Friday, September 26, 2008

On Miracles

Bryan Cross recently asked whether stigmatas were from God or not. In an effort to avoid the meat behind Mr. Cross' question, some Protestants claimed (without sources) that per Google, Protestants also receive stigmatas. Others pointed out (again without sources) that some Catholics in Louisiana get chicken pee miracles and other voodoo related stuff. Mmm Hmm...

Still others insisted that Mr. Cross was barking up the wrong tree altogether since the Eastern Orthodox also have incorruptibles. Ok. Here's the issue - (and I had been thinking about posting something along these lines for some time now but Mr. Cross beat me to the punch) - Catholics have different sort of miracles than Protestants and probably even different from EOs - so what does that mean?

I am assuming a traditional belief in the miraculous for this discussion; i.e. they do happen - they are not all fabrications of the wishful pious. But how are the Catholic miracles fundamentally different? That they involve Mary? The Body of Christ?

It would be hard for us to envision a Protestant having a miraculous experience with the virgin Mary or with the accidents of the Eucharistic species appearing as flesh since they don't believe in those. If they had those experiences, they wouldn't likely remain Protestant for long! It would be like an atheist experience any miracle at all.

But the uniqueness of Catholic miracles is their objectivity and lingering presence. Eastern Orthodox may have this as well, and they do; but Eastern Orthodox are properly "Church" according to Rome and they are Christian in a much fuller sense than Protestants are so we would expect them to experience the "right" kind of miracles as well. Yet Catholic miracles still exceed those of the Eastern Orthodox and by no small margin. Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe etc... these are all Catholic and any one of them by itself is probably greater in terms of objectivity, visibility and lingering presence than all non-Catholic miracles combined.

There are at least two popes who are incorruptible that I know of and held on public display in Italy to this day as saints are often found this way. When they dug up St. Bernadette's body in 1933(?) it was found perfectly intact and remains in the abbey where she died until this day.

We needn't go on, the point is sufficiently made. These miracles must be pious forgeries, the work of a demon or the work of God. I see no other alternative.

So while this was not always the case, indeed in my early days as a Catholic I myself was skeptical of uniquely Catholic miracles, I have grown quick to dismiss theories which relegate the miraculous to the disposition of the witness.

Since the Catholic Church is the most visible and the most objective and the most populous; it is only fitting that her miracles should also be the most visible, objective and popular. Since Protestant miracles are largely invisible and non-falsifiable, it could be said that one's miraculous experience tends to mirror his or her own ecclesiology. (If that is true then why don't the Reformed have visible, authoritative miracles since that's what they claim to believe regarding the Church?)

Yet this is not a concession that the miraculous may indeed be relegated to the disposition of the witness unless we are to assume that there is no way to distinguish objectively between miracles or types of miracles. I.E., it may be that the true miracles which are experienced in this world are objectively representative of the true ecclesiology rather than me receiving miracles custom tailored to my own ecclesiology.

If miracles objectively happen then they must be objective themselves. If they are objective, then we do not experience miracles based on our ecclesiology (I'm speaking as the human race). We experience them as they really are. Then I would sooner believe that those whose ecclesiology is false do not experience miracles at all than that various ecclesiological beliefs experience custom miracles lest their ecclesiology be injured challenged or refuted.

Now I am not saying that God does not interact with non-Catholics nor that He does not perform supernatural acts in their lives. I would insist that all the sorts of (valid) miracles which the non-Catholic will experience, the Catholic may also experience. I do not know of any exclusively Protestant miracles except ones which I don't really believe are miracles. The Protestant may say the same thing of us Catholics regarding Guadalupe etc.. and he would be quite within reason ... so long as Guadalupe turns out to be false. But as for the incorruptible popes on display... well for that to be false it needs to be a forgery. These are the sort of objective miracles which I think mean something significant.


Neal Judisch and Family said...

Hey, Tim.

Yeah, I read through that thread over at Principium Unitatis and remember being interested, but not knowing exactly what to think about it. (I confess I may be in the same place you once were, feeling naturally inclined towards skepticism when it comes to reports of miracles. On the one hand I want to avoid credulity; on the other hand, I have a lively intuition that much of my "healthy skepticism" is probably nothing more than the lingering effects of the cessationist outlook I used to hold onto. As a "respectable" Presbyterian, you know.)

It did remind me of a little research I did a year or so ago on how the Fathers, principally the early apologists like Irenaeus and Justin, treated the issue of miracles. Because they weren't battling against secular humanists or modernist atheist types, but rather pagans or proponents of alternative religions, they didn't deploy the "argument from miracles' in the way modern apologists do. But they did try to argue for the truth of Christian theism on the basis of Christian miracles, not simply by arguing that they happened, but by trying to demonstrate that Christian miracles were of a decidedly different character than other alleged miracles, which they allowed could've been 'counterfeit miracles' brought about through demonic agency, for instance.

