Articles Catholic Christianity

On the Subject of Miracles

Source: Donald deMarco via National Catholic Register

Science, which studies the nature and order of the physical universe, by virtue of its limitations, is unable to confirm or deny that there are such things as miracles. A miracle, by definition, defies the laws of nature. 

Being habituated to what science can reveal, people tend to take a skeptical view of miracles. Thus, John Henry Cardinal Newman can state, in his book, Essays on Miracles, that a miracle is “an event in a given system which cannot be referred to any law, or accounted for by the operation of any principle, in that system”. 

The now canonized St. John Henry Newman is not denying the possibility of miracles, but merely pointing out that science cannot prove their existence. There are many windows through which we can ascertain reality; science is just one of them. 

Many scientists readily admit how limited their knowledge really is. Distinguished astronomer Robert Jastrow, who believed that the Big Bang Theory left room for the existence of God, ended one of his books by stating that the scientist, “who has lived by his faith in the power of reason … has scaled the mountains of ignorance … he is about to conquer the highest peak; [as] he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band or theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

There are more things going on in heaven and earth that we can divine by reason alone. Science has not told us the whole story. In the words of another astronomer, Carl Sagan, “science is a way of thinking much more than it a body of knowledge.”

Are Miracles Plausible? 

Both the Old and New Testaments are replete with reference to miracles. Newman points out that “the pure morality of the gospel, as taught by illiterate fishermen of Galilee,” must be considered to be miraculous. He also contends that the rapid expanse of Christianity under social circumstances extremely hostile to it, must also be considered miraculous. 

Miracles are plausible because they happen. Evangelist Leonard Ravenhill (1907-1994) holds that, “The greatest miracle that God can do today is to take an unholy man out of an unholy world and make him holy, then put him back into that unholy world and keep him holy in it.” 

In this context, we might think of the Confessions of St. Augustine. It was the bishop of Hippo who also declared that “all things are miraculous.” Here Augustine is alluding to another area that is closed to the scientist, namely, how did things come about in the first place? 

Scientists take it for granted that there is a universe that happens to be ordered. But they are helpless in determining its origin. Hence, its very origin and the very existence of everything that it contains is also miraculous. As the American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson has stated, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

Miracles are plausible because there is a God who is all-powerful. Miracles do not make any sense to the atheist who sees nothing more than what his reason can discern. Miracles cannot crop up all by themselves. They need an agency that superintends the universe and displays his creative powers in diverse ways. From God’s point of view, a miracle is just another way of speaking to his human creatures.

Are Miracles Purposeful?

Christ’s miracles always have a moral purpose. They are avenues of love which are more convincingly miraculous because of their immediacy. Medicine is imperfect and usually requires a period of time for healing to take place. Christ’s healing miracles are startling and stand apart from healing measures that are purely natural. 

Another purpose associated with his miracles is to provide evidence that there is a God, and one who cares about his creatures. The possibility of miracles provides a motivation for prayer. That possibility is also an incentive to develop and exercise one’s native abilities. 

Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) saw his art as a call to fulfill his natural talent: “The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.”

Mother Angelica famously stated, “Unless you are willing to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous.” For the esteemed Poor Clare and foundress of EWTN, these words were more than an empty phrase; they encapsulated her life. Miracles can be answers to prayers, to hard work for a good cause, or to reveal the majesty of God. They are purposeful but never gratuitous.

The miracle at Cana, Christ’s first miracle, was public and performed at the request of his mother. Christ transformed approximately 120 gallons of water into wine, the quality of which was highly praised by the host. The overriding meaning of the miracle is to emphasize the sanctity of marriage. The significance of this miracle has continuing significance for every marriage. 

In a comparable miracle, Narcissus, the first-century bishop of Jerusalem, when oil failed to light the lamps on the vigil of Easter, sent for water. When the water arrived, he prayed over it, and it changed to serviceable oil. The bishop was a holy man and lived to the remarkable age of 116 or more, according to Eusebius. 

Miracles are possible, plausible, and purposeful. We begin our appreciation of miracles by regarding our own existence as a miracle.

Donald DeMarco Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest works, How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going MadPoetry that Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart; and How to Flourish in a Fallen World are available through Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum. He is the 2015 Catholic Civil Rights League recipient of the prestigious Exner Award.

Header image: The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese, Louvre Museum via public domain.