Reply to Hays’ “Catholicism” #6

Reply to Hays’ “Catholicism” #6 May 17, 2023

Purported Cures from Lourdes

The late Steve Hays (1959-2020) was a Calvinist (and anti-Catholic) apologist, who was very active on his blog, called Triablogue (now continued by Jason Engwer). His 695-page self-published book, Catholicism a collection of articles from his site — has graciously been made available for free. On 9 September 2006, knowing full well my history of being condemned and vilified by other anti-Catholics (and his buddies) like James White, Eric Svendsen, and James Swan, Hays was quite — almost extraordinarily — charitable towards me. He wrote then:

I don’t think I’ve ever accused him of being a traitor or apostate or infidel. . . . I have nothing to say, one way or the other, regarding his state of grace. But his sincerity is unquestionable. I also don’t dislike him. . . . I don’t think there’s anything malicious about Armstrong—unlike some people who come to mind. In addition, I don’t think I’ve ever said he was unintelligent. For the record, it’s obvious that Armstrong has a quick, nimble mind. . . . The term “apostasy” carries with it a heavy presumption that the apostate is a hell-bound reprobate. I think it’s unwarranted to assume that all Catholics or converts to Catholicism are damned.

Two-and-a-half years later, starting in April 2009 and up through December 2011 (in the following quotations) his opinion radically changed, and he claimed that I have “an evil character,” am “actually evil,” “ego-maniac, narcissist,” “idolater,” “self-idolater,” “hack who pretends to be a professional apologist,” given to “chicanery,” one who doesn’t “do any real research,” “a stalwart enemy of the faith . . .  no better than [the atheists] Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens,” with an intent to “destroy faith in God’s word,” “schizophrenic,” “emotionally unhinged,” one who “doesn’t trust in the merit of Christ alone for salvation,” “has no peace of mind,” “a bipolar solipsist,” “split-personality,” and a “bad” man. He wasn’t one to mince words! See more gory details.

I feel no need whatsoever to reciprocate these silly and sinful insults. I just wanted the record to be known. I’ve always maintained that Hays was a very intelligent man, but habitually a sophist in methodology; sincere and well-meaning, but tragically and systematically wrong and misguided regarding Catholicism. That’s what I’m addressing, not the state of his heart and soul (let alone his eternal destiny). It’s a theological discussion. This is one of many planned critiques of his book (see my reasons why I decided to do this). Rather than list them all here, interested readers are directed to the “Steve Hays” section of my Anti-Catholicism web page, where they will all be listed. My Bible citations are from the RSV. Steve’s words will be in blue. Those of Anglican writer Dr. Lydia McGrew (actually a friendly acquaintance of mine) in green, and Christian philosopher Robert Larmer‘s in purple.

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[Chapter 1: Miracles]

Assessing Lourdes

This is a post on Lourdes. Lydia McGrew kindly provided feedback on a draft version, so I’m including our exchange (with permission) at the end. [p. 52]

And I will reply to that as well. That should be interesting, seeing that in the past we had a great exchange: Dialogue with an Anglican on “Praying to Mary,” Patron Saints, Etc. [11-10-14]. We’ve been friendly ever since, and I love her work. After that back-and-forth, Hays triumphantly and no doubt jubilantly exclaimed in the title of a post: “Lydia McGrew wallops Dave Armstrong” [11-9-14] This was a real class act on his part, since he cited all of her words and none of mine, didn’t provide a link to the posted dialogue so people could read both sides, and moreover, I had been banned long since on his blog, and so couldn’t reply in context. Very impressive, huh? That’s considered Christian civility, fair play, and self-confidence, I guess, in the anti-Catholic mentality.

It seems to me that there are two different ways we might classify the cures at Lourdes as coincidental. One way, championed by atheists, is to say that in any sufficiently large sample group, it’s statistically inevitable that some medical conditions will natural resolve themselves. This will happen anyway, regardless of prayer. The cliché example is spontaneous remission from cancer. [p. 52]

But this is a very weak “argument” (that’s assuming it can even properly be called one): so self-evidently weak that I don’t think it deserves any further reply.

According to the official site, only 70 cases have been formally confirmed as miraculous healings by the Catholic church: [p. 52] [link]

Yes; of course, these are only the most rigorously examined cases, that the Church felt confident enough to proclaim, with little fear of refutation. It doesn’t follow that there are not a lot more miracles with solid degrees of evidence. Over 7,000 have been purported to take place there. Hays’ arbitrary and unimpressive reasoning appears to be: “only the most medically scrutinized cases are worth looking into at all. We can ignore the 6,930 + other reputed miracles as of no significance or relevance to the discussion.”

