Sunday, July 20, 2008

Do Miracles Still Occur?

To discredit the countless miracles that had been given in confirmation of the Catholic faith, the original Protestant Reformers utterly rejected the idea that miracles had continued beyond the apostolic age.

However, when the Pentecostal movement began in Protestantism in 1900, with its emphasis on miraculous healing and other charisms, the Pentecostals had to find ways to try to explain why such miracles had "vanished" for so long. The answer is that they never did, as the following quotes of the early Church Fathers show. Miracles have always been found in the Catholic Church, and the idea that they stopped with the death of the last apostle would have been foreign to the early Church Fathers.

Historian Ramsay MacMullen points out that contemporary miracles played a central role in Christian apologetics in the early centuries: "When careful assessment is made of passages in the ancient written evidence that clearly indicate [a] motive . . . leading a person to conversion, they show (so far as I can discover): first, the operation of a desire for blessings . . . second, and much more attested, a fear of physical pain . . . third, and most frequent, credence in miracles" (Christianizing the Roman Empire, 108).

"Christian writers themselves . . . portray the learned and sophisticated as having been won over by sheer force of logic, and the unlearned, by a sort of stupefaction or terror before the greatness of God’s power" (ibid., 109).

The Martyrdom of Polycarp

"When he [Polycarp] had . . . finished his prayer, those who were appointed for the purpose kindled the fire [to burn him to death]. And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we to whom it was given to witness it beheld a great miracle and have been preserved that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within, not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odor, as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there. At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth a dove and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished, and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect" (Martyrdom of Polycarp 15–16 [A.D. 155]).

"[Heretics are] so far . . . from being able to raise the dead, as the Lord raised them and the apostles did by means of prayer, and as has been frequently done in the [Catholic] brotherhood on account of some necessity. The entire church in that particular locality entreating with much fasting and prayer, the spirit of the dead man has returned, and he has been bestowed in answer to the prayers of the saints" (Against Heresies 2:31:2–4 [A.D. 189]).


"[When a scorpion stings someone’s heel] we have faith for a defense, if we are not smitten with distrust itself also, in immediately making the sign [of the cross] and adjuring and besmearing the heel with the beast. Finally, we often aid in this way even the heathen, seeing we have been endowed by God with that power which the apostle [Paul] first used when he despised the viper’s bite [Acts 28:3-5]" (Antidote Against the Scorpion 1 [A.D. 211]).

Eusebius of Caesarea

"The citizens of that parish [in Alexandria] mention many other miracles of Narcissus . . . among which they relate the following wonder as performed by him. . . . [T]he oil once failed while the deacons were watching through the night at the great Paschal Vigil. Thereupon, the whole multitude being dismayed, Narcissus directed those who attended to the lights to draw water and bring it to him. This being immediately done he prayed over the water and with firm faith in the Lord commanded them to pour it into the lamps. And when they had done so, contrary to all expectation, by a wonderful and divine power the nature of the water was changed into that of oil. A small portion of it has been preserved even to our day by many of the brethren there as a memento of the wonder" (Church History 6:9:1–3 [A.D. 312]).


"So take these as an example, beloved Dracontius, and do not say, or believe those who say, that the bishop’s office is an occasion to sin. . . . For we know both bishops who fast and monks who eat. We know bishops who drink no wine as well as monks who do. We know bishops who work miracles as well as monks who do not" (Letters 49:9 [A.D. 354]).

Ambrose of Milan

"As I do not wish anything which takes place here in your absence to escape the knowledge of your holiness [my sister], you must know that we have found some bodies of holy martyrs. . . . We found two men of marvelous stature, such as those of ancient days. All the bones were perfect. . . . Briefly we arranged the whole in order, and as evening was now coming on, transferred them to the basilica of Fausta, where watch was kept during the night and some received the laying on of hands. On the following morning we translated the relics to the basilica called Ambrosian. During the translation a blind man was healed. . . . [Arians] deny that the blind man received sight, but he denies not that he is healed. He says: ‘I, who could not see, now see,’ and proves it by the fact. . . . He declares that when he touched the hem of the robe of the martyrs, wherewith the sacred relics were covered, his sight was restored" (Letters 22:1–2, 17 [A.D. 388]).

