Don’t Dismiss Miracles


I find myself disappointed by Fr. Longenecker’s unsound advice to Catholics as to how they should "deal with the paranormal" (This Rock, July-August 2009). In fact, it is puzzling that a magazine and an organization specializing in orthodox apologetics could publish an article that ignores—and even implicitly seems to deny—solemnly defined Catholic doctrine on the essential role of miracles in providing a rational basis for our faith.

Fr. Longenecker dismissively lumps together true and false miracles as a bunch of "weird things." He sees them as being in general the subject of "stories" and "tales" which "are often so bizarre" that they are likely to "confirm [a non-Catholic’s] prejudice that Catholics are ignorant, superstitious and gullible." According to Father, emphasizing miracles "draws attention away from the truly important questions," and indeed, miracles "do not supply good apologetics ammunition." So it’s "unwise," he assures us, to appeal to them in trying "to convince people of the truth of the Catholic faith."

On the contrary, the Church teaches that miracles supply essential "apologetics ammunition" and so should most definitely be appealed to in persuading skeptics that Catholic Christianity is true. Jesus pointed to his own miracles as evidence of his divine mission (Mt 11:4-5) and prophesied that his disciples would have their preaching of the Gospel confirmed by further supernatural signs (Mk 16:17-18). The Acts of the Apostles gives abundant testimony to the fulfillment of that prophecy, which has continued to find verification in the lives of the great missionaries and other saints ever since.

Of course it is easy to confuse genuine and false miracles. But no one would ever suspect from reading Fr. Longenecker’s article that, precisely to deal with that problem, the Church sets rigorous standards for the thorough scientific investigation and verification of reported miracles before approving them as evidence for the authenticity of private revelations, or as prerequisites for every beatification and canonization she carries out. Still more seriously, Father omits all reference to this solemn definition of Vatican Council I: "If anyone shall say that miracles . . . can never be known with certainty, and that the divine origin of Christianity cannot be duly proved by them, let him be anathema" (DS 3034, cf. 3009). The Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats this teaching, mentioning "the miracles of Christ and the saints" as being among "the most certain signs" and "external proofs" of divine revelation (CCC 156).

It is important that in spreading the faith we avoid the ever-recurrent error of fideism, that is, belief without a sufficient rational basis. Fr. Longenecker exhorts us—rightly, of course—to believe strongly in supernatural realities such as the Incarnation and the dependable power of the sacraments. But by seemingly denying the apologetic relevance of miracles, he undercuts much of the rational basis for believing in these revealed realities. In my own pastoral experience, presenting doubters with the rational, scientific evidence and sworn testimony that undergird officially approved miracles by no means "disturbs and confuses" them. On the contrary, it often begets new faith or strengthens a wavering faith—just as the Church teaches it is supposed to do.

— Fr. Brian Harrison, O.S., S.T.D.
St. Louis, Missouri

Fr. Dwight Longenecker replies: Fr. Harrison has read more into my article than I intended. The article was not supposed to be an exhaustive treatment of miracles in Catholic belief, or their usefulness in apologetics. Instead, it was intended to help Catholics filter the numerous "weird things" that are reported within religious life—some of them genuine supernatural occurrences and others not.

The article was not dismissive of true miracles (nor their apologetics use) but warned of superstition and gullibility and offered a means to help understand allegedly supernatural phenomena in a practical way.

An article twice its length would have allowed room to discuss the Catholic Church's rigorous tests for miracles and the usefulness of such miracles for apologetics. Perhaps that could be the stuff of a second piece, but in the meantime, I am grateful to Fr. Harrison for illuminating this further aspect of the subject.


A Useful Retrospective

 

Thank you for the donated copies of This Rock. The issue concerning the 200th retrospective contains very insightful articles, especially the one about prison yard apologetics.

— John Messina
Catholic Chaplain, North Kern State Prison
Delano, California


Baptismal Divisions

 

In her article about early Christian support for sola scriptura ("Did the Early Christians Subscribe to Sola Scriptura?," April 2009), Jennifer Hay writes that "mainline Protestants and Catholics agree as to what constitutes a valid Christian baptism." Further, she writes "I was baptized in a Baptist church. During my adult life I have been Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Catholic, and no one ever suggested that my baptism was anything other than valid." And finally, on the first of her three points as to what is a valid baptism, "There is no debate among Catholics and mainline Protestants as to what is orthodox."

