Sanctifying dead Popes with miracles is a basic error


In our island John XXIII stands for Vatican 2, a dramatic moment of liberalisation that was never wholly fulfilled.  John Paul II  is an altogether more ambiguous figure who softened through his charisma the image of authoritarian Catholicism while it beat a retreat he was unable to stem. You can easily see how they jointly appeal to Pope Francis as he makes a new appeal to the fundamentals of his faith to redress the sense of horror and disillusionment over the abuse scandals.

Although it packed them into St Peter’s Square and all the way down the Via della Conciliazione, the creation of Saints John 23 and JP2 is easy to mock and scorn. These particular rituals distance the non-Catholic from the Catholic as no other. Part of this is physical recoil. I couldn’t help feeling queasy at the exposure of the remains of St Theresa of Lisieux, a poor lass who died of TB at 24, in her garish modern basilica.  Beyond that, the  mind rejects claim of miracle which the candidate has to perform in order to qualify for the exalted rank and wonders how people condition themselves to accept it at some level .

Vatican politics can be seen in the canonisation of the homely looking Pope (who was actually a diplomat ) along with the charismatic conservative who as Rowan Williams put it, “ showed us how to die.”

I almost feel sorry for the man in the middle who has to wait his turn  in the queue , the dry stick Paul VI, described by his predecessor as “amletico” (Hamlet-like) because he couldn’t decide whether to be conservative or progressive. It’s got to the stage where sainthood almost goes with the job and surely that cant’ be right.  that  Instinctively I’m with Simon Jenkins who although he is a celebrator of England ‘s  finest parish churches, is an atheist.

At such times I can sympathise with intelligent Catholics. Loyal to their tribe, they wrestle with virgin birth, papal infallibility, transubstantiation and much nonsense about sex. They explain away the rituals of the church as clothing God’s relationship with humans in familiar metaphors and ceremonies; some punitive, some heart-warming, like sainthood. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints – which oversees the canonisation process – should be seen as merely conducting a Vatican X Factor. I am less indulgent. There is a notorious potency to the narratives of religious faith, throughout history a means by which elites have ruled the lives of the gullible.

Jenkins’ argument won’t quite do for Ireland.  The sophisticated case for Catholic sainthood is made in the Irish Times by Dr Fáinche Ryan, a lecturer in systematic theology at the Loyola Institute, Trinity College Dublin, which specialises in teaching and research in theology in the Catholic tradition. He draws a parallel between canonisation and  paying respect to the body of the famous Redemptorist Fr Alec Reid. 

Alec was dead, his body lying in his coffin, embalmed. He was, as Catholic teaching would profess, enjoying being in the presence of God, in heaven, or at least “en route”. Yet people were flocking to pay their respects to this dead body, this relic. Most, I would suggest, who came that day, had never known Alec, nor any members of his family.

Yet people came to visit this relic, and pray, just as a few months beforehand they had come to pay their respects to the relics of St Anthony.

The veneration of relics is a strong and ancient Catholic tradition. The theology of this practice needs careful articulation, for if we stop with Alec, or Anthony or Thérèse, we have got it wrong.

Relics traditionally are body parts, or material objects that have been in contact with the saint or holy person, things they have used in their earthly life. The things are afforded sacred dignity less because of the sanctity of the person and more because they remind us of the power of God who has worked marvellous things through frail human beings.

Indeed far from regarding relics as belonging to a bygone era of superstitious belief one could say that the veneration of relics brings us to the heart of Catholic Christianity.

Christianity is unashamedly a material religion. The cornerstone of the faith is that the second person of the trinity took on human flesh, God became human, in this way making possible the divinisation of humanity. The dignity of the human person is unequivocally affirmed.

Just as Christ has died and risen so too shall we.

I can accept the corporeal character of the religion which professes belief in rising from the dead, however definitively impossible reconstitution of the body is .I have no objection to raising good people to a high level of status in the communion of saints. Sainthood is fine – no reason why it should stop in the fifteenth century. But canonisation is categorically different from veneration because it requires the miracle of an otherwise improbable cure. I can also accept the role miracle played in the ancient world in order to emphasise transcendent goodness. But today the insertion of curative  miracle beyond the psychosomatic devalues the whole exercise as delusion or lies.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London