What are we to make of these imminent canonizations—the latest in the output of what the press mocks as the “saint factory” put into operation by John Paul II? In considering this question, it would be opportune to conclude the two-part series I began here, venturing the opinion of a layman who cannot see how the infallibility of canonizations can be anything but dependent upon the integrity of the investigative process that precedes the papal canonization decree.
In Part I, I noted the decisive role the divine testimony of miracles plays in canonization. I quoted the Catholic scholar Donald S. Prudlo, an expert on the history of canonizations, who observed that because “the problem of canonizing unworthy figures came up repeatedly” with local canonizations by bishops, once Rome had assumed control over canonizations in the late 12th century, “the papacy to institute[d] all manner of safeguards to ensure veracity and holiness, such as lengthy investigations of life and miracles.” In that regard Prudlo cites Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216), who declared in his historic Bull canonizing Homobonus of Cremona that “Two things are necessary for one who is publicly venerated as a saint in the Church militant: the power of signs, namely works of piety in life and the sign of miracles after death.” As Prudlo was at pains to note: “While Innocent avers that only final perseverance is absolutely necessary for sainthood simply considered, he maintains that the public veneration of such a person requires divine testimonies. Both are required for sanctity, ‘for neither are works sufficient by themselves, nor signs alone.’”
Viewing the canonizations of Paul VI and Romero under the aspect of the purported medical miracles attributed to their intercession—an indispensable element of the process as it has developed under papal authority—one cannot fail to note that, based on the information made publicly available, none of them satisfies all of the traditional criteria for verification of a miracle as a divine testimony of sanctity. Those criteria are (1) a cure that is (2) instantaneous, (3) complete, (4) lasting, and (5) scientifically inexplicable, meaning not the result of treatment or natural processes of healing but rather an event originating outside the natural order. (Once such a medical miracle is verified according to these criteria, it must further be determined that it occurred “solely through the intercession of that particular candidate for sainthood” as opposed to prayers in general or prayers to other intercessors.)
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It should be obvious that no purported miracle failing to meet even one of these criteria could rationally be considered a divine testimony of the candidate’s sanctity. If there is no cure as such then there is no miracle at all. If the cure is merely partial, it is not miraculous. If the cure is not instantaneous but only gradual, then non-miraculous natural processes of healing or medical treatment could account for it. If the cure is only temporary and the condition returns, nothing miraculous has occurred.
Let us look, then, at the “miracles” attributed to the intercession of Paul VI and Oscar Romero. As to Paul, the first purported miracle, which supported his beatification, “concerned an unborn which was found to have a serious health problem that could mean brain damage. Doctors advised that it be aborted, but the mother entrusted her pregnancy to Paul VI. The child was born healthy.” The purported miracle has been more fully described thus:
The attributed miracle involves an unborn child, who was found to have a serious health problem that posed a high risk of brain damage, in the 1990s in California. The child’s bladder was damaged, and doctors reported ascites (the presence of liquid in the abdomen) and anhydramnios (absence of fluid in the amniotic sac). Physicians advised that the child be aborted, but the mother entrusted her pregnancy to the intercession of Pope Paul VI, who succeeded St. John XXIII on June 21, 1963, and served until his death on Aug. 6, 1978.
The mother took the advice of a nun who was a friend of the family and had met Paul VI. The mother then prayed for Paul VI’s intercession using a fragment of the pope’s vestments that the nun had given her.
Ten weeks later, the results of the medical tests showed a substantial improvement in the child’s health, and he was born by Caesarean section in the 39th week of pregnancy. He is now a healthy adolescent and considered to be completely healed.
The Italian postulator said it is not possible to give more details about the case in order to “respect the privacy” of the family and the boy concerned.
