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
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
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
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.