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Canonization rules send an unsettling message about God

Heaven’s lobbyists?

Davide bonazzi for the boston globe

The Catholic world is gearing up for the dual canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII later this month. The recognition of these two giant figures as saints is a joyous occasion, to be sure. Yet lurking below its surface is an unsettling message — indeed, one that amounts to a kind of church-sponsored blasphemy.

The canonization process depends on the crediting of miracles to those being named as saints. In Catholic thinking, saints are thought to be intimately in God’s presence in heaven; to establish that a candidate for sainthood fits that criterion, a first kind of “proof” is required. Someone, usually with a grave medical problem, expressly asks for an intervention in the name of the candidate. If the medical problem is resolved without any “natural” explanation, a Vatican board of investigators, having sifted through the “evidence,” asserts that the cure is a “miracle.” The presumptive saint is understood to have succeeded in getting God to bend the normal laws of nature for the sake of the one prayed for.


That those events are taken to represent divine interventions says something quite horrible about how God operates — specifically, that even as God intervenes on behalf of those who pray to specific deceased mortals, all other people are left to their fate.

Under current practice, two certified miracles are necessary to establish that a candidate for sainthood is indeed in heaven, exercising supernatural influence. John Paul II, who died in 2005, is credited with the cure of a French nun with Parkinson’s disease that same year, and with the 2011 cure of a Costa Rican woman with an aneurysm. John XXIII, best remembered as the pope who convened the Second Vatican Council, is credited with the 1966 cure of an Italian nun who was dying from stomach hemorrhages.

One needn’t debunk the idea of the miraculous — the fact of wonderfully unexplained happenings which to the eyes of faith can seem like true moments of grace — to find this whole business of underwritten cures and Vatican evidence-gathering more than a bit dubious. Miracle-rejecting Enlightenment thinkers held that the material world is a closed system in which every measurable occurrence is explained by another measurable occurrence. With its data obsession about heavenly sponsorship and earthly medical explanations, the church has fallen into just that kind of mechanistic materialism. But when it comes to God’s activity in the world, the eyes of faith are what count, not the proofs of science.


Instinctively, the church still understands this, and therefore chooses its scientific proof accordingly: For a magazine piece 15 years ago, I reported on the case of Edith Stein, who after her death was credited with intervening on behalf of a baby who swallowed an overdose of Tylenol. Though one doctor testified that the baby’s recovery was medically inexplicable, another said it was the predictable result of the treatment offered. The Vatican took the former doctor’s word. Edith Stein was canonized.

But the flaws in this saint-making enterprise run far deeper than the selective use of evidence: The Catholic culture of canonization assumes that, while God has put in place a set of natural laws to which all humans are subject, including the laws of suffering and death, exceptions are readily made for God’s favored ones — that is, those lucky enough to have a saint as a patron. In these special cases, Parkinson’s disease is cured, aneurysms are dissolved, hemorrhages are stanched.

What is going on here? This notion of a cure through God’s miraculous intervention implies a system whereby God actively declines to intervene in the countless other cases, which involve people whose only offense lies in not having caught the attention of a saint. This effectively makes God the inflictor of suffering that could be released, but is not.


Pope Francis made an exception in the canonization process last summer when he announced that John XXIII, who has been credited with only one miracle instead of the required two, would nevertheless be elevated to sainthood along with John Paul II. There is nothing sacrosanct about the rules of saint-making: John Paul II changed them substantially in 1983, most notably removing the role of the so-called devil’s advocate, who would previously muster arguments about why a candidate should not be made a saint. So why not allow further changes to make canonization procedures better suit the times?

Francis, building on his John XXIII waiver, could readily make reasonable adjustments that would do several things: restore to saints an emphasis on exemplary lives well lived on earth over imagined lobbying functions in heaven; rescue the idea of the miraculous from a misconceived materialism that seeks to measure it with evidence; and, above all, remove forever the implication that God is indifferent to, or even complicit in, the suffering of any person.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.