Where exactly is the miraculous cure? What is described is a good outcome from the aggressive fetal treatment typical in such cases, including this one, where the neonate was in even greater danger from such conditions, was treated in the womb and delivered alive. He was later reported to be “a 5-year-old [who] develops normally, but still remains under regular neurological, cardiologic and ophthalmologic control.” Indeed, the alleged beneficiary of the miraculous intercession of Paul VI was likewise monitored until he was “a healthy adolescent and considered to be completely cured.” There is not even a claim of an instantaneous medical cure in the Vatican’s ambiguous explanation of “substantial improvement” of the child’s condition in utero and the avoidance of a risk of brain damage, not a cure of same.
The second purported miracle attributed to Paul’s intercession involves another ambiguously described fetal crisis: “the healing of an unborn child who was suffering from a potentially fatal disease. Shortly after Pope Paul VI’s beatification, the child’s mother travelled to Brescia, the former Pontiff’s hometown, to pray for healing. The child was eventually born in good health.” How is that outcome different from the innumerable other cases when a child in danger in the womb is, against the odds, born healthy despite a grave prognosis? The medical literature and our common experience are replete with such cases. Again, where exactly is the miraculous cure of a seemingly incurable condition? Here too there is only a potentially fatal disease, another risk avoided, not the instantaneous cure of an otherwise fatal condition.
In both cases, one has the unmistakable sense of a stretching of the medical facts to reach the desired result: It’s a miracle! Proceed immediately to canonization! (We are not even considering here the other indispensable requirement of heroic virtue. Suffice it to note that “heroic” does not seem applicable to a weeping Pope who rued the results of his own reckless permissions for unheard-of innovations of the Church, which he nonetheless obstinately refused to admit were his own catastrophic blunders.)
Paul VI and Mons. Oscar Romero
As for the one miracle attributed to the intercession of Oscar Romero—only one sufficing given his prior designation as a “martyr”—here too, curiously enough, we encounter yet another ambiguous pregnancy-related medical emergency. In this case we are informed that the purported miracle is that after giving birth, a woman named Cecilia developed HELLP syndrome, a condition related to preeclampsia which involves hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count. In an effort to address threatened organ failure and other problems seen in the worst cases of this condition, she was placed in an induced coma—falsely described in some accounts as “slipping” into a coma as if to increase the drama. The claim is that after prayers to Romero, the woman saw a “dramatic recovery” over the next 72 hours and was discharged from the hospital a few days later, fully recovered from the effects of HELLP syndrome.
But recovery from HELLP syndrome after an induced coma, which constitutes aggressive medical treatment under the standard of care, is precisely what has happened in other such cases, as we see here and here. There is nothing miraculous about a very good medical outcome from very good medical treatment. As the husband said of the outcome in the second linked case: “It’s a miracle. I thought I was losing both of them.” There is no sign that Oscar Romero or any other purported Catholic saint was involved in that happy result. In fact, overall the mortality rate for HELLP syndrome is reported to be only 1.1-3.4 % , with good treatment, and only 25% globally, including many cases with no treatment at all. Moreover, the fetal mortality rate from HELLP syndrome is much higher than the maternal mortality rate, but the child in the Romero case had already been born normally without his purported intercession. Was that normal birth, with much greater odds against survival, a “miracle”?
The criteria for an authentic medical miracle supporting beatification or canonization have elsewhere been described thus: “1. Serious medical condition; 2. Condition not likely to disappear on its own; 3. Instantaneous; 4. Lasting; 5. Complete; 6. No other disease or incident can occur which may have caused the condition to disappear; 7. No medical treatment relative to the cure.”
That description appears in an article on the two miracles attributed to the intercession of the Fatima visionaries Jacinta and Francisco in connection with their beatification by John Paul II and their canonization by Francis. The first miracle involved the recovery of a paraplegic, who was able to walk normally again, and the second the recovery of a brain-damaged boy who had fallen 20 feet, landed on his head, fractured his skull and lost brain tissue, yet walked out of the hospital following prayers to the visionaries, with no signs of brain damage or loss of physical or mental function. In other words, both cases involve actual cures of otherwise incurable conditions, not merely the avoidance of a risk of harm or recovery after aggressive treatment.
