How to Read a Miracle by a Pope when You Aren’t Catholic

Catholics — By on June 20, 2013 at 7:00 am

You may have heard: the Vatican has confirmed a second miracle by the intercession of Pope John Paul II. Details pending, the news release assures us that the investigation into the miracle has proven that the healing was permanent, instant, and not explained by science.

While we are used to the idea of various Christian creeds being saved and having personal relationships with Christ, the witness of a miracle may give us more pause. What does this mean to those of us who are not Catholic? Attractively tidy explanations present themselves: perhaps this miracle is a hoax or a misunderstanding. This seems an uncharitable reading of events, and I steer away from it. Or, perhaps this means that Catholicism is the one true creed, and we had all better convert. This seems a hasty reading of events, and I steer away from it, too.

So, upon hearing the news of a confirmed miracle, while the Christian naturally rejoices that someone, somewhere has been healed of a physical affliction (thank God!), she might also pause for a moment to consider how to read a miracle. I don’t particularly know, but indulge me as I venture a few exploratory thoughts.

Biblically, miracles offer evidence of a person’s relationship to God. The blind man who receives his eyes from Christ says to the teachers of the law: “Now, we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshipper of God and does his will, he hears him.” (John 9:31). So, it appears that answered prayers, especially on the scale of miraculous events, offer evidence of a right relationship to God. And right relationship to God, especially to the Evangelical mind, rests on right knowledge of God. Doesn’t it? To my thinking, the argument snags on this point: the link between right thoughts about God and answered prayers.

After all, it’s manifestly impossible to deny that God answers some prayers while the praying person lacks knowledge of God or even stands in error. Knowing God more is a primary prayer of the Christian, as we pray with the psalmist that he would grant us understanding of his statutes. Logically, at some point we must be praying for correct knowledge while we are in a state lacking that knowledge; we can’t achieve correct doctrinal knowledge without God filling our void or correcting our errors, as we pray he will. Therefore, absolutely correct doctrinal knowledge can’t be a prerequisite to answered prayers.

In short, when a fallen man or woman prays to know God, God answers the prayers of someone in error. Someone worshipful. Someone doing God’s will. But, someone whose mind contains errors, all the same.

Nevertheless, the fellow born blind in the gospel notes two qualities of the man whose prayers God will hear: 1) he worships God, and 2) he does his will. These two things do not have to indicate perfect knowledge of God (though the specific Person to whom the blind man refers does have perfect knowledge of God), but they do indicate a love for God, an understanding of the relationship between the praying person and God, and a submission to His will. There is biblical basis to make the argument that Pope John Paul II has a worshipful relationship with God and does his will. Regardless, I’m really not in a place to judge that.

This line of argument leads to the conclusion that a worshipful relationship with Yahweh and a genuine submission to his will may form more accurate prerequisites to answered prayer than does doctrinal understanding. Of course, right knowledge is necessary to worship, since knowledge and love tend to go together (for instance, I’d be miffed upon getting a love letter admiring my brown eyes, given that they are blue).

But, God seems to be willing to hear and answer our prayers where we are, if we stand in a state of worship, a state ready to learn truth even if we lack it. As convenient as it would be for him to reveal doctrine simply by confining his prayer-answering to those who know him without error, it would also confine all miracles to that short-but-glorious 33 best years of world history. God does not seem to like confining himself and his healing to the perfect, but prefers to perfect us with a scandalously broad generosity that allows answered prayers to those who want to know him more.

Miracles of physical healing have a strong scriptural tendency to be united with spiritual healing. Christ forgives sins and tells people to walk, revealing His status as the Healer and the One capable of forgiving sins. The miracle reveals his nature and his authority. However, when others perform miracles in the name of Christ, they prove not their own authority, but Christ’s authority and power. Thus, healing miracles reveal correct doctrine by revealing that Christ is the healer, rather than by suggesting anything about doctrine which is not naturally part of the miracle, itself.

Historically, correct articulation of doctrine has a stronger tendency to be proven by miraculous harmony in the body of Christ (i.e., his church) than miraculous harmony in a physical body: for instance, the faithful at the ecumenical councils united in one voice, saying that a true creed was indeed the faith handed down from the apostles.

So, it seems reasonable to hear that someone was healed when they asked Pope John Paul II for intercession, and think “Thank God!” and even “What a beautifully worshipful and obedient man of God,” without finding that a lack of allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine is necessarily challenged. God can go anywhere He wants.

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  • edj1

    The problem in this case is that the reported miracle is “posthumous”–”a Costa Rican woman was cured of a severe brain injury after her family prayed to the memory of the late pope.”

    Since you”re a Protestant, I’m sure you’ll agree that Jesus doesn’t delegate prayer intercessory duties to dead persons. He is all the mediator we have and all we need. Therefore, even if a miracle occurred, our opinion of John Paul should be unaffected.

  • Alicia

    I steered a little clear of the posthumous reports for two reasons:

    1) I to stay in the middle ground between my own beliefs and those of my audience. Being a member of the Greek Orthodox church, I do believe in the effectiveness of intercessory prayers from the whole community of those who love Christ, both those who are alive and those who are “absent from the body but present with the Lord.” However, we are certainly in mediator we need is Christ :)

    2) As of yet, the Vatican has not stated what the miracle was which they attribute to Pope John Paul II, so it may not turn out to be posthumous, but simply made public very late. I figured that silence on a point that hadn’t been revealed would be best.

  • Alicia

    Yikes…typos…that should read “We are certainly in agreement that the only mediator we need is Christ”

  • jamesfarnold

    You should be able to change those, yes?

  • Alicia

    I don’t think I can edit comments. At least, I can’t see a way to do so.

  • jamesfarnold

    Oh, my bad. I thought it was a typo in the post proper. That you can edit. Comments…I don’t think so.

  • msmischief

    Ah, but why am I not sure that you’ll agree that Jesus doesn’t delegate prayer intercessory duties to living persons? Have you ever asked anyone else to pray for you? For shame! Mind you it’s explicitly commanded in the Bible, but nevertheless — how could you? Do you not believe that He is all the mediator we have and all we need?