Science and canonisation

5 July 2013 by Lee Turnpenny, posted in Uncategorized

So, they still confer sainthoods? In the twenty-first century? I mean, I thought that was a thing of the past! Surely the Catholic Church has moved on enough to dispense with such nonsense, hasn't it?

Well, why do away with any opportunity for some PR obscurantism? Pope Francis may be hoping things are quietening down, as 'ostrich' Ratzinger keeps his head buried in the reverberation-dampening sand. And, with the gathering beguiled crying “Santo Subito”, a bit of populism can come in handy. Francis is fully aware of JP II's popularity, being himself a big fan. He previously plied his trade from the Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires, wherein is (or was, when I visited two years ago when he was still Archbishop there) installed, for touching genuflection, this rickety life-size effigy of the, err, rickety pontiff:

(I least I think it was supposed to be him. What was that about false idolatry?). Whether because he was the then immediate predecessor Pope (which would suggest supplantation by a model of the ostRatz – shudder at the thought), or to satisfy particular reverence for 'the Great' one, I'm not certain. Though I suspect the latter: this was by no means the only time I came across JP II's image during my travels in a(n otherwise) wonderfully personable country.

JP II certainly did himself no canonical harm in his own sterling efforts to bring the Church of Rome into the modern world. During his tenure his beatifications numbered well over a thousand, and he bequeathed the world nearly 500 extra saints – a figure not too far off (depending on source) the combined total canonisations during the preceding 500 years. If that's not regression I don't know what is. He also set the precedent for waiving the five years post mortem waiting period before the process can be instigated when, just two years after her death, he fast-tracked the canonisation of the illusory Mother Teresa. And his popularity, and his – get this – 'community martrydom', and his immediate labelling as 'John Paul the Great', meant his mate wasn't going to miss a trick: the ostRatz went one better and dispensed with the whole five years, and JP II's progression to saintly status was rendered a shoo-in.

Accreditation with two miracles is required, which for causes of beatification and canonisation tend to be of the medical variety, and must be adjudged by separate scientific and theological tribunals. These august bodies like cases which are deemed medically hopeless, as the lack of any scientific medical explanation for the sudden cure leaves a tidy gap. The scientific commission (whose 'conflict of interest' is presumably not an issue) must rule out the possibility of natural – ie known scientific – causation. And in so doing it leaves, by deduction, the only other possible 'explanation' – supernatural agency. The theological commission then just needs to satisfy itself that the 'miracle cure' was inexplicably and instantaneously brought, and, moreover, that the now accepted miracle is the would-be saint's own work. Because, if the one being prayed to is deemed to have roped in a few helpers, then his/her cause is scuppered. But how does the theological commission determine that the miracle is the work of solo supernatural entity? By asking the precipitating pious family and friends just who they were praying to. Which, of course, being good rational Catholics with no (JP II–elevating) agenda, they wouldn't spin, would they? That intercessory prayer works is apparently taken as a given. As is the occurrence of miracles. Presumably the scientific tribunal/commission has no scientific problem with either of these contra-scientific phenomena. And the statistics of just how many of the terminally ill have prayed to whatever (would-be) saint to no avail is not a troubling consideration.

Am I alone in sensing a difficult paradox here? Why would you pray to someone who has not yet been accredited with any miracle; who hasn't even been beatified? It would be taking a bit of a chance, wouldn't it? Would not a safer guarantor of success be direct appeal to an already fully qualified, bona fide saint*? Because it is sainthood that carries intercessory power and permits directed prayer, isn't it? No quibble, such is the faith in JP II; even though his 'community martyrdom' (such a nice spin on Parkinson's disease, that) was deemed insufficient to exempt him from the beatification requisite first miracle – he still needed two. But satiation was soon provided: the first, occurring just six months after his death, cured a French nun (– yes –) of her Parkinson's, following prayers direct to JP II. Again, was prayer to none other ever contemplated or attempted? Whatever, ostRatz was rapidly on the case; and JP II's second miracle – the healing of a severely ill Costa Rican woman – rapidly followed his beatification ceremony in 2011. The details of this wonderfully timed occurrence have yet to be made available, but will apparently "amaze the world". I'm holding my breath. Meanwhile, expect the error-protected canonical green light from Francis very soon.

I do not know how many people might have avoided contracting a lethal virus, were it not for JP II's stance on the only effective prevention strategy. I do not know the extent of his misogyny, and the full manifestation of his denial of women's reproductive rights over their own body. I do not know the extent of his role in the cover-up of the abuses of children, and of his shielding of the disgusting character that is (to mention just one) Marcial Maciel Degollado. I do not know how much more progress embryonic stem cell researchers could have made in utilitarian quest for cures for serious and important diseases (including, eg, Parkinson's). I do not accept his Cartesian dualist 'acceptance' of evolution as a 'theory' compatible with immaterial ensoulment, because it constitutes and fosters pseudoscience. I do not know (and am not convinced of) the extent of his influence on the collapse of communism, which, though we cannot rewind the clock, would in all probability have happened regardless. I cannot comment on all the politically opportune PR apologies, which ballooned in number along with the populist beatifications and canonisations. And I cannot for the life of me fathom why so many appeasing apologists continue to lap up the cult of 'Blessed – soon to be 'Saint' – John Paul the Great'.

But I do know, though I do not believe miracles, that two is not enough.

 

(*A contradiction in terms, I realise.)

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