With good reason did the post-Tridentine Church institutionalize strict verification of purported medical miracles as scientific knowledge advanced. Urban VIII (r. 1623-1644) and later Prospero Lambertini, who became Benedict XIV (r. 1740-1758), established the framework under which, via the function of the “devil’s advocate” (promotor fidei), which Lambertini had exercised before his pontificate, the Church “leaned toward refuting miraculousness by means of natural explanations.”Accordingly, “especially since Pope Urban VIII’s reforms in the first half of the seventeenth century, medical judgment was given an increased role in evaluating claims of miracles.” But even as early as the thirteenth century—the very century in which the debate over the infallibility of canonizations was at its height, as I showed in Part I— “a chief expression of such skepticism has been the consultation of physicians to examine proposed miraculous healings and decide if they had natural causes.”
Natural explanations are plainly available for the “miracles” attributed to the intercession of Paul VI and Oscar Romero, none of which actually involved an outright and instantaneous cure in the first place as opposed to avoiding a medical risk, however serious, and reaching a good outcome while under aggressive, state-of-the art medical treatment.
It appears, then, that these imminent canonizations are yet another hasty product of the high-speed assembly line in the “saint factory” established by John Paul II. Not only did John Paul reduce the number of required miracles from four (two for beatification and two more for canonization) to only two (a mere one each for beatification and canonization), but the traditional role of the promotor fidei has effectively been eliminated so that there is no longer a truly adversarial procedure in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, involving an institutionalized contradictorium by an official we know as the “devil’s advocate.” As one scholar on the subject observes:
The observations of the Promoter of the Faith and the responses of the advocate have disappeared, as the Promoter of the Faith receives the cause for study only after the position [brief advocating sainthood] has been completed. In the current law, the Promoter of the Faith does not participate in a formal contradictorium with an opposing party, but rather presents his opinion regarding the cause when it is evaluated by the theologians. As the Roman phase is studied, it must be considered whether the Promoter of the Faith exercises even an informal role in the contradictorium….
From these observations it can be concluded that there is not a clear contradictorium in the current legislation, since the party who stands in the second position in opposition to the cause remains obscure….
As a defender of the “streamlined” process writes regarding this practical elimination of the “devil’s advocate”:
Pope John Paul II changed that role to a great degree…. but contrary to popular belief… it was not eliminated…. His authority to ‘veto’, or cancel, a cause is gone. He does not provide a list of objections and complaints, he provides a report of what his findings are, but that report does not mandate there be a satisfactory answer to each objection. Thanks to Pope John Paul II, the process of canonization was transformed from a type of trial by fire form of scrutinization to a committee or business type meeting.
In other words, the devil’s advocate has been eliminated—not only his decisive veto, but his role as such. He is now, at most, just another member of a committee whose function is essentially to “make saints” as requested by generating the appropriate findings, including a finding that cures readily explicable by natural means, and indeed frequently observed without any invocation of a purported saint, are “miracles.”
In Part I of this series, I posed the following dubia, given that the infallibility of canonizations remains only a probable theological opinion and not an article of faith:
- Could the validity of a canonization, even if it cannot be called an error as such, be doubted if it could be shown that the investigation of the candidate has been compromised by human error, bias or mendacity?
- Would a papal act of canonization by way of recitation of the canonization formula during the canonization rite be infallible ex sese (of or from itself) even if there were no prior investigation of the candidate?
- If the papal act of canonization is infallible ex sese, is there any necessity for the investigatory process preceding canonization—developed by the Popes themselves to provide safeguards to ensure the veracity of miracles and the holiness of a candidate; and if it is necessary, why is it necessary?
- If a papal act of canonization is not infallible ex sese, then is integrity of the investigatory process preceding it not essential to the claim of infallibility, and if not, why not?
