The Southeast Alaska Catholic
July 22, 2011

Father Ken Doyle

By Fr. Kenneth Doyle
Catholic News Service

Question: When an individual is being considered for sainthood, I often read about the need for documented miracles. But I’ve never seen an instance when the miracle under review was not one of physical healing. Yet those are not the only type of miracle; there are financial miracles, miracles of reconciliation, miracles of peace, etc.

Does the church ever consider any miracles other than physical cures when determining whether someone should be honored as a saint? (Mount Sinai, N.Y.)

Answer: The word “miracle” comes from the Latin word for “wonder” and means “marvelous to behold.” In common parlance, “miracle” is used broadly, and people often apply the term to natural events, such as the sunrise or birth of a baby, or to scientific developments such as retinal transplants that can restore sight to the blind.

In the church’s use of the word “miracle” in the canonization process, it has a much stricter meaning; it signifies an act brought about by divine intervention that goes beyond all the powers of natural science to explain.

In the 18th century, Pope Benedict XIV laid down strict standards for recognizing a miraculous cure: The original disease must be incapacitating, with a sure and precise diagnosis; the cure, which should be instantaneous and without convalescence, must not result from medical treatment; and recovery must permanently restore normal function.

When considering a reported miracle, the church conducts a lengthy investigation, consulting with scientific and medical experts in order to be able to rule out natural explanations. (At Lourdes, for example, only four healings among the hundreds of “cures” reported passed the church’s rigid scrutiny over the last four decades.)

Commonly, the documented miracles concern physical illnesses — for example, the French nun whose cure from Parkinson’s disease led to the beatification of Pope John Paul II earlier this year.

I am not aware of miracles other than those of physical healing that have been used in the canonization process. I suspect that other developments, such as what you describe — financial recovery or the reconciliation of enemies — though they may certainly be remarkable results produced through intercessory prayer, might be much harder to document.

Physical healings, on the other hand, can readily be weighed by the scientific community to determine the absence of natural causes.

Question: In the history of the Catholic Church, have women ever been ordained to the diaconate? (Albany, N.Y.)

Answer: The history of women deacons in the Roman Catholic Church is a matter of controversy among theologians and church historians.

In the early 1970s, when implementing the Second Vatican Council’s decision to renew the permanent diaconate, Pope Paul VI referred the question of women deacons to the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. It was not until 2002 that this commission issued a report that said that the functions of early women deacons in the church seem not to have been the same as those of today’s male deacons.

Certainly there is testimony to the existence of female deacons through the first millennium of the church’s history, but the controversy focuses on whether those deaconesses received a sacramental ordination through the imposition of hands or were simply commissioned by a blessing for particular ministries — such as catechetics or the care of the sick.

On that point, even texts from early ecumenical councils (Nicaea in 325 A.D. and Chalcedon in 451) would seem to produce different conclusions.

The fairest thing to say is that the possibility of ordaining women deacons in the future remains at this point an open question and depends, in part at least, on what we may still learn about their exact role in the church’s early history.

(Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.)