Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Getting tough on miracles

There is an intriguing op-ed piece in last Monday's New York Times. It is written by a Jesuit priest, James Martin, and he supports a recent directive by the Vatican asking for greater rigor in its saint-making process.
The Vatican’s new document says that some procedures had become “problematic.” As a result, local bishops are now instructed to exercise “greater sobriety and rigor” in determining which saints-to-be they send for approval to Rome. Candidates should not be promoted by small interest groups; rather, their reputation for holiness must be “spontaneous and not artificially procured.” Officials vetting the cases must be impartial, and not omit negative aspects of a person’s life. And the examination of the miracles required for canonization must make use of “all clinical and technical means.”
But...hmm...are we still talking about "miracles" in this age? Interestingly, miracles are now mostly confined to medical effects - one required for "beatification (when the person is declared “blessed”), and one more for canonization". Hurry-up - before biological sciences catches on this front also.

What are the standards for verifying miracles?
Even the standard for verifying miracles, arguably the aspect of the process that causes the most eye-rolling among agnostics and atheists, is famously strict. The Congregation draws on teams of doctors (not all of them Catholic) who assiduously rule out any other cause for a healing. Typically, the person cured will have prayed for the saint’s intercession. Any miracle must be instantaneous, permanent and medically verifiable. Those “cured” cannot simply have improved, cannot relapse and cannot have sought medical care (or at least must have given it up well before the miracle). Consequently, the verification process can take decades, as doctors monitor the stricken person’s progress.
So it will probably be limited to people who don't have health care - otherwise there would be some medical care in that direction.
Vatican standards for miracles are high not simply because the church is seeking irrefutable evidence of divine intervention, but because the church has much to lose if a miracle is later debunked.
Sounds good - but wrong century. Yes, this search for miracles played an important role in the development of science in the 17th/18th century. In order to find the place of divine intervention, one needed to find the regular course of nature. The harder the requirements for establishing a miracle, the better it was for natural science. But that was a few hundred years back. I think the Church is out of step in insisting on modern science to verify miracles - an unexplained event (be it in physics or biology) is simply an unexplained event. Perhaps, the Church can team up with James Randi. He has a million dollar challenge for anyone who can provide strong evidence for paranormal activity - and I think a divine intervention would qualify as a paranormal event. This would bring the standards up for miracle testings, and at the same time it will net the church a cool million.

The end of the article, I guess, sums it up:
The redoubled commitment to an impartial judging of a saint’s life demonstrates that the church does not “create” saints as much as it simply recognizes them. Likewise, its renewed reminders that, for the church, miracles are serious scientific business, may make it more difficult for agnostics and atheists to disbelieve.

And easier for believers to believe.

Hmm...perhaps only the latter. Read the full article here.