30 September 2013

When the saints go marching in...

Breaking news! Pope John Paul II is to become a saint!

To become a saint in the Catholic Church, you must go through 4 steps, the last two being "beatification" and "canonization", each requiring that you perform a miracle. The church, taking a skeptical position, established a few centuries ago (1578 to be exact) the concept of "devil's advocate":

During the canonization process of the Catholic Church, the Promoter of the Faith (Latin: promotor fidei), popularly known as the Devil's advocate (Latin: advocatus diaboli), was a canon lawyer appointed by Church authorities to argue against the canonization of a candidate. It was this person’s job to take a skeptical view of the candidate's character, to look for holes in the evidence, to argue that any miracles attributed to the candidate were fraudulent, and so on. The Devil's advocate opposed God's advocate (Latin: advocatus Dei; also known as the Promoter of the Cause), whose task was to make the argument in favor of canonization. This task is now performed by the Promoter of Justice (promotor iustitiae), who is in charge of examining how accurate is the inquiry on the saintliness of the candidate. (From Wikipedia.)
The concept was abolished in 1983 by Pope John Paul II. He then started a fast process of canonization of a huge number of individuals. Let us see how the abolishment of devil's advocate affected the number of saints from 1800 onwards. A "scientific approach" helps here.

The plot was created from a list of saints by Pope. We make the assumption that once someone becomes saint, he or she stays saint forever. Up to 2013, the growth is approximated by an exponential function. This is due to Pope John Paul II who canonized 483 saints. Previous popes, from 1800 up to Pope John Paul II had canonized 242 saints altogether. Pope Benedict XVI was more cautious; he canonized 45 saints. Pope Francis started the papacy with dynamism. In his first year, he canonized 802 saints en masse. We can therefore not approximate the last part of the growth by a classical function. Only a generalized function works. If you have trouble with the concept of a delta function, here is an application which will make you understand it well. Thanks to the current pope.


  1. Hey Takis,
    Interesting note about growth. It makes we wonder about a lot of things:
    -- When did canonizing start
    -- what was the original purpose of canonizing
    -- what does the avg Catholic think of saints?
    - When was the Devil advocate started
    - Why was the Devil Advocate stopped -- was it to speed up canonization? Evidence?
    -- you are missing link to delta function
    -- In your post you said, "A scientific approach helps here." That is one of my most unfavorite uses of that word. A graph and labeling the type of curve in the crave, does not equal "scientific approach" -- saying "let use some math here to look at saints" would be far less presumptuous. The use of "scientific approach" I prefer would involve hypothesis testing -- otherwise the phrase (to me) is manipulative.

  2. Sabio,
    Thanks for the comments.
    I added a link to the delta function.
    As for "scientific approach", I put it in quotes. I only meant to be funny here, nothing more. I'm sorry that my humor doesn't come across as such (ask my g/f!)
    The devil's advocate position was started in 1578, according to wikipedia.
    No, I didn't claim that the position was stopped to speed up canonization, but it certainly has achieved that, as we can see.

  3. Did you click on the last icon? If no, please do. This is weak evidence that my posting had some humor in it... :-)

  4. Yeah, I am very allergic to atheists using the word scientific incorrectly (or anyone for that matter) -- putting it in quotes was not enough of a signal for me.

    We can't be sure that whatever caused the Advocate to stop being used wasn't the same as cause the rist. It is a causality thing -- a science issue. Thus, we still don't know why the rise.

    We don't know why the advocate was invented so late either?

  5. I'm questioning one of the explicit assumptions.

    If one abolishes the canonization process, how does one take into account the holiness of each saint in the plot? In some ways, I expect the holiness having been influenced by the change, and this could potentially question whether the assumption that the saints stay saint-ful the whole eternity or not?

  6. Sabio:

    I only put quotation marks after you pointed out that I'm doing injustice to the word scientific. You are quite right, but I'm being cynical.

    No, I don't know why the position was established. A quick look at some sources (e.g., the short version of the Britannica) revealed nothing. This blogger claims:

    "I think the invention of the role of Devil’s Advocate in the 16th century under Pope Sixtus V was one of the most impressive acts of critical thinking in history. It created a formal role purely to challenge and question the received wisdom."

  7. Famous_for_being_anonymous:

    There is no evidence, on Catholic Church sites or on Wikipedia, that those saints canonized after the abolishment of the devil's advocate post are not as saint-ful. Besides, before the position was established by Pope Sixtus V, saints were declared saints by more or less a decision of the Pope and those around him.

  8. Yes, but absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence (of weakened assumption)...

  9. Yes, this is why I wrote:

    We make the assumption that once someone becomes saint, he or she stays saint forever.

    I didn't say it is a fact. Just a reasonable assumption which one may or may not accept. If the assumption is not satisfied, then the graph is still valid but has to be renamed as the cumulative number of those who have become saint at some point between 1800 and now.

    If you find, anywhere, that there is a significant number of saints whose sainthood was taken away at some point, let me know so I can correct the graph taking into account not just the input (to sainthood) process but also the output.

  10. Well, this you can actually easily estimate instead of looking for data...

    The number of saints losing sainthood should correlate linearly with the number of Nobel prize peace winners that have (after getting the prize) started a war. Normalize it for the ratio between the number of Nobel peace prize takers and the number of saints per year. And there you go :-)

  11. Very bold assumption, which I am not willing to accept. Besides, I only know two cases of Nobel peace prize winners who "started" war (or contributed to non-peace) after getting a prize: Kissinger and Obama.

    But, again, your assumption is not one I make. Nobel peace prize has nothing to do with sainthood.

  12. Well, the connection wouldn't be through the winners/saints themselves but via the percentages of successful judgements of the awarding committee that is supposed to judge characteristics of certain individuals as saints/peacemakers.

  13. Did Steve Jobs make it onto the list?

  14. Was he Catholic Joe? If not, why do you even ask?



What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant