On becoming a saint…

The Times reports (Pope Benedict XVI clears way for Cardinal Newman to become a saint) that the Vatican is likely to create the first British saint since the 1970s.  The article says that Cardinal John Henry Newman is the “most important convert from the Church of England to Catholicism”.  That’s as may be, but it’s interesting to read what needs to happen to become a saint.

From the Cardinal John Henry Newman Wikipedia page, it appears that one needs a verified miracle to be beatified, and a further verified miracle to be canonised.  The Times’ article says

The Pope opened the way for the beatification in 2001 when he recognised claims that Jack Sullivan, a Catholic deacon in Boston in the US, had been miraculously healed of a “serious debility of the spine” at the intercession of Newman, who died in 1890.
In 2000 Mr Sullivan, who is married with three children, prayed for the Cardinal’s help after being warned by his doctor that his back problem could result in paralysis. Next morning, he awoke to find that his pain had gone and that he was able to walk properly for the first time in months.

Essentially some bloke prayed to get better via the intercession of a dead religious figure, then woke up better. One does wonder how a serious investigation could “prove” that Mr Sullivan’s recovery was anything to do with someone who’d been dead for over a century, or indeed to “prove” that Mr Sullivan prayed only to the one dead religious figure.  The Times’ article doesn’t explain further.

Apparently there’s now been a second miracle (as yet uninvestigated), though the article doesn’t go into details on that one.  But I predict the miracle will have affected a strong believer, much as Mr Sullivan is reported to be a “Catholic deacon”.  Newman’s Wikipedia page does offer the following:

A second miracle would need to be confirmed before Newman could be canonized as a saint. The Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints is expected to consider the case of a 17-year-old New Hampshire resident, who fully recovered from severe head injuries suffered in a car accident after invoking Cardinal Newman.

Essentially these cases represent unexpected recovery from serious medical conditions (events which can and do occur without the intercession of dead people).  Over at the Wikipedia page for Congregation for the Causes of Saints (the Catholic body that investigates claimed miracles), I found this:

The miracle may go beyond the possibilities of nature either in the substance of the fact or in the subject, or only in the way it occurs. So three degrees of miracle are to be distinguished. The first degree is represented by resurrection from the dead (quoad substantiam). The second concerns the subject (quoad subiectum): the sickness of a person is judged incurable, in its course it can even have destroyed bones or vital organs; in this case not only is complete recovery noticed, but even wholesale reconstitution of the organs (restitutio in integrum). There is then a third degree (quoad modum): recovery from an illness, that treatment could only have achieved after a long period, happens instantaneously.

It would be interesting to know how many claims are made for each of the three degrees of miraculous intervention, and the proportion of each that pass investigation.  Also from that article, here’s the progression from dead religious person to Saint:

Stages of Canonization in the Roman Catholic Church

Servant of God →   Venerable →   Blessed →   Saint

Apparently Cardinal Newman is at stage 2 – he’s referred to as being the Venerable – while getting to stage 3 requires the approval of a miracle (this is what’s about to happen), while advancing to full sainthood (stage 4) requires the investigation and approval of a second miracle.  Presumably this is still to happen, so maybe the Times’ headline is a little premature?  As a hardened atheist, the whole process looks rather mediaeval.  And Newman’s not very active – two cures in over a century since he died seems a very minor intercession to me.

US Catholics reject superstition

I guess one shouldn’t be surprised by this doublethink, but Catholic bishops in the US have rejected the bonkers alternative “therapy” reiki – because it’s superstition.  As The Guardian (Catholic bishops in US ban Japanese reiki) reports (and I’m always cautious when reading news on April 1st, but the article is dated 31st March!), the bishops say:

“A Catholic who puts his or her trust in reiki would be operating in the realm of superstition, the no man’s land that is neither faith nor science. Superstition corrupts one’s worship of God by turning one’s religious feeling and practice in a false direction.”

Apparently the group of US bishops say that reiki is incompatible with Christian teaching and scientific evidence.  Since when has scientific evidence been important to religion?  And isn’t belief in an Invisible Magic Friend rather superstitious in itself?  A christian Reiki master (actually mistress, I suppose) is quoted as saying:

“There is so much bad information about reiki, anti-Christian information, on the internet,” she said. “It says we channel spirits and that’s not true. Reiki balances energy in the same way as acupuncture or reflexology. I know of two nuns in the Philadelphia area, one who runs a retreat centre, who have done wonderful work. The bishops weren’t talking to women like that.”

