The necessity of miracles
An interview with Michele Di Ruberto, Undersecretary of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. The procedures whereby an extraordinary event is recognized as a miracle by the Church. And the reason why it is still necessary today in causes of beatification and canonization
by Stefania Falasca
Cardinal José Saraiva Martins finishes his pleading of the six causes of canonization in the ordinary public consistory held in the Sala Clementina of the Vatican Apostolic Palace, 19 February 2004
Since 1984 he has been in charge of the miracles sector. Three hundred and forty-six cases examined and approved, around ninety those still to be examined. For twenty years it has been his task to sit on the Medical Council, to prepare and draft, with the postulators, the Positio super miro, the set of acta causae and acta processus on miracles. Yes, because not everyone perhaps knows that testing and checking the authenticity of a prodigious event is the outcome of a careful method of enquiry and of a rigid scientific and theological examination. Not just that. The process for ascertaining a miracle, brought about through the intercession of a candidate to the honors of the altars, is central to a cause for canonization.
We therefore decided to look closely with Monsignor Di Ruberto at the historical experience of the Church in the subject, clarifying some aspects about extraordinary events, and going into the details of the course that leads to the approval of a miracle. We decided to begin from the recognition of the prodigious event attributed to the intercession of Blessed Gianna Beretta Molla, physician and mother of a family, who on 16 May next will be proclaimed saint. Di Ruberto was, by pontifical appointment, proposer of her cause.
The canonization of Gianna Beretta Molla is now imminent. The decree on the miracle, brought about through her intercession, was promulgated last December. Can you first of all tell us what this decree consists of?
MICHELE DI RUBERTO: The decree is the last step in the juridical course of the checking a miracle. It is a juridical act of the Congregation of the Causes of the Saints, sanctioned by the pope, whereby a prodigious event is defined as a true and proper miracle. In the Summa theologica Saint Thomas defines a miracle as «what is done by God outside the order of nature». A fact that goes beyond the forces of nature, that is performed by God out of the ordinary course of the whole of nature, brought about through the intercession of a servant of God or of a blessed, is considered a miracle.
Monsignor Michele Di Ruberto
DI RUBERTO: Currently for the beatification of a non-martyr servant of God, the Church requires a miracle, for the canonization (even of a martyr) it requires another one. Only the presumed miracles attributed to the intercession post mortem of a servant of God or of a blessed can be the object of verification. When the inquiry, which is a real trial, has been set up it is conducted separately from that on the virtues or on martyrdom. All the evidence on the prodigious event in itself, to ascertain the miraculous event as such, and on the attribution of the event to the intercession of a definite candidate to the honors of the altars, is collected and checked.
What are the juridical steps in checking a miracle?
DI RUBERTO: The juridical steps for the recognition of the miracle follow the new rules laid down in 1983 by the apostolic constitution Divinus perfectionis Magister. The new legislation establishes two procedural stages: the diocesan one and that of what is known as the Roman Congregation. The first takes place within the diocese where the prodigious event happened. In the diocese of Franca, in the state of San Paolo in Brazil, for example, in the case of that attributed to Gianna Beretta Molla. The bishop opens the enquiry on the presumed miracle in which the depositions of the eyewitnesses questioned by a duly constituted court are gathered, as well as the complete clinical and instrumental documentation inherent to the case. In the second, the Congregation examines the documents sent and eventual supplementary documentation, pronouncing its judgment on the matter.
But why are miracles necessary? Can’t sanctity be declared on the basis of the evidence that demonstrates the exercise of virtue to heroic degree?
