VATICAN CITY (RNS) When the Vatican announced this month that Pope Francis would formally elevate Popes John Paul II and John XXIII to sainthood, two things stood out.
For John Paul, it was the record speed that he reached sainthood, just eight years after his death. The only other saint to be canonized so quickly in modern times was Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva, whose sainthood bid took 27 years.
But for John XXIII, Francis decided to waive the church law that requires a second miracle in order to be named a saint. Asked how John XXIII could be named a saint without the required second miracle, the Vatican's chief spokesman said "no one doubts his virtues."
With that rare, if not unprecedented, move, Francis has rekindled a years-old debate in Catholic circles, with some asking whether miracles are really needed for sainthood anymore.
“I think it is time to drop the miracle requirement,” says the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who is a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.
“It is sufficient to look at a person’s life and ask, did this person live the life of a Christian in a special or extraordinary way that can be held up for admiration and imitation by other Christians?”
According to the church, miracles are performed by God, not the saints. The saints' role is to bend God's ear, to intercede on behalf of those who pray to them and make sure that God heeds their requests.
The rationale for the miracle requirement is that it proves "that the person is in heaven and listened to by God,” Reese said.
While the tradition of seeking assistance from holy men and women is as old as Christianity itself, it was only Pope Benedict XIV, in the 18th century, who formalized the miracle requirement: Two miracles were needed to be declared "Blessed," through a rite called beatification, and two more were needed to become a saint.
(The difference between the two stages is that while a "Blessed" is venerated at the local level, a saint is held up as an icon of faith for the global church.)
Professor Daniele Menozzi, a church historian at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, said the importance of miracles grew during the 19th century as the church was engaged in its struggle against the modern world.
“Miracles -- events that science wasn't able to explain -- were the church's answer to the scientific mindset," he said.
But this changed after the watershed Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which John XXIII convened.
“As the church wasn't afraid of secularization anymore, sainthood stopped being a proof of the existence of the supernatural and became a way to promote exemplary lives,” Menozzi said.
In 1983, John Paul lowered the requirement to one miracle for beatification and another one for sainthood, while martyrs -- those who had been killed because of their faith -- could be beatified without miracles at all.
John Paul went on to name around 500 saints and more than 1,300 blesseds during his 26-year pontificate -- more than in the past five centuries combined.
At the Vatican, potential miracles are vetted by a team of specialist doctors, who are called to determine whether a miraculous healing can be explained by modern medicine.
“But medicine becomes more complex and advanced by the day, so it's possible to make mistakes,” cautions the Rev. Peter Gumpel, a Jesuit expert who has worked on saints' causes for more than 60 years.
Today, unexplained healings make up about 95 percent of church-certified miracles. But it has happened in the past that what was considered a miracle has been later explained by science.
For Gumpel, by looking only at physical miracles “the church ventures in a field that is not its own.”
He says that the church could look for God's intervention “in the many spheres of human experience" beyond medicine.
“When a couple gets reconciled, or economic help arrives against all human expectations -- if there are hundreds of such cases, all after praying to the same person, then God wants to tell us something,” Gumpel argues.
“According to my experience, a miracle is only the confirmation of what has been ascertained through a long study of a person's life, writings and actions,” he said.
Nevertheless, a traditional miracle is still what's required in most cases, even though, as Gumpel recalls, “these are human laws, and the pope could change them if he wants.”
A senior official at the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak publicly on this issue, is not convinced that the church can completely give up on miracles when vetting potential saints.
“It is true that sainthood mostly consists in the virtue and the actions of a person," he said. "But the church keeps this requirement of a miracle as a seal, a stamp of God's will."