Theologians' Appeal for Clarification of Apparent Errors in Amoris laetitia – marriage and virginity

Amoris laetitia says, in number 159, "Rather than speak absolutely of  the superiority of  virginity, it should be enough to point out that the different states of  life complement one another, and consequently that some can be more perfect in one way and others in another."

The theologians censure the theoretically possible interpretation of this as "denying that a virginal state of life consecrated to Christ is superior considered in itself to the state of Christian marriage." Such a claim would be contrary to the dogmatic teaching of the Council of Trent: "If anyone says that the married state surpasses that of virginity or celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be united in matrimony, let him be anathema.”

What Amoris laetitia actually says is, "Rather than speak absolutely of the superiority of virginity, it should be enough to point out…" Strictly speaking, it is not denying that there is some sense in which there could be a superiority absolute in some sense (abstracted from some set of considerations or circumstances), but affirming that it isn't necessary to speak about superiority absolutely, that it should suffice to note, first, that the states are complementary, and then, when appropriate, to note the respects in which each one is superior or more perfect.

The judgment "It's not necessary to speak about a superiority" would generally imply either that (1) there isn't a superiority, or (2) while there is a superiority, it would be unhelpful or even misleading to speak about it. Since Amoris laetitia in the previous sentence notes John Paul II statement that the bible does not give us a reason to assert the superiority of virginity as a mere fact (its superiority is not absolute, but in relationship, in relationship to the kingdom of God), there is some reason to think that the rejection of this kind of superiority lies behind the statement "Rather than speak absolutely." On the other hand, since Pope Francis could have simply denied superiority in this sense, there is plausibility to see the reason for the statement "Rather than speak absolutely of the superiority of virginity, it should be enough etc." as being, on the one hand, that noting the complementarity and specifying the respects in which each is more perfect suffices to communicate the particular values of each, and, on the other hand, that speaking about absolutely superiority might be misleading.

My years of teaching about the states of life have given me a lot of sympathy for this view. It is, indeed, for many people difficult to internalize the proposition "abstracting from particular circumstances of individual cases of consecrated virginity or marriage, christian consecrated virginity is superior as a sign of and means to holiness" without drawing various false conclusions, such as, "no married person is holier than a holy consecrated virgin."

Nonetheless, this statement of Amoris laetitia does seem to me to be a bit overstated, i.e., it doesn't specify "for whom", or "to what end", "it should be enough to point out that the different states of  life complement one another etc.", and there seem to be at least some persons and some ends for which it would not be enough to point out complementarity and specific sense of perfection, but for whom and for which it would be important to talk about in what ways these superiorities are "absolute", "conditioned", and/or "relative".

Theologians' Appeal for Clarification of Apparent Errors in Amoris laetitia – death penalty

Amoris laetitia in n. 83, says that the Church "firmly rejects the death penalty." The theologians censure a theoretically possible interpretation of this that would understand it "as meaning that the death penalty is always and everywhere unjust in itself and therefore cannot ever be rightly inflicted by the state." Such a meaning would contradict Church doctrine. Read in context, I don't see anything suggesting that the text would mean anything so absolute. As it is speaking about the Church's mission to defend life, the straightforward meaning of saying that the Church "firmly rejects the death penalty," would be that the Church holds with conviction that the death penalty should not be employed today.

Though it is not relevant to what the common Catholic would understood the text to mean, evidence for this reading is the way Pope Francis elsewhere describes Pope John Paul II's and the Catechism's position on capital punishment. E.g., in his address to the delegates of the international association of penal law, Pope Francis, referring to their statements that the cases where it is necessary to kill an offender are rare, if not practically nonexistent, says that "Pope John Paul II condemned the death penalty, as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church." So the weaker language of "firmly rejects" is adequately interpreted in this sense of being practically never necessary.