The only reason no one ever suggested to Mrs. Hay that her baptism was not valid is that the order in which she moved through the Protestant dominations began with Baptist. Had she been baptized by the Lutherans or the Presbyterians, both of which baptize infants, the Baptist church would, in fact, have required her to be baptized according to their understanding of the rite. They clearly and consistently accept only "believer’s baptism," which requires a public profession of faith by an individual past the age of reason. As to the statement, then, about there being agreement as to what is orthodox, that holds only if one is only looking at the rite itself—and even then there would be disagreement with the Baptists, who insist that the only valid form of baptism is by full immersion. While Mrs. Hay makes her point that the early Christians did not, in fact, follow sola scriptura, her use of baptism with the above-mentioned errors undermines the point of her article and makes it one I cannot use when working with my Protestant friends seeking to understand a Catholic position. They would assume the entire article to be equally erroneous (which it is not). My thanks, then, to Mrs. Hay for her article with one final quote from it: "All Christians should pray for the reunification of the Church. Is there any doubt that this is the will of our Father?" No, ma’am, no doubt at all!

— Jane Kodack
Greensboro, North Carolina

Jennifer Hay replies: My general strategy in apologetics is to follow the form, "We agree on X; Y follows logically, so we should agree on Y." This strategy necessarily limits the target audience for the argument to those who agree with X. In this article, X was "what constitutes a valid Christian baptism," so the target audience is the group of Protestants who agree with the Catholic Church on this point. Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians all agree, at the level of their written confessions, on what constitutes a valid Christian baptism, and I grouped these churches under the designation "mainline Protestant." I did not intend for Baptists to be included under this designation, although I should have stated this explicitly, because they are such a large group, and because Wikipedia includes the denomination American Baptist Churches USA under the designation "mainline Protestant."

The argument is correct as it stands, but, as Ms. Kodack points out, it will not persuade Baptists or other Christians who do not agree with the Catholic Church on what constitutes a valid Christian baptism. To reach those Christians, we must work from other points of agreement. I sincerely appreciate Ms. Kodack’s passion for reaching Baptists, and I appreciate that she has joined her prayers with mine.


 

‘Ware the Taste Arbiters!

 

In "Taste Test" (Last Writes, March 2009) Karl Keating critiques two "controversialists" for their harsh opinions on Ronald Knox. He writes, "If it is okay for Catholics to respond in differing ways to art, why is it a sign of apostasy for someone to acknowledge that much popular devotional writing leaves him cold?" He then finishes with, "Who appointed those two yahoos as arbiters of taste and judgers of souls?"

These are good questions that emphasize our need to be charitable and nonjudgmental. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, though, and a general impression of a tone of superiority emanating, on occasion, from This Rock has been growing on me for some time.

I don’t wish to overstate this impression, but I think it’s worthy of consideration. Let me first express my admiration and gratitude for the Catholic Answers organization in all its facets, including This Rock. I’m a supporter! One foundational idea often communicated, among many others with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that we ought to open ourselves to the truths of the Church rather than expect the Church to adapt itself to our misconceptions. We must never waver in our stand for the truth.

Sometimes, however, people seem to draw up lines of defense well inside the protection of the Church’s battlements. While a healthy skepticism may be necessary, especially regarding the teaching of doctrine, we must be careful, I think, that it does not turn into a pervading and unhealthy suspicion of the intentions of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

In This Rock articles, there is sometimes a tone that concerns me, usually having to do with some aspect of the liturgy. The Latin Mass, reception of the Blessed Sacrament on the tongue, church architecture, religious art, and liturgical music have all been worthy subjects of discussion, but I’ve come away from some of these discussions with the impression that many of the authors, despite their protestations to the contrary, are being a bit elitist, as if all of the faithful in "barn" churches, with 70s felt banners, who sing from Glory and Praise and receive the body of our Lord in their hands at Mass are somehow being looked down upon.

The two-part series on "Bad Liturgical Music" (October-November 2008) stands out. To be fair, I feel a similar revulsion as Anthony Esolen to a couple of the contemporary hymns. Not only, however, could he deal with those works less harshly, Dr. Esolen really steps falsely when he suspiciously misinterprets the authors’ of those tunes motives.

If "Be still and know I am God, you are child" is New Age baby-talk, why then does Jesus have us call God "Abba"? "I shall raise him up on the last day" is narcissistic? Why? And if "What we have broken we hope to be" reverses the distinction between sinner and Savior, so too do the Second Letter of Peter which calls us to be "partakers of the divine nature" and St. Teresa of Avila, who writes, "Christ has no body now on earth but yours." Certainly these profound mysteries may be twisted in New Age fashion to misrepresent the faith and mislead the faithful, but it is unwise to judge the hearts of those who strive to contemplate their mystery.

