Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Bilocation and gullibility

Last week, after I mentioned quantum teleporting, I was reminded that it was the feast day for the recently canonised Padre Pio, and one of the things claimed about him during his life was his ability to bilocate.  Some further reading was called for.

I've never paid much attention to the Padre Pio story.  I had read years and years ago that it was suspected that his stigmata were caused, or at least maintained by, the secret application of carbolic acid, and that many in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church at the time tried to dampen down what they saw as a dangerous cult-ish devotion to him.  That's not a good start for someone on the path to sainthood, yet John Paul II, the Pope who canonised so many saints that even conservative publications were asking whether it was too many, had met him (in 1948) and was happy to add him to the list in 2002.

There are, of course, many websites that discuss Padre Pio, most of them pious Catholic ones that simply repeat the litany of the claimed miracles.  He was what one might call a paranormal star, with the alleged ability to read minds, emit a flowery odor of sanctity (one of the easiest saintly things to fake, of course), but also there are many claims of  miraculous cures up to and including raising the dead (!).   But when it comes to stretching the limits of credibility, even the revival of the (apparently) dead and the bilocation stories are small change.  (And none of them, incidentally, appear particularly convincingly evidenced beyond anecdote.)   The "best" story about Pio by far is that he could not only levitate, but actually flew into the sky above his monastery and diverted Allied bombers in World War 2.  This weird story is discussed in detail at Beachcomber's blog here.  [Ok, maybe it was more a case of his bilocated image only appearing above his monastery, not his body.  But still....]

As for more skeptical short takes on Padre Pio, the best I have read so far is the one by Alexander Stille called The strange victory of Padre Pio.   It's a review of a book, actually, and it puts some particularly interesting political and social context to the rise of the saint (ha, a bit of a pun there...)

This passage, about a fraudster who attached himself to the local star is particularly odd:
 “A dozen years after the stigmata first appeared on the Capuchin friar’s body his cult looked ready to burn out,” Luzzatto writes. “But there was something that Padre Pio’s enemies had not taken into account.” That something or someone was Emanuele Brunatto, whom Luzzatto describes as “a con man of great talent, infinite imagination, and world-class enterprise…a chronic liar, a ruthless extortionist, and an incorrigible double-dealer.”

Brunatto, who had been convicted of fraud, had found his way to San Giovanni Rotondo in the early 1920s and attached himself to Padre Pio—perhaps to escape from the law, perhaps out of genuine religious devotion, perhaps because of his remarkable instinct for opportunity, and perhaps through some combination of the three. Brunatto wrote one of the first biographies of the future saint (which the Church promptly banned) and skimmed money from the flow of cash arriving from around the world to Padre Pio, according to one Church report. When Padre Pio found himself reduced almost to a condition of house arrest, Brunatto fought back with the methods he had acquired in his earlier life. He assembled a dossier of the alleged misdeeds and sexual misconduct of the Puglese clergy and, at a high-level meeting at the Vatican, threatened to publish it as a book. Not long after, the Church decided to lighten most of the restrictions on Padre Pio’s ministry.

In the early 1930s, this imaginative man cooked up an investment scheme for the followers of Padre Pio, putting himself at the head of a company that would sell locomotive patents. With Padre Pio’s backing, Brunatto raised millions of dollars, set himself up in Paris, and traveled the continent living grandly and supposedly selling patents to the governments of Europe. The one attempt to build a locomotive based on one of the patents proved a fiasco, but Brunatto succeeded in keeping the scheme going for several years while insisting that the company was inches away from a major bonanza.

Padre Pio does not appear to have profited from the scheme. The investors, of course, lost all their money and Brunatto moved on to other dangerous games, among them spying for the Fascist police. During World War II, Brunatto made a fortune as a black marketer and collaborationist, selling rationed foodstuffs and keeping the German army supplied with French wines and champagne. With extraordinary foresight, he placed a portion of his stratospheric profits into a charitable fund to help Padre Pio build a hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo. Certainly, this charitable act proved helpful when Brunatto sought (and managed) to avoid a lengthy prison sentence for collaboration with the Nazis.
It is an incredible story, but not quite in the way the hierarchy of the Church now wants to promote.

Another review of the same book is here, extracting a few more details, including that the very lifelike face of the deceased saint (who Pope Francis will have displayed at Saint Peter's Basilica next year) is a silicon mask made by a London wax museum.  (Not that this is a big secret, exactly:  I see it mentioned on several Catholic sites and in the media reports about when the body first went on display.  But I wonder how clearly this is specified at his tomb, which one site says is the second most visited Catholic shrine in the world.)

Of course, while it may be accurate to say his canonization does not necessarily mean the Church believes all of  the very folkloric stories of his living miracles (the couple of post mortem medical recoveries relied on  are detailed here), it's worrying evidence for the gullible mindset of some adherents to the Faith that this Saint carries so much "baggage", so to speak.

But Googling around, I found some even stranger bilocation discussion, this time from a book with the intriguing title of The Quantum Vision of Simon Kimbangu.  (Just Google it and bilocation to find the pages I am referring to below.)   Kimbangu was a controversial Congolese  religious figure of the same vintage as Padre Pio (first half of the 20th century),  who apparently still has a church named after him.

As for the book, it makes some unverified claims (including a repeat of the airborne Pio story):

 The amusing thing is, the story of the appearance of Kimbangu to Ekutu Camile is described on the previous page in the book, but the bilocated visitor claiming to be Kimbangu was a white European (not black, as the "original" Kimbangu most certainly was.)  No problem-o:

When it comes to bilocation, anything seems possible.

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