Thursday, April 20, 2017

Oh No, Another Shroud Study

Juan Manuel Miñarro López, sculptor and sindonologist.
Generally, whenever Christmas or Easter rolls around, there’s some new effort to discredit Christianity. This year, with the exception of the resurrection of that hoary old meme claiming that Easter is a pagan fertility feast, the anti-Christian fake-fact generators have been quiet. On the other hand, a new study claims to have further authenticated the Shroud of Turin by demonstrating a strong connection with the Sudarium of Oviedo. And whenever a story comes up that claims to prove (or disprove) something connected with the faith, my sphincter clenches.

Why? If a study is well done, it won’t convince the other side, who will automatically write it off as bad science. If the researchers clown the methodology, on the other hand, science itself is the loser. Science is methodology; its only claim to truth stems from the integrity of the method. And when I read that the chief researcher is a professor of sculpture(!), I have faint hopes concerning the methodology.

Heads, you lose; tails, you can’t win.

Full disclosure: I do believe the Shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus. At the very least, it’s less explicable as a medieval forgery than it is as a first-class relic. No one has yet succeeded in creating a theory of the forgery that conforms to the known facts of the Shroud itself or the known techniques of medieval technology. And the method used in the 1988 carbon-14 tests, in the best of circumstances, was not infallible. Given the actual conditions — contaminated samples, a botched protocol, and the inability to ensure neutrality — the tests must be considered compromised and of dubious scientific value.[*]


Granting the authenticity of the Shroud, and even granting that the Shroud and the Sudarium of Oviedo came from the same person, neither proves the Resurrection or the Sonship of Jesus. At best, the Shroud suggests that something extraordinary happened at the moment the Image was created. The faith of the Church has never rested on the authenticity of the Shroud; if tomorrow it were conclusively proven a forgery, the Church would sail on unaffected. The Shroud is not part of the deposit of faith, and as a “private revelation” requires neither assent nor devotion from the faithful (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church § 67).

So why all the fuss? Because, for as many who will not accept a verdict of “forgery”, there are arguably as many who will not accept a verdict of “authentic”. In the almost 120 years since Secondo Pia took the first photos which brought the Image into full, startling relief, a segment of the atheist/agnostic community has grown which does not want Jesus to have been a real person, let alone an historical figure of great significance. Cognitive bias is not just a function of belief or religious faith; it is a pervasive human problem affecting many areas of life. Wrote Yves Delage, an agnostic who was one of the first scientists to examine the evidence, in a letter to the Revue Scientifique:

… [A] religious question has been needlessly injected into a problem which in itself is purely scientific, with the result that feelings have run high, and reason has been led astray. If, instead of Christ, there were a question of some person like a Sargon, an Achilles, or one of the Pharaohs, no one would have thought of making an objection. … I recognize Christ as a historical personage and I see no reason why anyone should be scandalized that there still exist material traces of his earthly life. (cit. in Ian Wilson, The Shroud of Turin, pp. 33-34)

Considerable anti-Christian bigotry already exists in the scientific community, asserting that “Christians can’t do science” and that Christians will deliberately pervert methodology to prove religious beliefs. For this reason, any study performed on a topic or matter touching Christian beliefs already begins with one or two strikes against its acceptance. Botch the method, even through an honest mistake, and the study becomes one more brick in the wall, one more piece of evidence that “you can’t be a Christian and a scientist”.

But don’t non-Christian scientists botch their methodology, too? It doesn’t matter. Even if it could be proven that non-Christian researchers produce more junk science per capita than do believing researchers, Christians in the labs still have to hold themselves to a higher standard. Why? Because others will hold them to that standard even when they don’t meet the benchmarks themselves, and only the Christians’ failures will be counted.

For these reasons, I urge both Christians and non-Christians alike to be cautious about taking any study concerning the Shroud to be definitive, especially those claiming to debunk other research. The more people get emotionally vested in agreeable conclusions, the harder it becomes to walk back the conclusions after further research shows them untenable.

There are millions of Christians alive today who have neither seen nor heard of the Shroud of Turin; billions have lived and died never knowing about it. Blessed are those who have not seen and have yet come to believe (cf. John 20:29).

[*] It’s worth reading Fr. Vittorio Guerrera’s The Shroud of Turin: A Case for Authenticity (Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 2001) just for the chapter on the 1988 tests, their origins and the shenanigans that turned the tests into a circus.