Basil the Great

"But where shall I rank the great Gregory [the Wonderworker] and the words uttered by him? Shall we not place among the apostles and prophets a man who walked by the same Spirit as they? . . . For by the fellow-working of the Spirit, the power which he had over demons was tremendous and so gifted was he with the grace of the word . . . that, though only seventeen Christians were handed over to him, he brought the whole people alike in town and country through knowledge to God. He too by Christ’s mighty name commanded even rivers to change their course and caused a lake . . . to dry up. Moreover his predictions of things to come were such as in no way to fall short of the great prophets" (The Holy Spirit 74 [A.D. 375]).


"[A woman with three sick children came to Hilarion and] on reaching the saint she said: ‘I pray you by Jesus our most merciful God . . . to restore to me my three sons, so that the name of our Lord and Savior may be glorified in the city of the Gentiles. Then shall his servants enter Gaza and the idol Marnas shall fall to the ground.’ At first he refused and said that he never left his cell . . . [but] the woman did not leave him till he promised he would enter Gaza after sunset. On coming thither he made the sign of the cross over the bed and fevered limbs of each [child] and called upon the name of Jesus. Marvelous efficacy of the name! . . . In that very hour they took food, recognized the mourning mother, and with thanks to God warmly kissed the saint’s hands" (Life of St. Hilarion 14 [A.D. 390]).

John Chrysostom

"[I]n our generation, in the case of him who surpassed all in ungodliness, I mean [the Emperor] Julian, many strange things happened. Thus, when the Jews were attempting to raise up again the temple at Jerusalem, fire burst out from the foundations and utterly hindered them all; and when both his treasurer and his uncle and namesake made the sacred vessels the subject of their open insolence, one was eaten with worms and gave up the ghost, the other burst apart in the middle. Moreover, the fountains failing when sacrifices were made there and the entrance of famine into the cities together with the emperor himself was a very great sign. For it is usual with God to do such things when evils are multiplied" (Homilies on Matthew 4:2 [A.D. 391]).


"In the same city of Carthage lived Innocentia, a very devout woman of the highest rank in the state. She had cancer in one of her breasts, a disease which, as physicians say, is incurable. . . . This lady we speak of had been advised by a skillful physician, who was intimate with her family, and she betook herself to God alone in prayer. On the approach of Easter, she was instructed in a dream to wait for the first woman that came out of the baptistery after being baptized and to have her make the sign of Christ upon the sore. She did so, and was immediately cured" (The City of God 22:8 [A.D. 419]).

"For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by his sacraments or by the prayers or relics of his saints. . . . But who but a very small number are aware of the cure which was wrought upon Innocentius . . . a cure wrought at Carthage, in my presence, and under my own eyes? . . . For he and all his household were devotedly pious. He was being treated by medical men for fistulae, of which he had a large number. . . . He had already undergone an operation but clearly needed another. . . . [H]e cast himself down . . . and began to pray; but in what a manner, with what earnestness and emotion, with what a flood of tears, with what groans and sobs, that shook his whole body and almost prevented him speaking. . . . [And when the] surgeons arrived, all that the circumstances required was ready; the frightful instruments were produced; all look on in wonder and suspense. . . . [But the surgeon] finds a perfectly firm scar! No words of mine can describe the joy, and praise, and thanksgiving to the merciful and almighty God, which was poured from the lips of all with tears of gladness. Let the scene [of rejoicing] be imagined rather than described!" (ibid.).

"A gouty doctor of the same city, when he had given his name for baptism and had been forbidden the day before his baptism from being baptized that year by black woolly-haired boys who appeared to him in his dreams (and whom he understood to be devils), and when . . . he refused to obey them but overcame them and would not defer being washed in the laver of regeneration, was relieved in the very act of baptism, not only of the extraordinary pain he was tortured with, but also of the disease itself" (ibid.).

"What am I to do? I am so pressed by the promise of finishing this work that I cannot record all the miracles I know, and doubtless several of our adherents, when they read what I have narrated, will regret that I have omitted many which they, as well as I, certainly know. Even now I beg these persons to excuse me and to consider how long it would take me to relate all those miracles, which the necessity of finishing the work I have undertaken forces me to omit. . . . Even now, therefore, many miracles are wrought, the same God who wrought those we read of [in the Bible is] still performing them, by whom he will and as he will" (ibid.).

