The lowering of standards

So John 23 is on a fast track to sainthood, and to speed things up, Frank is waiving the second miracle requirement. The what? I don’t know, I don’t make the rules; apparently that’s the requirement – not one miracle but two. Only now they’re saying maybe it isn’t, or maybe it shouldn’t be. Deep stuff.

With that rare, if not unprecedented, move, Francis has rekindled a years-old debate in Catholic circles, with some asking whether miracles are really needed for sainthood anymore.

“I think it is time to drop the miracle requirement,” says the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who is a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.

“It is sufficient to look at a person’s life and ask, did this person live the life of a Christian in a special or extraordinary way that can be held up for admiration and imitation by other Christians?”

So what are we talking about here? What, exactly, is a “saint”? Does it mean an especially good person, or an especially holy person? The two are hardly identical, after all, and in fact they can easily be antithetical. Look at “Mother” Teresa for example, refusing to provide pain medications to the unfortunate people in her hospices, and rejoicing in their suffering because it made them more like Jesus. That’s very “holy” and very bad.

According to the church, miracles are performed by God, not the saints. The saints’ role is to bend God’s ear, to intercede on behalf of those who pray to them and make sure that God heeds their requests.

The rationale for the miracle requirement is that it proves “that the person is in heaven and listened to by God,” Reese said.

Do you listen to yourselves? Do you realize how infantile that sounds?

Professor Daniele Menozzi, a church historian at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, said the importance of miracles grew during the 19th century as the church was engaged in its struggle against the modern world.

“Miracles — events that science wasn’t able to explain — were the church’s answer to the scientific mindset,” he said.

Events that science wasn’t able to explain and that didn’t happen. They’re not events, they’re stories. The Vatican’s mumbo-jumbo doesn’t turn them into events; they’re still just stories.

At the Vatican, potential miracles are vetted by a team of specialist doctors, who are called to determine whether a miraculous healing can be explained by modern medicine.

“But medicine becomes more complex and advanced by the day, so it’s possible to make mistakes,” cautions the Rev. Peter Gumpel, a Jesuit expert who has worked on saints’ causes for more than 60 years.

Today, unexplained healings make up about 95 percent of church-certified miracles. But it has happened in the past that what was considered a miracle has been later explained by science.

Like that.

For Gumpel, by looking only at physical miracles “the church ventures in a field that is not its own.”

He says that the church could look for God’s intervention “in the many spheres of human experience” beyond medicine.

“When a couple gets reconciled, or economic help arrives against all human expectations — if there are hundreds of such cases, all after praying to the same person, then God wants to tell us something,” Gumpel argues.

No. Those are not “miracles.” They defy no laws of nature. Even Jesuits don’t get to make up the rules.


  1. says

    There’s a funhouse mirror quality to these things…

    I mean, I started by asking myself: should I not be for this, in general? Sure, the guy they’re trying to find an excuse to honour is actually kinda appalling, when you think about it, but if they’d like to cut it out with the miracle stuff in general, you could hope this at least might be part of a slow maturing of the whole sect… Give ’em a few centuries, sure, they’ll probably still conduct business not unlike the Cosa Nostra, but at least we’ll hear less of weeping statues; they could be kinda like the mob, with a slightly more mediaeval sartorial sense. I mean, me, I really don’t so much require the religious to admit out loud they’re giving up on belief in the supernatural; you wanna just give it up quietly, hey, babe, I can be nice about this; we’ll just never speak of it again; such was your embarrassing youth, but let’s just all move on, now, shall we?

    And then I remembered this is about making a guy a saint… Sooo… They’re easing up on the whole ‘miracle’ thing… But you could still pray to him, I guess, in theory…

    It poses such fascinating theological questions. What does one ask such allegedly higher powers? ‘Dear St. X… I realize none of you can actually do anything, anyway… Presumably, you just hang out, having meetings or something… So… Umm… I was gonna ask you to help my team win, but, well, I guess, just have fun up there guy…’

    (/And then I got back to Neil’s laughing at the absurdity of it. Which was probably the best move to begin with, anyway.)

  2. sailor1031 says

    Miracles must be less frequent occurrences than they used to be. Hard enuff for a saint to get one out of that niggardly doG anymore. Still I’ll keep laughing at the whole idea until the media report someone throwing away an artificial leg at Lourdes because they don’t need it any more….

    they’ll probably still conduct business not unlike with the Cosa Nostra

    There – fixed it for ya….