[I]n any sample group of 200 million people who pray for miraculous healing, there will be a comparable percentage of naturally impossible cures. [p. 52]

He can play that game if he likes, but it’s silly and proves nothing. Clearly, cases have to be examined individually and considered on their own merits. We’ve done that: at least with seventy cases. And I’m sure there are many more that have been looked into and confirmed at less than the highest level of Church proclamations, to a serious degree. Hays plainly didn’t want to get into that (it would be too “messy” and difficult and time-consuming) and so he quickly devised a way to dismiss literally over 99% of the reputed cures. Pretty handy trick there! But it impresses no one who is not already a sophist and true “anti-Mary” believer, come hell or high water.

Hays could have chosen to start looking in-depth at the 70 most documented cases (providing 70 — or at least some — counter-explanations that he deems more plausible than the opinion of “cure”), if he were actually interested in a serious, open-minded debate; but he wanted no part of that, either. Instead, he devoted all of four pages to the matter, and about 1 1/2 of those were words from Drs. McGrew and Larmer. This is simply not serious interaction. It’s a quick, breezy attempt to dismiss something irrationally thought and decided beforehand to be absurd or impossible, so that he could move on, pretending that he had resolved the subject to everyone’s contentment.

Mind you, that may oversimplify things. [p. 52]

Now that‘s the understatement of the century! But I’m delighted that he made it. It’s always good to be self-aware.

I’d be very surprised if those 7000 are on the order of the restoration of amputated limbs. [p. 53]

Not likely, because that would be among the most extraordinary cures, and is frequently the scenario that atheists bring up.

Verified not to have been hoaxes, as well. It’s important to remember that plenty of people aren’t going to suffer any serious consequences for perpetrating a religious hoax. Nobody is going to crucify them. [p. 53]

This is true, but I state again that the existence a counterfeit is not a disproof of the real thing. Granted, it may whittle down the “7,000” figure a bit. But that doesn’t get Hays off the hook, either. He was till is duty-bound to start examining serious numbers of the reputed miracles of Lourdes, if he wanted to exercise the prerogative of claiming that they are bogus or nonexistent en masse, rather than employing an anti-Catholic variant of David Hume’s weak “classic” argument against miracles (they are very rare, so why not nonexistent altogether?: is basically what it amounts to). Hume had no interest in examining purported miracles anymore than Steve Hays did. They both wanted to declare them impossible (well, only the Catholic ones, for Steve) from their armchairs, as if factual, historical reality bows to their whims and desires. That is simply not possible to do. They have to be grappled with.

It might be argued that the official figure (70 miraculous cures) is artificially low because the criteria are artificially rigorous. Since the Catholic church is putting its reputation on the line, it has stringent standards to vouch a miracle (in the past it wasn’t so scrupulous). [p. 53]

Now he’s finally talking some sense.

If so, then the actual number of miracles is probably higher than the official figure, but because “unexplained” is so vague, without further information about specific cases, we can’t judge if the real figure is at the low end of the 7000, high end, or somewhere in the middle. [p. 53]

Yeah, we’d have to actually get down “in the dirt” and down to brass tacks and start looking at them one-by-one, and offering alternate explanations in every case. Hays never did that, and he likely never would have if he had lived longer. And he didn’t — I submit — because he looked down his nose at it as “silly Catholic junk.” We don’t spend time with things that we think are ridiculous. I think anti-Catholicism on the whole is ridiculous, too. But (dead-wrong as I think it is) I grant that there are articulate and sincere exponents of it, like Steve Hays, that I accord some modicum of respect by actually hearing them out and interacting with their reasoning. Everyone can observe me doing that in this long series, and in hundreds of my articles found on my Anti-Catholicism web page.

I think you are suggesting that God might cure them because they prayed or because he has some other reason to perform a miracle, not because of anything to do with Mary. That’s a legitimate possibility, but it has some problems since God presumably knows that such a miracle will be credited to Mary’s intercession. He could just have cured the person before he left to go to Lourdes. [p. 53]

Good point!

It raises difficult issues regarding providence however we slice it. I wish to avoid a double standard. [p. 53]

I grant his sincere desire; I do not grant a successful promulgation of said desire on his part, in Matters Catholic.

