Fatima at 100: Can a scientist take the Miracle of the Sun seriously?

The crowd looking at 'the Miracle of the Sun', which happened during the Our Lady of Fatima apparitions (Wikimedia Commons)

The question in the headline implies that the expected answer is “no”, but as a former particle physicist, my response is “Why not?” Contrary to a common prejudice, a scientific perspective does not rule out miracles, and the event at Fatima is, in the view of many, particularly credible.

As regards miracles in general, the usual prejudice against them takes one of two forms. The first is to claim that a scientific worldview excludes miracles, wrongly defined as breaking the laws of nature or, specifically, physics. This prejudice rests on a misunderstanding of the scope of scientific laws, which describe how simple, idealised systems behave in isolation. Such laws enable us to perform extraordinary feats, such as the final voyage of the Cassini spacecraft now taking place through the rings of Saturn.

But such laws say nothing about what happens when a system is not isolated, especially when a free personal agent intervenes. To give an example, if I throw an apple in the air, its trajectory will approximate a parabola that can be predicted from its initial position and momentum, but that prediction says nothing about whether or not I choose to catch the apple. And if I can intervene to change the trajectory of an apple then presumably God, who is all-powerful, can do the same and much more. Hence there is no real problem with miracles from the perspective of scientific laws, since to describe how a system behaves in the absence of intervention says nothing about whether an intervention can or does take place.

A second form of the prejudice is to claim that a combination of natural causes can and should be found to explain what appears to be miraculous, reducing the miraculous to the providential. To give one of many examples, it is not uncommon for clerics and teachers of a certain age, who find the miraculous mildly embarrassing, to claim that Jesus’s feeding of the 5,000 was simply a matter of people being shamed into sharing the food they already had.

But such explanations rarely fit well with the actual accounts, especially the reactions of eyewitnesses. Nor are such explanations either necessary or helpful. Obviously, we need to bring our critical judgment to bear on reports of particular miracles, which are exceptional signs in a world of created beings with their own natural powers. But to decide, in advance of any evidence, that miracles are impossible or never happen, is against the spirit of critical inquiry and is a counsel of despair. After all, if no miracles ever happen, then we are trapped in a world of natural powers, inadequate for our happiness, and doomed to individual and ultimately cosmic decay and death.

How, then, should we assess Fatima, and especially the reported miracle of the sun of October 13, 1917? This event accompanied the last of six apparitions to 10-year old Blessed Lucia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto (who are shortly expected to be declared saints). The crowd of witnesses numbered in the tens of thousands and we have many testimonies, including from university professors and reporters, later compiled in a book by John Haffert, Meet the Witnesses of the Miracle of the Sun. For example, Avelino de Almeida from O Século, an anti-clerical government newspaper, and who had previously mocked the children, wrote that the sun made sudden, incredible movements, “outside all cosmic laws”.

Today, the Church does not demand that we accept the miracle, but states only that the apparitions of Our Lady themselves are worthy of belief. Nevertheless, given the number and range of eyewitnesses, and the political and ecclesial shock to Portugal that followed this event, everything we know is compatible with a public miracle of the most extraordinary kind and credibility.

From the perspective of 2017, the timing also seems propitious. The apparitions took place four centuries after the start of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, and two centuries after the founding of the first Grand Lodge of the Freemasons in London in 1717, milestones in the shift from Catholicism to religious indifferentism. On the very day of the miracle of the sun in 1917, the Petrograd Soviet took military control in Russia, paving the way for atheistic communism to begin its ruinous domination of much of the world, persecuting the Church and leading to the cruel deaths of tens of millions of people.

Hence it is not surprising that God should have granted us a spectacular miracle, with stern warnings, of the repentance and penance with which we need to respond to his gift of grace, for the salvation of our souls and of the world.

Fr Andrew Pinsent is research director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University and a priest of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton

This article first appeared in the May 12 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here