Topic - Miracles Note B. On Page 23.
Ecclesiastical Miracles

{298} THE writer, who gave occasion for the foregoing Narrative, was very severe with me for what I had said about Miracles in the Preface to the Life of St. Walburga. I observe therefore as follows:—

Catholics believe that miracles happen in any age of the Church, though not for the same purposes, in the same number, or with the same evidence, as in Apostolic times. The Apostles wrought them in evidence of their divine mission; and with this object they have been sometimes wrought by Evangelists of countries since, as even Protestants allow. Hence we hear of them in the history of St. Gregory in Pontus, and St. Martin in Gaul; and in their case, as in that of the Apostles, they were both numerous and clear. As they are granted to Evangelists, so are they granted, though in less measure and evidence, to other holy men; and as holy men are not found equally at all times and in all places, therefore miracles are in some places and times more than in others. And since, generally, they are granted to faith and prayer, therefore in a country in which faith and prayer abound, they will be more likely to occur, than where and when faith and prayer are not; so that their occurrence is irregular. And further, as faith and prayer obtain miracles, so still more commonly do they gain from above the ordinary interventions of Providence; and, as it is often very difficult to distinguish between a providence and a miracle, and there will be more providences than miracles, hence it will happen that many occurrences will be called miraculous, {299} which, strictly speaking, are not such, that is, not more than providential mercies, or what are sometimes called "grazie" or "favours."

Persons, who believe all this, in accordance with Catholic teaching, as I did and do, they, on the report of a miracle, will of necessity, the necessity of good logic, be led to say, first, "It may be," and secondly, "But I must have good evidence in order to believe it."

1. It may be, because miracles take place in all ages; it must be clearly proved, because perhaps after all it may be only a providential mercy, or an exaggeration, or a mistake, or an imposture. Well, this is precisely what I have said, which the writer, who has given occasion to this Volume, considered so irrational. I had said, as he quotes me, "In this day, and under our present circumstances, we can only reply, that there is no reason why they should not be." Surely this is good logic, provided that miracles do occur in all ages; and so again I am logical in saying, "There is nothing, prim‚ facie, in the miraculous accounts in question, to repel a properly taught or religiously disposed mind." What is the matter with this statement? My assailant does not pretend to say what the matter is, and he cannot; but he expresses a rude, unmeaning astonishment. Accordingly, in the passage which he quotes, I observe, "Miracles are the kind of facts proper to ecclesiastical history, just as instances of sagacity or daring, personal prowess, or crime, are the facts proper to secular history." What is the harm of this?

2. But, though a miracle be conceivable, it has to be proved. What has to be proved? (1) That the event occurred as stated, and is not a false report or an exaggeration. (2) That it is clearly miraculous, and not a mere providence or answer to prayer within the order of nature. What is the fault of saying this? The inquiry is parallel to that which is made about some extraordinary {300} fact in secular history. Supposing I hear that King Charles II. died a Catholic, I am led to say: It may be, but what is your proof?

In my Essay on Miracles of the year 1826, I proposed three questions about a professed miraculous occurrence: 1. is it antecedently probable? 2. is it in its nature certainly miraculous? 3. has it sufficient evidence? To these three heads I had regard in my Essay of 1842; and under them I still wish to conduct the inquiry into the miracles of Ecclesiastical History.


So much for general principles; as to St. Walburga, though I have no intention at all of denying that numerous miracles have been wrought by her intercession, still, neither the Author of her Life, nor I, the Editor, felt that we had grounds for binding ourselves to the belief of certain alleged miracles in particular. I made, however, one exception; it was the medicinal oil which flows from her relics. Now as to the verisimilitude, the miraculousness, and the fact, of this medicinal oil.

1. The verisimilitude. It is plain there is nothing extravagant in this report of her relics having a supernatural virtue; and for this reason, because there are such instances in Scripture, and Scripture cannot be extravagant. For instance, a man was restored to life by touching the relics of the Prophet Eliseus. The sacred text runs thus:—"And Elisha died, and they buried him. And the bands of the Moabites invaded the land at the coming in of the year. And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha. And, when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood upon his feet." Again, in the case of an inanimate substance, which had touched a living Saint: "And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul; so that {301} from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them." And again in the case of a pool: "An Angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water; whosoever then first, after the troubling of the water, stepped in, was made whole of whatsoever disease he had." 2 Kings [4 Kings] xiii. 20, 21. Acts xix. 11, 12. John v. 4. Therefore there is nothing extravagant in the character of the miracle.

