I did not expect the volume of feedback that I've received in 24 hours concerning my homily yesterday about whether or not Jesus worked a miracle when feeding the 5,000. Most of the feedback has been very positive, but there have been some that have asked questions that I feel like deserve to be followed up on.
A couple of different people asked me variations on the same question - "God works miracles, but aren't they always in line with the natural order?" One person put this question to me but confessed "I was Jesuit trained, if that tells you anything" (we both chuckled), the other questioner was much more combative, wearing his "I stand with the sisters" pin, and who, after I answered his miracle question, went on a rant about the bishops needing to clean up their act.
Anyway, this is an important question - do all miracles exist in line with the natural order? In one sense, yes, in another sense no. All miracles certainly OCCUR in the natural world around us...if they didn't we wouldn't be able to OBSERVE them taking place. So in one sense, of course the miraculous HAS to occur in the natural order of things or we wouldn't see it or observe it.
BUT, when people speak of miracles occurring in the natural order, I think they don't mean it in the sense of "being able to observe it", they mean "isn't God BOUND by the natural order." For example, I mentioned in my homily the Old Testament passage where the Jordan River ceases flowing so that the Israelites can cross - some people would say God couldn't simply make that happen, he'd have to use wind blowing really hard, or he'd have to use the moon or an earthquake or something to get the river to stop flowing. It is THIS idea that is nonsense. St. Thomas Aquinas notes in his Summa that "God alone can change the order of nature; and this is what is meant by a miracle." (III, q.43, article 2). St. Thomas is noting that a miracle, by its VERY NATURE, is something that changes the natural order of things. A miracle is a CHANGING of the natural order, but God is not BOUND to change the natural order through the natural order.
A miracle COULD be worked through the use of natural objects, such as the moon and/or wind, but it is completely wrong to suggest that the supernatural enters our world through miracles ONLY in ways that would seem natural to our eyes.
St. Thomas notes in the First Part of the Summa, question 25, article 4 that there is only one thing God CAN'T do - he can't change things that have happened in the past. St. Thomas notes that only "one thing alone is God deprived--namely, to make undone the things that have been done."
If that is the only thing God can't do - he can't undo something that has already happened, then he can certainly stop the Jordan River in its tracks without a stiff breeze, and he can certainly have bread and fish multiply on the spot.