Sunday, December 06, 2009

No miracles, please

One of my favorite stylebook maxims (I think it's from Montreal but can't track it down conclusively) is about miracles: Don't. Or, slightly paraphrased: Don't muscle in on the pope's territory by declaring miracles. He might retaliate by editing copy.

The cousins at Wichita are sending a misleading signal with this centerpiece: Are we talking about the general coolness of some influential person's presence (in the sort of way I appreciate the miracle of Bill Monroe) or the specific sort of miracle that defies empirical explanation and gets you a step closer to sainthood? The text makes fairly clear, though, that they're talking about the latter. And that's a place journalists shouldn't go.

That's not to say there isn't a story here that needs telling (or that today's story isn't a thorough and painstakingly reported bit of historical reconstruction; it is). It's to suggest that you can, and should, report those stories without falling into your sources' epistemological quicksand. We deal with observable stuff. We don't do miracles. We report what people say and do, but we do it without validating particular judgments about the supernatural.

If you haven't been keeping up with things, the Vatican is thinking about conferring sainthood on a priest from Kansas who served as a chaplain in World War II and Korea and died in a North Korean POW camp in 1951. People have prayed to him as an intercessory over the years, and owing to the remarkable recovery of a gravely injured athlete in 2008, the official miracle investigators have come to town to see if the case qualifies.

Here's a distinction that might help editors argue the case without seeming excessively boorish or too closely tied to an interpretation of the supernatural that might rightly be seen as exclusionary. Sainthood comes about by a speech act. Like "I pronounce you husband and wife" or "I declare that a state of war exists," it happens when it's spoken by someone with the authority to make it be true. You don't have to accept the authority yourself to acknowledge its writ (the Klan is the one that appoints kleagles, whether you like the Klan or not).

Medical outcomes happen in a different realm and are subject to different rules. Absence of an explanation is not a license to substitute your own; not knowing is not a different kind of knowing. The church can declare an event a miracle, but no one else is obliged to acknowledge it.

Summary? Wichita needs to be careful. Don't toss terms like "miracle" around loosely. Next thing you know, the church will expect you to help it declare heretics as well, and you really don't want to be there.


Blogger John Cowan said...

Technically, sainthood doesn't come about by a speech act: canonization does. There may be, and undoubtedly are, innumerable saints unrecognized and uncanonized, which is why the Catholic Church assigns November 1, the Solemnity of All Saints, to commemorate them en masse.

In the Church of England (the Episcopal Church in these parts), the older names "Feast of All Hallows" and "Hallowmas" are still used; the night before that feast, of course, is "Hallow-even", or Hallowe'en.

The following day, November 2, is the Feast of All Souls, the Solemnity of the Faithful Departed -- which is why it's el Dia de los Muertos in the American Southwest and points southward.

The Orthodox Church recognizes the same concepts, but on different dates.

2:27 AM, December 07, 2009  

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