So the Nine Network has Sophie Delezio for its Mary MacKillop coverage (“sewn up”, in the unfortunate words of a Daily Telegraph journalist). Seven has another purported beneficiary of MacKillop’s ghostly medical intervention, Irish backpacker David Keohane.

They’ll be providing the expert analysis as the networks cover the canonisation of MacKillop this weekend in Rome — just one part of the huge free-to-air and subscription TV coverage of the official declaration that a dead woman is enjoying an afterlife and randomly curing people of terminal illnesses.

Hopefully Nine has given a sizeable donation to Delezio’s charity for critically-injured kids in exchange for her appearances.

Catholics, of course, don’t believe in miracles any more than most superstitious people. Belief in miracles is less a product of denomination than of a predisposition to religion of any kind — according to a Nielsen poll late last year, 74% of non-Christian religious Australians believe in miracles, compared to 83% of Christians and 23% of non-believers. Nationality is important as well: only one-third of Frenchmen and women believe in miracles; about 80% of Americans do, and about 65% of Australians and Brits.

That Catholics don’t automatically believe in miracles isn’t surprising: surveys suggest they aren’t much different to the rest of us when it comes to key elements of Catholic dogma, like homophobia and the ban on contraception, blithely ignored by the great majority of Catholic women. Then again religious dogma is primarily a tool to reinforce power and the hierarchy that wield it, rather than a moral code, a point missed both by professional Catholics like Christopher Pearson and Miranda Devine, who think Church doctrine is a design for living to impose on society, and by the most vehement opponents of the Church, who naively think the many social problems caused by Catholicism would simply vanish if it were somehow done away with. The point of Church dogma has always been to keep its institutional power intact. Whether the Catholic laity follow it or not is not especially important.

People have always believed in supernatural intervention by ghosts, of course, long before they were called ‘miracles’ by ‘saints’. It may be infantilising, but it’s a comforting belief for many people not merely in the face of existential despair but even the more stringent demands of institutional religion, with its depressing emphasis on non-materialism, repentance and good works.

And with its theatre of spectral appearances, melodramatic medical interventions and the pseudo-rigour of the canonisation process, belief in miracles and saints is the most media-friendly aspects of Catholic dogma and when it’s a little Aussie battler, and a woman to boot, that makes it a compelling media narrative. It’s hard to imagine some dull-but-worthy 19th century male cleric generating anything like the attention MacKillop has received. Female saints, portrayed as particularly nurturing and protective in their intercessions on behalf of the living, have always been popular.

Helping the cause has been the wonderfully flexible image of MacKillop, who has been portrayed variously as a feminist — handy for an institution that treats women as second-class citizens — a rebel and even an early foe of pedophiles. We’re well into ‘print the legend territory’ here.

In fact there’s little less than a MacKillop industry springing up to exploit the narrative — so much so the government this week moved to provide MacKillop with some intellectual property protection. MacKillop — or more correctly the Church that uses her image — will receive the same protection afforded Australia’s real first saint, albeit a secular one, Don Bradman (though apparently the Don wasn’t too keen on Catholics). To make sure the MacKillop industry is safely controlled by the Church, there’ll be new regulations to ensure variations of MacKillop (including, bizarrely, ‘Our Mary’) can’t be used without ministerial permission.

This apparently infuriated one Sydney artist who had already made six out of a planned 200 (count ’em) hand-painted busts of MacKillop that would go for $475 each. “Mary showed courage and integrity in the face of adversity,” the artist told the Sydney Morning Herald, perhaps suggesting he would need similar qualities to endure the loss of $95,000. Presumably it also means there’ll be no Franklin Mint MacKillop chess set.

The federal government has long been keen to jump on the MacKillop bandwagon. Kevin Rudd even endured criticism from Tony Abbott for getting involved. To show this had nothing to do with his own personal religious views, it has continued under Julia Gillard (whom, it is apparently necessary to note, is an atheist) with Labor promising $1.5 million during the election campaign to fund canonisation-related activities.

The government also yesterday announced it was adding the Mary MacKillop Canonisation Gift Fund to the list of deductible gift recipients. Most of the entries on that extremely long list are education, philanthropic or cultural institutions. The purpose of the ‘Canonisation Gift Fund’ is apparently unrelated to education, philanthropy or culture, and instead intended to subsidise celebrations of the canonisation.

This for a Church that already reaps tens or hundreds of millions a year through the tax exemption for religious institutions.

Peter Fray

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