Postdoc gives talk on science, superstition

Though religious observers often follow traditions in their faith with the same seriousness as the law, a Tuesday lecture revealed that these traditions sometimes stem from unusual places.

Reformation science · Brad Bouley, postdoctoral fellow of USC’s department of history, discusses the combination of religion and science. – Priyanka Patel | Daily Trojan

On Tuesday, USC postdoctoral fellow Brad Bouley presented a lecture titled “The Holy Body: Between Science and the Supernatural” as part of the Haunted Religion seminar, sponsored by USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture Interdisciplinary Research Group. The lecture focused on Bradley’s soon-to-be-published essay, which shares the same name.

Bouley delved into changes in the Roman Catholic Church’s canonization process after the Reformation, and highlighted the increasingly scientific approach of looking for physical evidence of supernatural works.

“One of the things the church had been doing since the high Middle Ages is officially canonizing people, and there is a very legalistic process by which people are canonized,” Bradley said. “After the fracture between the Protestant Church and the Catholic Church, they halt that for 65 years. There’s a lot of indication that it’s because people were concerned because they see a lot of abuses.”

Bouley also discussed the nature of the medical canonization process in relation to doctors. In the Middle Ages the church often commissioned doctors to perform autopsies on the bodies of people who were candidates for sainthood to find physical signs of holiness.

Bouley said doctors would look for anomalies in different organs or marks on the bodies as signs of sainthood.

“A saintly body should have an ongoing connection with God,” he said. “Therefore anatomical irregularities of the heart can count for canonization.”

Though the process was pseudo-scientific, doctors still faced social pressures to confirm certain people as saints. Bradley noted doctors very rarely argued against an individual being a saint.

“A lot of the time, the doctors they are bringing in are huge figures. They are famous doctors [the Catholics] are trying to bring in to buoy up the candidates,” he said. “So if you are bringing them in for a case like this, that immediately gives credence to the person, unless the doctor says no, but it’s very hard to say no. We have cases where people in the area say, ‘Look, if you say no to this body, we are going to stone you.’”

Bouley discussed how doctors came to assume the role of providing medical proof as an extension of the forensic role they already occupied in the legal system. At the time, doctors were called to provide forensic evidence for murder trials.

“There was a long back story of giving forensic evidence, and in many ways, the evidence you are looking at for deciding canonization in many ways is forensic evidence,” Bouley said, “so it is not that big of a leap to go to that [canonization].”

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