saints catholicism atheism archbishop sheen
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Even though I was raised Catholic, I didn’t know this fact: To become a true “saint,” a person must not only be credited with a miracle—actually two—but they generally also must occur after the candidate dies.

saints catholicism atheism archbishop sheen
Mother Teresa at the end of her life lamented that she had lost the sense of God speaking to her. (Philip K., Flikr, Public Domain)

This is, of course, absurd on a number of different levels. One, rationally speaking, there is no such thing as a “miracle” in common understanding, so it’s unclear what being a “saint” actually represents in reality in the first place. Also unfathomable is the idea that a dead person, from beyond the grave, as it were, can cause a blatant violation of the laws of nature on Earth for the purpose of achieving an impossible result.

After all, the word “miracle” itself is a kind of out-of-whole-cloth invention. Merriam-Webster dictionary’s lead definition of such purported phenomena is:

“An extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs; the healing miracles described in the gospels.”

In plain language this means: events that are orchestrated not in reality by physics and other natural laws but by supernatural (i.e., nonexistent) beings and forces that reside, as far as anyone can know, only in human imagination.

I’m thinking about this because of a story I read today from the Catholic News Agency about the impending sainthood of the late Catholic televangelist Archbishop Fulton Sheen. The article opened with this statement:

“Pope Francis approved the miracle attributed to Archbishop Fulton Sheen Friday, making possible the American television catechist’s beatification. … The miracle involves the unexplained recovery of James Fulton Engstrom, a boy born apparently stillborn in September 2010 to Bonnie and Travis Engstrom of the Peoria-area town of Goodfield. He showed no signs of life as medical professionals tried to revive him. The child’s mother and father prayed to Archbishop Sheen to heal their son.”

Considering that people returning to consciousness after “drowning” in very cold water over many minutes has been proven by medical science to be explainable as a result of natural processes, a boy “apparently stillborn” (italics mine) should not immediately turn our minds to the miraculous intercession of gods. Atheists would conclude that some medical phenomenon occurred that saved this boy but that doctors thus far simply do not know enough to understand or explain how it functioned.

It’s like ancient, superstitious astrologers believed the sun “moved” across the sky each day before scientific astronomers many centuries later discovered that the earth is the thing moving (rotating) and the sun is relatively stationary—which only makes the sun “seem” to move (an optical illusion).

So, to summarize, a boy born unresponsive who ultimately lived and thrived after his parents and others with prayer invoked the intercession of a long-dead cleric is not evidence of a “miracle” in the formal Catholic sense. It’s only a miracle in the casual sense—“This should never have happened, in our experience, but did.”

The question is, “Why?”

In the real world, dead people in the afterlife don’t cure apparently dead people in this one. So, if we want to be rational, we should look for down-to-earth causes of purported “apparent” supernatural “miracles.”

When it thundered when I was a boy, my dad always joked that God had decided to go bowling and always a lot of strikes when he did that. Sounded reasonable to me at the time.

Now I know better.

And so should Catholic Church movers and shakers, including the pope, as they move toward declaring Archbishop Sheen a miracle-inducing saint.

Too many millions of people out there think these scions of Catholicism would never perpetuate anything that wasn’t true and noble (except, perhaps, pedophile priests). It’s irresponsible of the Powers That Be to prolong these ideas of divine intervention, when I strongly suspect many of them don’t believe in miracles themselves but are just being politic, preaching to the choir.

I read that the late Mother Teresa, herself formally sainted by the Church, was distraught at the end of her life because that certain profound sense had long left her that she was in direct communion with God.

My guess is that in the vigor of youth and newness of faith, a flood of brain chemicals and hormones left the youthful Teresa with powerful feelings of the divine connection she fervently longed for.

But, like after the first blush of idealistic young love, less-dreamy reality eventually intrudes.

To my way of thinking, a true miracle would be if someone proved scientifically that a specific “miracle” happened as a direct result of divine intervention and a saint.

So far, though, we’ve got nothing solid to support such things.

(Also read Val Wilde’s post on Archbishop Sheen’s impending beatification in the Friendly Atheist blog, here.)


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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...