I’m not sure if National Public (NPR) radio has always been this soft on religion, but I’m sure noticing it now. Yesterday the network broadcast a particularly egregious episode dealing with the two “verified miracles” required to canonize a saint (now including Mother Teresa). The good news is that the piece was only five minutes long, but it was still long enough to compel three readers to email me complaints about it.
The piece is “How the Catholic Church documented Mother Teresa’s 2 miracles,” narrated and presumably written by Tom Gjelten for NPR’s “Morning Edition.” You can hear it at the link or by clicking on the screenshot below and then on the arrow at the upper left of the destination:
There’s also text at the link, which is similar but not identical to the broadcast. I’ve already written in Faith Versus Fact about the first miracle that got Mother Teresa beatified, the first step in sainthood:
The Vatican itself, which requires a miracle to beatify someone, and two miracles to make them a saint, is none too scrupulous about the medical evidence needed to elevate someone to the pantheon. The beatification of Mother Teresa, for instance, was the supposed disappearance of ovarian cancer in Monica Besra, an Indian woman who reported she was cured after looking at a picture of the nun. It turns out, though, that her tumor wasn’t cancerous but tubercular, and, more important, she’d received conventional medical treatment in a hospital, with her doctor (who wasn’t interviewed by the Vatican) taking credit for the cure.
NPR just alludes to the Besra case, but just said that “her stomach tumor disappeared”. (For more on Besra’s real medical treatment, see here, with a photo at bottom of this post.)
The main journalistic failure of this piece is its credulous acceptance of these “cures” as true miracles and not of natural origin (it notes only that “rationalists wouldn’t be likely to call these things miracles”, but they don’t say why). Do they know about spontaneous remissions and cures, even of cancer—remissions that don’t involve any prayer or extreme religiosity? If so, NPR doesn’t mention them.
To document that these really are “miracles”, NPR drags out a compliant atheist (quotes from the text):
A group advocating sainthood for Marguerite d’Youville, a nun who lived in 18th century Canada, for example, sought an alternative explanation for the sudden recovery of a woman with incurable leukemia who had prayed to the nun 200 years after the nun’s death. The assignment went to Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist at Queen’s University in Ontario.
Duffin agreed to do the investigation, but only after warning the group that she was not herself a believer.
“I revealed my atheism to them,” Duffin says. “I told them my husband was a Jew, and I wasn’t sure if they’d still want me. And they were delighted!”
The group reasoned that if Duffin, as an atheist, found there was no scientific reason the woman should have recovered, who could doubt it was a miracle? In fact, after her investigation of the woman’s recovery, Duffin agreed that the woman’s healing was — for lack of a better word — miraculous.
Intrigued by the experience, Duffin investigated hundreds of other miracle stories chronicled in the Vatican archives in Rome. She came away convinced that “miracles” do indeed happen.
“To admit that as a nonbeliever, you don’t have to claim that it was a supernatural entity that did it,” Duffin says. “You have to admit some humility and accept that there are things that science cannot explain.”
I feel sorry for Dr. Duffin, who, though disdaining the idea of God, implies in her last sentence that because science can’t understand something now, it never will. We surely have cases of spontaneous remission without prayer; could she not have mentioned these? (The “miracle” of Monica Besra, in fact, was almost certainly a regular medical cure.) And yes, we surely won’t know the reasons for remissions and cures in the distant past, but we might be able to understand them in the future. It seems to me that it was Duffin’s responsibility here to push back harder against the claims that God did it, and not agree that the Canadian woman’s healing was “miraculous.” That word, like “spirituality,” plays directly in to the hands of the faithful. Far better if she had said “enigmatic”!
And couldn’t NPR have asked for a comment by somebody like Orac or Steve Novella, who could proffer a little more pushback against religion here? Could they not have mentioned the “intercessory prayer study” that showed no evidence that remote prayer had any effect on the healing of heart patients?
Finally, Gejelton calls on the religionists to explain why sainthood is so important:
“A saint is someone who has lived a life of great virtue, whom we look to and admire,” says Bishop Barron, a frequent commentator on Catholicism and spirituality. “But if that’s all we emphasize, we flatten out sanctity. The saint is also someone who’s now in heaven, living in this fullness of life with God. And the miracle, to put it bluntly, is the proof of it.”
No other Christian denomination posits this notion of an individual in heaven mediating between God and humanity.
“It’s not a little supernatural, it’s completely supernatural,” says the Rev. James Martin, S.J., whose book, My Life with the Saints, recounts his own spiritual journey. “But that’s the difficulty a lot of people have with religion. The invitation is to say, ‘There’s something more than the rational mind can believe, and are you OK with that?’ “
No, I’m not OK with that, for over and over again we find that things that science hasn’t understood, and were imputed to God (lightning, epilepsy, magnetism, evolution—the list is endless) have later been found to have naturalistic rather than divine explanations. That should make one very wary of crying “God” about these “miracles.”
Now you might say, “Well, NPR is just explaining Catholicism.” Yes, that’s true, though I think they should have offered a more balanced view. But that aside, think about how it would sound if NPR did a piece on Scientology’s “theology,” reporting it with just the gravitas of this one.
Or, what if they did a bit on Christian Science and its claim of “spiritual healing,” trotting out someone like Dr. Duffin to say that yes, there are lots of prayer cures in Scientology, and we don’t understand them, so we have to have a bit of humility. (“Humility”, like “nuance,” is one of what I call “run words”: when you hear them, run for the hills, because you’re dealing with a bull-goose believer.)
If the Catholic church believes that saints are pipelines to God who can provide special cures, how come prayer to saints hasn’t restored lost eyes or amputated limbs? Why is it only diseases known to spontaneously regress that the incipient (or established) saints can “cure”? Isn’t that a remarkable coincidence?
It’s a blot on humanity that apparently rational adults can believe in such childish and fantastical stuff.
h/t: James Blilie