The Catholic Church is looking into reports of a miracle performed by the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero that would make him a candidate for canonisation as a saint. But can someone who has died, no matter how holy they were, still work miracles today?
It seems a little improbable.
That's pretty much what miracles are, isn't it?
Good point. But I thought Christians believed that when someone's dead, they just go to heaven?
It's that 'just' that is the tricky one. Protestants have tended to teach that someone's involvement in the affairs of this world ceases on death, certainly; not so Catholics.
Explain a little further.
Catholics have a much more developed idea of the 'communion of saints', an expression many Protestants are happy to use when saying the Apostles' Creed but haven't really though through. So for Catholics, Christians in heaven intercede with God the Father for those remaining on earth; it is the Church Triumphant helping the Church Militant. So St Therese of Lisieux said before she died, 'I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.'
Is there any biblical warrant for this?
Revelation 5:8 speaks of 24 elders with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints, but Catholics are not as wedded to the text of Scripture as Protestants. It is a long tradition, that they would argue is not unbiblical, that deceased Christians pray for and can even, through the power of God, work miracles for, the living.
It doesn't seem that unreasonable, when you put it like that.
Quite. If you could ask a friend from your house group to pray for you, why not a friend in heaven? And James 5:16 says that the prayer of a righteous person as great power, so why not ask an actual saint? And if you believe God works through individuals to bring healing – as many do – why limit this to people who are alive, rather than those who are (as all Christians would say) even more alive?
This is getting uncomfortably un-Protestant.
Well, generally Protestants would say there's no point in praying to Christians who've gone before – why not just ask God directly? This was one of the points made by the Reformers, who exposed the corruption of the medieval Church and the greed of those who profited from pilgrims' devotion to particular saints. Protestants also point out the perils of someone's attachment to a particular saint overshadowing their devotion to Christ.
And what about the miracles?
The Catholic Church is very sceptical about miracles, unlike many evangelicals who arguably go the other way. Catholics have a rigorous process ensuring as far as possible that a claimed miracle couldn't have happened naturally or through medical intervention. So Archbishop Romero's 'miracle' will be tested to destruction before it's officially claimed; the Church has no wish to end up with egg on its face.
Should evangelicals be warier about claiming miracles?
In some strands of evangelicalism, miracles of healing are just normal. But many outsiders would look at them and see nothing out of the ordinary – if someone gets better after being prayed for it might be coincidence, or the effect might not last, indicating a psychological component. Critics argue that we see what we want to see, and there's not much medical evidence out there. But that's not the same as saying God does not heal today; it's just that perhaps evangelicals ought to be a bit more discerning about claiming healing miracles.
A bit more Catholic?
Let me think about that one.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods