Can’t beatify that with a stick

I debated a little about tackling this one, since the entire post would belabor the irrelevance of the pursuit and thus the further irrelevance of the post that addressed it, but then I remembered that this is a blog and exactly what it’s intended for. And so, the wall of text below. Any insights into rational examination and critical thinking that might be gained are purely accidental and should in no way detract from the pointlessness of the topic.

So, the catholic church has, against all expectations (oh yeah – sarcasm is a necessary condiment here,) approved the canonization of AnjezĂ« Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, AKA mother teresa, thereby making her a saint in their eyes. That sounds a little snarky, but the truth is, the catholic church is the only one that concerns itself with sainthood and the properties that this is supposed to delineate. To say that catholicism is rigidly structured is bending understatement unmercifully, something that a few people have pointed out over the years, and the practice and structure of beatification and canonization is a curious one. It’s become even more curious with the recent changes to the processes, themselves raising interesting questions about what is actually taking place.

Beatification, despite sounding like something Tyler Durden would do, is basically a recognition that some particular deceased figure – virtually always a major figure within the church itself – has been accepted into heaven. Not only is this considered a major accomplishment/privilege/entitlement, it is bestowed only by the holy see, an ‘administrative’ branch of the papacy. Those familiar with other branches of christianity may find it curious that achieving heaven receives so much attention – one would think that a lot of people should be managing this – but the primary point is both veneration, the recognition by the catholic church that this is a major player, and most especially it’s the first, necessary step towards canonization and the pronouncement of sainthood. The church itself changed the beatification process back in the 1600s, taking the power away from bishops and locking it solely within the holy see, but under pope john paul ii, the process was changed again – while he was pope, more figures received beatification than in the entire history of the papacy after the power was removed from the bishops’ hands; over 1,300 people achieved this lofty entitlement.

Then we get to the process of canonization. Originally, one could only become a saint if they had been martyred for their beliefs, but some centuries back it was changed to include figures of great impact – and some time later, figures of lesser impact. By all accounts within the church, this recognition/selection requires a rigorous examination of the person’s sanctity, actions, and most especially the attribution of their impact through a post-mortem miracle. This is where it gets the most interesting.

Now, believe it or not, I’m wholly behind the idea of miracles being used to establish anyone’s special status, or indeed as evidence of any supernatural power whatsoever – in fact, that’s pretty much what I would require as evidence in the first place. But it all depends on what, exactly, a miracle is, doesn’t it? The popular conception is some physical occurrence that could not possibly take place under normal physics, or at least a circumstance so enormously improbable as to lend a lot of weight in that direction. When we’re talking supernatural influences and the power of an omnipotent being, not only is this not too much to ask, it’s really the only thing that could establish such traits in the first place. But in the vast majority of cases, miracles claimed by any religious folk hew a lot closer to moderately unlikely scenarios – a little better than finding a parking space right in front of the store, but not a lot better.

In the case of canonization, the miracle must take place after someone prays to the figure in question – again, this is never a living person. The evidence – mostly testimony, because little of physical evidence is ever available – is presented to the holy see for their judgment. If they consider the evidence is adequate, then everything is golden. Let’s pause for a second and consider the idea that there must be a kind of trial to determine if supernatural intervention really did take place – you know, despite the concept of infinite power and ability. The fact that a question could even be raised should make one wonder what the definition of miracle really is, or should be.

In the particular case of mother teresa, the miracle was the spontaneous curing of a woman’s cancerous tumor with the proximity of a locket associated with teresa. Only, it wasn’t actually cancer, but a cyst. For which the woman was receiving medical attention at the time. Not even the woman’s husband attests to the miraculous cure, much less the doctors. Spontaneous remissions do indeed take place; medical science has thousands of documented cases, even with cancers. As for remissions following treatment, well, that’s what medicine is supposed to do – that’s why we use it. So the idea of this being a miracle that establishes the divine nature of teresa seems pretty damn weak – but it was good enough for the holy see.

Moreover, another of john paul ii’s changes was the reduction in power, scope, and purpose of the office of advocatus diaboli, or devil’s advocate; this was the ‘skeptical’ side of the canonization process, the office tasked with questioning whether miracles really did take place, and/or whether the individual had actually lived up to the standards of sainthood. Notably, after these changes the number of saints approved by the church simply exploded, especially with, as seen above, some pretty loose standards for declaring ‘miracles.’

We’ll pause again and digest this for a second. We are being asked to believe (no, actually, we’re not; the nature of churches is that we’re told to and expected to believe) that the standards for declaring miracles and piety were formerly too high, and that real miracles were being dismissed because of unrealistic standards. Within the church, mind you. How such mistakes could have been made, and how it was determined afterward, is left to the imagination – and has to be, because how exactly does one prove supernatural influence when by definition and nature it provides no evidence?

It’s nice that only one miracle is required, out of… how many people praying for them to occur? No one knows, I suspect, nor even tries to count. Doing so would produce a statistical value that places such things enormously below, for instance, not just routine medical treatment, but even spontaneous remissions. This token effort, taken by teresa’s soul after she died, thus achieves the highest accolade the catholic church can bestow.