Pope Francis has repeatedly spoke out stronger against the death penalty. One may disagree with the prudence of this. But as there are not real indications that he intends to use the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia to further opposition to the death penalty or to change Church teaching on it, it would seem more well-advised to address those stronger statements, rather than raising concerns about what the statement "firmly rejects the death penalty" could be interpreted to mean.

Theologians' Appeal for Clarification of Apparent Errors in Amoris laetitia, part 1

A few weeks ago 45 priests and theologians submitted a letter to all cardinals and patriarchs, appealing to them to ask Pope Francis to clarify a number of points in Amoris laetitia, which, it is said, could be understood in a manner that would be opposed to Catholic faith. E.g., the statement about marriage and virginity, "Rather than speak absolutely of the superiority of virginity, it should be enough to point out that the different states of life complement one another, and consequently that some can be more perfect in one way and others in another" (n. 150 of Amoris laetitia), if taken as denying that a virginal state of life consecrated to Christ "is superior considered in itself to the state of Christian marriage" would be contrary to the solemn teaching of the Council of Trent.

They do not accuse the pope of heresy or of teaching errors contrary to the Catholic faith, but criticize the text of the document on the grounds that it "contains many statements whose vagueness or ambiguity permit interpretations that are contrary to faith or morals," and indeed "contains statements whose natural meaning would seem to be contrary to faith or morals." They make an appeal for Pope Francis to clarify that Amoris laetitia does not teach these errors.

As the letter has now been leaked to the public, as not a few of the signatories have some kind of connection to the International Theological Institute, where I teach, and as I already previously began addressing some of the issues in Amoris laetitia that are addressed in the appeal, I intend to make a few comments and critiques here and in the following posts.

Noting that the Amoris laetitia does not speak with scientific accuracy, and that the problem with it lies more in the way the statements can or are likely to be taken, the letter suggest that moreover, it would be impossible for Amoris laetitia to teach anything contrary to the faith, as that would exceed the pope's authority.

"The problem with Amoris laetitia is not that it has imposed legally binding rules that are intrinsically unjust or authoritatively taught binding teachings that are false. The document does not have the authority to promulgate unjust laws or to require assent to false teachings, because the Pope does not have the power to do these things…. The document is formulated in terms that are not legally or theologically exact, but this does not matter for the evaluation of its contents, because the most precise formulation cannot give legal and doctrinal status to decrees that are contrary to divine law and divine revelation."

These statements seem to boil down, in effect, "Pope Francis is not teaching or requiring false statements or imposing immoral rules X, Y, and Z, because Pope Francis does not have the authority to teach what is false or impose what is wrong."

I see two problems here: first, the supposed truth or falsity of a statement or legitimacy or illegitimacy of a directive is being used as a principle of interpretation: "the document isn't actually teaching X, because X is false"; secondly, the authors put themselves in the position of privately judging that the statements declared problematic (if understood in a particular way) are, in fact, contrary to divine revelation or divine law.

This hermeneutical approach would be valid only if one took the pope to be unquestionably speaking infallibly in all of his statements in Amoris laetitia, which the authors explicitly deny, and if one supposed oneself to be infallible in one's opinion of what is compatible with or contrary to divine revelation or divine law.

If I am reading a document in order to learn from it rather than in order to impose my own views upon it, then the truth or falsity of a given position, in itself, has no direct hermeneutical value in determining the meaning of a statement the author makes. Only to the extent that (1) the author can be presumed to be intending to speak the truth, and (2) he can be presumed to know or to opine correctly what the truth of a given matter is, and (3) I can be presumed to know or to opine correctly what the truth of a given matter is, can I favor an interpretation of what he says that would make his statements be, in my opinion, true.

We can contrast three attitudes in reading a magisterial text, in which there are textual and other reasons in favor of reading the text to be saying "X", and at the same time, there are reasons to think that X is wrong.

(1) X is wrong, so the pope must not be saying it;
(2) X is wrong, and the Pope is saying X, so the pope is in error;
(3) The pope is probably saying X, and I see a problem with X; is it possible that my view of X is mistaken?… Or that I'm overlooking some reason why his statement should be read to mean something else? Or that the Pope is mistaken?

