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Why the Catholic Church sometimes turns to science to investigate miracles

Posted December 19, 2016

Dr. Jacalyn Duffin helped pave the way for the first Canadian-born Catholic saint. All she needed was a microscope, meticulous notes and some uninterrupted lab time.

“It sounds really spectacular to have done this for the Vatican. It wasn’t. It was just basic, homegrown hematology,” she said.

Duffin, a physician, blood researcher and medical historian at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, hadn’t even known that the bone marrow samples she studied were part of an active religious miracle investigation. She just did her job, like many scientists before her.

The Catholic Church relies on doctors and other experts like Duffin to investigate the miracle claims associated with potential saints, who generally need to have two attributed to them before they can be canonized. Scientists don’t need to be Catholic — Duffin is an atheist — and they aren’t pressured to support faith over reason.

“There’s so much science involved. It never would have occurred to me that (church authorities) cared so much,” said Duffin, who wrote two books about the saint-making process in the years after her unexpected participation in one.

The thorough vetting process stands in stark contrast to the way miracles are usually approached within religious practice. Inexplicable and amazing events are typically celebrated for the way they invigorate people's faith, bringing hope in times of crisis. The Christmas story, with its virgin birth of the son of God, will soon be celebrated by millions of Christians who don't need or expect lab results to verify their belief in Jesus' life and work.

But Catholic experts say the goal of miracle research like Duffin's isn't to overanalyze every Bible story or amazing recovery. Instead, it's to put forth saints who are truly worthy of a global church's attention, said Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of “My Life with the Saints.”

“The rules for becoming a saint in the church are a lot stricter than what most people would apply” to miracles, he said.

Vetting miracles

Miracles are meaningful to followers of faiths around the world. Catholics, like other believers, often take pilgrimages to places where famous miracles are said to have occurred, such as El Santuario de Chimayo outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, home to holy dirt thought to heal the body parts it touches.

In the United States, 8 in 10 adults believe in miracles, according to Pew Research Center. This figure includes 55 percent of religious "nones," or people who don't affiliate with a particular faith community.

Miracles, and specifically those attributed to Jesus, are part of the bedrock of Christian practice, Father Martin noted.

Biblical miracles like multiplying loaves and fishes or bringing Lazarus back from the dead "are signs of Jesus' power and his divinity," he said. It would be hard to identify as a faithful Christian if you had to see these stories in action to believe in them.

However, in the canonization process by which someone becomes a Catholic saint, confirming that science can't explain a recorded miracle helps church authorities sort through the hundreds of applications for sainthood and weed out false claims, experts said. The miracle vetting process is used to confirm a potential saint's holiness.

“If you pray to a saint and receive a miracle, it’s proof that the saint is with God. Recognized miracles eliminate doubt about the sanctity of the person going for sainthood,” Duffin said.

The canonization process has evolved over the course of Catholic Church history. In the early days of the faith, little investigation went into the pronouncement of new saints, Father Martin noted.

“They were more or less decided on a popular basis,” he said.

Now, a commission is tasked with assessing candidates. They study how potential saints lived their lives and what happened after their deaths, which is how miracles get involved.

The miracle claim Duffin investigated was part of the canonization of Marie-Marguerite d’Youville, who founded the Order of Sisters of Charity of Montreal. A woman with an aggressive form of leukemia had prayed to d’Youville more than 200 years after her death and survived longer than science could have predicted or supported.

“Her bone marrow told the story that she had terrible leukemia and then went into remission. But the remission only lasted four months and, in the rules of hematology, remissions get shorter and shorter and shorter,” Duffin said, who found out about the miracle investigation only after she'd turned in her conclusions. “I thought, ‘Oh that’s such a shame. She probably died in remission and the family doesn’t understand, so they’re suing the doctor.’”

Duffin was shocked to learn that the woman was alive and well, eight years after the blood samples were drawn, and that she had joined with current members of the Sisters of Charity to support d’Youville’s cause for sainthood.

Duffin testified about her findings before a tribunal run by the Catholic bishop in Ottawa. She brought along scientific research showing that second remissions had never before lasted longer than the first.

“All they wanted me to do was to be a hematologist and interpret bone marrow," she said. "They didn’t want me to call it a miracle.”

Church leaders in Rome then reviewed her testimony, as well as other documents related to the cause, and d’Youville became a saint three years later. Duffin attended the canonization ceremony in St. Peter’s Square along with her husband, nuns in d’Youville’s order, the leukemia patient and the Canadian ambassador.

The patient is still alive, posing an ongoing challenge to scientific researchers.

"I have zero explanation for why she's alive. She does," Duffin said.

Finding meaning

Beyond the canonization process, vetting might be used if a perceived miracle has become a distraction to a Catholic congregation, said Michael O'Neill, who studies, speaks on and writes about how miracles affect modern Catholic life.

For example, people might flock to the site of the miracle to meet with the people involved, take pictures and join in the excitement, rather than to pray and draw closer to God.

"When people start chasing (miracles) in a way that's detrimental, the church will be looking to shut it down," O'Neill said.

If a miracle story can't be explained with science or other natural phenomena, it will be deemed "worthy of belief," O'Neil added. In other words, there's no pressure for Catholics to center their religious practice around a hunt for modern miracles.

“If miracles aren’t helpful for you, if you find them distracting or strange, you can focus on other parts of the faith,” he said.

However, Catholics, like most believers, are still encouraged to look for the signs of God's presence in their own lives, Father Martin said. Miracles are a major part of Christian religious practice, central to Christmas, Easter and many other Bible stories. They support and sustain people's faith, helping them overcome medical crises and other catastrophes.

“When people pray and witness something that seems like a miraculous healing, that can strengthen people’s faith,” Father Martin said.

Miracle investigations like the one Duffin participated in are the exception, not the norm, O'Neill said, noting that, "in general, miracles are left for the benefit of the faithful."

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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