In The News: Saint Mother Teresa

teresaYou may have seen the note in pre-Christmas news that Pope Francis has “approved” the second miracle that Mother Teresa’s advocates needed to have her eligible to be recognized as a saint.  Specifically, current regulations require that a miracle be attributable to the person’s direct intercession with God for healing.  One miracle qualifies someone as one who is “Blessed,” and a second qualifies them to be “Saint.”  (This version of the story at USAToday has a nice summary of the four steps of the process.)

For many Catholics, this is good news, as the USAToday story notes.  Mother Teresa has long been admired as an example of the Christian virtues of humility and service.  For many Christians, the posthumous revelation of her doubts and spiritual struggles have been a blessing, as they testify that “even saints” deal with questions in their faith.  Further, it is encouraging to have saints to admire and pray to who come from one’s own era; there is no question of whether or not she understands what it’s like to live in the modern world.

For many Protestants, though, this news is just another example of the canonization process that they don’t fully understand.  Some examples:

  • Does this mean that the pope “made” her a saint?  (Answer: no.  As this link explains, in a longer and more technical description of the process from a Catholic perspective, the church merely “declares” or “recognizes” her as a saint.  In other words, the idea is that she is a saint; it’s only now, by means of these miracles, that the church can know for sure that this is the case.  The reason is that, following traditional Catholic belief [derived from Revelation 6:9-11, among other places], the saints are those “already” in heaven with Jesus, thus enabling them to make intercession for those still on earth.)
  • Has it always been done the way it is now?  (Answer: no.  The Wikipedia article on “canonization” has a nice section on the historical development of the process.)
  • Is it possible that the church could be wrong about canonizing someone?  How does the church know that it’s right?  (Answer: wellllll… that’s a tricky question.  The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas actually took up that very question in a class lecture once (Quodlibet IX.8).  His answer?  As usual, it was complex.  He said the church can not err in matters of faith, but that it can err in judging disputes about things like possessions or crimes, because of the problem of false witnesses.   He says that the matter of saints lies “in between” these two, in terms of relative certainty of judgment.  As a result, while it is technically possible for the church to err, he says that the honor with which we consider the saints suggests that it is more pious to think that the church cannot err, because it will cause too many problems with people’s spiritual lives.

In other words, whether or not we agree with what’s happening in this story, it’s a way that Christians today are participating in a process that has long historical roots and that will contribute to church history in the future.

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