2. Next, the matter of fact:—is there an oil flowing from St. Walburga's tomb, which is medicinal? To this question I confined myself in my Preface. Of the accounts of medieval miracles, I said that there was no extravagance in their general character, but I could not affirm that there was always evidence for them. I could not simply accept them as facts, but I could not reject them in their nature;—they might be true, for they were not impossible; but they were not proved to be true, because there was not trustworthy testimony. However, as to St. Walburga, I repeat, I made one exception, the fact of the medicinal oil, since for that miracle there was distinct and successive testimony. And then I went on to give a chain of witnesses. It was my duty to state what those witnesses said in their very words; so I gave the testimonies in full, tracing them from the Saint's death. I said, "She is one of the principal Saints of her age and country." Then I quoted Basnage, a Protestant, who says, "Six writers are extant, who have employed themselves in relating the deeds or miracles of Walburga." Then I said that her "renown was not the mere natural growth of ages, but begins with the very century of the Saint's death." Then I observed that only two miracles seem to have been "distinctly reported of her as occurring in her lifetime; and they were handed down apparently by tradition." Also, that such miracles are said to have commenced {302} about A.D. 777. Then I spoke of the medicinal oil as having testimony to it in 893, in 1306, after 1450, in 1615, and in 1620. Also, I said that Mabillon seems not to have believed some of her miracles; and that the earliest witness had got into trouble with his Bishop. And so I left the matter, as a question to be decided by evidence, not deciding any thing myself.

What was the harm of all this? but my Critic muddled it together in a most extraordinary manner, and I am far from sure that he knew himself the definite categorical charge which he intended it to convey against me. One of his remarks is, "What has become of the holy oil for the last 240 years, Dr. Newman does not say," p. 25. Of course I did not, because I did not know; I gave the evidence as I found it; he assumes that I had a point to prove, and then asks why I did not make the evidence larger than it was.

I can tell him more about it now: the oil still flows; I have had some of it in my possession; it is medicinal still. This leads to the third head.

3. Its miraculousness. On this point, since I have been in the Catholic Church, I have found there is a difference of opinion. Some persons consider that the oil is the natural produce of the rock, and has ever flowed from it; others, that by a divine gift it flows from the relics; and others, allowing that it now comes naturally from the rock, are disposed to hold that it was in its origin miraculous, as was the virtue of the pool of Bethsaida.

This point must be settled of course before the virtue of the oil can be ascribed to the sanctity of St. Walburga; for myself, I neither have, nor ever have had, the means of going into the question; but I will take the opportunity of its having come before me, to make one or two remarks, supplemental of what I have said on other occasions. {303}

1. I frankly confess that the present advance of science tends to make it probable that various facts take place, and have taken place, in the order of nature, which hitherto have been considered by Catholics as simply supernatural.

2. Though I readily make this admission, it must not be supposed in consequence that I am disposed to grant at once, that every event was natural in point of fact, which might have taken place by the laws of nature; for it is obvious, no Catholic can bind the Almighty to act only in one and the same way, or to the observance always of His own laws. An event which is possible in the way of nature, is certainly possible too to Divine Power without the sequence of natural cause and effect at all. A conflagration, to take a parallel, may be the work of an incendiary, or the result of a flash of lightning; nor would a jury think it safe to find a man guilty of arson, if a dangerous thunderstorm was raging at the very time when the fire broke out. In like manner, upon the hypothesis that a miraculous dispensation is in operation, a recovery from diseases to which medical science is equal, may nevertheless in matter of fact have taken place, not by natural means, but by a supernatural interposition. That the Lawgiver always acts through His own laws, is an assumption, of which I never saw proof. In a given case, then, the possibility of assigning a human cause for an event does not ipso facto prove that it is not miraculous.