Dr. Esolen may have a legitimate concern that some folks don’t have a proper sense of reverence and awe at God’s majesty, or an appropriate understanding of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but it seems he doth protest too much. Dr. Esolen could stand to become a little more comfortable with God who calls us to be as little children, who became man and got dirty and left all the rest behind to find the lost sheep. We should love his sacrifice, but more importantly, we need to remember that it was a sacrifice of love.

God and his Church certainly cannot change to match our misconceptions. However, even the great philosopher John Paul II recognized that some traditional formulations of doctrine can seem too abstract and remote to be accessible to contemporary man; they need to be presented in such a way that they may resonate with the truth imprinted in our hearts. If this is true of doctrine, the same can be said of liturgical, architectural, artistic and musical preferences.

I love every Mass, wherever I go, and in whatever form, because I receive Jesus. However, the music and full participation and celebration at my parish help me be more aware of whom I receive and direct my attentions accordingly, just as the Latin Mass or more traditional music might benefit another. The difference? I’m not questioning their theology or suspecting their motives. There’s plenty of room for both of us in the family of God. Maybe we can all be a little more careful about being "arbiters of taste and judgers of souls."

— Mathew Zimmerer
Via E-mail

Anthony Esolen replies: I thank Mr. Zimmerer for his devotion to the Church, and for his ardent wish that we will be one in Christ, and not tear one another apart while the world is crumbling around us. Still, I’m not going to concede this argument.

First, this is not a matter of opposing high art to low art. I believe I wrote at great length about the true folk music that used to shape our hymnody—"Be Thou My Vision" is itself an example. Low art may be great, or very good, or harmless. But bad art is another thing entirely. I oppose most of the new songs because they are bad songs—and tried to show why they are bad songs. They are unsingable by a congregation; they are really meant as pieces for a soloist. They resemble, musically, the jingles of a commercial, or the lazy louche slides and slurs of a show tune. And their lyrics are typically babyish (and not childlike), narcissistic, and effeminate; sometimes they are even heretical.

In saying so, I don’t wish to pretend, except in the case of clear heresy, to read a composer’s mind or heart. But language does not require us to read people’s minds. Language only requires us to consider how a reasonable person would interpret someone’s words. You can’t say, "I am God, you are child," without sounding babyish. You can say that you didn’t intend the glaring solecism, but it’s there whether you like it or not, and anyone not already seized by the pleasure of babyishness will notice it and be faintly embarrassed by it. When you sing "I shall raise you up on the last day," you are putting yourself grandly in the place of Christ, instead of asking him to do the raising. The fact is, I am not going to raise anybody on the last day or on any day. As for Jesus waiting like a lover—and not, note, like the Bridegroom waiting for his Bride—if you think that stuff like that will not remind people rather of Jennifer Lopez than of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, all I can say is that you ought to try, just try, putting yourself in the place of a young man growing skeptical of the soggy and sappy.

Again, this has nothing to do with the register of the art, high or low. I will take Appalachian songs any day over this stuff. So, I believe, would Palestrina.

Editor replies: I also thank Mr. Zimmerer for his thoughtful letter and his call to charity, which must always come first. If, as he seems to imply, beauty in the liturgy were an optional add-on, or beauty itself a mere matter of taste, then his criticism would be valid. But it is not. Ugliness is not to be tolerated, for it damages the faithful. From the Vatican document
The Via Pulchritudinis: Privileged Pathway for Evangelisation and Dialogue:

Superficiality, banality and negligence have no place in the liturgy. They not only do not help the believer progress on his path of faith but above all damage those who attend Christian celebrations, and in particular, the Sunday Eucharist. In the last few decades, some people have given too much importance to the pedagogical dimension of the liturgy and the desire to make the liturgy more accessible even for outsiders . . . (IIIC)

I argue, then, that it is not charity to ignore the ugliness; it is charity to instruct the faithful in the way of beauty, the Via Pulchritudinis, the privileged pathway for evangelization and dialogue.


This Rock Financial Update

 

In my annual This Rock appeal letter, which was mailed to subscribers in May, I explained that finances forced us to reduce the frequency of the magazine from 10 issues a year to six. I also said that this change, while eliminating most of the magazine’s operating deficit, would leave us $45,000 short of breaking even. I am pleased to report that the generosity of our subscribers has permitted us to take care of that $45,000, which means This Rock will be around for at least another year. Many thanks to all who helped!

Karl Keating


This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 7.