Seeking evidence for saints unseen

J-h-newman Last week my son and I saw the Galileo/Medici exhibit at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute Science Museum. The information about Galileo's trial didn't go below the surface or delineate the church's efforts to move beyond it, which was too bad.

As we've discussed here in previous posts, in the centuries that have followed, the Vatican has shown not only a fascination with science, but a willingness to use the tools of science to encourage faith.

Evolution and astronomy are two areas that seem to be of interest to the Vatican, but a topic probably even more captivating to readers is the science used to evaluate whether healings and other occurences are miracles aided by the intercession of a saint candidate. In an article published this past weekend, Boston Globe religion writer Michael Paulson looks both at the process the church uses to investigate healings -- and the dramatic, deeper, and more difficult questions that mark the place where belief and science intersect.

I confess that I chuckled at the odd subtitle -- here in America, we'd all be happy with a miracle in the healthcare field right now.

After beginning by describing a local healing deemed by the Vatican to be Cardinal John Henry Newman's first miracle, Paulson comments that "the very idea of miracles may seem deeply at odds with modernity." But not only does the Catholic church require two miracles for full-fledged sainthood (canonization), but the recent pace of canonizations has sped up under the last two popes.

So over the last several decades, there has been a paradoxical confluence of two phenomena: at the same time that medical science has become increasingly adept at explaining how the human body heals, the Roman Catholic Church is in need of -- and finding -- an increasing number of inexplicable healings. The result is an unusual process, in which the Vatican has had to develop a medical expertise to help separate remarkable but understandable recoveries from those healings for which medicine has no explanation.

There's a question lurking here that I haven't seen anyone address (which doesn't mean that someone hasn't) -- why Pope John Paul II and Benedict are canonizing so many saints. Is this one of the side effects of our increased access to information? Is it rooted in the faith of these popes? Or it is a chicken/egg phenomena -- because the Vatican now can more easily find evidence for healings that can't be scientifically explained, it's easier to move the process along?

Paulson doesn't address this subject -- and he doesn't go too deeply into what it means to say, as Catholics do, that the saints "intercede" for "those who seek their help." But he does chart the move from saints being canonized for "fantastical" events (surely writers can find another word for these outsized happenings) to unexplained medical healings. Here's a terrific quote from the Rev. James Martin explaining the criteria for miracles.

"The church requires its miracles to be verifiable, and normally the ones that are easiest to verify (in the sense of "scientific" evidence) are healings from illness," said the Rev. James Martin, an associate editor of America magazine and the author of "My Life with the Saints." "They must be immediate, permanent (no relapsing), not attributable to any other treatments, clearly documented by medical evidence, and the result of intentional prayers for the saint's intercession."

In other words, the standards for verifiablity are very high.

The writer makes an effort to give us a story which goes beyond the usual "what you need to get canonized" summary which can get so deep into details that it can make the Vatican seem like another bureaucracy.

Since science and how science looks at supernatural phenomena is one of the themes, he talks to a scientist outside the faith. Patrick McNamara's point of view, while skeptical, seems vastly different from that of say, a Richard Dawkins. Would that the media took more time to see out those who question scientific orthodoxy rather than construct it. We might get some really interesting stories.

Paulson even brings in another challenge to the methodology around saint-making -- that of Catholics who ask whether saints need miracles to be canonized at all. Are miracles the only correct criteria?

There's a question a lot of others may be asking.

In a story that covered a lot of ground, Paulson manages to make the local connections, provide historical perspective, underline how much the scientific method is having an impact on an ancient faith -- and hint at the notion that faith may also be having an impact on science and the way scientists look at mystery. It's an excellent example of local reporting that explores much more general themes -- the tension between science and religion, the paradox of miracle and modernity, and the conundrums of quantifying the supernatural.

Picture of Cardinal John Henry Newman from Wikimedia Commons

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