Of course, reiki is in the same frame as other quack therapies such as acupuncture and reflexology.  And it’s not that different to religion in at least one sense – it requires a complete suspension of rational thinking to take it seriously.

Update: A few bloggers beat me to it on this story – The New Humanist blog has some additional information worth looking at.

Will NASA’s Kepler space telescope spot angels?

The BBC reports on the NASA Kepler space telescope, and how the mission hopes to identify remote planetary systems (Is there anybody out there?).  The article features a number of commentaries, including one from Brother Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican’s observatory.  Apparently he’s confident there is extra-terrestrial intelligent life because

The Bible has many references to, or descriptions of, non-human intelligent beings; after all, that’s what angels are.

Fortunately the Vatican has come to terms with heliocentric astronomy nowadays.  But still, it must be fairly challenging to be a Vatican astronomer.  Brother Guy is pleasingly realistic about the likelihood of making contact with aliens in his lifespan (but I guess that means he doesn’t expect to meet angels).  He has had an interesting career before becoming a Jesuit (and actually afterwards) and ending up at the Vatican Observatory, judging from his web page.  He’s certainly well-qualified as a planetary scientist, and he sounds like someone it would be interesting to talk to.  I’d love to know how he squares science with religion.

More on the Vatican evolution conference

There’s a report at Yahoo news (Cardinal says atheist’s theories “absurd”) with more information on the present Vatican conference I mentioned yesterday.  In a bizarre but typically tortuous statement,Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican‘s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said

the Catholic Church doesn’t stand in the way of scientific realities like evolution, saying there was a “wide spectrum of room” for belief in both the scientific basis for evolution and faith in God the creator.

“We believe that however creation has come about and evolved, ultimately God is the creator of all things,” he said on the sidelines of the conference.

But while the Vatican did not exclude any area of science, it did reject as “absurd” the atheist notion of biologist and author Richard Dawkins and others that evolution proves there is no God, he said.

I suspect that the phrase “creation has come about” is a bit of a giveaway, leading to the statement about a god being the creator of all things.  As The Freethinker has pointed out, the cardinal misrepresents Dawkins here.  Amusing, particularly with the next paragraph:

“Of course we think that’s absurd and not at all proven,” he said. “But other than that … the Vatican has recognized that it doesn’t stand in the way of scientific realities.”

This is a peculiar and irrational thing to say.  Proving a negative is after all rather difficult.  It seems to me that the evidence of proof lies not with those saying there is very unlikely to be any supernatural deities but with those that aver the existence of a deity.  What evidence does the Catholic church (or indeed any set of religious believers) have for the existence of their deity (or deities)?

Francis Ayala, one of the speakers and described as a former priest and professor of biological sciences and philosophy at the University of California, is reported to have made a firm statement that “Intelligent Design” is blasphemous to both science and religion:

“It is not only not compatible with Christian faith, it is just blasphemous because it predicates from the creator attributes that we don’t want to have from the creator,” he said.

Perhaps he’s been mis-cited by Yahoo News, but I don’t see how something can be blasphemous against science, and I don’t see that reference in the actual quotation used in the article.  And when phrased in that way, it doesn’t represent a particularly robust objection to ID.

I’ve never really wondered about the religious beliefs of scientists before starting this blog, but occasionally they are made apparent.  I’ve blogged recently about Simon Conway Morris, and I noted here the reference to Ayala as a former priest.  Are the other scientific speakers selected on the basis of their theist beliefs?

The Vatican holds evolution conference

I see from the BBC News website (Vatican hosts Darwin conference) that the Vatican is holding a conference to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  According to the BBC

Scientists, philosophers and theologians from around the world are gathering at the prestigious Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome to discuss the compatibility of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Catholic teaching.

Apparently it’s one of two conferences – the other is about Galileo’s work – the intention is apparently to “to re-examine the work of scientific thinkers whose revolutionary ideas challenged religious belief: Galileo and Charles Darwin.”  Amusingly, the report points out that the Catholic Church never condemned Darwin, as it condemned and silenced Galileo. I suppose that threats of burning at the stake just would’t have cut it in the 19th century.

You can read about the conference at the Pontifica Universita Gregoriana website.  The theme of the conference is explained, sort of, in a typically tortuous piece of text.  On the Aims page, we find that

Thanks to recent discoveries, we can reconsider the problem of evolution within a broader perspective then traditional neo-darwinism. [emphasis mine]

Well, I for one don’t perceive a “problem of evolution”, but I suppose if one’s wedded to a bizarre set of beliefs, one might regard it as a problem.  The program reveals quite an interesting set of speakers – I wonder if there will be any published outcome of the conference.