Christian Relics, Fact or Fiction
From the Catholic Encyclopedia
I. DOCTRINE REGARDING RELICS
The teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to the veneration of relics is summed up in a decree of the Council of Trent (Sess. XXV), which enjoins on bishops and other pastors to instruct their flocks that "the holy bodies of holy martyrs and of others now living with Christ—which bodies were the living members of Christ and 'the temple of the Holy Ghost' (1 Corinthians 6:19) and which are by Him to be raised to eternal life and to be glorified are to be venerated by the faithful, for through these [bodies] many benefits are bestowed by God on men, so that they who affirm that veneration and honour are not due to the relics of the saints, or that these and other sacred monuments are uselessly honoured by the faithful, and that the places dedicated to the memories of the saints are in vain visited with the view of obtaining their aid, are wholly to be condemned, as the Church has already long since condemned, and also now condemns them." Further, the council insists that "in the invocation of saints the veneration of relics and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed and all filthy lucre abolished." Again, "the visitation of relics must not be by any perverted into revellings and drunkenness." To secure a proper cheek upon abuses of this kind, "no new miracles are to be acknowledged or new relics recognized unless the bishop of the diocese has taken cognizance and approved thereof." Moreover, the bishop, in all these matters, is directed to obtain accurate information to take council with theologians and pious men, and in cases of doubt or exceptional difficulty to submit the matter to the sentence of the metropolitan and other bishops of the province, "yet so that nothing new, or that previously has not been usual in the Church, shall be resolved on, without having first consulted the Holy See."
The justification of Catholic practice, which is indirectly suggested here by the reference to the bodies of the saints as formerly temples of the Holy Ghost and as destined hereafter to be eternally glorified, is further developed in the authoritative "Roman Catechism" drawn up at the instance of the same council. Recalling the marvels witnessed at the tombs of the martyrs, where "the blind and cripples are restored to health, the dead recalled to life, and *devils?* expelled from the bodies of men" the Catechism points out that these are facts which "St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, most unexceptionable witnesses, declare in their writings that they have not merely heard and read about, as many did but have seen with their own eyes ', (Ambrose Epist. xxii, nn. 2 and 17, Augustine, Serm. cclxxxvi, c.v.; "De Civ. Dei", xxii, S, "Confess.", ix). And from thence, turning to Scriptural analogies, the compilers further argue: "If the clothes, the kerchiefs (Acts 19:12), if the shadow of the saints (Acts 5:15), before they departed from this life, banished diseases and restored strength, who will have the hardihood to deny that God wonderfully works the same by the sacred ashes, the bones, and other relics of the saints ? This is the lesson we have to learn from that dead body which, having been accidentally let down into the sepulchre of Eliseus, "when it had touched the bones of the Prophet, instantly came to life" (2 Kings 13:21, and cf. Sirach 48:14). We may add that this miracle as well as the veneration shown to the bones of Moses (See Exodus 13:19 and Joshua 24:32) only gain additional force from their apparent contradiction to the ceremonial laws against defilement, of which we read in Num., xix, 11-22. The influence of this Jewish shrinking from contact with the dead so far lingered on that it was found necessary in the "Apostolical Constitutions" (vi, 30) to issue a strong warning against it and to argue in favour of the Christian cult of relics.
According to the more common opinion of theologians, relics are to be honoured; St. Thomas, in Summa III:25:6, does not seem to consider even the word adorare inappropriate—cultu duliae relativae, that is to say with a veneration which is not that of latria (divine worship) and which though directed primarily to the material objects of the cult—i.e., the bones, ashes, garments, etc.—does not rest in them, but looks beyond to the saints they commemorate as to its formal term. Hauck, Kattenbusch, and other non-Catholic writers have striven to show that the utterances of the Council of Trent are in contradiction to what they admit to be the "very cautious" language of the medieval scholastics, and notably St. Thomas. The latter urges that those who have an affection to any person hold in honour all that was intimately connected with him. Hence, while we love and venerate the saints who were so dear to God, we also venerate all that belonged to them, and particularly their bodies, which were once the temples of the Holy Spirit, and which are some day to be conformed to the glorious body of Jesus Christ. "whence also", adds St. Thomas, "God fittingly does honour to such relics by performing miracles in their presence [in earum praesentia]." It will be seen that this closely accords with the terms used by the Council of Trent and that the difference consists only in this, that the Council says per quae—"through which many benefits are bestowed on mankind"—while St. Thomas speaks of miracles worked "in their presence". But it is quite unnecessary to attach to the words per quae the idea of physical causality. We have no reason to suppose that the council meant more than that the relics of the saints were the occasion of God's working miracles. When we read in the Acts of the Apostles, xix, 11, 12, "And God wrought by the hand of Paul more than common miracles. So that even there were brought from his body to the sick, handkerchiefs and aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the wicked spirits went out from them" there can be no inexactitude in saying that these also were the things by which (per quae) God wrought the cure.
There is nothing, therefore, in Catholic teaching to justify the statement that the Church encourages belief in a magical virtue, or physical curative efficacy residing in the relic itself . It may be admitted that St. Cyril of Jerusalem (A. D. 347), and a few other patristic and medieval writers, apparently speak of some power inherent in the relic. For example, St. Cyril, after referring to the miracle wrought by the body of Eliseus, declares that the restoration to life of the corpse with which it was in contact took place: "to show that even though the soul is not present a virtue resides in the body of the saints, because of the righteous soul which has for so many years tenanted it and used it as its minister". And he adds, "Let us not be foolishly incredulous as though the thing had not happened, for if handkerchiefs and aprons which are from without, touching the body of the diseased, have raised up the sick, how much more should the body itself of the Prophet raise the dead?" (Cat., xviii, 16.) But this seems rather to belong to the personal view or manner of speech of St. Cyril. He regards the chrism after its consecration "as no longer simple ointment but the gift of Christ and by the presence of His Godhead it causes in us the Holy Ghost" (Cat., xxi, 3); and, what is more striking, he also declares that the meats consecrated to idols, "though in their own nature plain and simple become profane by the invocation of the evil spirit" (Cat., xix, 7)—all of which must leave us very doubtful as to his real belief in any physical virtue inherent in relics. Be this as it may, it is certain that the Church, with regard to the veneration of relics has defined nothing, more than what was stated above. Neither has the Church ever pronounced that any particular relic, not even that commonly venerated as the wood of the Cross, as authentic; but she approves of honour being paid to those relics which with reasonable probability are believed to be genuine and which are invested with due ecclesiastical sanctions.
Are Christian Relics real? Do they have miraculous powers? Or is it all just a money making scheme selling indulgences?