138. reconnoiter

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Brief update from my normal mini-tomes…

The Roman Catholic Church is still at its old game of pretending that some dead people are better than other dead people.

According to a story on the BBC, US Army Chaplain Father Emil Kapaun was a Catholic priest who died in a Korean concentration camp in 1951. He died a hero, and doubtless saved dozens of lives, which is more than most of us can ever claim. The story I heard on MPR this evening recounted how when he was being marched with the rest of the prisoners, he saw one soldier lying wounded in a ditch, with a Korean soldier standing over him ready to shoot him. (The practice was to either shoot the wounded or leave them to freeze to death.) Kapaun marched over, shoved the Korean out of the way and proceeded to pick up the wounded soldier and carried him the rest of the 30 miles to the camp. When the soldier protested, Kapaun responded, “If I put you down, they’ll kill you.”

I don’t think any of us would argue that Kapaun wasn’t an incredibly brave, honorable and heroic man. In fact, he’s being considered for a posthumous Medal of Honor.

But… sainthood?

As usual, this whole nonsense comes down to reported miraculous “healings.” One such healing purportedly took place when a runner in a race in Kansas seemingly dropped dead during a footrace and, in typical Catholic fashion, someone fell to their knees and threw up a Hail Mary—although in this case it was a Hail Father Kapaun. The runner was  miraculously restored to life, and all thanks to the kind help of a dead priest. Let’s disregard the fact that the runner was also attended to by his uncle—a doctor. No, the logical explanation is that a magical ghost took time out of his busy eternity of basking in the shekinah glory to bring one guy back from the brink of death.

Slot machines operate under much the same principle. Machines now are designed using pseudo random number generators, which means that there is no way of predicting an outcome—or a win. It’s a true game of chance, with the odds stacked against you. The only way to win is to keep playing, in the off-chance you’ll get lucky. The reward comes in the form of literal bells and whistles that make the game addicting. That doesn’t keep people from developing elaborate rituals that they’ll swear helps sway the machine in their favor. Skinner would have a field day in a casino, observing all of the rituals.

Prayer works much the same way. If you pray often enough, and to a certain saint, it’s statistically likely that you’ll find some answer to your prayer (confirmation bias), establishing the superstition that this particular saint is looking out for you. So if you perform the right magical tokens, then god will suspend the laws of nature just for you.

But what about all the instances where prayer is not answered? This is a whole other level from asking Santa Claus for an Oscar Meyer weenie whistle and not getting it. What about all of the people who prayer to Father Kapaun asking, begging for a miracle, for relief from suffering or for deliverance from a horrible situation, and were met with only silence? Maybe Father Kapaun was on another call at the time, or another saint would have been better suited to the task; or Heaven, in its ineffability, decided to deny the request. Or perhaps it’s wishful thinking to believe that some old guys in Rome have the audacious authority to (on the basis of specious evidence) assign one human being to a pantheon of “greats,” a sort of celestial call center where requests are heard and passed along Upstairs to the capricious ear of god.

Kapaun may have been a great human being. But he’s no saint.

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