Friday, March 07, 2008

Father Guido Sarducci, Call Your Office

Fr. James Martin wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times last Sunday about the recent document on the process of beatification from the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints. One feature of the piece that caught my attention was Fr. Martin's discussion of the miraculous. The guy's a Jesuit and so I assume he knows what he's talking about, but in his OpEd piece he writes as though the only miracles that "count" towards beatification are "medical miracles":
One medically certifiable miracle is required for beatification (when the person is declared “blessed”), and one more for canonization. Only then will the pope declare a person a saint and worthy of “public veneration.”
This may be nothing more than sloppy writing, but as it stands this description makes "medical" a necessary condition on the required sense of the miraculous here. So if I ask God to grant, through the intercession of John Paul II, that the Jews and Palestinians sign a peace treaty tomorrow at 5:00 p.m. and immediately begin living in one accord, with members of Hamas happily working to build schools and hospitals alongside Israelis, and then hugging each other in brotherhood, and then that happens--well, an interesting coincidence, maybe, but not a miracle.

It's too bad that "medically certifiable" is now a category being put to this sort of use, since this particular usage betrays a rather unfortunate ignorance about the nature of scientific "verification", and any medical doctor who cooperates in the process is simply demonstrating that s/he, too, doesn't really understand science all that well from a theoretical point of view--an even more unfortunate aspect of the whole thing.

What is all of this "rigor" in the declaration sanctity supposed to accomplish? According to Fr. Martin,
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.
The man's faith is impressive: if any self-respecting agnostic or atheist were to be deterred even a little bit from disbelief by the process the Church has in place, that really would be a miracle. It's perhaps less miraculous, but just as unfortunate, that believing Christians are as impressed as they are by such things. Whenever I hear people going on about Padre Pio's "stigmata" or appearances of Our Lady at Medjugorje or this or that "miraculous cure" or what have you, I'm always reminded of Our Lord's words to the scribes and Pharisees when they asked him for a sign (Matthew 12.38-39):
[38] Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you."
[39] But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
This is not to say that I don't believe that miracles ever happen, only that I think that a good deal of the public's interest in miracles is less than salutary. I haven't conducted any studies, of course, but I suspect that a fairly significant amount of the interest in miracles is motivated less by a firm belief in God's power to forgive sin than by magical thinking about the way the world works (or ought to work).

This suspicion is only strengthened by this insistence (if it is indeed correct) that the "miracles" be medical in nature. Our Lord performed plenty of curative miracles, it is true, but he also performed other miracles. He fed the hungry, for example, when there was scarcely enough food for his own disciples; he raised a little girl from the dead; he prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple; he calmed a storm with a word of command. To these I would add other events that some might say are not truly "miraculous" in the proper sense of the word: he reconciled sinners to God and to each other; he comforted the poor and oppressed; he gave hope to those who had none; he saved mankind from eternal death. I would add these things because, in my view, all of the miraculous cures he effected were nothing more than outward signs of that last one--saving mankind from eternal death. Sickness, disease, indeed, death itself, are all signs of our fallen nature, and to remove sickness simply by saying "Be healed" is nothing other than to say to a sinner, "Your sins are forgiven." Only God has the power to forgive sins because God is the ultimate end of man, the one to whom we owe all debts and, hence, the only one who can forgive all of our debts.