3. So far, however, is plain, that, till some experimentum crucis can be found, such as to be decisive against the natural cause or the supernatural, an occurrence of this kind will as little convince an unbeliever that there has been a divine interference in the case, as it will drive the Catholic to admit that there has been no interference at all. {304}

4. Still there is this gain accruing to the Catholic cause from the larger views we now possess of the operation of natural causes, viz. that our opponents will not in future be so ready as hitherto to impute fraud and falsehood to our priests and their witnesses, on the ground of their pretending or reporting things that are incredible. Our opponents have again and again accused us of false witness, on account of statements which they now allow are either true, or may have been true. They account indeed for the strange facts very differently from us; but still they allow that facts they were. It is a great thing to have our characters cleared; and we may reasonably hope that, the next time our word is vouched for occurrences which appear to be miraculous, our facts will be investigated, not our testimony impugned.

5. Even granting that certain occurrences, which we have hitherto accounted miraculous, have not absolutely a claim to be so considered, nevertheless they constitute an argument still in behalf of Revelation and the Church. Providences, or what are called grazie, though they do not rise to the order of miracles, yet, if they occur again and again in connexion with the same persons, institutions, or doctrines, may supply a cumulative evidence of the fact of a supernatural presence in the quarter in which they are found. I have already alluded to this point in my Essay on Ecclesiastical Miracles, and I have a particular reason, as will presently be seen, for referring here to what I said in the course of it.


In that Essay, after bringing its main argument to an end, I append to it a review of "the evidence for particular alleged miracles." "It does not strictly fall within the scope of the Essay," I observe, "to pronounce upon the truth or falsehood of this or that miraculous narrative, as it occurs in ecclesiastical history; but only to furnish such {305} general considerations, as may be useful in forming a decision in particular cases," p. cv. However, I thought it right to go farther and "to set down the evidence for and against certain miracles as we meet with them," ibid. In discussing these miracles separately, I make the following remarks, to which I have just been referring.

After discussing the alleged miracle of the Thundering Legion, I observe:—"Nor does it concern us much to answer the objection, that there is nothing strictly miraculous in such an occurrence, because sudden thunderclouds after drought are not unfrequent; for, I would answer, Grant me such miracles ordinarily in the early Church, and I will ask no other; grant that, upon prayer, benefits are vouchsafed, deliverances are effected, unhoped-for results obtained, sicknesses cured, tempests laid, pestilences put to flight, famines remedied, judgments inflicted, and there will be no need of analyzing the causes, whether supernatural or natural, to which they are to be referred. They may, or they may not, in this or that case, follow or or surpass the laws of nature, and they may do so plainly or doubtfully, but the common sense of mankind will call them miraculous; for by a miracle is popularly meant, whatever be its formal definition, an event which impresses upon the mind the immediate presence of the Moral Governor of the world. He may sometimes act through nature, sometimes beyond or against it; but those who admit the fact of such interferences, will have little difficulty in admitting also their strictly miraculous character, if the circumstances of the case require it, and those who deny miracles to the early Church will be equally strenuous against allowing her the grace of such intimate influence (if we may so speak) upon the course of divine Providence, as is here in question, even though it be not miraculous."—p. cxxi.

And again, speaking of the death of Arius: "But after {306} all, was it a miracle? for, if not, we are labouring at a proof of which nothing comes. The more immediate answer to this question has already been suggested several times. When a Bishop with his flock prays night and day against a heretic, and at length begs of God to take him away, and when he is suddenly taken away, almost at the moment of his triumph, and that by a death awfully significant, from its likeness to one recorded in Scripture, is it not trifling to ask whether such an occurrence comes up to the definition of a miracle? The question is not whether it is formally a miracle, but whether it is an event, the like of which persons, who deny that miracles continue, will consent that the Church should be considered still able to perform. If they are willing to allow to the Church such extraordinary protection, it is for them to draw the line to the satisfaction of people in general, between these and strictly miraculous events; if, on the other hand, they deny their occurrence in the times of the Church, then there is sufficient reason for our appealing here to the history of Arius in proof of the affirmative."—p. clxxii.