These questions, I noted, “can be answered definitively only by the Magisterium.” The Church has never declared that they may no longer be discussed. Quite the contrary, they have never ceased to be matters for debate. From which follows another related dubium, as suggested by this Part II:
If the integrity of the investigatory process is essential to the infallibility of a canonization, and if the process examines purported medical miracles, is not the quality of evidence in support of the alleged miracles also an essential element, such that plainly dubious miracles readily explainable by natural means, including modern aggressive medical treatment, would tend to undermine confidence in the validity of the canonization and give grounds for reasonably doubting its validity?
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I can only agree with the view expressed by Peter Kwasniewski yesterday: “With the greatly increasing number of canonizations; the removal of half of the number of miracles required (which are sometimes even waived); the lack of a robust advocatus diaboli role; and, at times, the rushed manner in which documentation is examined or at times passed over (as, apparently, has been the case with Paul VI), it seems to me not only that it has become impossible to claim that today’s canonizations always require our assent, but also that there may be canonizations about which one would have an obligation to withhold assent.”
What Dr. Kwasniewski is saying is that in recent decades the very nature of canonization appears to have changed so that it may well be we are no longer dealing with the same thing that gave us the likes of Pope Saint Pius X and that we would be violating conscience if we blindly accepted every result of the current process. What seems to have replaced the traditional exceedingly rigorous process is a kind of weighty honorific bestowed by a committee predisposed to grant it without serious opposition.
In short, no longer do we have the reasonable perception of an ironclad, infallible determination that every candidate approved by the “saint factory” has not only attained beatitude but is a model of virtue for the universal Church who must be venerated by all the faithful because of his splendid example of conformity to the divine will. Who can say that with any honesty concerning Paul VI? As Dr. Kwasniewski observes:
Paul VI did not helplessly watch the Church’s “autodemolition” (his own term for the collapse after the Council); he did not merely preside over the single greatest exodus of Catholic laity, clergy, and religious since the Protestant Revolt. He aided and abetted this internal devastation by his own actions….
Many Catholics are rightfully anxious about Pope Francis. But what he has done in the past five years is arguably small potatoes compared with what Paul VI had the audacity to do: substituting a new liturgy for the ancient Roman Mass and sacramental rites, causing the biggest internal rupture the Catholic Church has ever suffered.
This was the equivalent of dropping an atomic bomb on the People of God, which either wiped out their faith or caused cancers by its radiation. It was the very negation of paternity, of the papacy’s fatherly function of conserving and passing on the family heritage. Everything that has happened after Paul VI is no more than an echo of this violation of the sacred temple. Once the most holy thing is profaned, nothing else is safe; nothing else is stable.
Finally, in concluding this series, I can only adopt as my own the limited conclusion expressed by John Lamont in August: “[W]e need not exclude all canonisations whatsoever from the charism of infallibility; we can still argue that those canonisations that followed the rigorous procedure of former centuries benefited from this charism…. [A] return to the former approach to canonisation would mean recovering the guidance of the Holy Spirit in an area of great import for the Church.”
Perhaps that conclusion is wrong. But let the Magisterium, in a definitive and binding pronouncement, tell us so. Let it declare, in other words, that any and all canonizations pronounced by a Pope are infallible ex sese even if the preceding investigation is patently flawed or corruptly motivated, which would mean that the investigation is ultimately superfluous. Until then neither Paul VI nor Oscar Romero will figure in this poor Catholic’s invocation of the saints. I reserve the right in conscience, not to deny, but to doubt where doubt is still permitted rather than doing violence to reason itself.
 Fernando Vidal, “Miracles, Science and Testimony in Post-Tridentine Saint-Making,” 20 Science in Context 481 (2007).
 Ibid. at 482, 485.
 Jason A. Gray, “The Evolution of the Promoter of the Faith in Causes of Beatification and Canonization: a Study of the Law of 1917 and 1983,” Pontifical Lateran University (2015) (doctoral thesis in canon law); accessed at http: //www. jgray.org/ docs/ Promotor_Fidei_lulu.pdf