Monday, January 22, 2018

Parsing Catholic miracles

1. From time to time I discuss reputed Catholic miracles. What position should evangelicals take regarding these claims? Are Catholic miracles bogus? Do Catholic miracles accredit the Roman Catholic faith? This post makes no effort to be exhaustive. I'll give some examples to illustrate general principles. 

2. There are different kinds of Catholic miracles. 

i) Some Catholic miracles are attributed to Catholic saints, viz., levitation, biolocation, inedia, luminosity, stigmata, exorcism.

ii) Some Catholic miracles are attributed to dead Catholic saints, viz, Marian apparitions, incorrupt corpses/odor of sanctity, liquefaction of blood.

iii) Some Catholic miracles are attributed to Catholic objects, viz. weeping/bleeding madonnas, bleeding Host. 

3. What's a Catholic miracle?

Both the noun and the adjective are ambiguous. What does it mean to be a Catholic miracle?

i) Bogus. Fraudulent.

ii) A genuine supernatural event.

If (ii), that's subdivisible into:

a) A divine miracle

b) A paranormal or occultic phenonomenon

iii) What does it mean to be a Catholic miracle? 

For instance, the Martyrdom of Polycarp says he was fireproof when the Romans tried to burn him alive. Assuming that's true, should that be classified as a Catholic miracle? Was Polycarp Roman Catholic? Or is that an anachronistic designation? He wasn't Catholic in the sense that Ignatius Loyola was Catholic, or Matthias Joseph Scheeben–much less Joseph Ratzinger. 

iv) For a Catholic, as the intended beneficiary. If some Catholics are bona fide Christians, God might perform miracles for their benefit, just as he does for Christians generally. 

v) To a Catholic, but for someone else. God might perform a miracle, not for the immediate effect but the long-range effect. 

vi) To authenticate the Roman Catholic faith. 

These are't mutually exclusive distinctions. Some apply in some cases, while others apply in other cases. 

4. Sources

The material on Catholic miracles is a swamp. There's loads of stuff on RadTrad websites, but that's unreliable. Here's some examples of more scholarly sources: Herbert Thurston, The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism; Michael Grosso, The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation; Stanford Poole, The Guadalupan Controversies in Mexico; Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797; Jacalyn Duffin, Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints and Healing in the Modern World.

5. Naturalistic explanations

i) Consider the cult of Padre Pio. There's evidence that he used carbonic acid. If so, his stigmata might be the result of self-mutilation. 

ii) To establish if bilocation happens, we need evidence from both locations to verify that the individual was in fact at two different places at the same time. A kind of reverse alibi where there are witnesses or other types of evidence to verify that the individual was at one place at the same time the same individual was at another place. By the same token, in order to ID the individual, witnesses must have a comparative frame of reference to recognize the individual in question. Finally, the sighting must distinguish between bilocation and apparitions. Do ostensible examples meet those condition? 

iii) In principle, some eucharistic miracles might be staged. A homemade communion wafer with ingredients designed to have a chemical reaction that simulates blood when immersed in wine. Or actual human blood could be one of the ingredients. 

iv) Catholic tropes

There are stereotypical miracles attributed to Catholic saints. Is that because Catholic saints typically experience these types of miracles, or is that a cliche motif of the hagiographic genre? 

v) What happens when the miracle fails? For instance: 

6. Supernatural explanations

i) Miracles are, at most, a necessary rather than sufficient criterion to authenticate a religious claimant. That needs to be combined with other kinds of evidence.

Moreover, it can be indirect. For instance, Jesus performed miracles as well as choosing representatives (the disciples) to pick up where he left off after the Ascension. It isn't necessary for each and every disciple or apostle to perform miracles to attest their vocation as a bona fide messenger of God. If Jesus performed miracles that validate his mission, and if Jesus picked the disciples, then his action authenticates their mission. There's a kind of transference. 

ii) The miracles attributed to St. Joseph Copertino include levitation, psychokinesis, poltergeist activity, and materialization of objects. 

a) Even if genuine, there's nothing specifically Christian about that phenomena. That sort of thing can be paralleled in quality literature on the paranormal. For instance:

b) By the same token, there's nothing specifically divine about such phenomena. If genuine, it's more like a supernatural stunt. They fail to exhibit divine wisdom, justice, mercy, holiness, and truth. We'd expect a divine miracle to have a certain dignity or fittingness. Not just be something weird or frivolous. 

c) From what I've read, there's a connection between possession and levitation. 

iii) Here's a programmatic text on false prophets:

13 “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (Deut 13:1-5).

According to that text:

i) It's possible for a false prophet to perform genuine miracles

ii) If it happens, that's a test of faith. Rather than finding that persuasive, the faithful are duty-bound to disregard the miracle. 

That principle is reaffirmed in the NT:

For false messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect (Mt 24:24).

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed (Gal 1:8).

And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14).

Here's another example:

13 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. 2 And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear's, and its mouth was like a lion's mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. 4 And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

5 And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7 Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.

11 Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain (Rev 13:1-7,11-15).

i) These are delusive miracles. Their express purpose is to mislead and to attest a counterfeit religion. A parody of the Christian faith. 

ii) The church of Rome literally waged war against Protestant believers (cf. Rev 13:7).

iii) "Giving breath" to the image suggests a statue that supernaturally comes to life. Compare that to weeping/bleeding madonnas, or the crucifix of Limpias. Even if some of those reports are the real deal, that doesn't automatically authenticate Roman Catholicism. Indeed, the malevolent design of some miracles is to mimic the real deal. That's the nature of spiritual counterfeiting. 

iv) I'm not suggesting that Rev 13 is a direct prediction of Roman Catholicism. Rather, I think Revelation supplies paradigm-examples of repeatable kinds of events that recur in the course of church history. Likewise, I'm not suggesting that these explanations prove that Catholic miracles are occultic. Rather, we need to make allowance for that possibility. 

7. Regarding eucharistic miracles in particular:

Blood is a potent symbol in Christianity because we're redeemed by the blood of Christ. And that's foreshadowed by bloody animal sacrifice in the OT. It's not coincidental that counterfeit religion trades on that symbolism:

And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems (Rev 12:3).

And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns (17:3).

The dragon (Satan) and the beast (Antichrist) are both blood red. Their color deliberately evokes Christian symbolism. Incidentally, that's applicable to the liquefaction of blood (St. Januarius) as well as eucharistic miracles. 

In that connection, here's another instructive passage:

17 Thus says the Lord, “By this you shall know that I am the Lord: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood…19 And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, their canals, and their ponds, and all their pools of water, so that they may become blood, and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’”

20 Moses and Aaron did as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. 21...There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. 22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. (Exod 7:17-22).

The text is ambiguous because Hebrew uses the same word for blood and the color red. Nevertheless, the Egyptian magicians were able to muster a counter-miracle that mimicked the bloody water. That's reminiscent of eucharistic miracles. 

I'm not claiming they're identical. Rather, that's one explanation we should take into consideration when we evaluate these claims.

8. Taking stock

When assessing reported Catholic miracles, it isn't necessary to sift the material. Even if some Catholic miracles are genuine, that doesn't prove Catholicism to be true. 

1 comment:

  1. Well done! Very logically articulated.

    I have spotted a major logical inconsistency of Roman Catholic apologists who cite these so-called Eucharistic "miracles" as "proof" for the veracity of transubstantiation. See here: