Miracles and sainthood: Kateri Tekakwitha

Kenneth Miller’s book Finding Darwin’s God got me thinking about miracles, because Miller believes in them and believes he understands how they can occur. And now we have the Catholic Church canonizing a bunch of new saints, including Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks.” She becomes the first Native American saint.

Kateri was noted for her chastity and her “mortification of the flesh”:

Tekakwitha’s dedication to ritual mortification became more intense and consuming over the remainder of her life; she included prolonged fasting, flogging, cutting, sleeping on a bed of thorns, and burning herself with hot coals

Good job, seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries!

I can recall her name from my parochial-school history book long ago–she probably showed up in a sidebar as an example of how even American Indians could become good Catholics.  (I recall the name, I think, because it has a nice rhythm to it, like an Indian chant.) There’s a Church of the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha down the road from me in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the parishioners are of course excited.

The Church, like Miller, also believes in miracles, and it requires them before making someone a saint.  Nowadays you need one to be beatified, and another to be canonized.  The miracle that brought Kateri over the finish line happened to a kid from Washington state, who recovered from an infection of flesh-eating bacteria after his family prayed to her.

I read a good book once called Making Saints about the careful process the Vatican undertakes to investigate the miracles needed for canonization.  It is one example, among many, of very smart, very dedicated, very religious people spending their lives doing something entirely worthless. The miracles, as I recall, were pretty much all inexplicable medical cures, like the one attributed to Kateri.  The problem, of course, is that inexplicable medical cures happen all the time.  Why?  Because we have only an imperfect understanding of medicine.  For the stuff we do understand–like, you don’t grow a new leg when one gets cut off–well, there aren’t any miracles in that neck of the woods.

I read a few news accounts of the canonization and the related miracle, and none of them questioned the miraculousness of the miracle.  The family was convinced, the Vatican was convinced, so what more do you want?  People, in fact, want miracles.  They make life more interesting; they give us hope.  I will note that my novel Pontiff is suffused with miracles — they make novels more interesting, too!  So I guess I’m not one to complain.  But it does seem like some reporter should quote a medical authority expressing some skepticism about the whole thing.  I suppose an editor would just lose the quote, though.

(A person I work with has been to one Mass in her life — the canonization of one of her relatives at the Vatican. That’s pretty cool, although her relative’s death was anything but cool.  Saints don’t generally lead happy lives, or have happy deaths.)