If a "medical miracle" were to occur these days it would still stand as a sign in the same relation to God's power to forgive sins, of course, and so naturally it would be premature to declare outright that such things came to an end with the passing of the Apostolic generation, as some Christians insist. It seems to go without saying that, just as it is difficult to know for certain that a miracle has occurred, it is equally difficult, if not downright impossible, to know for sure that a miracle has not occurred. Sadly, that is actually a mark against the miraculous, rather than a mark in its favor, but few of the faithful see things that way. I myself believe that plenty of miracles occur every day: on every Roman Catholic altar, when the words of Institution are prayed, a miracle occurs; in every confessional, when the words of Absolution are prayed, a miracle occurs; at every Baptism, when the Baptismal formula is prayed, a miracle occurs. But those who look for signs are not impressed by these--I suppose because you can't really "see" anything happening when one's sins miraculously disappear, or when a piece of bread becomes the Sacramental Sign of Christ's own Body. This ought to be troublesome, though, because to think only of the "medical miracle" as the paradigm case of the miraculous is to betray a kind of closet empiricism: I can only know what I can empirically verify. St. Thomas, famously, was lectured on this very point (John 20.24-29):
[24] Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.
[25] So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe."
[26] Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, "Peace be with you."
[27] Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing."
[28] Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"
[29] Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."
Now, the Evangelist goes on to say:
[30] Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
[31] but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.
so it's fair for folks to object to me by saying that our faith makes hearty use of "signs". I don't deny it, indeed, I think everything I have said is fully consistent with this fact. It's only a matter of how one "reads" the "signs", as it were, and where one expects to find "signs". If a cancer disappears and no doctor can come up with a scientific explanation of that fact, my tendency is to put that down to the rather obvious fact that there are plenty of things that science has, as yet, failed to explain, and of course it doesn't follow at all that because our contemporary science is unable to explain some observable phenomenon, a miracle has occurred. If that were true, then events that we now regard as ordinary (such as an image emerging in a Polaroid photograph) would have been justifiably regarded as miraculous at some time during scientific history. It seems infinitely preferable to me to look for the miraculous in entirely different contexts.

For these reasons I hope that Fr. Martin is mistaken in his characterization of what is required for beatification. Whether it would count as a miracle for a Jesuit to make such a sloppy mistake is not something on which I am prepared to pronounce, but it would definitely be a miracle for the Times to get something about Catholicism right, so you do the math.


Paul Halsall said...


I think the NY Times is more or less right on the facts here. "Moral" miracles simply do not count in the canonisation process. There are good reasons for this, given the nonsense that went on in the past, but I share your sensibility on the topic.

Perhaps the bigger issue is that of real community celebration. Historically the vast majority of canonised saints were Italian. In recent centuries an enormous number of these have been founders of religious orders (etc.) Partly this was was the Vatican is in Italy, and partly it was because only religious orders could marshal the resources needed. [The process of Elizabeth Ann Seton has been estimated to have cost over $1 million.]

John Paul II deliberately tried to create rosters of saints for other than European Catholic cultures (my academic research focused on the notion that each culture has a limited roster of saints); he also seems to have fulfilled the demands of religious orders.

Benedict clearly wants to draw back, and that is the big story.

Anonymous said...

There is an equivocation on the term "miracle" going on here. On the one hand, a miracle is any event happens because an agency outside of and higher than the agencies accounted for by nature (and this includes man) took a hand and operated apart from natural operations. Thus any events which happen because supernatural grace is granted (i.e. forgiveness of sins) or which are themselves supra-natural (i.e. the transubstantiation). But also a cure which happens because God corrects and internal defect without using natural operations, though invisibly or unnoticed in any concrete way.

On the other hand are events which are seen and understood to bring an effect, which effect is strictly impossible by the laws and agents of nature operating unaided. In this second sense a supernatural cure which is not visibly impossible according to the laws of nature is not a miracle. SO also, a human act which is highly improbable but is strictly speaking possible without supernatural aid is not a miracle in this second sense. And, a supernatural act which is not SEEN in human terms to be supernatural is not a miracle in this second sense: transubstantiation is not seen to be a change of substance, so does not qualify.

There is no reason why miracles in the second sense must be cures. The motion of the sun at Fatima, with the resulting drying up of the crowd's clothes and the mud, is certainly a non-cure miracle.

James Martin, SJ said...

Thanks for your comments.

Certainly there are a wide variety of miracles that happened in the New Testament--healing miracles (the curing of the paralytic, of lepers, etc.) as well as what are called "nature miracles" (the stilling of the storm at sea, etc). And of course there are the more common, yet still wondrous, events that many people will term a "miracle" today, like the birth of an infant.

The reason I spoke of "medical miracles" in my op-ed is not because they are the only type of miracles that can occur, but that these are the dramatic kinds that are most often associated with the canonization procedure. In such cases a person who is seriously ill prays for a saint's intercession (that is, asking for the saint to pray for you, much in the same way you would ask a friend to pray for you), and is then inexplicably healed. And while the birth of an infant is indeed wondrous, it is not so wondrous as to make most people think that it is so out of the ordinary as to be noteworthy, as many consider these other healing miracles to be. In any event, these are the ones that the Vatican generally considers during the canonization process (and considers quite carefully, as I tried to point out) and the ones that I considered in my op-ed.

