Debunking the Beatification and (Carefully, if Illogically) Planned Canonization of Pope John Paul II

Not long ago, I argued a contract case before an appeals court after losing in a bench trial (trial to judge, as opposed to jury).  We were suing a couple who basically swindled my client, a builder.  At some point disagreements between the parties developed, and the purchaser-defendants began to request add-ons and upgrades in order to exceed their loan guarantee.  The contract made the purchasers responsible to apply for a loan once the house was built; failure to do so would be a material breach of the contract.  When the loan officer for the bank testified, she told the judge that she was "certain" that the couple had applied for the loan, but that the mortgage was denied because the cost exceeded their guarantee.  On cross, however, she admitted that she only assumed that the couple had made application for a loan "because we would not have sent the application package to them" had they not, and that without an application there could not be a letter of denial (which had been admitted into evidence).  The trial court found for the defendant purchasers and we appealed.

If you read the above paragraph and concluded that the judge could not reasonably assume that the purchasers had actually applied for a loan, you probably understand post hoc reasoning. Briefly, to quote the Nizkor Project (www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/post-hoc), "...The fallacy [of post hoc] involves concluding that A causes B because A occurs before B and there is not sufficient evidence to actually warrant such a claim."  Broken down into a syllogism, it appears like this:

1. A occurs before B.

2. Therefore, A is the cause of B.

Adequate evidence is the key.  There is no reason to suspect a causal connection between two events simply because one follows the other.  There may be a correlation between A and B, but correlation does not equal causation. T. Edward Damer, in Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments (1995), says that such hypothetical relationships require further testing but are never sufficient evidence of a causal relationship on their own.  A website based on Damer's work can be found here: www.fallacyfiles.org.

The new Pope has put on the fast track the canonization of a predecessor, the "Polish Pope," John Paul II, based on evidence of at least one "miracle."  It seems that John Paul II "miraculously cured" a Costa Rican woman from a distance of about 6,100 miles, a fact confirmed by a "Vatican spokesman," the Rev. Federico Lombardi. Details are sketchy.  The AP quotes a "Spanish newspaper La Razon" saying the woman is one Floribeth Mora, who suffered from a cerebral aneurism, "inexplicably cured on May 1, 2011 -- the day of John Paul's beatification, when 1.5 million people filled St. Peter's Square to honor the beloved Polish pontiff." 

La Razon "reported last month that Mora awoke with a debilitating head pain on April 8 and went to the hospital, where her condition worsened to the point that she was sent home with only a month to live.  Her family prayed to John Paul, and the aneurism disappeared."  The AP story quoted Ms. Mora's physician, one Dr. Alejandro Vargas, as saying, "It surprised me a lot that the aneurism disappeared.  I can't explain it based on science."  Then the agency said it had "traveled to Mora's home in Costa Rica but has been told that she is bound by secrecy and cannot discuss her case."

A scientist might merely discount the Mora story as "anecdotal" if other factors did not make it appear completely ridiculous.  As it is, the tale reminds of the "Field of the Miracle" sequence in Federico Fellini's movie, La Dolce Vita.  There, the cynical, world-weary newspaper reporter, Marcello, is dispatched to a Roman suburb where two small children have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary.  The media coverage is shown to rival, say, that outside the O. J. Simpson trial.  Additionally, the sick and crippled have come from all parts to gather in the "field of the miracle," no doubt hoping for some post hoc cures of their own.

Night falls without the appearance of the children.  Suddenly, they emerge from their home and lead the reporters to a spot.  Rain begins to fall and the field becomes a muddy mess.  The children are shown changing their minds repeatedly, going to this place and that, the sick and cripples attempting to keep up.  The torrent causes flood lights to pop and shatter. Soon, there is a near-riot, the crowd climbing all over each other to get closer to the boy and girl.  Then, the spell is broken: the children begin to snicker and giggle mischievously. The whole affair has been a pathetic farce.

The criteria cited by the AP for qualification as a "miracle" performed by the intercession of the candidate for beatification or canonization is a "medically inexplicable cure that is lasting, immediate, and can be directly linked to the prayers offered by the faithful." Interestingly, there have been some 10,000 canonizations in church history.  Since one miracle is required for beatification and another for canonization, one can conclude that the Vatican has recognized some 20,000 miracles in its roughly 1,690 years.  That averages out to almost 12 a year.  Not only do extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof, it can easily be shown that all, or nearly all of the claims of miraculous healing have been nothing more than superstitious post hoc conclusions.

