In the late Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, the world now has two new saints, courtesy the current Pope Francis who canonised them last Sunday. By itself, this should not be an issue for rationalists. It is the Vatican’s prerogative to place who it wants in heaven standing next to God, even if the measure of sainthood keeps changing.
As an article in The Independent by Paul Valley points out, ‘For the first 1,000 years of Christianity, saints were simply declared by popular acclamation among believers—the original vox populi. Believers voted with their feet by visiting the tombs of dead individuals they regarded as particularly holy.’ Then, the Church took over and controlled the process. New saint John Paul II himself canonised 483 saints when he was Pope, a record of sorts.
There would be nothing to quibble about if the definition of a saint were limited to the life he or she led, which is an important component of canonisation. In his speech announcing the canonisations on Sunday, Pope Francis so eloquently put it: “Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II were not afraid to look upon the wounds of Jesus, to touch his torn hands and his pierced side. They were not ashamed of the flesh of Christ, they were not scandalised by him, by his cross; they did not despise the flesh of their brother, because they saw Jesus in every person who suffers and struggles. These were two men of courage, filled with the parrhesia of the Holy Spirit, and they bore witness before the Church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy.”
But faith, empathy and virtue are not the only measures for a saint. They are necessary but not sufficient conditions. The problem for the rationalist is that sainthood requires the saint to intercede with heaven on behalf of someone on earth. The broad general rule is that two miracles are required, though there are loopholes and discretions to circumvent it.
In Pope John XXIII’s case, only one miracle was enough to canonise him. In Pope John Paul II’s case there were indeed two stated miracles. The second was performed on Floribeth Mora, a Costa Rican who had had a brain aneurysm and was told by doctors that there was no hope left. One morning she looked at a photo of John Paul II in a newspaper, prayed to him and, according to her, was cured.
The problem with this account is that even if it were true that her ailment vanished, there is no reason to attribute it to the prayer. As the saying goes—correlation is not causation. There are an endless number of unexpected recoveries of terminal cases and often it is attributed to a variety of agencies, from alternative medicines to gods to spiritual gurus. But the body itself can work in mysterious ways and it is a miracle only until the lens of science digs out the reason with patient toil.
The only way to believe in such powers is if everyone with a terminal illness who prayed to Pope John Paul II were cured. And not just that, to test this under controlled conditions. Say, take 20 terminally ill patients, stop their medications, give them photographs of two different Popes, ask them to pray and take their readings daily until an effect is observed. But not even the Vatican will believe that such a test would be successful. A miracle can only exist in ones or twos because it is impossible to verify using the rigour of science.