Pope Gregory I

"I determined, through the aid of your prayers for me, to send . . . a monk of my monastery for the purpose of preaching [to the heathen in Anglia]. And he, having with my leave been made bishop by the bishops of Germany, proceeded with their aid also to the end of the world to the aforesaid nation, and already letters have reached us telling us of his safety and his work, to the effect that he and those that have been sent with him are resplendent with such great miracles in the said nation that they seem to imitate the powers of the apostles in the signs they display. Moreover, at the solemnity of the Lord’s nativity [Christmas] which occurred in this first indiction, more than ten thousand Angli are reported to have been baptized by the same, our brother and fellow bishop" (Letters 30 [A.D. 597]).

"I have given some instructions to Boniface, the guardian who is the bearer of these presents, for him to communicate to your holiness in private. Moreover, I have sent you keys of the blessed apostle Peter, who loves you, which are wont to shine forth with many miracles when placed on the bodies of sick persons" (ibid., 26).

Friday, July 18, 2008

Adam, Eve, and Evolution

The controversy surrounding evolution touches on our most central beliefs about ourselves and the world. Evolutionary theories have been used to answer questions about the origins of the universe, life, and man. These may be referred to as cosmological evolution, biological evolution, and human evolution. One’s opinion concerning one of these areas does not dictate what one believes concerning others.

People usually take three basic positions on the origins of the cosmos, life, and man: (1) special or instantaneous creation, (2) developmental creation or theistic evolution, (3) and atheistic evolution. The first holds that a given thing did not develop, but was instantaneously and directly created by God. The second position holds that a given thing did develop from a previous state or form, but that this process was under God’s guidance. The third position claims that a thing developed due to random forces alone.

Related to the question of how the universe, life, and man arose is the question of when they arose. Those who attribute the origin of all three to special creation often hold that they arose at about the same time, perhaps six thousand to ten thousand years ago. Those who attribute all three to atheistic evolution have a much longer time scale. They generally hold the universe to be ten billion to twenty billion years old, life on earth to be about four billion years old, and modern man (the subspecies homo sapiens) to be about thirty thousand years old. Those who believe in varieties of developmental creation hold dates used by either or both of the other two positions.

The Catholic Position

What is the Catholic position concerning belief or unbelief in evolution? The question may never be finally settled, but there are definite parameters to what is acceptable Catholic belief.

Concerning cosmological evolution, the Church has infallibly defined that the universe was specially created out of nothing. Vatican I solemnly defined that everyone must "confess the world and all things which are contained in it, both spiritual and material, as regards their whole substance, have been produced by God from nothing" (Canons on God the Creator of All Things, canon 5).

The Church does not have an official position on whether the stars, nebulae, and planets we see today were created at that time or whether they developed over time (for example, in the aftermath of the Big Bang that modern cosmologists discuss). However, the Church would maintain that, if the stars and planets did develop over time, this still ultimately must be attributed to God and his plan, for Scripture records: "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host [stars, nebulae, planets] by the breath of his mouth" (Ps. 33:6).

Concerning biological evolution, the Church does not have an official position on whether various life forms developed over the course of time. However, it says that, if they did develop, then they did so under the impetus and guidance of God, and their ultimate creation must be ascribed to him.

Concerning human evolution, the Church has a more definite teaching. It allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms, under God’s guidance, but it insists on the special creation of his soul. Pope Pius XII declared that "the teaching authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions . . . take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—[but] the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God" (Pius XII, Humani Generis 36). So whether the human body was specially created or developed, we are required to hold as a matter of Catholic faith that the human soul is specially created; it did not evolve, and it is not inherited from our parents, as our bodies are.

While the Church permits belief in either special creation or developmental creation on certain questions, it in no circumstances permits belief in atheistic evolution.

The Time Question

Much less has been defined as to when the universe, life, and man appeared. The Church has infallibly determined that the universe is of finite age—that it has not existed from all eternity—but it has not infallibly defined whether the world was created only a few thousand years ago or whether it was created several billion years ago.

Catholics should weigh the evidence for the universe’s age by examining biblical and scientific evidence. "Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 159).

The contribution made by the physical sciences to examining these questions is stressed by the Catechism, which states, "The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers" (CCC 283).

It is outside the scope of this tract to look at the scientific evidence, but a few words need to be said about the interpretation of Genesis and its six days of creation. While there are many interpretations of these six days, they can be grouped into two basic methods of reading the account—a chronological reading and a topical reading.

