Pope Francis has decided that two of his predecessors were honest-to-God saints.
What is the evidence that they were? Posthumous miracles. You see, Popes die, but their work is never done. While Jesus is busy helping millionaires score touchdowns, or dealing with the anger from other millionaires who blame the Son of God for making them drop touchdowns, dead Popes pick up the slack.
Enter Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, a French nun whose Parkinson’s-like neurological order reportedly vanished overnight after she wrote Pope John Paul II‘s name on a piece of paper, months after he died.
The Vatican was champing at the bit to get John Paul’s canonization underway, but there are self-imposed roles that the padres must follow. Bestowing sainthood requires two certified miracles; and in the case of a medically inexplicable cure, the alleged wonder must be instantaneous, complete, and lasting.
That, right there, caused a little bump in the road. One of the doctors who looked into the “cured” nun’s medical history on behalf of the Vatican voiced doubts about the account. He hypothesized that her illness hadn’t been Parkinson’s, which is currently still incurable, but a related affliction whose symptoms sometimes go into remission.
Lo and behold: Then we learned, through a respected Polish newspaper, that Sister Marie had had a relapse. The Vatican denies it, and anyway, the padres were never worried: A spokeman said merely that
…he acknowledged that the doubts would require further investigation. In such cases, he said, the Congregation would ask more doctors to come in and offer an opinion.
That’s a good way to eventually get your biases or fantasies confirmed, especially as we may assume that the carefully chosen medical experts (good Catholics, by any chance?) were paid for their opinions and their kind cooperation.
In 2011, six years after he died, John Paul allegedly performed a second miracle. This time, he chose a Costa Rican woman with an aneurism, whose family had prayed to the deceased Holy Father:
Well, I’m convinced. You?
A neurosurgeon who treated the woman, Alejandro Vargas Roman, told Costa Rican news site La Nacion, which first reported on the miracle, that the disappearance of the aneurism had “no scientific explanation.” The woman was then moved to Vatican City to be reviewed by doctors and theologians, who later declared the legitimacy of the miracle.
Over the years, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for diagnosticians and the brainteasers they face. The fascination must have started two dozen years ago with Michael Howell and Peter Ford‘s wonderful The Ghost Disease and Twelve Other Stories of Detective Work in the Medical Field, a non-fiction page-turner that tells of 13 historical medical mysteries and the selfless (often dangerous) work of the physicians who solved them. I also loved the recent profile of the incredible Dr. Joseph Lieber in the New Yorker, who’s identified more illnesses than I ever knew existed. And I’m a fan of Dr. Lisa Sanders’ long-running monthly series in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, ‘Diagnosis.’ Each episode presents a patient’s recent medical history, and invites readers to guess what’s wrong.
All this is to say that the medical field is not only rife with science-based knowledge and hard data, but also with inevitable surprises and headscratchers. That doesn’t mean that medical miracles of the kind allegedly performed by a dead Pope ought to be taken the least bit seriously. In fact, it’s profoundly, comically irrational to think that ghostly corpses send healing vibes from the afterlife.
But I’m not a reflexive naysayer. Incontrovertible proof would sway me.
So, what would it take to convince reasonable people of dead Popes’ posthumous superpowers? A simple controlled experiment. Let’s say, prominent Catholics praying successfully to an ex-pontiff to give a quadruple amputee his limbs backs — with video cameras and physicians present, and James Randi keeping a watchful eye on things. Also acceptable: Turning a mosquito into a dinosaur on national TV. Having Antonin Scalia do backflips through the eye of a needle while balancing a mitre on his nose. Flying the Capitol Building and everyone in it to Tokyo and back on nothing but Jesus power. (On second thought, Tokyo can keep it.)
Anything less is hokum, flim-flam, and delusion. Or, as most people call it, religion.
(Top photo via U.S. News)