I am not Catholic. I was not raised Catholic. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Catholic church for a purpose other than a wedding or tourism. I say this as a disclaimer, because much of what I’m writing here may well be inaccurate, though hopefully not as inaccurate as the article I am responding to. However, experience has taught me that many people may actually see this as an endorsement. I know that no matter how many times I post in the comments at Friendly Atheist that the article is a complete misrepresentation of what Catholics believe, and provide links to Catholics explaining what they do believe, no one will read them. For some reason, people would rather read an atheist mischaracterizing what Catholics believe than hear it from a Catholic themselves. Furthermore, there is a lot of jargon in Catholicism that makes it difficult for the uninitiated to just jump into the Catholic Encyclopedia and understand what’s going on. Therefore, I’m going to write out my understanding of what Catholics believe about Saints, and hope I can do a slightly better job.

First of all, a Saint is just a person that is in Heaven. This is confusing to a lot of Americans who come from a Protestant background, and thus think that most dead people are in Heaven, and the rest are in Hell. But Catholics believe that when most people die, they go to Purgatory[1]. Thus, most people take a long time to get to Heaven. But once they are there, they are all, by definition, Saints. Thus, living people generally[2] cannot be Saints.

The Church does not “make” someone a Saint. The soul is or is not in Heaven whether the Church recognizes it or not. The Church proclaiming someone a Saint is just an announcement to the people on Earth that a person is in Heaven.

They want to know who is in heaven because Saints can perform miracles. Living people cannot perform miracles. If a miracle was associated with Rev. Michael J. McGivney while he was alive, the proper Catholic explanation would be that Rev. McGivney prayed to a Saint, and then that Saint interceded on his behalf. Thus, it is important to know which dead people you should pray to if you want a miracle[3].

The canonization process is supposed to be the Church confirming that an individual is already in Heaven. First, they review a person’s life to make sure it’s not likely they went to Hell. Until this process is complete, Catholics are not supposed to pray to the dead person[4]. That’s because the soul could be in Hell, and praying to a soul in Hell could… I’m not really clear exactly what the consequences are supposed to be here, but it’s not good. It gives the Devil power or something. Thus, you’re not supposed to pray to a dead person until the Pope approves them as venerable.

If you pray to a soul, and then a miracle happens, that’s considered evidence that the soul is in Heaven (because they performed the miracle, which they could only do from Heaven). Because the Church recognizes that some of the events they consider miracles may just be flukes and/or other supernatural forces (like the Devil), the modern church requires two miracles in most cases before they officially declare someone a Saint.

Because the reason the Church is looking for Miracles is to prove that your soul is in Heaven, any miracles performed while you were alive wouldn’t count. Furthermore, because people shouldn’t be praying to you before the Pope approves you as “venerable”, there shouldn’t be any miracles associated with you before that time.

Thus, the procedure that Terry Firma is implying is backwards is actually the standard process. Furthermore, if I accepted the basic tenants of Catholic theology, and wanted to know if a person was in Heaven, that is the logical procedure I would use to establish who is a Saint.  

The real problems are with that basic tenants, such as whether there is a Heaven in the first place. The details that follow from those fundamental assumptions are actually quite logical. The conclusions are sometimes strange, but that’s how logic always works – garbage in, garbage out. That’s why we have to be very careful about our fundamental assumptions in the first place.

[1] When I say this, people commonly inform me that the Catholic Church got rid of Purgatory. These people are confusing Purgatory with Limbo, which was a forth afterlife option that applied to people who died without being saved, because they died before Jesus or were unbaptized babies. Some Catholics still do believe in Limbo, but it’s not an official doctrine of the Catholic Church. They officially never “got rid” of that doctrine either, because the Catholic Church considers official doctrines infallible, so they say it was never an official doctrine in the first place.

[2] Technically in Catholic theology there are exceptions, because a couple of people went to Heaven without dying first, most notably Mary. I was going to say “living people walking around on Earth”, but in Catholicism Mary makes regular apparitions on Earth. The correct statement is that all Saints that were not assumed into heaven are dead, but that’s the kind of Catholic jargon I’m trying to avoid in this post.

[3] There are other purported benefits to venerating Saints, but I’m trying to keep this as simple as possible.

[4] They can pray FOR the dead person – that’s encouraged because it reduces their time in purgatory. But they pray TO the Saints.