In 2002, the Vatican officially recognised as a miracle the healing of an Indian woman’s cancer of the abdomen. This occurred as the result of the application of a locket containing Mother Teresa’s picture. The woman, Monica Besra, said a beam of light had emanated from the picture, curing her cancerous tumour.
This one miracle was sufficient for Mother Teresa to be beatified in 2003. This meant that she had the title “Blessed” bestowed on her and that she was, from then on, able to intercede with God on behalf of individuals who prayed in her name. The late Christopher Hitchens (who had written a pretty scathing book about her) had been called upon by the Vatican to act as “the Devil’s advocate” and to give evidence against her character. Hitchen’s criticisms made no difference (which was not really a surprise to anyone).
On 17 December 2015, Pope Francis recognised a second miracle attributable to Mother Teresa. This was the healing in 2008 of a 42-year-old Brazilian man with a number of brain tumours – moments before he was due to undergo surgery. This healing cleared the way for her canonisation as Saint Teresa.
On Sunday, Mother Teresa will be recognised as a saint within the Roman Catholic Church. It is a decision made by Pope Francis on the recommendation of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints – made on the basis of a thorough investigation of the holiness of the candidate’s life.
But it is crucially dependent on the recognition by the Congregation that two miracles, usually of healing, have been performed by God as a direct result of the intercession with God by the candidate.Hazir Reka/Reuters
These cures are only accepted as “miracles”, that is, as the result of the direct intervention of God, on the basis of strict medical evidence to the effect that the illness was medically incurable, that the cures were decisive, and that they were clearly the result of appeal to the candidate.
Thus, on this account, miracles do happen to people diagnosed with incurable diseases and these are the result of the direct action of God at the behest of deceased persons like Saint Teresa. Apparently, she and other saints, have a lot of influence in heavenly places over what happens down here. So, on the face of it, we’ve taken off our modern thinking caps and gone all medieval.
Let’s not argue over whether scientifically inexplicable events occur. They do. And let’s allow that, in the case of the two cures put forward as proof of Mother Teresa’s saintly status, the medical evidence stacks up in favour of something medically inexplicable having occurred.
Even so, there are any number of reasons why the absence of a scientific explanation should not propel us to uncritically endorse divine intervention as the cause of these events.
The first of these goes to what is known as the problem of “the God of the Gaps”. It’s always a theologically risky procedure to plug God in as an explanation where science fails. This is for the simple reason that, if a scientific explanation were to come about tomorrow, the miracle would then be shown not to have occurred. The arena of God’s activity has significantly shrunk over the last 300 as a consequence of this theory.
The second reason to be sceptical has to do with God’s apparent disinclination to intervene more often. If God can heal the sick on one occasion, why is he not more active on other occasions of incurable illness? And if he can act on occasion to cure illnesses, why can’t he intervene to stop earthquakes and other natural disasters?
God’s apparent disinclination to act as often as he might, and probably should, raises awkward questions about whether he is unwilling to act or whether he is incapable of doing so.
Thirdly, at least since the Reformation, miracles have been an important part of Roman Catholicism’s claims to religious truth, particularly against Protestantism. Miracles were then, and remain now, key features of Catholicism’s evangelical outreach. Miracles, Saints, and conversions all go together. So miracles come trailing clouds of Catholic doctrines, exclusive claims to religious truth, invitations to join up, and encouragements for the faithful to keep coming back.
For its part, Protestantism countered, not by attempting to score more miracles, but by taking its bat and ball home. It denied the doctrine that the Saints intercede to God on our behalf (because there were no Saints to do so). And it argued that the age of miracles had ceased at the end of New Testament times. It also declared that all Christians (or at least all Protestants) were Saints. As a counter-claim, this always looked a bit soft. Neither most Protestants nor most Catholics, nor for that matter most of us, are conspicuous for outstanding goodness and holiness.
Alternatively, in more Fundamentalist branches of Protestantism, miracles continued but as the direct intervention of God. The saintly middle men and women had been made redundant.
All this is not to deny Mother Teresa’s particular claims to goodness and holiness. Nor is it to question the sincerity of those who believe that her intercession can result in the cure of the incurable.
But it is to remind us that we should be wary of uncritical endorsement of claims to the miraculous. Religious belief of any sort can be a motivation to perfect goodness, as it is in many religions. As we are unfortunately all too currently aware, it can just as easily inspire appalling acts of evil.
And granted that God does have the capacity to act in the world, it does often look as if he is not paying the sort of attention to what’s going on that he should be.
Authors: Philip Almond, Professorial Research Fellow in the History of Religious Thought, The University of Queensland