at how that status was discerned. Tia Ghose of Live Science looks the process by which the Church investigates miracles.

When Pope John Paul II died eight years ago, supporters chanted 'Santo subito,' or 'Sainthood now!'

It looks like his supporters will finally be getting their wish. The former pope's path to sainthood is almost complete, with the Vatican recently confirming that he performed two miracles. Now all that's left is the official canonization ceremony, which  has not been scheduled yet. The process of certifying miracles in the Catholic Church goes back centuries and involves an investigation by scientific experts. 

Though it may seem strange to outsiders, verifying that miracles have occurred can strengthen people's beliefs, said Michael O'Neill, who runs the website MiracleHunter.com. 

"Even people who are believers in God have an attraction to proofs of his existence. Sometimes it seems like he's hiding," O'Neill said. "Miracles are a way that people see God touching the world."

Determining who is in heaven is a tricky proposition. That's where miracles come in. According to the church, miracles, or divine events that have no natural or scientific explanation, serve as proof that the person is in heaven and can intercede with God to change the ordinary course of events. 

The Catholic Church uses a formal process to determine who is a saint. First, that person's life is thoroughly investigated. If deemed virtuous enough, the person is said to be a servant of God. If they've exhibited heroic levels of virtue in their life, they are considered venerable. To become saints, however, they need to have performed two miracles after death.

Toward that end, a Vatican-appointed Miracle Commission sifts through hundreds or even thousands of miraculous claims. Typically, the commissions are composed of theologians and scientific experts.

Nearly all, or "99.9 percent of these are medical miracles," O'Neill said. "They need to be spontaneous, instantaneous and complete healing. Doctors have to say, 'We don't have any natural explanation of what happened,'" O'Neill said.

A woman whose breast cancer was cured wouldn't qualify, for instance, if she was given a 10 percent chance of survival — she would need to be told there was no chance of survival before any divine intervention, said the Rev. Stephan Bevans, a theology professor at the Catholic Theological Union.

- Tia Ghose

FULL ARTICLE

The Science of Miracles: How the Vatican Decides (Science Live)

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