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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