Monday, 13 September 2010

Pope in Britain to plug new cure for backache?

As Popeweek begins in Britain - a long build-up of complaints about the cost and resurrected (and new) scandals, to culminate at the weekend with what various pundits will agree to have been a "surprisingly successful" visit - the BBC website gives us the strange inside story of the beatification of John Henry Newman.

Newman's credentials for sainthood lie in his writings (of which the intellectual Ratzinger is said to be a fan) and the role he played in the restoration of English Catholicism in the mid 19th century. Without Newman, Rome's British contingent might have remained an unofficial network of Irish immigrants and the grand aristocratic descendents of seventeenth century refusniks. Newman helped turn it into a rival to the Church of England. He also provided intellectual ballast to the quintessential Catholic belief in the Pope's cosmic significance. His beatification ought to have been a straightforward matter of returning an old favour. Alas, under the bizarre Vatican procedure for canonisation there has to be a "miracle". So poor old Newman (or whatever remains of him - not much, apparently) was kept waiting for years until a "miracle" was discovered.

Jack Sullivan was in agony. Bedridden after complicated surgery on his spine, the pain was so intense he was unable to sleep and had trouble breathing.

An earlier scan had revealed the vertebrae in his lower back had turned inwards and were squeezing his spinal cord, severing the protective layer around the spine. His doctor said the case was one of the worst he had ever seen and that he was lucky not to have been paralysed.

Nearly a decade later, on Sunday the 71-year-old will walk pain-free to preach the Gospel at the Mass to beatify 19th Century Cardinal John Henry Newman.

That's right. Newman is being beatified this week, not for his life and achievements, but because someone's bad back got better and he believes that Newman deserves the credit. A Vatican panel of medical experts spent eight years weighing up the evidence - obviously, it was a close run thing - before accepting that Sullivan's back-pain was "miraculously" healed, and all thanks to the shade of John Henry Newman. How convenient. Now obviously, I'm thrilled that Sullivan feels well enough to walk up to a lectern unaided (though "will walk pain-free" strikes me as tempting fate somewhat); but equally obviously, his improvement has nothing whatever to do with the intervention of Newman.

So what gave him the idea that it had?

Doctors warned he would have to quit his religious studies to undergo surgery, and the former court official returned home dejected, flicking through television channels until he came upon a programme about Cardinal Newman.

It ended with an appeal for anyone who had received a "divine favour" after praying to Cardinal Newman to get in touch.

"I certainly needed a divine favour at that moment so I prayed: 'Please Cardinal Newman help me to walk so that I can return to classes and be ordained'," said Mr Sullivan. When he woke the next morning, the pain had gone...

The Newman effect was unfortunately shortlived, however. Sullivan still needed an operation, which was duly performed nine months later, leaving him in "excruciating pain". Until he asked Newman to fix it, whereupon he instantly felt "a strong tingling sensation" and "an indescribable sense of joy and peace". Are you thinking "placebo" here? I know I am. As for his remaining pain-free nine years later - well, heretical thought I know, but just maybe that operation worked. The report quotes Michael Powell, a consultant neurosurgeon at London's University College Hospital, said a procedure like Sullivan's typically took "about 40 minutes, and most patients... walk out happy at two days".

Is this the best the Vatican can come up with? To convince a sceptic of the reality of miracles, of course, it would take a truly impossible event, like someone's amputated leg spontaneously regenerating. But most beatification committees manage to find something superficially impressive like a sudden recovery from inoperable cancer after all the radiotherapy has failed - though such events are far from unknown to science without any suggestion of divine intervention. But relief of back-pain is surely scraping the barrel, even by usual saint-making standards.

Compared with the news from Belgium - and almost everywhere else, indeed - the authenticity of a claimed miracle is a fairly minor matter. I'm not so sure. An organisation that can set up committees of inquiry lasting eight years into an elderly man's back-pain, all the while repeatedly failing to take the necessary action to root out paedophiles in its midst (or even now fully to co-operate with the civil authorities) has, at best, a strange sense of priorities. Clearly, the Vatican is capable of carrying out thorough investigation if it considers the subject matter sufficiently important - in this case, whether some guy's back-pain was alleviated by a Victorian prelate. Although even here the result is a convenient fudge.

On the other hand, perhaps Newman is being lined up to be patron saint of chiropractors one day. After the year they've had, they certainly need a miracle.