The Lives of the Saints: making up miracles

“Sainthood” is decidedly medieval as a concept, and yet the Roman Catholic Church continues to canonize more saints than ever before. Beginning with unprecedented numbers of saints elevated during the reign of John Paul 2, and in part because of a sweeping rule change that allowed greater numbers than ever before, the church is claiming incredible numbers of new saints each year. In the case of the quickly canonized John Paul 2, there is some criticism of sainthood, and the very criteria for canonization, namely miracles, is already so bonkers that it raises the question: what does it mean to be a modern day saint?

The first steps to sainthood make enough sense: the person is a “servant of God,” a qualifier that is vague but intuitive. They further must have led a life of “heroic virtue.” This sets up the entire process to be one of subjective public opinion, since these adjectives don’t describe quantifiable metrics. That’s a good thing: sainthood is like pornography, you know it when you see it.

The last, and weirdest, qualification is two verified miracles. Sometimes it can be waived down to one, and if you died as a martyr for the faith you don’t need any miracles at all to qualify, but a central hurdle of the process is “verifying” miracles. These are normally performed during the saint’s lifetime but frequently verified much later: in the case of Laura Montoya, the first saint canonized by Pope Francis, the verification of her miracles was conducted over 50 years after her death. How could investigators possibly verify miraculous acts decades (or sometimes centuries) later? They conduct interviews, they do research, they ask around, check out physical evidence (if any exists), and then make a determination. Naturally, these determinations largely support the existence of “miracles,” especially once public opinion has moved the status of beautification far enough to warrant the verification process in the first place.

Rarely, the miracles are performed after the saint has died. This was the case with John Paul 2, who cured two people of illnesses after he he died by the intercession of their prayers. These miracles were verified and verifiably attributable, the panel said, to JP2, because the sick people prayed to him in their hour of need and so he became responsible. It was definitely him, they claimed, because the sick people prayed directly to JP2 and no one else.

Of course, there is suspicion surrounding the nature of these miracles. In the case of medical miracles, what appears miraculous in one decade becomes commonplace in the next. In the case of John Paul 2, the nun’s Parkinson’s seems to have relapsed several years after the saint’s canonization. Was it a miracle if it didn’t “stick?” Was it even Parkinson’s at all, or maybe some different undiagnosed condition? Or maybe the illness was inevitable, and the ghost of JP2 miraculously delayed it?

The process has the aura of scientific rigor: they make sure only one saint was addressed so there’s no confusion over who gets credit, they make sure medical miracle recoveries were from terminal prognoses only, they make sure the miracle is “sudden” and “unexplained.” But ultimately these situations are simply ones where something unexpected happens, and those situations happen in everyone’s life if you look hard enough. Usually, retrospect proves they weren’t so unexplained at all.

Hiding behind this veneer of science is bad for the church; every time science catches up with the miracles, the church can’t help but lose credibility. It is also bad for science; trying to give verifiable scientific explanations for things that are obviously unexplained happenstance muddies what the scientific method actually stands for.

Ultimately, the church doesn’t need to verify saints in this way at all. Of course there must be a measured way to elevate certain people to such a celebrated status, but this shouldn’t rely on sneaky investigators making arbitrary decisions. The example of their servitude and their heroic virtue should be enough, especially viewed through the lens of some time and retrospect.