theguardian.com, Monday 28 April 2014
Two new saints were declared at the weekend. Amid euphoric scenes in Vatican Square, Pope Francis defied his modernisation drive by canonising two of his recent predecessors. The world’s press indulged the occasion as one of universal joy. Even if they did regard it as barking mad, they thought it bad form to rain on someone else’s parade.
Of all Catholic rituals, sanctification drips with medieval nonsense. A prospective saint is nominated, investigated by a committee and, if displaying “heroic virtues”, is tested for a miracle. Since a miracle is an act of God answering a prayer, it must be medically “inexplicable”, putting some pressure on the doctors concerned. Only martyrs do not need miracles for saintliness.
This leads to beatification, followed by canonisation if a second miracle is “scientifically proven” within five years of the candidate’s death. Apparently the potency of saintly intercession wanes after a period. These rules can be waived if the candidate is a huge celebrity, like Mother Teresa. The committee was clearly keen on John XXIII and John Paul II, even if it seemed a trade union stitch-up for popes to move so briskly from office to sanctity. It is an echo of Britain’s House of Lords.
At such times I can sympathise with intelligent Catholics. Loyal to their tribe, they wrestle with virgin birth, papal infallibility, transubstantiation and much nonsense about sex. They explain away the rituals of the church as clothing God’s relationship with humans in familiar metaphors and ceremonies; some punitive, some heart-warming, like sainthood. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints – which oversees the canonisation process – should be seen as merely conducting a Vatican X Factor.
I am less indulgent. There is a notorious potency to the narratives of religious faith, throughout history a means by which elites have ruled the lives of the gullible. At a time when more death and destruction is being perpetrated in the name of religion than for many decades past, sensible people should guard against nonsense in its name, however ostensibly harmless.
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