The larger point of the piece was not simply to explain how assiduously the Vatican tries to rule out any other causes for the "miracle," but also that the contemporary believer, at some point, needs to grapple with the otherworldly and supernatural dimension of religion, even in a rational, post-Enlightenment world.

James Martin, SJ

Scott Carson said...

Fr. Martin

Thanks for your clarification. I'm still a little worried, though, because the "standards", as it were, for what you're describing as "the miraculous" strike me as particularly hard to pin down. You mention that your principal point was that medical miracles are "the most dramatic", but of course my principal point is that there is no reason to think that any of the cures that are typically called "miraculous" really are miraculous.

Or perhaps it would be better to put that a different way since, as you point out, plenty of folks refer to even the perfectly natural, such as birth, as "miraculous". It seems to me that most people, when they say that birth is "miraculous", mean the term "miraculous" to be metaphorical, since it certainly makes no sense to assert that something as natural as childbirth is literally miraculous. If the term "miracle" is to have any meaning in the context of canonization, it must have something a little more along the lines of a literal meaning rather than a merely metaphorical meaning, otherwise any and every event could fairly be described as miraculous from some point of view and, hence, the number of canonizations would soar rather than be more limited.

So, in the case of the "medical miracle", what one assumed is meant is not something metaphorical but literal, and yet it is precisely the literal meaning of miracle that has no foundation in the context of medicine, for the reasons I gave. Granted, there are those who assert that, because science "cannot explain" certain cures, they must be miraculous, but to assert something like that is to reduce the meaning of the word "miracle" to nothing more than "lacking any scientific explanation". But obviously the miraculous does not mean that. It's not because there is no explanation that we say that Our Lord's acts were miraculous. In fact, the acts are explained by the very fact that they are accomplished by God himself.

In a scientific context it is simply false to assert that, because today's scientific theories and procedures are unable to explain some observable phenomenon there can be no scientific explanation even in principle. It's at least possible that every "miraculous" cure on the books in the Vatican could be explained by science someday in the future, and that is the problem with such miracles.

Science, however, will never be able to explain, even in principle, how the essence of bread is replaced by the essence of Our Lord in a piece of baked dough. It is because I agree with your larger point--"that the contemporary believer, at some point, needs to grapple with the otherworldly and supernatural dimension of religion, even in a rational, post-Enlightenment world"--that I think the emphasis on the empirically-grounded miracle is the wrong way to go. Surely it is not correct to get people to "grapple with the otherwordly" by asking them to focus more closely on the problems of empiricism?

James Martin, SJ said...

You're right in saying that you can't empirically "prove" a miracle, but the medical doctors can certainly rule out other causes for the healing, and can determine if a person is physically healthy. The Vatican then declares if it considers the healing a miracle.

For me, the question is this: If you have a person who has been seriously ill for many years, and then prays for the intercession of a saint, and is healed; and her healing is immediate, verifiable (based on records which shows that she was ill and now is not), not the result of any other treatment, and permanent, then what else would we call it?

For me, that qualifies as a miracle.

Scott Carson said...

Fr. Martin

First, I want to thank you for discussing this at such length here--I feel rather fortunate to have the opportunity to engage in a dialog like this.

Now, don't get me wrong--I myself am perfectly open to calling the case you describe a miracle. I suspect, though, that the reason is that I am a religious person. Perhaps you will not agree, but I think that the religious person in general, and the Catholic in particular, is someone who sees the world in a certain way. I think here particularly of the ways in which the Jews understood their own relationship with God through history as described in the Old Testament, or Augustine's claim that we must always read the Scriptures in an allegorical way.

So when a cure comes about in the manner in which you describe, it is natural for us, as "incarnationalists", people who see the created order as shot through with God's presence, to interpret the cure as the hand of God at work. And, of course, it may very well be. The difficulty in "proclaiming" it as such, in my view, is really only that such proclamations have meaning only for the faithful, that is, for those who "read" the world the way we do. For the scientist, especially the anti-realist one, no such interpretation is possible, and that is why the declarations of doctors in this process have to be taken as rather unfortunate, because they are being asked to do something that is a conceptual contradiction: make statements of an empirical nature that are then to be used as "evidence" in a process that is inherently non-empirical. Sure, any good scientist, whether believer or non-believer, can say, in good conscience, "I have no explanation for this, and neither does anybody else", but when that statement is used to support claims of the miraculous, it is a misuse of the finding, and the doctor is just being used.