Chronological Reading

According to the chronological reading, the six days of creation should be understood to have followed each other in strict chronological order. This view is often coupled with the claim that the six days were standard 24-hour days.

Some have denied that they were standard days on the basis that the Hebrew word used in this passage for day (yom) can sometimes mean a longer-than-24-hour period (as it does in Genesis 2:4). However, it seems clear that Genesis 1 presents the days to us as standard days. At the end of each one is a formula like, "And there was evening and there was morning, one day" (Gen. 1:5). Evening and morning are, of course, the transition points between day and night (this is the meaning of the Hebrew terms here), but periods of time longer than 24 hours are not composed of a day and a night. Genesis is presenting these days to us as 24-hour, solar days. If we are not meant to understand them as 24-hour days, it would most likely be because Genesis 1 is not meant to be understood as a literal chronological account.

That is a possibility. Pope Pius XII warned us, "What is the literal sense of a passage is not always as obvious in the speeches and writings of the ancient authors of the East, as it is in the works of our own time. For what they wished to express is not to be determined by the rules of grammar and philology alone, nor solely by the context; the interpreter must, as it were, go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East and with the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences, accurately determine what modes of writing, so to speak, the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use, and in fact did use. For the ancient peoples of the East, in order to express their ideas, did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we use today; but rather those used by the men of their times and countries. What those exactly were the commentator cannot determine as it were in advance, but only after a careful examination of the ancient literature of the East" (Divino Afflante Spiritu 35–36).

The Topical Reading

This leads us to the possiblity that Genesis 1 is to be given a non-chronological, topical reading. Advocates of this view point out that, in ancient literature, it was common to sequence historical material by topic, rather than in strict chronological order.

The argument for a topical ordering notes that at the time the world was created, it had two problems—it was "formless and empty" (1:2). In the first three days of creation, God solves the formlessness problem by structuring different aspects of the environment.

On day one he separates day from night; on day two he separates the waters below (oceans) from the waters above (clouds), with the sky in between; and on day three he separates the waters below from each other, creating dry land. Thus the world has been given form.

But it is still empty, so on the second three days God solves the world’s emptiness problem by giving occupants to each of the three realms he ordered on the previous three days. Thus, having solved the problems of formlessness and emptiness, the task he set for himself, God’s work is complete and he rests on the seventh day.

Real History

The argument is that all of this is real history, it is simply ordered topically rather than chronologically, and the ancient audience of Genesis, it is argued, would have understood it as such.

Even if Genesis 1 records God’s work in a topical fashion, it still records God’s work—things God really did.

The Catechism explains that "Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine ‘work,’ concluded by the ‘rest’ of the seventh day" (CCC 337), but "nothing exists that does not owe its existence to God the Creator. The world began when God’s word drew it out of nothingness; all existent beings, all of nature, and all human history is rooted in this primordial event, the very genesis by which the world was constituted and time begun" (CCC 338).

It is impossible to dismiss the events of Genesis 1 as a mere legend. They are accounts of real history, even if they are told in a style of historical writing that Westerners do not typically use.

Adam and Eve: Real People

It is equally impermissible to dismiss the story of Adam and Eve and the fall (Gen. 2–3) as a fiction. A question often raised in this context is whether the human race descended from an original pair of two human beings (a teaching known as monogenism) or a pool of early human couples (a teaching known as polygenism).

In this regard, Pope Pius XII stated: "When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parents of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now, it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the teaching authority of the Church proposed with regard to original sin which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam in which through generation is passed onto all and is in everyone as his own" (Humani Generis 37).

The story of the creation and fall of man is a true one, even if not written entirely according to modern literary techniques. The Catechism states, "The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents" (CCC 390).

Science and Religion

The Catholic Church has always taught that "no real disagreement can exist between the theologian and the scientist provided each keeps within his own limits. . . . If nevertheless there is a disagreement . . . it should be remembered that the sacred writers, or more truly ‘the Spirit of God who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men such truths (as the inner structure of visible objects) which do not help anyone to salvation’; and that, for this reason, rather than trying to provide a scientific exposition of nature, they sometimes describe and treat these matters either in a somewhat figurative language or as the common manner of speech those times required, and indeed still requires nowadays in everyday life, even amongst most learned people" (Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus 18).

As the Catechism puts it, "Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things the of the faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are" (CCC 159). The Catholic Church has no fear of science or scientific discovery.