Mind you, a Catholic apologist might accuse me of special pleading because I detach the miracle from Marian claims. [p. 53]

Yes, either that or desperation, if there is a difference.

But a Catholic apologist is in the same situation, only in reverse. Because there are well-documented Protestant and/or charismatic miracles, a Catholic apologist must be able to distance those cases from Protestant claims. [p. 53]

Really? I feel no such need whatsoever. Catholic apologists don’t have to deny all Protestant miracles. We regard Protestants as our brothers-in-Christ, due, among many other things, to their legitimate regenerative baptism (itself supernatural and miraculous in every case). I believed in many “Protestant miracles” when I was a Protestant, and I believe in all those same miracles as a Protestant. The Wesleyan revivals reported many of them. I edited a book of Wesley’s quotations, published by a Wesleyan publisher (Beacon Hill Press). I believe I was healed, myself, and that my wife Judy also was (both occurring while we were Protestants).

So both sides have the conundrum of conceding a miracle but denying that it verifies a sectarian claimant. [pp. 53-54]

I and my “side” have no such “conundrum”. We view such miracles as verifying the power and mercy of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is a matter utterly indifferent to me what denomination someone is in, who presided over a healing. It’s simply not an issue. I’m only concerned with false doctrines, such as that God supposedly always heals by demand: a serious error that I refuted as a charismatic Protestant in 1982, as one of my first apologetics research areas. Hays is only worried about miracles at Lourdes because his false and arbitrary presuppositions don’t allow them. His mind was already made up before examining any purported miracle (which is why he didn’t trouble himself to do so!).

I can’t remember if you consider the distinction important between God’s performing a miracle and God’s refraining from preventing something from happening. I do consider it important. It seems to me less likely that God would refrain from intervening to prevent someone from happening to have an amazing healing at Lourdes (by secondary causes) than that God would perform a miracle to heal someone at Lourdes. So that may be a difference between us. [p. 54]

Another great comment from Lydia. She’s not anti-Catholic as Steve was. It makes a huge difference in how one argues.

Even if we grant the distinction in principle, that breaks down in relation to a healing that is naturally impossible, circumventing secondary causes and natural processes. At best that might apply to a subset of healings that are preternatural or coincidence miracles rather than something contrary to nature that bypasses secondary process. [p. 54]

Can you rephrase that in English, please?

Oh, I agree. If one granted that God had deliberately performed a real miracle (one might say a miracle-miracle) at Lourdes, one would have to deal with the implications of that. I would say in that case it would have some evidential value in favor of Marian doctrines, for the reason I have already given. Because it is not akin to the case of a reflection in a bank window or a pattern on burnt toast or whatever but rather a real miracle.

Of course, we have some evidence for all kinds of things that are false! I think sometimes it’s difficult to bear in mind that “some evidence” doesn’t mean “strong evidence” or “evidence to which there is no counterweight.” I’m quite willing to say that there is probably some evidence for Catholicism in the form of reported miracles, visions, etc., but that it is strongly counterbalanced by the evidence against. Of course, the theoretical arguments for Catholicism are extremely bad, as many of your posts show. The empirical argument is really the basket into which Catholics should place their eggs, as it were. [pp. 54-55]

This is much better argumentation than Steve’s. I see no necessity in this context to respond, however, as it is on an abstract level. I think the skeptic of Lourdes cures needs to examine actual purported miracles with a fine-toothed comb and refute them, if they think they can. Lydia recommends making an “empirical argument.” I agree! In a dialogue with an atheist, I brought up a scientific study of the purported cures at Lourdes, from the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (produced by Oxford University): “The Lourdes Medical Cures Revisited” (2012). These guys did what I am challenging Lourdes critics to do. From the Abstract:

We discuss the clinical criteria of the cures and the reliability of medical records. . . . We studied 411 patients cured in 1909–14 and thoroughly reviewed the twenty-five cures acknowledged between 1947 and 1976. . . . The Lourdes phenomenon, extraordinary in many respects, still awaits scientific explanation.

And the Conclusions:

We have also been struck by a matter-of-fact observation: the occurrence of cures that were not instantaneous but rather required days or weeks. This mode of cure occurred in about one-third of patients cured in 1909–14 and 1947–76. Largely unnoticed and overlooked, this pattern does not square with the usual script of a miracle, nor does it fit with the desiderata of the Church. From the pragmatic standpoint of an agnostic, the Lourdes cures, fewer than originally thought, have been a heterogeneous collection of medical facts, neither impostures nor miracles. Uncanny and weird, the cures are currently beyond our ken but still impressive, incredibly effective, and awaiting a scientific explanation. Creating a theoretical explanatory framework could be within the reach of neurophysiologists in the next decades.