Let’s step back and perform a simple comparison with the scientific method, just for shits and giggles. Any scientific study must openly demonstrate and document all of the steps that were taken to ensure that the results were not caused by some other influence; in other words, the tentative conclusion of any paper or study, or even the suggestion of the possibility, must show at least some effort to eradicate any mistakes. You know, like the office of devil’s advocate that was pretty much dismissed by the catholic church. That’s just for initial publication. Then, it goes through peer review, and then duplication, and then expansion and refinement. The purpose of all of this is not to establish some scientists’ names as venerable or whatever, but to derive something of lasting value and impact – advancement, to put it bluntly. New medicine, new technology, better procedures, more useful practices. Something we can use. And despite all of that stuff listed above, that’s the acid test: it must work. Everything that we use right now, the computer you’re reading this on to the painkiller you took after getting home from work, went through this process, in most cases countless processes, to establish themselves as useful to us. That’s the point of doing it all, isn’t it? Why announce a new ‘scientific discovery’ if there’s no use it can be put to, and it doesn’t work when we try? One can call it rigorous if they like, but it’s not – it’s simply necessary.

Which brings us to what sainthood really accomplishes. Certainly, someone being cured of any kind of illness is a great thing – no argument from me. Even if it’s a tiny statistical nubbin of them, that’s more than without, right? Worthy of great praise? Well, no – great praise should follow great accomplishments, not sporadic flukes. Again, how many people prayed for cures and whatnot and received nothing? Why? What happened there?

Maybe we should put it down to god’s plan, as I’m sure is the very next argument that would be proposed – it’s a great favorite, after all. But then this raises the question of what prayer, or even teresa’s marvelous interventions, are actually accomplishing. Are we claiming that the plan was changed by teresa or the person praying? I don’t have to point out all the errors and presumptions here, do I? But if the plan remains the same, then what is teresa, or any prayer, supposed to be doing?

Yet, there’s a much worse aspect lying just under the surface, ignored very often by the devout. Making any claim at all that praying to teresa might accomplish something can have vast negative effects, even if it’s accurate. People that believe that there can be divine intervention may be (and very often are) willing to ignore the conventional treatments or actions, the same ones that work thousands of times better every day; the churches (and by this I mean far more than simply the catholic church) don’t exactly make the effort to point out the capriciousness and random nature of such claimed miracles. If anyone wants to pray along with utilizing the proven effective methods of treatment, fine, go nuts, no harm done. But instead of? Is any church, anywhere, responsible enough, caring enough, honest enough, to make this distinction clear?

Further, there’s the psychological aspect that occurs with that capricious and random number of ‘cures’ through intercessory prayer. In effect, “Why didn’t teresa/god/quetzalcoatl grace me with a cure? Why am I forsaken?” And while the most frequent answer, again, is that whole ‘god’s plan’ copout, there’s also the accusation, sometimes unspoken but not always, of not being devout enough, of failing somehow, or being undeserving. Immersed in a culture of god’s importance, and most especially that judicial nature, this isn’t minor baggage; it can be pretty destructive to someone’s perceived self-image. And it has another unintended consequence, which we’ll touch on in just a moment.

I’ve played around with disingenuous questions in this post, but with good reason: if I simply pointed out my conclusions, a lot of people would make assumptions that I was being automatically dismissive, or biased or whatever. And I’ll continue with one more, which is the question of what the catholic church needs with a gamut of new saints. Were there too few for people to pray to? Were these saints, existing outside of time and space, somehow backlogged with prayer requests? No, this couldn’t be the case, because the church isn’t actually bestowing amazing powers on mortal souls, but simply recognizing their existence; the only change might be getting attention to these saints so people could pray to a greater selection. I will leave the speculations on the value of this to the reader. Either way, though, we should be seeing a much greater number of catholics recovering from life-threatening illnesses, as well as surviving plane crashes and getting ideal parking spots, from this rapidly-expanded cadre of saints. That must be the value of these efforts, right?

No, I’m not fooled. There’s no doubt in my mind that the catholic church is involved in nothing more than a massive PR campaign, attempting to make their beliefs and structure appear relevant and pertinent to as many people as possible. While there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that mother teresa was a horrible person, victimizing the poor and desperate in order to promote both piety and her strange idea of grace through suffering, that wasn’t enough to keep her from the ranks of the utmost within the church. She garnered millions of dollars in donations, ostensibly for the care of the ill and destitute in India, though nobody really knows where the hell this money went; it certainly did not go into her many hospitals. And neither did she; in her failing health, she opted to get treated in California rather than her native Kolkata. Even the mayor of that city himself cannot credit her with any improvements over the decades that she was active.

Note, too, that while the church has found her exemplary in her faith, this did not affect her own illness in any way – she received no miraculous cures, and died as doctors and our vast experience with healthcare predicted; her health history was exactly as we would expect from someone her age, unaltered by anything untoward or even unusual. So I guess the church really does need more saints, as the one(s) she chose to pray too didn’t do much of anything for her.

But here’s where the efforts of the church backfire a bit. Because the lack of real results, the dearth of cures and benefits and even a reason to believe that praying to some saint accomplishes anything at all, is what starts the ball rolling; that’s often the very first step to disbelief. Big promises can only result in big payoffs – or big failures. But I don’t expect anyone to take my word for it – I just encourage everyone to look sharply and critically at anything and everything. Go ahead and watch for the upsurge in catholic recoveries and survivals. Just, you know, in addition to the proven effective treatments.

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