DI RUBERTO: Declaring the sanctity of someone is not like conferring a noble or honorary title. Even if someone is in heaven, it could be that he/she is not worthy, as seems, of a public cult. In establishing the heroic nature of the exercise of virtue, through all the work of gathering documentary evidence and that of witnesses, of historico-critical investigation, of theological evaluation till moral certainty is reached and the judgment of merit formulated, no matter how well-founded the claim, and the work seriously and carefully done, it could still be subject to possible error. We can always make a mistake, we can always deceive ourselves, whereas God alone performs miracles, and God does not deceive. They are a gratuitous gift of God, a certain sign of revelation, destined to glorify God, to stir and strengthen our faith, and they are also, then, a confirmation of the sanctity of the person implored. Their recognition thus enables the concession – certainty - of a cult.
Saints, in short, are made by miracles and these, in a cause of canonization, also represent divine sanction of a human judgment. . .
DI RUBERTO: Exactly. It’s therefore of capital importance to preserve their necessity in causes of canonization.
And has the Church always attributed the same importance to them?
DI RUBERTO: Always. The miracles have always had a central importance. From the early centuries, when the bishops had to grant a cult to a non-martyr, before checking the excellentia vitae and the virtues, they considered the evidence of the excellentia signorum. Then gradually over the centuries the methods of investigation of miracles before proceeding to canonization were established and refined. Urban II, in 1088, decreed that «saints cannot be set in the canon unless there are witness who declare that they saw the miracles with their own eyes and it is confirmed by the assent of the Synod». The medico-legal aspect gained importance from the 13th century and, with the institution of the Congregation of Rites in 1588, the matter was reorganized. Criteria were suggested, such as the need to compare with reputable texts and medical opinion, so that the judgment always be given on the basis of the medico-legal examination and on the basis of eyewitness. Benedict XIV detailed the criteria for evaluation and set up the register of doctors. All this centuries-long development came together in the Code of Canon Law of 1917. But the procedure had a weak point: the lack of distinction between the medico-scientific judgment and the theological one. The theologians, in fact, had to give a binding opinion on the medical conclusions without being competent in the subject. So in 1948 Pius XII decided to constitute the Medical Commission, then Medical Council, as a specific body for scientific evaluation, and from that moment onwards, until today, the examination is a dual one: medical and theological.
In what does the judgment of the Medical Council consist?
DI RUBERTO: Its examination and final discussion conclude by establishing the exact diagnosis of the illness, the prognosis, the therapy and its result. A cure, to be considered the object of a possible miracle, must be judged by the experts as rapid, complete, lasting and inexplicable according to current medico-scientific knowledge.
Who is the Council composed of? Are they all Catholic doctors?
DI RUBERTO: It’s a collegial body formed of five specialists plus two ex officio experts. The specialists taking part vary according to the clinical cases presented. And consultation or the convocation of other experts from abroad is not excluded. Their judgment is of a purely scientific nature, they do not pronounce on the miracle, hence it makes no matter whether they are atheists or of other religions. One of the experts in the prodigious event attributed to Edith Stein who made his contribution as qualified witness, was, I recall, a well-known doctor from Boston of the Jewish religion. But there are more than a few examinations and reports drawn up by doctors who are Moslem and of other religions.
How are the features of a miracle assessed?
DI RUBERTO: The miracle may go beyond the possibilities of nature either in the substance of the fact or in the subject, or only in the way it occurs. So three degrees of miracle are to be distinguished. The first degree is represented by resurrection from the dead (quoad substantiam). The second concerns the subject (quoad subiectum): the sickness of a person is judged incurable, in its course it can even have destroyed bones or vital organs; in this case not only is complete recovery noticed, but even wholesale reconstitution of the organs (restitutio in integrum). There is then a third degree (quoad modum): recovery from an illness, that treatment could only have achieved after a long period, happens instantaneously.
Conversions are also prodigious events. But currently miracles of a moral order are not considered in causes. Why is that?
DI RUBERTO: Nobody can deny that the sudden conversions of sinners or atheists, such as that of Saint Matthew, the good thief, Saint Paul, are real miracles. But, while being real, such miracles are not checkable, it would therefore be difficult for them to acquire probative value, in so far as it would be extremely difficult to describe and characterize similar events.
Only those involving physical cures can therefore be the object of checks.