After many mental twists and turns, we reached the same conclusions as Carrel some eighty to hundred years ago: “Instead of being a simple place of miracles, of interest only to the pious, Lourdes presents a considerable scientific interest,” and “Although uncommon, the miraculous cures are evidence of somatic and mental processes we do not know.” Upping the ante, we dare write that understanding these processes could bring about new and effective therapeutic methods.

The Lourdes cures concern science as well as religion.

That is serious and open-minded examination, from medical scholars and scientists. What Steve is attempting in this section is not. The difference is like day and night.

I would even go so far as to say that the conversion story of Wright (he’s a sci-fi author, I can’t remember his first name–John?) is some evidence for Catholicism. He was an atheist. IIRC, he prayed one of those “atheist prayers” (such as “If you’re there, God, show me”). Very shortly thereafter, he had a heart attack and was in a coma or something for a while. During that time he claims that he had visions of the Virgin Mary. I think he says Jesus as well, but my memory is a little hazy. I found his blog increasingly weird and coarse and stopped reading it several years ago. Anyway, he recovered and promptly became Roman Catholic, which I suppose is understandable under the circumstances. [p. 55]

That’s open-minded, and I appreciate it.

“Spontaneous remission” is not an explanation of why someone gets better. It is the admission that no explanation is known. It is probable that some events labelled as ‘spontaneous remission’ are answers to prayer, but that the attending doctors will not countenance a supernatural explanation. I am not claiming there are no spontaneous remissions that have a natural cause. [p. 56]

Agreed.

I agree that some events cannot be plausibly thought to be explicable in terms of natural causes. [p. 56]

Amen!

The criteria for an event being called a miracle at Lourdes are extremely strict. Stanley Jaki in his “Miracles and Physics” references a case where a compound fracture, i.e. bones sticking through the skin, was instantaneously healed, but it did not meet Lourdes’ criteria for calling something a miracle because a medical doctor was not in attendance. Jaki quotes a commentator to the effect that one does not need to be a tailor to tell if a coat is full of holes. [p. 56]

Good and helpful point.

I do not think that healing miracles have to happen at certain special sites, but it does not bother me if God’s providence includes people coming to certain locations to experience healing. If I need to be healed then God may require me to exhibit enough faith to go to a healing meeting being held in a certain location. [p. 56]

Agreed again!

I think God may well perform miracles at Lourdes. That does not to my mind provide strong evidence for Marian doctrine, given that He also performs miracles for people who do not accept Marian doctrine. Both George Whitefield’s and John Wesley’s ministries were distinguished by events I view as miraculous, but Whitefield was Calvinist and Wesley was Arminian. Miracles are evidence of God’s mercy and power, but in His mercy God does not require that we get all our doctrines totally right before He grants a miracle. When Jesus fed the five thousand he did not first ask who accepted him as the Messiah and who did not. [p. 56]

I agree 100% yet again. I’m answering as I read. It’s striking that Dr. Larmer (presumably a Protestant) made some of the very same points that I brought up. I mentioned miracles in the Wesleyan revivals. So did he. I wrote, “We view such miracles as verifying the power and mercy of God.” Dr. Larmer wrote almost identically, “Miracles are evidence of God’s mercy and power.” I stated, “It is a matter utterly indifferent to me what denomination someone is in, who presided over a healing.” Dr. Larmer wrote in a similar vein: “God does not require that we get all our doctrines totally right before He grants a miracle.”

I’m delighted that Steve Hays decided to include these balanced, thoughtful, and persuasive comments from both Lydia McGrew and Robert Larmer.

In the final analysis, then, I see nothing in this section that would cause me to doubt my existing beliefs as to the presence of miraculous cures in Lourdes, and/or as a result of Mary’s intercession for same. It’s simply insufficient and utterly inadequate for the purpose; not within a million miles of being any sort of compelling or even plausible refutation. One marvels at the flat-out weakness and lack of substance in Hays’ presentation, and the thought comes to my surprised and disappointed mind: “this is all you can come up with? This is your best shot?”

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Photo credit: The Whore of Babylon (workshop of Lucas Cranach): colorized illustration from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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Summary: The late Steve Hays was a Calvinist and anti-Catholic writer and apologist. This is one of my many critiques of Hays’ “Catholicism”: a 695-page self-published volume.

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