The problem of miracles

Writing about the miraculous -- apart from baseball -- is a tricky task. The key to a good miracle story is its tone. If a writer is too deferential to his subject he becomes an apologist. Too harsh and he becomes an antagonist. Adopting the voice of the village atheist or a credulous devotee fails the test of sound journalism. There are some wonderful contemporary apologetic essays on miracles, Frederica Mathewes-Green's piece "Why C.S. Lewis is So Irritating!" springs to mind, while Christopher Hitchens and some other members of the new atheists fraternity have equally well written critiques of the miraculous.

But the reporter's task is to let the facts drive the story and to allow the principles of the drama to speak. The writer's craft is then displayed by  having "A sense of the fitness of things, my dear" as Waldo Lydeker observed in Otto Preminger's Laura. It courses through all his work by imparting faithfully the facts, the setting and the worldview of those involved -- and allows a reader to draw his own conclusions.

This imperative is made difficult for a wire service reporter, however, who must cram as much as possible into 400 words or less. A wire service religion story can hit the right chord, but brevity sometimes robs the story of accuracy.

The balance between pitch and context is illustrated in a miracle story from the Associated Press. On Oct 2 newspapers around the globe ran a brief -- 330 word -- story whose title took some form of: "Catholics in Poland celebrate what they see as miraculous communion wafer."

The AP has done a great job in finding the proper editorial voice, but the absence of context does not give the general reader enough information to know what is happening. The article begins by going through the "what," "where" and "who" says so.

Roman Catholics in Poland gathered Sunday for a special Mass celebrating what they see as a miracle: the appearance on a communion wafer of a dark spot that they are convinced is part of the heart of Jesus.

The communion wafer in question developed a brown spot in 2008 after falling on the floor during a Mass in the eastern Polish town of Sokolka. Two medical doctors determined that the spot was heart muscle tissue, church officials have said.

The local archbishop offers his endorsement, a brief history is offered and an explanation of Catholic doctrine is presented.

Bialystok Archbishop Edward Ozorowski said during the Mass that in history, the “substance of Christ’s body or blood has become available to the human senses, and this also happened in Sokolka.”

“For God, nothing is impossible,” Ozorowski said.

The dark-spotted wafer was carried aloft in a reliquary by a golden-robed priest in a procession and was put on display in the town’s church of St. Anthony as about 1,000 faithful looked on, according to a report and footage carried by the TV station TVN.

Catholics believe that the bread and wine that priests use during the sacrament of communion -- or the Eucharist -- are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

The wafer was dropped by a priest celebrating communion in 2008. In accordance with church practice, the priest placed the wafer in water to dissolve it. Several days later a nun found that the wafer had not dissolved completely, and found a red mark on it.

It winds toward a close by stating the miracle has not been confirmed by the Vatican, and ends with the wry twist of local skeptics asking the police to investigate.

... the Vatican is still examining the matter and has not yet officially decided whether to declare it a miracle, church spokesman Andrzej Debski said.

A group of rationalists complained about the matter in 2008, and called on authorities to investigate if a murder or other crime was involved if human flesh was indeed found on the wafer. Police say they have no evidence of any crime.

Now I like how this story has been framed. It is respectful to the Catholic principals while also giving skeptics the opportunity to scoff. However, a surface reading of the story presents a quibble: "local" should have been inserted before "church" in the second sentence, as we are not told until the end of the article that the Vatican has not yet ruled on this matter.

It the deeper issues of context and accuracy that troubles me. The statement about what Roman Catholics believe happens in the Eucharist is true as far it goes, but it is incomplete in explaining the theological importance of this story -- the "so what" factor. Catholics believe that in the celebration of the Eucharist the the bread and wine are substantially changed into the body and blood of Christ by means of the consecratory Eucharistic Prayer. The accidents -- the outward appearance of the bread and wine -- remain the same. This change in substance is called transubstantiation.

What is claimed by the Catholic Church in Sokolka is a second, extraordinary Eucharistic miracle where the accidents have been changed also. In his Summa Theologica III, 76.8 ad 2, Thomas Aquinas explains this second miracle by stating:

... (W)hile the dimensions remain the same as before, there is a miraculous change wrought in the other accidents, such as shape, color, and the rest, so that flesh, or blood, or a child, is seen. And, as was said already, this is not deception, because it is done "to represent the truth," namely, to show by this miraculous apparition that Christ's body and blood are truly in this sacrament. And thus it is clear that as the dimensions remain, which are the foundation of the other accidents, as we shall see later on (77, 2), the body of Christ truly remains in this sacrament.

Eucharistic miracles have been recorded in the past. A 2005 story in Zenit (one of the best Roman Catholic news services) describes a conference that offered the results of an investigation into the 8th century miracle at the Church of St. Legontian in Lanciano, Italy.

A Basilian monk, who had doubts about the real presence of Christ in consecrated elements, was offering a Mass in the church. When he pronounced the words of the consecration, the host was miraculously changed into physical flesh and the wine into physical blood. The blood and flesh were preserved and these relics were examined by anatomists in 1971 who pronounced the flesh as being cardiac tissue, and the blood as human blood of type AB.

An informed reader would have been aware of the significance of the second extraordinary Eucharistic miracle repoted in Sokolka, and may have heard of the Lanciano miracle, a general reader is not likely to have been aware of this background.

Which leads me back to Sokolka. In recounting the archbishop's remarks and summarizing the story, the AP has either made a mistake or the local church has shifted its position. In 2009 the Archdiocese of Bialystock released a report under the signature of its chancellor that was much more circumspect in its claims. A scientific investigation commissioned by Archbishop Ozorowski stated:

On 7 January 2009 the sample from the Host has been taken and examined independently by two professionals in pathomorphology of Medical University in Bialystok. They have issued a common statement as follows: "the sample sent to assess (...) in our opinion (prof. Maria Sobaniec-Lotowska and prof. Stanislaw Sulkowski) looks like the myocardial tissue, at least of all the tissues of living organisms it most resembles."

The miraculous host "looks like" heart tissue is not the same thing as saying it "is" heart tissue.

The Bialystock metropolitan curial report states the files had been passed to Warsaw for review, but in the opinion of the local church:

The Case of Sokolka does not oppose to the faith of the Church, rather confirms it. Church believes that the words of consecration, by the power of the Holy Spirit, transform a bread into the Body of Christ and wine into His Blood. It also provides a call to ministers of the Holy Communion to distribute the Body of Christ with faith and attention and to faithful - to receive It with reverence.

In other words the report found that it could be true and belief that it is true is not contrary to the Catholic faith, but the Vatican must make the final decision. The AP story gives the impression that this is a new miracle (it isn't), that the scientific evidence says it is true (no it does not), and that the Catholic Church has an official view of the miracle (it does not).

Am I asking too much? I do not expect a wire service story to offer Catholic catechesis nor to smack the story down as the ignorant vaporings of the Polish peasantry. Would the story have been improved by the addition of a few words of historical and theological context and a dash of nuance? Or is it impossible in this post-modernist age to be balanced? What say ye, GetReligion readers?

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