The rough and read idea was that the miracles of Christ, the Apostles and the early Church, were all regenerative or restorative; they were all aimed at healing, undoing something bad, restoring things to the way they should be or making them better than they were. The non-Christian 'miracles', they said, didn't have this feature.

Perhaps a similar method would be appropriate here (though I wouldn't ever want to suggest that Protestantism is equivalent to paganism or whatever). Things like stigmata don't easily fall into the category of healing or restoring or what have you, so some adjustments would need to be made. But suppose they could be made in a principled way; we'd have to say that they're functioning like signs which communicate something God wishes us to know about a given person, or about the Church to which they belong. Something like that maybe.

But I worry that if we tried to do this with a view toward providing evidence for the claim that the Catholic Church is what she purports to be, then we'd run into the all-too-familiar differences in interpretation of things (texts, events, whatever) which usually attend discussions with our Protestant brethren. Take the most extreme case: suppose an alleged Protestant miracle P occurs, and the Protestant wants to take that as evidence that his denomination has things right, or is a genuine realization of the "invisible church" or some such. What to say about P? If P has the character of a healing, or of a restorative event of some kind, then P is just the sort of miracle the Fathers would categorize as a Christian miracle. But suppose P isn't restorative in this way. Then perhaps, as with the case of the stigmata, P is functioning as a sign which confirms the presence and activity of God within the particular Protestant denomination, just like stigmata do for the Church.

Other options? The last ditch effort would be to say that this P is in fact a counterfeit miracle, brought about through some nondivine agency, with the intend of deceiving people and leading them away from the Church. But (1) ouch, that would hurt feelings, (2) yikes, let's be careful we don't unwittingly blaspheme the Holy Spirit, and (3) honestly, couldn't the Protestant say the same thing about stigmata that we're imagining someone saying about P?

I feel the force of what you've said concerning the incorruptibles, so don't take my remarks as being dismissive of that line of reasoning. I'm just trying to think in terms of overall strategy here, and I think the facts that (1) we Catholics recognize Protestants as bona fide Christian brothers, and (2) we're not dealing with people who disbelieve in miracles period, makes it difficult to know how exactly to go forward with a defense of Catholicism based upon miracles.

Any thoughts?

Tim A. Troutman said...

Dr. Judisch,

I definitely agree with you that I wouldn't invest too much in this line of defense. It's not so much that I think it doesn't mean anything - I just haven't quite worked this out in my head yet (which is why I've waited so long to try and write it down... Mr. Cross just spurred me along).

Anyway to the point, I don't know that we could say all of the early Christian miracles were regenerative - Wedding at Cana, walking on the water, catching lots of fish - these seem to me to be teaching miracles / signs.

But if Jesus had come performing so called "teaching miracles" and signs without regenerative miracles - then perhaps we'd have a good idea that we found an impostor. Likewise in the case of the uniquely Catholic miracles (especially Lourdes), we most certainly have these regenerative miracles associated with the signs. St. Bernadette was said to have held her hand over an open flame for about 15 minutes without being affected. Now if she had only done this, this is the sort of thing magicians do. But the water that sprung up where she was (supposedly) told to dig has (reportedly) cured many thousands of pilgrims and continues to do so until this day.

I find my initial skepticism odd at this point. It wasn't that I ever disbelieved miracles. I said the same thing all of the Protestants said over at Principium Unitatis: each group of religious have their own peculiar types of miracles so most of them are probably fabricated. I don't know how I came to think otherwise but somewhere along the way I did.

All the Marian apparitions rub my fur the wrong way to be sure (or at least they did). And this sort of piety is still unfamiliar territory with me but I'm quite sure there's something there.

Neal Judisch and Family said...

Dr. Tim,

Yeah, good points about the teaching miracles. If I remember correctly the early apologists were focusing primarily on early Church miracles; in any case, they certainly thought that outside of the Faith we don't find miracles involving healing, or perfecting nature, or things like that. So, I guess, it wasn't so much that all Christian miracles were regenerative/restorative miracles, but that none of the non-Christian 'miracles' were of this sort.

But it's been about a year since I've looked at those few and far between, sketchy passages, and I should go back to them to make sure I'm not misrepresenting anyone.

I think I know where you're coming from. My inclination towards skepticism is more emotional than intellectual, and I realize this about myself. I giggled at the silly Catholics with their Blessed Virgins showing up in their tortillias for a long time. (And look who's laughing now, right?) I don't discount Fatima or Lourdes or Medjugorje, and I don't think the people who believe in those things are backward or dumb. I also think that my previous cessationism was unwarranted (Biblically, theologically, and philosophically) and that I darn well always knew it deep down.