One way to look at it is in terms of probabilities. Suppose we have a cure of the sort you describe in every sense except no medical experts have pronounced upon it yet, and we ask the question, what is the likelihood that this was a miracle? Let's assign some number, p, to represent that likelihood. Does p increase or decrease if a medical expert declares that there is no scientific explanation of the cure? Clearly p will decrease if an explanation is found, but just as clearly it does not increase while no explanations are found. In a case like this p represents the willingness of a rational person to commit to a certain belief, but in such cases reason is not at issue, faith is, a way of seeing the world. If p increases at all it is due to a tendency to see things in a certain way, not due to the declaration of some expert in some empirical science.

As you yourself have said, "For me, that qualifies as a miracle." The relativizing qualifier at the start of that sentence is rather important, I think.

Well, obviously it should come as no surprise to me that Vatican instructions about the canonization process are aimed at the faithful and not so much at non-believers, but there was some talk about making believers less liable to ridicule from non-believers, as well as making things easier for the believer to accept. I just find it both ironic and unfortunate that empirical worries are what motivate both of those objectives.

James Martin, SJ said...

Well, I'm not sure if "p" could ever be brought down to zero. How could it be? Or if we could do so, how else would we do this, other than what the church already does now, which is to ask scientists and medical experts their opinions on other possible causes for the healing?

That is, I see nothing wrong with medical experts saying, "Well, this isn't unusual at all, since clearly it's attributable to something else, like, say, chemotherapy." How will we know what that "something else" is, unless we avail ourselves of the most up-to-date means? Besides, if you leave out the science and the medicine, then where are you in this investigative process? As Peter Gumpel, a Jesuit who works in Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, says in "My Cousin the Saint," a new book just out, "Do you have a better way of doing it?"

Also, I don't think that those healed say simply, "I have no explanation for this, and neither does anyone else." They go further than that, and so does the church. The one healed, and the church says, "In the absence of any other possibility, we do have an explanation: we believe it is a miracle." I've met one person who was authenticated as a miraculous cure, and she and her friends prayed, and was instantaneously and permanently cured of her lifelong illness. In her case, how much "evidence" would we need? Doctors affadavits before and after showing her physical state? Medical testimony from a battery experts? The presence of a completely healed person? As in other cases, we have all these things.

It seems that if one is going to admit the possibility of miracles, one has to admit the possibility that "p" is already sufficiently, or at least assymptotically, low for one to believe. Otherwise, we may be missing the forest for the trees, or God for the "p's"

Justin said...

This is a fascinating debate, and I appreciate Fr Martin mentioning my book, My Cousin the Saint, due out May 20 by William Morrow. When it comes to medical miracles, it gets even trickier. When I met with Fr Gumpel, he shared some stats from his 45 years in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. In 999 cases out of 1,000, he told me, the miracles in question are medical. 90 percent of all mircles that come to the congregation are rejected. Of the 10 percent remaining, half fail to pass the scrutiny of science and theology that the congregation applies. Moreover, not all healings need apply: cancers such as renal, breast, skin and lymphoma have high rates of untreated remission, thus don't qualify.

This is some of the rigor about which Fr. Martin writes. The church wants this process to be as scrupulous as possible; the pope's infallibility is at stake (canonizations are an infallible decree). To the outsider, the skeptic, the atheist, this must all sound ridiculous, but perhaps no more so than faith in general to the non-believer.

While researching my book, I had the good fortune of interviewing an Italian doctor who had given up on a patient with bacterial meningitis, only to see her rise from a coma after nine days of prayer to Padre Gaetano Catanoso, my cousin. Her recovery was so complete that it soon appeared she had never been infected. Her cure passed Vatican scrutiny and was deemed a miracle.

Her doctor, a respected virologist and a faithful Catholic, accepted this. He told me that when it comes to medicine and certain patients "There is a line that is incredible and unexplainable and when you cross it, there is nothing else left but faith."

Scott Carson said...

Justin and Fr. Martin

You have raised some extremely interesting issues, and I think I would like to take the discussion "up top", as it were, in a new blog entry. I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to have this discussion here, and I hope it will continue, but I do understand that engaging in a dialog on a blog may not be at the top of everyone's to-do list, so I certainly won't be offended if the discussion trails off. I hope it won't, but it will probably be a miracle if it doesn't. (That's not a dare, I'm just kidding around!)