Father Damien and Canonization


Yet another saint is about to be canonized by the Catholic Church--this time, Father Damien of Hawaii. I have no doubt that he did wonderful acts of service with those affected by leprosy or other diseases, so I don't have a problem with publicly recognizing his, or anyone else's, service to humanity. What I do object to is the criterion of "verified" miracles that the Catholic Church uses as a prerequisite for sainthood, and I find it objectionable on several levels.

First, the idea that service to humanity is not enough to garner recognition--that you also have to have been a heavenly magician as well--trivializes the importance of loving service and makes a mockery of what our respect for saintly people should be about. Second, it relies on a pre-modern theology of divine interventionism that makes no sense in the modern world. Third, the idea that these miracles take place after the saint's death as a "proof" that they are now in heaven really represents a a case of theological hubris in which pronouncements about individuals' fate after death are claimed. Fourth, the supposedly "verified" nature of these miracles are nothing of the sort; no verification by the Vatican or approval by the Pope would pass any empirical or scientific test for verifiability; thus the usage "verified" is really a misnomer. It simply means that the Vatican "investigated" the claims of miracles and decided to give their approval to them.

In fact, when we talk about "verifying" miracles, we are generally describing events such as medical healings that are unverifiable, which is precisely what makes them serve so conveniently as fodder for miracle claims. We simply lack the capability of observing in detail all the processes that take place in the human body down to the molecular level. Since we can't really observe what takes place there, if someone gets better from an illness or condition contrary to expectations, then the expectations themselves form the basis of the miracle claim. What it is that God or the saint supposedly did at the molecular level to effect the healing is impossible to say, impossible to verify--what switch did God flip, what cancer cells did God kill, what bacteria did God eliminate?--and therefore ultimately the attribution of a miracle is nothing more than a case of hopeful thinking. There is no "verification" involved at all. Human bodies are not deterministic machines and are subject to the chaos of uncertainty and probability. This is simply another case of the God of the Gaps rearing its ugly head.

This is related in general to the various moral and theological problems that exist with the concept of intercessory prayer. When people claim that intercessory prayer "works" when they pray for a sick loved one to get better, they are really just engaging in wishful thinking as they project their hopes onto the God of the Gaps. There are no millions of tiny little cameras in the human body that can record what is happening to every single cell and the atom, so if someone gets better, it is easy enough to assert that it is because others prayed for God (or some saint) to intervene. All the people we prayed for who didn't get better--well, that was just God saying "no". And for the people who were unlucky enough to have no Christian friends to pray for them--well, that's too bad. The moral implications of an interventionist God (or his lieutenants) who works behind the scenes to effect "miraculous" healings on some people but not others defies logic and moral sense.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again--the real miracle is found every time someone loves another and expresses that love through service and compassion. The saints are those who carry out these acts of love throughout their life. If there is an afterlife and saints are to be found there, so be it, but I see no use in speculation about such matters, let alone making definitive pronouncements from on high. And as for the alleged miracles, it is my contention that magical tricks are the stuff of medieval theology and have no place in serious theology.