Science and technology

Regarding incorruptibility

Yesterday, I pointed to a 1998 letter, printed in the Catholic magazine This Rock, from a Michael Dietsch in South Berwick, Maine. That Michael Dietsch discusses a couple of 1998 articles from This Rock debunking Darwinian evolution.

Dietsch also mentions an article by Phillip Johnson from First Things magazine, in which Johnson writes that accepting evolution as fact requires an a priori commitment to materialist thinking. (It’s worth pointing out now that Phillip Johnson is an advisor to the Discovery Institute, the Seattle organization that’s so active in promoting the concept of Intelligent Design, which, of course, requires an a priori commitment to religious thinking.)

So Dietsch then writes:

The only issue remaining is proof of the supernatural world, which is proof that materialism is nothing more than an unfounded philosophical assumption. This is where the incorruptibles come in. Look at St. Catherine Labour�, for example. She died in 1876, and her body has remained entirely incorrupt for the last 122 years. St. Bernadette Soubirous is a similar case. She died in 1879, and her body has remained incorrupt for the last 119 years. Ask any materialist for a purely natural, material explanation of these phenomena, then stand back and watch him stuttering because of a loss of words.”

South Berwick’s Michael Dietsch would have you believe that the clear supernatural origins of these incorruptibles render moot any claim that the world is bounded solely by natural, material forces. These incorruptibles are said to be saints preserved by their lingering connection with the Holy Spirit. For these claims to be true, however, you have to demonstrate a couple of truths:

* No natural explanation could ever possibly explain their preservation.

* No non-saintly being anywhere is so preserved.

I decided to do a little digging. I didn’t find much on Google–a few articles about moral incorruptibility, a few Catholic websites that laud these incorruptible saints as miraculous without critically examining the claims, and a bunch of French-language hits. I did find a couple of interesting articles, though, including Saints Preserve Us and Incorruptibility: Miracle or Myth?.

I learned from these articles that Dietsch was mentioning only two of many incorruptible saints, and I also learned that historians and scientists generally accept that these bodies are indeed those of the saints in question–that is, these aren’t hoaxes as I initially suspected.

The Church, apparently, takes no official position on the incorruptibility of saints’ relics. As the Fortean Times piece points out, church “authorities, quite sensibly, are more interested in the person’s virtue.” And, in fact, not all who are preserved are saintly, or even, in fact Catholic. Fortean Times points to a cardinal who collaborated with Mussolini and also to Hindu and Buddhist clerics whose bodies are revered.

Dietsch’s Saint Bernadette, it turns out, had her face coated in wax after her second exhumation, and her body sealed in an air-tight glass coffin. Seal me in wax and bury me in an air-tight coffin, and I’m likely to stand up for decades too.

Finally, these are saints, and Catholics have a history of revering their relics. Such veneration requires Catholics to keep close tabs on the remains. How can we know for certain the rate of decay of the millions of bodies that aren’t so revered? Decomposition depends on burial conditions such as the airtightness of the coffin and vault; the presence of insects, water, and microbes in the soil; and various other factors. Dig up a few dead Jews or Protestants and see what they look like. Among millions, you’re statistically likely to find some that haven’t decayed much after decades of burial.

“The only explanation is supernatural,” Dietsch claims. I’ll admit, it doesn’t appear that scientists can fully explain why some of these remains are undecayed. But Dietsch has fallen for the same fallacy that Phillip Johnson and his fellows at the Discovery Institute like to preach: If science can’t fully explain something right now, the only possible answer is, “God did it, so science, you just shut your piehole and look pretty.”

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