As it happens, miraculous cures are one of the most common examples of the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this"). The Nizkor article, for example, imagines "Jill, who is in London," sneezing "at the exact time an earthquake start[s] in California," and concludes, "It would clearly be irrational to arrest Jill for starting a natural disaster, since there is no reason to suspect any causal connection between the two events."  (One is reminded of the evangelical Rev. John Hagee, a megachurch pastor in Texas, claiming Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans because that city hosted a gay pride event.)  The Nizkor writer also depicts "Jane get[ting] a rather large wart on her finger.  Based on a story her father told her, she cuts a potato in half, rubs it on the wart and then buries it under the light of a full moon.  Over the next month her wart shrinks and eventually vanishes.  Jane writes her father to tell him how right he was about the cure."

Similarly, Damer, noting that superstition and magical thinking usually involve post hoc reasoning, envisions a "sick person...treated by a witch doctor, or a faith healer, and becomes better afterward," allowing his or her superstition to lead to the conclusion "that the spell or prayer was effective.  Since most illnesses will go away on their own eventually, any treatment will seem effective by post hoc thinking...."  To this, I might add that no treatment at all might also prove effective.  If the Vatican has obtained Ms. Mora's medical records, why won't they publish them?  Why does Ms. Mora hide behind a claim that she is "bound by secrecy" and cannot discuss her case?  Who imposed "secrecy" on Ms. Mora? Why was she sworn to secrecy?  The only way to prove that she even had a cerebral aneurism in the first place is with an MRI or other imaging of it, and the only way to prove that it is no longer life-threatening is with follow-up imaging.  Not proved is all that can be said.

And if the "miracle" is not proved, how can John Paul II be beatified by Pope Francis?  If the Vatican will not open its files on the 20,000 miracles that have led to canonization, how will we know whether most if not all belong to the same category of silliness that led to centuries of insistence that the sun orbited the earth?

As for Dr. Vargas's inability to "explain" the miraculous cure, one might say it is a good thing he practices in Costa Rica and not here.  The prognosis for patients with such aneurisms depend on many factors, including age and degree of seriousness, none of which data is supplied either by this presumed Roman Catholic or the headquarters in Rome. Is Dr. Vargas sworn to secrecy as well? Fully a third of all persons with cerebral aneurism survive, recovering "with little or no neurological deficit" says Wikipedia.  (Or does the Vatican discount that source, perhaps re-labeling it "Wickedpedia"?)  The accounts of Ms. Mora do not give her age, a rather important factor since many if not most of the 33.3% of survivors tend to be young. 

No wonder evangelicals want public schools to quit teaching "critical thinking": miracles happen because the Bible tells us so.  Oops!  Another fallacy there. Or two, actually.  Circular reasoning and an appeal to authority.  Schiller said it best, if you will pardon the way he put it: Against stupidity, even the angels fight in vain.

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Comment by Michael Penn on July 9, 2013 at 10:20am

Then the sun got very bright in the sky and time seemed frozen as a bright light came down and appeared to the 3 children. A voice spoke and claimed to be the Virgin Mary, but you would have thought that childbirth took care of that problem. I can't remember what form of dust or just how much dust Mary appeared as, but I thought I saw her at my house once over in the corner. Anyway, she told the children of events of the wars and even events happening at the end of time. Of course, no one knew just what she told the children exactly, and this was all sealed up so nobody would know, but it was well documented. This was the Miracle of Tina,  eh, Fatima!

Comment by Pat on July 7, 2013 at 2:55pm

St. Lazarus of Viagra performed The Miracle of the Standing Pine when, in a poker game, he said, "I'll Cialis that bet, and raise you one."

OK. I deserve to be taken out and horse whipped for that.

