Friday, August 07, 2015

Anthony, don't pray for me

I'm somewhat hesitant to comment on this post:

It's a sensitive, personal issue. However, Beckwith put it out there for public consumption. And it contains an implicit Catholic apologetic (i.e. a Catholic miracle confirms Roman Catholic theology). Moreover, I've waited three months.

So what are we to make of this?

i) On one interpretation, this is a minor miracle. Too timely and unlikely to be sheer coincidence. And, by implication, this validates the Catholic cult of the saints. 

ii) I have reservations about explaining this naturalistically. That might seem like special pleading. Would I do the same in case of Protestant answered prayer?

iii) That said, there's nothing inherently wrong with evaluating a theological claim by theological criteria. 

iv) And even if we consider this miraculous, does it support Catholic dogma? To begin with, there's a certain irony: Beckwith prays to the patron saint of cancer patients on behalf of a cancer patient, who nevertheless dies shortly thereafter. How does that validate St. Anthony's reputation as a long-distance healer? If the patient was cured, that would be impressive. But since the patient succumbed, that hardly furnishes supporting evidence for Anthony's reputation. 

It's like "evidence" for global warming. If there's a warming trend, that's evidence for global warming–but if there's a cooling trend, that's consistent with global warming. Whether it's wetter or drier, that's evidence for global warming. 

If either outcome is consistent with St. Anthony's reputation, then does anything really count as evidence for or against his reputation? Or is it just random? 

v) Assuming (ex hypothesi) that it's a miracle, what kind of miracle would it be? Not like turning water into wine or the multiplication of food. Rather, this would be a coincidence miracle. A result of God's extraordinary providence.

That, however, is very predestinarian. That assumes God prearranged ordinary circumstances to converge on this opportune and naturally improbable outcome. If so, that's inconsistent with the libertarian strand of Catholic theology (e.g. Jesuit theologians). 

vi) Assuming (ex hypothesi) that it's a miracle, does it validate the cult of the saints? Not unless you think the only function of a miracle is to attest doctrine. Moreover, that's offset by Protestant miracles.

vii) Assuming (ex hypothesi) that it's a miracle, it could be a case of God's merciful condescension. Giving consolation to the grief-stricken. I don't reject that out of hand. 

viii) But is a naturalistic explanation special pleading in this case? How extraordinary in this incident? 

On the one hand, Anthony of Padua is a very popular saint in Catholic piety. There's nothing unusual about Catholics having medallions of St. Anthony. Odds are, that's pretty common.

If, moreover, a Catholic has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, that ups the odds that he will turn to St. Anthony–and do so more often. 

On the other hand, the fact that Francis Beckwith singled out St. Anthony requires no special explanation under the circumstances:

When my father first told us that he had cancer, I made it a point to pray for him each morning and each evening from that day forward. Although I wanted to do so by asking for the assistance of one of the great saints of the Church, who that saint would be was not obvious. After a little research, I discovered that St. Anthony of Padua was the patron saint of cancer victims.

There's nothing improbable about that. The only thing that's unusual in this case is the conjunction of these two individuals praying to the same saint. And even in that case, it's not the conjunction of independent causal chains, for the action of Francis was dependent on the condition of patient. 

The combination is unlikely, but not uncanny, or even all that remarkable. It's striking enough to grab your attention, and it invites the possibility that this was miraculous. But it's not naturally inexplicable or even extraordinary. 

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