Tuesday, August 6, 2013


On the Popes and “Sainthood”


By Norm R. Allen Jr.


Saint: A dead sinner, revised and edited - Ambrose Bierce

Well, well, well. John Paul II is soon to become a saint. Pope Francis agrees that John Paul II miraculously cured a Costa Rican woman, Floribeth Mora, of a cerebral aneurism. Physicians supposedly sent her home to die after she went to the hospital complaining of a “debilitating headache.” However, her family built a shrine to John Paul II outside their house, with a photograph of the late Pope. On May 1, 2011, the day he was beatified, Mora claims she demanded to watch the Mass in St. Peter’s Square. She claims she focused on the photo of the late Pope and vowed to get up. Supposedly, medical tests backed up the claim that the aneurism was no longer there. Showing before and after images of the aneurism, Dr. Alejandro Vargas told reporters, “It’s the first time I’ve seen anything like it….” (“New miracle gets John Paul sainthood,” The Buffalo News, July 6, 2013, p. A2, Associated Press.)

Popes usually require at least two miracles before they are eligible for sainthood. According to some reports, this was only the late Pope’s first miracle, but Francis decreed that this is the only miracle needed. However, according to other reports, the late Pope cured a French nun of Parkinson’s disease, making for two miracles.

Neither one of these supposed feats is very impressive as far as religious miracles go. I prefer surfing messiahs, Hebrew-speaking serpents and the like. In any case, let’s take a look at the likelihood that any “saint” has ever performed any genuine miracle.

In his superb book, God is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything, the late, great Christopher Hitchens brilliantly examined the supposed miracles of Mother Teresa on pages 145-147. In 1969, a British cameraman named Ken Macmillan photographed the nun’s Home of the Dying. According to the British evangelist (“later a Catholic”) Malcolm Muggeridge, part of the film was bathed in an inexplicable and “particularly beautiful soft light” that Muggeridge interpreted as divine. (It was supposedly too dark to have taken the image.) However, Macmillan said the light simply came about as a result of Kodak saving the film. Yet, Catholics went nuts and swore up and down that a genuine miracle had occurred.

Hitchens went on to discuss the nun’s greatest miracle, which was similar to those supposedly performed by John Paul II. A woman named Monica Besra was miraculously cured of a large uterine tumor after “two nuns in the Bengali village of Raigunj” supposedly “strapped an aluminum medal” of Mother Teresa to the ill woman’s stomach. (This supposedly occurred in 1998 on the first anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death in 1997.) Mother Teresa had supposedly been in contact with the medal, transferring to it Godly power.

I guess this sounds impressive to some. However, Hitchens pointed out that the superintendent of the local hospital, Dr. Manju Murshed, Dr. T.K. Biswas, and his gynecologist colleague, Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, all said “that Mrs. Besra had been suffering from tuberculosis and an ovarian growth, and had been successfully treated for both afflictions.” Translation: No religious miracle had occurred.

However, this was not enough to stop those pesky nuns. The Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, tried to pressure Dr. Murshed to say that a genuine miracle had occurred, much to his irritation. Hitchens said that Mrs. Besra was somewhat incoherent in her interview, and “Her own husband, a man named Selku Murmu, broke silence after a while to say that his wife had been cured by ordinary, regular medical treatment.” Yet the Catholic Church, despite all evidence to the contrary, insists that a genuine miracle of a religious nature had occurred. (Evidently, the truth won’t set you free, after all.)

One can go all over the world exposing supposed miracles. The Catholic Church still insists on keeping alive the idea that the Shroud of Turin, the supposed burial shroud of Christ, has great significance for many Catholics, even though it has long been determined to be a fraud. For over 30 years, Sanal Edamaruku has exposed  thousands of supposed miracles in India. On March 10, 2012, he exposed a Catholic miracle in which water was found to be dripping from a crucifix in Mumbai. As it turns out the holy water was sewage from a broken pipe. Incensed, Catholic leaders had him charged with blasphemy under Article 295 of the Indian penal code. He was arrested and jailed, and the good Catholics threatened to attack him while he was incarcerated. However, nice religionists that they are, they promised “absolution” if Edamaruku would simply apologize for examining their claim. Of course he refused, and went into exile in Finland as he wages a legal battle against the Church. (These insecure Catholics sure take their miracle claims seriously!)

Why doesn’t the Church make itself useful and insist that its saints perform miracles that we can all appreciate? As Hitchens asked in God is Not Great, if Jesus could cure a blind man, why not cure blindness? Indeed, why don’t these miracle workers cure deafness? Why just feed the multitude? Why not feed all of the world’s hungry people? Why not grow new limbs for amputees?

Aside from the outlandish claims that popes have performed miracles, there are moral issues. Why do sexists and homophobes get to be saints? Moreover, according to a story in USA TODAY:

Some Italian media have criticized the church for moving so quickly to declare John Paul a saint saying many of the Vatican’s current problems - including sex scandals and corruption - had their roots in his 1978-2005 papacy.

“These problems that started during John Paul’s papacy are a real concern. There is a kind of cult of popes, and each pope feels pressure to canonize his predecessors,” said Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for the London Catholic newspaper The Tablet. “There are a lot of dark clouds associated with his long pontificate, and with time, they would complicate things. From Francis’ perspective, this was probably an inevitable step, and so it was wise to get the distraction out of the way.” (“John Paul II soon to be saint,” by Eric J. Lyman, July 8, 2013, p. 5A.)

If the Catholic Church is serious about its miracle claims, it should welcome honest investigations by skeptics. No doubt, there are skeptical physicians that would readily challenge the testimony of the aforementioned Dr. Alejandro Vargas. I know plenty of them myself. However, as it stands, blind faith, ignorance and gullibility will continue to trump reason, experience and observation where the Church is concerned.


© Institute for Science and Human Values