The Physics of Relics

A colleague asked how one would describe the Catholic teaching on relics. I was struck that the first few reasonable explanations were completely false. True, they help bring the saint to mind; true, they aren’t prayed to with latria but with some declension of it; and it’s even true that the relic will (presumably) be reanimated in the resurrection of the body. But the Catholic idea seems to go beyond all this so far as it imputes holiness as belonging to an inanimate object, and not just as an observer-relative property. Holiness is a physical characteristic, and it can characterize both the animate and the inanimate. This is why Catholics are often confused about what to do with desiccated blessed palms, worn-out bibles or even broken statues. We can’t just throw them away, and not just for fear that someone might be scandalized. We wouldn’t feel any better about throwing them away hidden in a box.

Now in one sense there’s nothing odd about having physical properties unknown to physics. All proper sensibles are like this (taste, color, texture, etc.). But we also can’t just see these properties as observer-relative. All this is in contradiction to our idea that, by looking around, we just look at the natural world.


  1. Socrates said,

    April 1, 2015 at 1:10 am

    I have a question: St. Thomas apparently thought that one can worship the true Cross with latria. Do you think that this same reasoning would apply if the Shroud of Turin were somehow proved authentic? Could pilgrims literally worship the thing?

    Would the fact that it has Christ’s blood stained on it (if authentic) mean that it would be a sort of Eucharist Adoration? (could we no longer leave it alone in room, like how we can’t leave the exposed host alone?).

    Christi pax.

    • April 1, 2015 at 9:38 am

      Well, they could certainly worship the blood on it, but I suspect you want a different sort of answer than this.

      de Montfort attributes the worship of the true cross to the degree of its unity to Christ, but the same case can’t be made for the shroud, even if authentic.

      • Socrates said,

        April 3, 2015 at 10:21 pm

        Thank you.

  2. Tap said,

    April 2, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    How can a case not be made of supernaturally formed image of God by God. ? It seems like a straight foward case for Latria if the Image is ‘authentic’

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