In A Nutshell
Earning the title of “saint” is no walk in the park. If you want to be canonized, you need to perform two miracles from beyond the grave . . . and then things get really complicated. To prove these “miracles” are actually miraculous, the Catholic Church employs 100 doctors who investigate claims of supernatural healing.
The Whole Bushel
In this day and age of modern technology and rising skepticism, a surprising number of people still believe in the supernatural. Take miracles, for example. While some might scoff at the notion, a 2010 poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion revealed that nearly 80 percent of Americans still believe God heals the sick and gives sight to the blind. And Americans aren’t the only ones who believe the divine plays an important role in daily life. Over in Vatican City, there are quite a few folks who take the business of miracles quite seriously.
In Catholicism, miracles play an important role in determining sainthood. According to Catholic theology, a saint is a person who’s made it into heaven . . . only it’s a bit tricky figuring out who’s made it past the pearly gates. A long, holy life is a pretty good indicator the deceased is singing with the angels, but you need plenty of eyewitness reports and stacks of documents proving the person lived a virtuous Christian life. However, the real deal breaker is miracles. If you pray to the dearly departed, and she grants your request, that’s a sure sign she’s up in heaven asking favors from God.
But what’s the definition of a miracle? According to the Vatican, it’s a spontaneous, complete, and permanent healing without any scientific explanation. So say there’s a guy with cancer, and doctors are 90 percent sure he’s going to die—but he suddenly gets better. Well, according to theology professor Rev. Stephan Bevans, that doesn’t count. Only if doctors gave the patient a zero chance of survival would his healing be considered a miracle. Brain-dead patients have to come back to life, and people afflicted with Parkinson’s have to make an instantaneous recovery, all without medical assistance.
So who gets to decide if an event meets the Catholic criteria? Well, it’s a complicated process that starts with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. These are the guys in charge of the sainthood process, and they hand over all their cases to the Consulta Medica. Made up of 100 Catholic Italian physicians, this board analyzes everything from a patient’s CT scans to X-rays to determine if the supernatural was involved in the patient’s recovery. Each potential miracle is assigned a team of five doctors, and if at least three decide there’s no scientific explanation, the case is passed onto a group of cardinals and priests. This last group determines if healing came about by prayer to one solitary soul, and if the answer is yes, then the Vatican has a genuine miracle on its hands.
Still, you need two miracles before you can achieve sainthood (unless you’re a martyr and then you only need one). Mother Teresa would be a good example. In 2003, Pope John Paul II beatified the charitable nun for posthumously healing a woman dying of ovarian cancer in 1998. However, she still needs one last miracle before she can be declared a saint. And that’s after years of research, 100 witnesses filling out giant surveys, her supporters compiling a 35,000-page report in her defense, and famous atheist Christopher Hitchens doing his absolute best to make sure she didn’t pass muster. In other words, the road to sainthood is a lengthy and expensive process.
Show Me The Proof
LiveScience: The Science Of Miracles: How The Vatican Decides
Slate.com: Is Mother Teresa’s Miracle for Real?
LA Times: Confirming Miracles Is Art and Science
NPR: Do You Believe In Miracles? Most Americans Do