The announcement that the Vatican accepted, as miracle of the late pope John Paul II, the alleged “cure” of a nun who may have had Parkinson’s Disease received a lot of media attention. Such attention, as is usually the case, was uncritical and did not address the many logical mistakes and blunders that are an inseparable part of the Catholic saint-making process.
It would be instructive, then, to look a little deeper into the affair.
Starting with the alleged cure of Sister Marie Simon-Perre. The Los Angeles Times informs that, even in 2010, authorities from the Vatican itself were dubious about the nun’s diagnosis. But even supposing that she really had the dreaded disease, and not something less complex, or even psychosomatic. Would it be possible, then, to argue, without begging the question that such a cure is the result of a miracle –i.e., an unambiguous violation of natural law –, and that said miracle was obtained by the intercession of John Paul II?
No and no.
First, to claim that a phenomenon has no known explanation (even conceding that no other doctor or groups of doctors on the face of the Earth would be able to explain it better than the Church committee) is merely an admission of ignorance.
To claim “I don’t know what caused Sister Marie to be cured, hence she was cured by an act of God intermediated by the soul of John Paul II” is equivalent to a claim like “I don’t know what caused that light in the sky, hence it came from manned spaceship from Andromeda galaxy”.
In the second place, there’s the question of attribution: the nun prayed to John Paul II, and afterwards she was cured. Does it make sense to see a relationship of cause and effect?
In principle, it may just be a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc, the logic error that resides in supposing that, Just because event B came after event A, there is grounds to affirm that A is the cause of B. It’s like supposing that I’m writing this because I ate an apple half an hour ago. Causes come before effects, but it is not everything that precedes an effect that may be counted among its causes.
The coincidence hypothesis, in opposition to the causality one, becomes stronger when we take into account the fact that candidates to sainthood as popular as the late pope usually become the foci of organized campaigns – simply put, the candidate fans start suggesting to anyone who is in some kind of trouble that it would not hurt to pray for him, asking for intercession. With thousands, or millions, of supplicants, the materialization of one or two occurrences that will be beyond the explanatory power of the investigatory committees is a mathematical certainty.
It is even conceivable that there may be a break-even number of prayers that makes the beatification and subsequent canonization a foregone conclusion.
Summing up, the Vatican system for the creation of saints is composed by an event-generation machine: the campaign. This machine produces supplications in an industrial scale (and for centuries if need be) until the law of probabilities creates a small number of facts about which a few experts will be content in manifesting their ignorance. This manifestation is then followed by two elementary logic mistakes: the appeal to ignorance and the post hoc. And this is how saints are made.
Carlos Orsi is a Brazillian science journalist and blogger. One of his papers has been published in the 2010 Winter Edition of the Baker Street Journal . He also writes a regular blog at http://carlosorsi.blogspot.com). When he is not writing about science, MR. Orsi is also an escience fiction writer with two novels published in Brazil: Nômade (Nomad) and Guerra Justa (Just War).
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