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Miraculous democracy in Rome

02 May 2014

High definition:The Sunday Telegraphnews story to accompany its interview with Lord Williams

High definition:The Sunday Telegraphnews story to accompany its interview with Lord Williams

THE mathematics of miracles continues to fascinate me. In part, this is because of the part they play in the Roman Catholic canonisation process, ensuring that there is a genuinely democratic input into what might otherwise be entirely a game of politics and influence.

The baseline here is a long study of medically inexplicable cures at Lourdes, which shows both that they do happen there, and that they do not happen at a rate any higher than chance would predict. "Chance", of course, is begging the question here. But it serves as a placeholder for the undeniable fact that, every year, a fairly substantial number of people are cured in ways that medicine can neither predict nor explain.

For someone to be canonised by the Roman Catholic Church, two miracles are needed - unless they are not, as in the case of Pope John XXIII, whose life was deemed to be holy enough to qualify. These miracles have to follow prayers for the saint's intercession. Now, assuming that medically inexplicable cures are randomly distributed, the odds that any one of these will follow prayer to any particular saint or candidate for canonisation are simply a function of the number of prayers said, and that, in turn, reflects the popularity of the saint in the exactly relevant way.

So canonisation is, among other things, a profoundly democratic process. As such, it is vulnerable to a sort of ballot-rigging, where well-organised supporter groups ensure that there are lots of prayers for intercession; but, even if it is not an infallible guide to genuine popularity, it is, I think, a reliable guide to genuine unpopularity, or at least limited interest.

The fact that Pope John XXIII was canonised without a second miracle seems to show that the kind of Catholics who regard him as a saint, or at least as the best pope of the 20th century, are not those who regularly pray for miraculous healing. They are, in fact, Tablet readers. This may seem to replicate an earlier research result from the University of the Bleeding Obvious, but it's an important point.

Of course, with anything between "hundreds of thousands" and a million people converging on Rome for the ceremony, it was obvious that this was a huge story, and perhaps one that only the Roman Catholic Church could stage. The only comparable spectacle in this country would be the canonisation of Tom Hollander. That would draw all the clergy in the country.

AN INTRIGUING point emerges from the Telegraph leader considering Cole Moreton's latest interview, with Rowan Williams, who talked in interesting ways about Britain as a country "haunted by Christianity" - "haunting", he said, in the sense of a haunting melody rather than a haunted house, where the revenant is in fact dead. A poll carried out on the subject for the paper showed some fascinating absences.

The most obvious, of course, was the absence of people who call themselves Christians: "52% describe themselves as practising or non-practising Christians"; but later came on an interesting absence of whingeing secularists: "Our survey also found that 48 per cent of the public believe Christians are afforded less protection than members of other faiths. Only 28 per cent think they get equal protection, and 8 per cent that they get more."

Obviously I am biased because I spend an unhealthy amount of time reading comments on The Guardian's site, where there is a constant trope that the Church of England is "specially privileged", and that no one gives atheists the respect they deserve. It would appear now that this is the opinion of about eight per cent of the population. Once more, the special respect given to the Liberal Democrats shames our supposedly rational democracy.

Most interesting of all is the distinction now drawn between "religion" and "Christians": apparently, "50 per cent feel Christians are afraid to express their beliefs because of the rise of religious fundamentalism." In this usage, the toxicity of "religion" as a brand is clearly code for "Islam". Not even the worst enemies of GAFCON would suggest that they frighten anyone who might express a different opinion in this country. This also explains why the Church authorities, who for a while talked about "faith schools", have now reverted to "church schools" again.

And Moreton did get a lovely, unequivocal quote out of the interview: "The job? Hmm. Not particularly. Why would you? Yes. There was obviously a foolish, vain and immature part of me which said, 'Ooh, an important job, how very nice.' And the rest of me said, 'Come on!'"

It is obviously a qualification for the job to know that the part of you that wants it is "foolish, vain and immature" - but I do wonder how long that insight lasts once the mitre has descended over a Primate's eyes.

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