Mother Mary MacKillop of Australia was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday October 17, 2010 and became Australia’s first Catholic saint.
The Catholic Church excommunicated her for insubordination in 1871 but, as in the case of Joan of Arc, it subsequently made a complete turnabout when Pope Benedict XVI paved the way for her canonisation as Australia’s first saint by approving a decree in 2009 recognising a second miracle that had been attributed to her.
Joan of Arc was condemned as a relapsed heretic by her French judges, excommunicated and handed over to the English to be burned at the stake on Wednesday, 30 May 1431 at the age of 19. As soon as the English were driven out of the country she was hailed as the saviour of France. She was canonised by Benedict XV in 1919 and became known as Saint Joan of Arc.
A legendary story, often quoted, regarding Catholic Saints relates that until around the 12th century, local churches and bishops were responsible for making saints, not Rome. The number of saints soared to inflationary proportions. But in 1170, Pope Alexander III reportedly sent an irate letter to King Canute of Sweden, criticising a bishop for tolerating devotion to a local saint who, Alexander believed, had been killed in a drunken brawl. Thereafter no public veneration could take place without the approval of the pope, and the Vatican began to assume control of the canonisation process to ensure that the saints did in fact qualify for inclusion in the holy list.
Before Pope John Paul II died on 2 April 2005, the procedure for investigating and recognising saints was streamlined. The Devil’s Advocate position was eliminated and the number of miracles required was halved from four to two. Over his 27 year tenure, Pope John Paul II named more saints than all his predecessors combined. He beatified more than 1,300 individuals and canonised nearly 500. He even fast-tracked Mother Teresa’s canonisation.
The Catholic Church does not, of course, have a monopoly on the elevation of individuals to sainthood, whether meritorious or otherwise. Many religions, including the four main monotheistic or Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith, are peopled with numerous saints. Naturally, they are not all the same. Each religion has its own gallery of saints, some of whom have the good fortune to be revered by more than one religion.
The definition of what constitutes a saint is more or less the same from one religion to another. Martyrdom is an important factor.
Needless to say, the widespread religious tradition of saintly martyrdom and its presumed consequential heavenly recompense is a major source of motivation for the more radical Islamic movements such as Al-Qaida in their present day struggle against what they perceive to be occidental imperialism. In the minds of the members of such radical movements, martyrdom is no doubt considered a faster and surer route to heaven than that of attempting to produce miracles.
Australia has now witnessed its first two miracles and it would seem appropriate to examine the phenomenon a little closer. A miracle, of course, is not just the realisation of what may be considered an unimaginable, highly improbable or impossible event. It has nothing to do with mathematical calculations of probability or the imagination of expected outcomes. It specifically indicates the intervention of some divine or supernatural force. It is a purely religious term.
Contrary to popular belief, religions make no attempt to prove that a particular phenomenon is a miracle. Nor do they offer any justification for their decisions to recognize particular phenomena as miracles. They place the onus of proof concerning the occurrence or non-occurrence of miracles squarely in the court of science.
They consider that it is the role of science, not religion, to provide proof. Religion is a question of faith, not proof. If science cannot provide irrefutable proof that a particular phenomenon is due to natural causes, then the way is free for religion to claim responsibility in the name of its god or gods or whatever supernatural force it purports to represent, as having produced yet another miracle.
This is a well known dialectic stratagem known as “argument from ignorance” (argumentum ad ignorantiam), a logical fallacy in which it is claimed that a premise is true simply because it cannot be proven false. However, it can hardly be considered dishonest as religion does not pretend to be scientific or even logical for that matter.