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Cardinal errors

Observations on sainthood

They haven’t found a body and the number of confirmed miracles is one short. But despite these apparently insurmountable obstacles, Cardinal Newman is on course to be elevated to sainthood by Pope Benedict XVI within the next year. English Catholics are understandably gratified that the Church of England convert, who died in 1890, is poised to be the country’s first 21st-century saint.

The first miracle is in the bag. A theological panel set up by the Vatican has agreed unanimously that the unexplained healing of an American man bent double by a severe spinal disorder was the result of prayers directed to Newman. The panel spent six months examining the case of 69-year-old Jack Sullivan, a deacon from Marshfield, Massachusetts, after a group of doctors concluded that they had no scientific explanation for his recovery.

But before the cardinal receives his notional wings and halo, evidence of a second miracle will be required. And if past experience is anything to go by, it will not be easy to find.

More than a decade ago supporters of the cardinal’s beatification at his old base, the Birmingham Oratory, were jubilant to find that a local man – a devout Catholic – had petitioned Cardinal Newman in heaven for a cure to his inoperable cancer. His prayers, apparently, were answered. His tumours disappeared and he recovered.

The Oratorians went through the lengthy and tedious process of verifying the miracle, and the Vatican was poised to approve. But then, much to the Oratorians’ chagrin, the miracle man walked in front of a bus and was killed. Theologically, the miracle was cancelled out. He may have had his cancer cured, but his sudden, unexpected and tragic death undid all the lobbying and verification.

As one priest at the Oratory put it: “It is almost impossible to have a miracle verified in this country.

In predominantly Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, and in South America, doctors have no hesitation in endorsing the sudden disappearance of potentially fatal conditions as miracles. Here, doctors describe them as being in remission. That is why the loss of our miracle was particularly galling.” It is notable that the single miracle on Cardinal Newman’s record came from abroad.

The chances of uncovering a second miracle before Pope Benedict XVI accepts Gordon Brown’s invitation to visit Britain next year look slim. Still, the Pope is apparently an admirer of Newman, a former Protestant vicar who converted and was made a cardinal in 1879 by Leo XIII. And while not as enthusiastic as his predecessor John Paul II, who created a record number of saints, Benedict seems determined to elevate Newman.

He has even overlooked another requirement for canonisation: theological law requires the existence of a body – proof that potential saints were once living beings. When Newman’s grave was opened so that his remains could be moved to the Birmingham Oratory, absolutely nothing of his mortal body was found, not even his teeth. All that remained were the brass handles of his coffin and some rotting tassels from his cardinal’s hat. Not much to go on really.