DI RUBERTO: No. Prodigious events of a technical order also.
DI RUBERTO: The Gospels describe such miracles: the changing of the water into wine at the marriage feast of Cana, or the multiplying of the loaves and fishes, for example. They are scientifically and technically analyzable events, of which it is possible to demonstrate the inexplicability.
And do many such facts occur?
DI RUBERTO: In restricted number. There was the startling case, for example, of the multiplying of rice, a prodigious event that occurred in a poor people’s canteen in Spain through the intercession of Friar Juan Macias, canonized in 1975. But also in recent beatifications and canonizations there have been cases of the kind. For example that of the submarine “Pacocha”, sunk in Peruvian waters on 26 August 1988. At a depth of 15 meters, with water pressure of 3. 8 tons, the captain, who had invoked the help of the servant of God Maria Petkovic, managed to open the hatch of the submarine with extreme ease, and so save the crew. In such cases the enquiry is not conducted by doctors, but an ad hoc committee of technical experts is brought together to examine every detail minutely.
And if there are puzzles?
DI RUBERTO: If puzzles come up, the committee suspends enquiry and asks for further assessment and documentation. Once a majority or unanimity is reached in the vote, the enquiry passes to the council of theologians.
What is the specific object of judgment for the theologians?
DI RUBERTO: The council of theologians, on the basis of the conclusions of the medical council, are required to define the causal nexus between the prayers to the servant of God and the recovery or other inexplicable event of a technical order, and express their view that the prodigious event is a real miracle. When the theologians also have expressed and given their vote, evaluation passes to the Congregation of the bishops and cardinals, who, after hearing the declaration of a “proposer”, discuss all the elements in the miracle: each member gives a judgment, to be subjected to the approval of the pope, who decides on the miracle, and arranges then for the promulgation of the decree.
Has it ever happened that after hearing the conclusions the pope has pronounced otherwise?
DI RUBERTO: It has happened, but not in recent times, that a pontiff has postponed so as to enable review of the case. Once upon a time techniques of scientific investigation were not as refined and developed; diagnostic tools and instrumentation, such as we have today, able to provide suitable guarantees, were not available. Furthermore the number of miracles required for beatifications and canonizations was higher.
The present rules don’t, however, fix the number of miracles required. Do you think it might increase again?
DI RUBERTO: The present number is a practice established under Paul VI. I wouldn’t be in favour of adding another miracle for canonization. It may happen that for a candidate there are more prodigious events with such requisites as to be considered fit for a process. Two, for which the proofs are such as to be absolutely incontestable, can suffice.
The extraordinary event attributed to Gianna Beretta Molla happened less than four years ago. Recognition of it has been rapid.
DI RUBERTO: Already by April of last year the Medical Council had unanimously pronounced on its extraordinary and scientifically inexplicable nature. The vote of the theologians was also unanimous.
You were the proposer of her cause for canonization. . .
DI RUBERTO: Her cause, of great ecclesial consequence, was desired by Paul VI. He had been struck by this woman member of Catholic Action, and had described the offering of her life as a «meditated immolation». Since I belong to Catholic Action, I was named proposer ad casum.
Which aspect struck you most in connection with the miracle attributed to Gianna Beretta Molla?
DI RUBERTO: When a miracle happens, the benefit goes not only to those directly interested but to all the faithful. The prodigious event, of a baby girl who had formed in the maternal womb in the total absence of amniotic fluid, was a miracle particularly close to the life and work of Gianna Beretta Molla, mother and paediatrician. It was also singular that this miracle, through her intercession, occurred, like the previous one for beatification, in Brazil, where Gianna Beretta Molla had wanted to go in youth as a volunteer doctor. Rightly Vatican Council II, speaking of the intercession of the saints, decided to set it within the framework of the vital union of charity that we must have with them. That vitale consortium whereby we can share in the benefits procured by their merits and, loving them with that charity that aims at God, form a single body with them, a single family, a single Church.