Comment by James M. Martin on July 7, 2013 at 12:04pm

Thanks, Ted.  You wrote: "If you accept the canon you have a ready-made basis for imagining that any sort of miracle can occur, despite evidence or lack thereof."  Were you aware of making a pun?  The stories of Jesus's life and his "miracles" comes in the four books of the N.T. known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and it so happens that they are referred to by scholars as "the Canonicals."  (They are chock full of contradictions and, gospel to gospel, omissions of things one might think kind of important, and a lacuna -- Simon the Cyrenean's taking up of the cross on the path to Golgotha -- has been suggested by some to even indicate it was he who died on the timbers, not Jesus.)  In any case, not only can the so called "miracles" attributed to Jesus be explained with reference to science and the superstitious nature of men at the time, some biblical scholars even suggest the elements should be taken as symbolic.  For example, the raising of Lazarus.  Some think what was raised was not the man's dead body but his penis, that Lazarus was only dead in the sense that he could not attain an erection.  Even if untrue, such things are enormously amusing to me.

Comment by Ted Foureagles on July 7, 2013 at 11:44am

James:

Thank you for the lucid & interesting post.  Almost everyone I know is deeply religious as a function of local (southeast US) culture.  And most of them are good people; some even highly intelligent.  Yet the superstitions not only persist, but are given primacy in their worldview.  I think that they, at least the smart ones, don't really believe the childish nonsense, but need to live as if they do out of fear of reality.  And so I can't help but see religious faith as fundamentally dishonest.

The 'sworn to secrecy' bit of this latest 'miracle' suggests just how desperately those with need to believe defend their precious delusions against the perceived existential threat of reality.  Once reality gains a foothold it begins to erode the ground beneath the foundation upholding God, and brick-minded believers one by one tumble into the gulley.  After a while, the whole damn wall is held up by nothing but imagined magic.

If you must believe that magic holds things up, you (if you're intellectually dishonest) invent examples to explain how that works, thus 'miracles' in both canonized text and modern life.  If you accept the canon you have a ready-made basis for imagining that any sort of miracle can occur, despite evidence or lack thereof.  When clear evidence contradicts, you invent the concept of faith and promote it as a virtue.

How could Catholics not see Popes as Saints?  To do otherwise denies their entire hanging-from-the-ceiling hammock.

}}}}

Comment by Loren Miller on July 7, 2013 at 9:37am

I suspect that this is little more than a game that the Vatican plays with itself, to attempt to justify its belief that miracles and magic still happen in the world.  The problem is that this belief is slowly but surely being bulldozed by science and skepticism and the Missourian demand, SHOW ME.  It's also playing to the converted, in an effort to keep them in the fold, an effort which will likely be at least reasonably successful with the older members of the RC church.

Younger, more inquisitive members?  Ahhh, there's the rub.

Comment by Daniel W on July 7, 2013 at 9:32am

The only way to prove that she even had a cerebral aneurism in the first place is with an MRI or other imaging of it, and the only way to prove that it is no longer life-threatening is with follow-up imaging. Not proved is all that can be said"

Bingo!  So the the church is promulgating fictions and ignorance.  I'm SHOCKED!  When did they start doing that?

Pat thanks for reminding me of the Tom Robbins book.  I read that a lifetime ago.  When the world was green, the sky was blue, and there was so much promise in the air....  :)

Comment by James M. Martin on July 6, 2013 at 1:46pm

Thanks for the laughs, Pat, but a minor cavil about the wines.  At Castel Gandolfo they only drink Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Comment by Pat on July 6, 2013 at 11:33am

The Vatican opening their records and files? Are you serious?! The consequences would be more devastating than when Dorothy, standing next to the scarecrow, pulled the curtain back on the Great and Powerful Wizard.

The story of the "miracle cure" of Floribeth Mora reminds me of the Tom Robbins novel Another Roadside Attraction. The novel's protagonist discovers the body of Jesus in the catacombs under the Vatican which, if the secret got out, would destroy Christianity. He hides himself and JC's corpse at a hot dog stand in Oregon, with an orangutan that cheats at chess, while a group of Vatican "hit" monks hunt him down for assassination, lest the secret be revealed.

Same with Floribeth and the 20,000+ miracles that have helped populate the Abrahamic Happy Land themed park after world. If the truth came out, such as natural and rational causes for events which are otherwise inexplicable to the uneducated and gullible, the vast income of the Catholic bureaucracy would come to a grinding halt. Then where would retired Popes and pederasts go to drink vintages such as Henri Jayer Richebourg Grand Cru, Cote de Nuits, and eat chateaubriand with a good bearnaise sauce?

Comment by Joan Denoo on July 5, 2013 at 5:55pm
I agree with your assessment: SILLY! Being unwilling to document the events and people sworn to secrecy presents very compelling pieces of evidence that chicanery is taking place.

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