Is the 'spiritual and emotive' power of relics more important than their authenticity?

This week Archbishop Nichols suggested that it didn’t necessarily matter if a relic was authentic or not.

Speaking about the British Museum’s Treasures of Heaven exhibition, he said:

[R]elics are a very important part of the expression of religious faith, as well as of cultural importance in the way that people cling to a souvenir from a person they’ve loved or a place that they’ve been to. And what that conveys is the connecting of this moment with the treasured moment of the past. And if that connection is made through an object which maybe forensically won’t stand up to the test, that’s of secondary importance to the spiritual and emotive power that the object can contain, and does contain.

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Relics are meant to aid devotion. If a relic has been venerated for many centuries, and helped inspire many, many Christians, then it has served its purpose, even if its origins are unclear. Pope Benedict XVI, visiting the Turin Shroud last year, did not address whether or not it was authentic, but spoke of its “intensity”: it was, he said, a symbol of the darkest, loneliest moments of Christ’s suffering, yet was also the brightest sign of hope.

On the other hand, the Church rests on truth; surely it must stick to what it knows to be true. Archbishop Nichols’s comment appears to overlook the objective nature of a particular relic: whether it really is, or is not, part of the True Cross.

So does it matter if relics are fake?

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