Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Relic veneration in the modern world

The Vatican is warning against “miracle-performing sensationalism” and too enthusiastic a veneration of relics:

Even the veneration of relics, [writes Wall Street Journal columnist Francis Rocca, the Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service,] mocked by the Protestant reformers and long downplayed by Catholic leaders, is becoming more popular—to the point that a Vatican theologian last year saw the need to warn against the “risk of crossing the boundary from popular devotion to superstition” and “substituting miracle-performing sensationalism for authentic faith.”

Unfortunately, Rocca does not disclose how the Vatican distinguishes “popular devotion” from “superstition” or “miracle-performing sensationalism” from “authentic faith.”   This official caveat strikes me as akin to admonishing someone to stay just a little bit pregnant.   Undoubtedly, the Vatican regards the Virgin Birth, Jesus walking on water, the raising of Lazarus, the Resurrection, the efficacy of saints, God’s amenability to petitionary prayer, and most other aspects of Christian lore as falling in the “authentic faith,” rather than in “miracle-performing sensationalism,” side of the ledger, though the parceling out of various miracles into one camp or the other would seem to have more to do with tradition than with any empirically-determined distinction among them.  How many saints do you get to pray to a day as a prophylactic against harm before you have become superstitious?

Nevertheless, this Vatican statement illustrates the ongoing corralling of religion by a secular, naturalistic understanding of the world.  That the Catholic hierarchy could be embarrassed by relic veneration, when nearly every Catholic Church in Europe proudly displays its lavish, silver and gold jewel-encrusted reliquaries allegedly housing this bit of Jesus’ femur or that bit of a saint’s bladder, shows how the religious practices that once filled out a world still untamed and unexplained by science grow ineluctably more remote.  Of course, I shouldn’t overstate the extent to which humanity is embracing an empirical posture towards reality.  I overhear too many conversations in the ladies locker room of my gym promoting this or that homeopathic remedy on the ground that the taker’s cold got better after she ingested the alleged cure to truly suppose that everyone waits for strong evidence before believing whatever claim is presented to him.  And of course, Rocca’s column itself testifies to (and celebrates) a resurgence in relic worship: 

Many Catholics, especially among the educated in wealthy countries, regard such practices as embarrassing vestiges of medieval piety, distractions from a more sophisticated spirituality. Yet a scene this month in St. Peter’s Square, broadcast on television around the world, sent another message. The sight of a nun displaying a silver reliquary with the blood of the newly beatified Pope John Paul II, to applause from a crowd of 1.5 million devotees, suggests that demand remains strong for a brand of faith that celebrates its difference.

(Amusingly, Rocca’s “yet” in the above passage purports to be signaling a contradiction, as if the sheer numbers of relic worshippers refutes the fact that such veneration is a “vestige of medieval piety.”)

Still, the march of thought at least in the West circumscribes the once totalizing impulses of religion and puts its once mandatory rituals and its explanations for reality into a box marked “religion—handle with care.”  Promoters of a more flamboyantly supernatural form of Christianity like Rocca and David Bentley Hart purport to be undaunted by the fact that such charismatic forms are flourishing most in the least educated places on earth, such as Africa and the Caribbean.  Do we really want to emulate the belief systems of Africans?  Rocca also applauds some Bishops’ call for a return to meatless Fridays.  I will know that religious Americans in particular are ready to walk the walk and not just talk the talk of religious obedience when Christian leaders start calling for shopping malls to shut down on Sundays in observance of the Fourth Commandment.  Until then, it looks to me that the needs of modern consumer capitalism take precedence over God’s sacred commandment.

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  • John · May 31, 2011 at 2:07 am

    I’m not sure that the Catholic Church’s statement against relics reflects a naturalistic understanding of the world. They are just following the 10 commandments: There is only one Lord God; don’t worship any false ones.

    Yes, to an atheist like me, they are all false, but the church is not being foolish by saying “We are a monotheistic religion. We worship only one God.”

  • Mark in Spokane · May 31, 2011 at 5:30 am

    If you are going to attack relics, you might want to make sure you don’t say something like this:

    “when nearly every Catholic Church in Europe proudly displays its lavish, silver and gold jewel-encrusted reliquaries allegedly housing this bit of Jesus’ femur…”

    I would be astonished if any Catholic Church — or any orthodox Christian Church for that matter — was holding up an encrusted bone from the corpse of somebody that they claim was resurrected.

  • John Farrell · May 31, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    I think HM probably meant to say ‘allegedly housing this bit of a saint’s femur’ or ‘this bit of Jesus’ cross’….

  • J. · May 31, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Many catholics may proclaim they are rationalists, on the side of science, opposed to the supernatural so forth–and some may be (the Vatican did finally pen some official documents critical of the young earth creationists, and has offered some limited support of evolution–a step up from baptick sorts). But in reality–thousands still make pilgrimages to Lourdes, to the many relic-sites in Europe (most cathedrals house some supposed relic), the site of the alleged miracle of Fatima, the site of the Virgin of Guadalupe, so forth. Indeed, the RCC does a tidy business from selling merchandise related to miracles and relics–so, they are…accepted as genuine, for sound fiduciary reasons.

  • Anthony · June 4, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Chick-fil-A is still closed on Sundays, but stands out for that policy. Noah’s Bagels used to shut down for Passover (because you can’t make an unleavened bagel) but has now fallen so far as to have Ham and cheese bagels.

  • Eusebius · June 5, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    The value of fashionable changes in Catholicism regarding relics and saints is disputed by Catholic historian Eamon Duffy. He “mounts a critique of the present model of sanctity—the saint as exemplar, a person who embodies some aspect of the Christian ideal. In the past, especially the distant past, the saints were venerated as prodigies, miracle-workers, intercessors, protectors. The more they were unlike the rest of us, the better. They brought the majesty and otherness of God down to earth and allowed ordinary men and women to see and touch the divine. Hence the importance of relics. The body of the saint was the locus of supernatural power.

    “According to Duffy, the new model of sainthood fosters Pelagianism, ‘a wearisome emphasis on good deeds and moral effort, the saint as prig and puritan.’ In his view the older model is far better, offering us the saint as spiritual tightrope walker, ascetic star, eccentric.”



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