These remarks, thus made upon the Thundering Legion and the death of Arius, must be applied, in consequence of investigations made since the date of my Essay, to the apparent miracle wrought in favour of the African confessors in the Vandal persecution. Their tongues were cut out by the Arian tyrant, and yet they spoke as before. In my Essay I insisted on this fact as being strictly miraculous. Among other remarks (referring to the instances adduced by Middleton and others in disparagement of the miracle, viz. of "a girl born without a tongue, who yet talked as distinctly and easily, as if she had enjoyed the full benefit of that organ," and of a boy who lost his tongue at the age of eight or nine, yet retained his speech, whether perfectly or not,) I said, "Does Middleton mean {307} to say, that, if certain of men lost their tongues at the command of a tyrant for the sake of their religion, and then spoke as plainly as before, nay if only one person was so mutilated and so gifted, it would not be a miracle?"—p. ccx. And I enlarged upon the minute details of the fact as reported to us by eye-witnesses and contemporaries. "Out of the seven writers adduced, six are contemporaries; three, if not four, are eye-witnesses of the miracle. One reports from an eye-witness, and one testifies to a fervent record at the burial-place of the subjects of it. All seven were living, or had been staying, at one or other of the two places which are mentioned as their abode. One is a Pope, a second a Catholic Bishop, a third a Bishop of a schismatical party, a fourth an emperor, a fifth a soldier, a politician, and a suspected infidel, a sixth a statesman and courtier, a seventh a rhetorician and philosopher. 'He cut out the tongues by the roots,' says Victor, Bishop of Vito; 'I perceived the tongues entirely gone by the roots,' says ∆neas; 'as low down as the throat,' says Procopius; 'at the roots,' say Justinian and St. Gregory; 'he spoke like an educated man, without impediment,' says Victor of Vito; 'with articulateness,' says ∆neas; 'better than before;' 'they talked without any impediment,' says Procopius; 'speaking with perfect voice,' says Marcellinus; 'they spoke perfectly, even to the end,' says the second Victor; 'the words were formed, full, and perfect,' says St. Gregory."—p. ccviii.

However, a few years ago an Article appeared in Notes and Queries (No. for May 22, 1858), in which various evidence was adduced to show that the tongue is not necessary for articulate speech.

1. Col. Churchill, in his Lebanon, speaking of the cruelties of Djezzar Pacha, in extracting to the root the tongues of some Emirs, adds, "It is a curious fact, however, {308} that the tongues grow again sufficiently for the purposes of speech."

2. Sir John Malcolm, in his Sketches of Persia, speaks of Z‚b, Khan of Khisht, who was condemned to lose his tongue. "This mandate," he says, "was imperfectly executed, and the loss of half this member deprived him of speech. Being afterwards persuaded that its being cut close to the root would enable him to speak so as to be understood, he submitted to the operation; and the effect has been, that his voice, though indistinct and thick, is yet intelligible to persons accustomed to converse with him ... I am not an anatomist, and I cannot therefore give a reason, why a man, who could not articulate with half a tongue, should speak when he had none at all; but the facts are as stated."

3. And Sir John McNeill says, "In answer to your inquiries about the powers of speech retained by persons who have had their tongues cut out, I can state from personal observation, that several persons whom I knew in Persia, who had been subjected to that punishment, spoke so intelligibly as to be able to transact important business … The conviction in Persia is universal, that the power of speech is destroyed by merely cutting off the tip of the tongue; and is to a useful extent restored by cutting off another portion as far back as a perpendicular section can be made of the portion that is free from attachment at the lower surface … I never had to meet with a person who had suffered this punishment, who could not speak so as to be quite intelligible to his familiar associates."

I should not be honest, if I professed to be simply converted, by these testimonies, to the belief that there was nothing miraculous in the case of the African confessors. It is quite as fair to be sceptical on one side of the question {309} as on the other; and if Gibbon is considered worthy of praise for his stubborn incredulity in receiving the evidence for this miracle, I do not see why I am to be blamed, if I wish to be quite sure of the full appositeness of the recent evidence which is brought to its disadvantage. Questions of fact cannot be disproved by analogies or presumptions; the inquiry must be made into the particular case in all its parts, as it comes before us. Meanwhile, I fully allow that the points of evidence brought in disparagement of the miracle are prim‚ facie of such cogency, that, till they are proved to be irrelevant, Catholics are prevented from appealing to it for controversial purposes.

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