So I'm coming around. I'm just trying to get the right balance.

And please call me Neal. (Dr. Neal, if you must.)

Tim A. Troutman said...

Dr. Tim - Hah! That's funny.

I have a post on the back burner in my mind regarding respect towards others & I'm trying to break myself of the very American habit of assuming I'm on a first name basis with everyone.

I think you're right about your assessment of the fathers. There is certainly a distinction for them in the "miracles" of the pagans which are all sorcery and magic and never do the very thing which miracles ought to do.

On Medjugorje, not only is this not an approved apparition, it may have even been official discounted - but I'm not really sure about that. There's a lot of controversy surrounding it.

Neal Judisch and Family said...

Gotcha; I respect the urge to be respectful, and it's appreciated. But I hereby allow you to be on a firstname basis with me,, Mr. Troutman.

On Medjugorje, I haven't looked into that very closely. (Frankly I haven't looked into any of them very closely. But what with B16 going to Lourdes and JPII sticking that bullet in the Fatima statue and all, it's hard for me to assume that it's all empty or that I ought to stay aloof like a good intellectual.) The only reason Medjugorje was on my mind, and, really, the only reason I'd heard of it, is because a very dear woman we met over the summer appears to be a believer. (I wouldn't necessarily call her credulous, but she's ready to believe a lot of stuff.) Just a couple of nights ago we were at her house for dinner, and she gave my wife a rosary made of Medjugorje stuff. The Our Fathers and Ave beads are rocks from that hill, and the centerpiece has some soil, etc. Very nice of her, and we'll use the thing; but I still don't know what to think of it.

If you can remember where you've read anything "official" about it I'd be interested.

Professor Dr. N.D. Judisch, PhD

Gretchen said...

Thanks, Tim. As always, you provoke thought.

Tiber Jumper said...

Hey guys and gals:
Very interesting discussion which I have pondered myself. I posted an article about this awhile back looking at miracles as a defense of the Catholic Church. Turns out, what Tim has said here was the actual argument St. Francis DeSales used in his apologetic to the Calvinist converts from Catholicism in years just shortly after the reformation.
And surprisingly, our dear beloved St. Francis Desales used less than politically-correct terms in his articles. I think we all recognize that the graces of God pour forth from the Church to the eccleseal communities separated from the Church.(not unlike the trickle down theory of Reaganomics, ?) I experienced this pouring out of God's grace as an evangelical, though I must tell you, I never saw a "proven miracle." Despite years of taking my wife with cancer to healing evangelists and being treated to "horse and pony" shows,prophetic words that God would heal etc etc, as a trained medical doctor, I never did see something at any of these events that I could conclusively say, "Yep, X-ray showed cancer and one day later, No Cancer." I heard many testimonies of people saying the doctors "went in" and found no tumor after the prayers, but these never found their way to the local newspapers or medical journals.
Often though the miracle is the fortitude and strength God gave to the sufferer while they bore the pain and anguish of their situation, but this is not a true miracle persay, but the grace of God in our lives.
What I have found so impressive in Catholicism is the scientific and painstaking way that they insist on investigating an alleged miracle. Therefore, when it is documented, all the more glory to God and it is approved by the authority of the Church.

~Joseph the Worker said...

Just a few thoughts, everyone else has thought about this and responded better than me and I might have missed something.

1) I believe St. Francis is the only officially recognized case of Stigmata that the Church has ever endorsed.

2) There has been a lot of fraud and deception on the part of individuals, which leads to increased skepticism.

3) I think some Protestants have claimed to have stigmata least that's what National Geographic said....

Thos said...


Regarding widely observed Marian apparitions in Orthodoxy, do you know of the Zeitoun, Egypt apparition? If so, what would make that less significant an experience than what the Catholics enjoyed in the last 150 years?

Not a challenge, just food for thought (and there are neat photos!).

Peace in Christ,

Tim A. Troutman said...

TJ - Yea I remember reading that post of yours.

Joseph the Worker - Thanks for chiming in. I'm not really sure how to word this concept. I've had it in my head for a while, trying to figure out what I want to say. Maybe I should have held it in the oven a little longer. I wouldn't be surprised if Protestants claimed the stigmata, only if they actually had it :) But that's interesting about St. Pio. I was under the impression that there were more cases.

Thos - I didn't know of the apparitions in Egypt. What makes them less significant... I don't know. But a couple of years ago, a lot of Coptic Orthodox were received into the Catholic Church (about 250,000).

It is called the Coptic Catholic Church. But as far as I know, that particular parish remains in schism.