  3. timberwoof says

    This is not surprising. Some years ago the Vatican abolished the office of Devil’s Advocate, the person who was supposed to question the validity of claims of miracles. The idea was that the “evidence” of miracles should at least pretend to pass some sort of review. Now they’re not even pretending any more that saints have to perform miracles.

  4. says

    Sailor, it’s true; they really don’t seem to make miracles like they used to…

    Gets you to thinking, if there’s some sorta central switchboard for intercession (dial 1-800-INTRCDE; we’ll hook you up), it’s probably a real drag when you get one of the more recently minted saints and you’re really in trouble. It’s like: ‘Saint J.P.? They got me you? Seriously? Listen, guy, no offense, but can you patch me through to someone a little more old school? We’re being pinned down by an artillery barrage, here; I was more hoping to talk to someone with expertise bringing down fire from heaven on enemy armies or something more in that vein; some 20th century underachiever, who can mostly just make internal ailments with known rates of spontaneous remission feel vaguely and temporarily better, that’s just not gonna cut it, dude…’

  5. Lysander says

    Apparently, ‘saint’ in Catholic Theology just means “dead person who’s in heaven now.” In principle, you can pray to any dead Catholic to talk to the big guy on your behalf, it’s just that the official saints are the ones the church is pretty confident he’ll actually pay attention.

  6. says

    I like the definition of “saint” used in the Anglican Communion, as a person whose life is worthy of emulation. You don’t need to be an Anglican to be a saint: in the American church, Martin Luther King Junior is honored on April 4 (following the tradition of commemorating saints on the day they “entered Heaven”), John Muir on April 22 (Earth Day) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Ross Tubman share July 20 (the anniversary of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York.)

    But then, few Anglicans worship — excuse me, “venerate” — saints the way Catholics do.

  7. Morgan says

    For Gumpel, by looking only at physical miracles “the church ventures in a field that is not its own.”

    Which, from what he goes on to say, seems to mean that it’s harder to bullshit their way through claiming that something was miraculous than they might like.

    Personally I have to wonder* why, if they want clear miracles to base their decisions off, they don’t just set the standard at “severed limb regrows”. We’re still some way off doing that medically, after all. I’d certainly find such an event not necessarily convincing, but at least noteworthy.

    (* This is a lie. I don’t actually wonder at all. Shhh.)

  8. iiii says

    Some “miracles” were real, if unusual, events that science has since found an explanation for. There’s a few saints whose first miracle was their body being preserved incorruptible. Which is to say, their corpse did not rot down to bones, but saponified, a process now well understood by science. In some cases, the corpse in question had belonged to a person who was not especially known for goodness or piety, and the faithful had to retcon up reasons why the remains of this perfectly ordinary sinner were miraculously preserved.

  9. says

    I think it is time to drop the miracle requirement,” says the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who is a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.

    I knew it, I knew it. I knew it that the Jesuits would be somewhere in the background once a Jesuit was made pope. I said it immediately after he was elected. You can be sure that God’s Soldiers” or “God’s Marines” are the ones ruling the Vatican.

  10. ajb47 says

    These are the rules for how the world works and how things get done.

    Except for when we decide to change the rules about how the world works and how things get done.

    Seriously — how does anyone keep following these schmoes?

  11. Subtract Hominem says

    Here’s what gets me:

    According to the church, miracles are performed by God, not the saints. The saints’ role is to bend God’s ear, to intercede on behalf of those who pray to them and make sure that God heeds their requests.

    Now, let’s suppose that a Catholic prays directly to God and the prayer is answered as desired. How do we know it’s “God” answering their prayer? Suppose there’s another being – let’s just call it, for the sake of this comment, “Satan” – to whom God acts in the same manner Catholics believe saints do towards God. That is, prayers to God are only answered because God bends Satan’s ear on the good Catholic’s behalf.

    • How is this different than praying to a saint?
    • Would praying to a saint to intercede with God to intercede with Satan result in a higher probability of noise entering into the original prayer?
    • Why not pray to Satan directly?
    • What if there’s yet another layer above Satan before any prayers are answered?

  12. says

    Wait, so an omniscient, omnipotent God still needs to be convinced to do something by his favorite bros before he’ll do something for someone asking him for help?

    What a dick.

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