In our dreary world full of incredible people making claims to leadership, finding the occasional hero or heroine can’t be a bad thing. So why begrudge the Catholic Church its idiosyncratic ways of creating people for believers to admire – the saints?
Mother Teresa of Calcutta – that’s what it was called when she lived there but let’s call it Kolkata to bring the city’s name up to the present – was canonized by the Pope last weekend. The media around the world found their way to the woman “cured” of her tumor, a cure that was the first of the two miracles attributed to her intercession.
Well some do take exception to the miraculous and with good reason. The saint making process entails something offensive to post-Enlightenment ears: miracles. The mere mention of the word evokes goose bumps born of a hostility to clerical claptrap, to anti-scientific superstition or to Protestant fear of a manipulation of the Divine.
For starters, let’s clear out some shibboleths.
First, sometimes (as with the recent canonization of the beloved Pope John XXIII who convened Vatican II), the miracle requirement is simply dispensed with. It’s not an absolute requirement for canonization. Heroic virtue and faith are. The requirement of miracles is a late development in the process.
When Christianity was confined to the hub of Europe and Orthodoxy to the Middle East, most saints were local products – acclaimed by the locals of a diocese and declared to be saints by the local bishop.
As Christianity spread, the challenge of quality control took over and so, for Western Christians, the declaration of saintliness had to come with papal approval. And that required compliance with a stringent process of investigation of the candidate’s life, writings and deeds.
As Catholicism spread beyond its confines, the challenges intensified because local agitators, for whatever reason, advocated less than worthy candidates. So, the process became bureaucratized and we have the current procedures.
Now to the nub of the affront to modern sensibility. The miracle chase smacks of animism, superstition and trickery to a 21st Century mind. The scientific revolution provides a process for the examination, experimentation and treatment of data that leads to a rational and demonstrable conclusion.
When examining a miraculous event, what do the Church’s investigators ask?
The simple requirement is that there is no known rational, scientific or medical explanation for the transformation in the patient’s condition. It’s a negative requirement, not a positive assertion.
And there are enough smart Catholics around – even in the Vatican where this is a ready concession – to acknowledge that today’s miracle might well be tomorrow’s scientifically explainable commonplace.
I learnt this fact about the approach to miracles because I knew the GP who attended the woman whose cure was the first “miracle” attributed to Australia’s first Saint, Mary MacKillop. He was also our family’s GP.
His patient was still alive when Mary was canonized some 45 years after the cure. Dr. Jim L’Estrange had referred her to all the best specialists in Sydney and the conclusion had been reached that the patient’s cancer was inoperable and incurable.
Good night nurse.
Then when the long investigation of the “cause” (as it’s called) for Mary MacKillop was underway, the doctors were all interviewed. All they could say to the main investigator, Fr. Paul Gardiner, was “she was ill and dying, we couldn’t do any more and she recovered when the tumors disappeared”.
This is no rowdy declaration of the miraculous. It’s a modest account of something the best of medical science at the time could not explain. It has never been a “God of the gaps” claim. Simply a humble admission that something has happened that does not have a scientific explanation yet.
But there’s a deeper problem that this saint making and “miracle” recognition creates for us moderns. 19th Century scientific positivism creates the expectation that everything has a scientific explanation and only obscurantists will deny that.
Its mirror image is the claim to infallibility made by Pope Pius IX in 1870. That was a joust that amounted to saying “You think your scientific method is infallible. Well I’ve got an infallibility that has divine warrant!” It was a clash of absolutists trying to out do eachother.
And both sides missed what lovers, poets and sufferers know a lot about: mystery.