The third attitude, being ready in the first place to question one's own opinion on the basis of an authority's appearing to contradict one's own opinion, as well as to question one's own reading of his statement, before questioning whether the authority is right, is surely the appropriate attitude to take to someone, precisely as an authority, and in particular, to magisterial authority in the Church. As Lumen gentium 25 teaches, religious submission of mind and will is due even to non-infallible statements of the Magisterium, i.e., even to statements that could, in principle, be wrong. (The submission is due to them in a generic manner as statements of the authority; it does not follow that one must accept the statements as true even if one sees them to be false.)

By immediately using the perceived wrongness of various statements in Amoris laetitia as grounds to presume that the pope can't truly be teaching those things, one may avoid accusing the pope of error, but at the same time, avoid being challenged by the pope to rethink whether there might be some important truth that the pope is speaking which I don't myself clearly or fully perceive.

On this note, I close with a remark of Jeremy Holmes regarding the encyclical Laudato Si, but just as relevant to Amoris laetitia.

Everyone who finds the encyclical troubling should start by listing the “I like it” elements and the “This bothers me” elements. Then he should do one more thing: write down at least ONE element in the encyclical that genuinely challenges him, that is, one way in which he feels this encyclical may change his mind on something he has thought for a long time.

The Spirit leads the Church through weak human beings, and yet we have to be on the lookout for God in the midst of it all. As Fulton Sheen once remarked, Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem on an ass. If we don’t make a real effort to find ONE element in an encyclical that changes our attitude or conviction, then we have failed as readers.

Pope Francis on Amoris laetitia and reception of Communion by Divorced and Remarried Persons

Pope Francis's comments in an interview (see a transcript and the video of his comments at 1P5) support the interpretation of his intent that I proposed in my previous post, namely that the pastoral practice in dealing with divorced and remarried persons who desire accompaniment by the Church and to live within it, should be somewhat more like the pastoral practice in dealing with persons who, objectively and voluntarily, reject various points of Catholic doctrine and unity, but who desire a certain union with the Church, and/or who have limited access to the sacraments in their own church or ecclesial community. He affirms that there are new, concrete possibilities opened up that did not exist prior to Amoris laetitia, yet at the same time, that to say that alone — "I could say, 'yes, period.', but that would be too small an answer" — without seeing that in the larger context would be a mistake.

In the case of the orthodox, it is clear enough to most people that there are reasons why an orthodox christian is not in a position to accept, e.g., the Church's teaching on the authority of the pope — because he grew up learning to see the Church's teaching as wrong, a human deviation, etc. — and that the Church's acceptance that these persons can in good faith reject the pope's authority does not imply any lessening of the doctrine itself. It does imply, however, this doctrine is not manifestly true to each and every person of good will.

If there are similar externally perceptible reasons why individual persons are not in a position to accept the Church's teaching on the indissolubility and unity of marriage and/or the restriction of genital intercourse to marriage, and the Church accepts these, this similarly does not imply a lessening of the doctrine of indissolubility and unity of marriage itself. It does, however, imply, just as in the case of the orthodox and the authority of the pope, that the Church's doctrine on marriage is not manifestly true to all of good will, not even to all Catholics of good will.

There is, of course, a difference between the orthodox who does not accept the Church's teaching, and a Catholic who does not accept it, namely that the Catholic claims to be Catholic. This could be a reason to maintain a different practice in the two cases, not because of there being a difference in regard to whether one or the other is manifesting persevering in sin or not, but because one claims to be a Catholic, to be with and live with the Catholic Church, and the other does not.


Amoris Laetitia and Reception of Communion by Divorced and Remarried

In this post I want to consider what the exhortation Amoris Laetitia seems to suggest regarding the reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics, in relation to canon law and to previous statements about it.

According to canon law, nn. 915 (which forbids admitting to Communion those who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin) & 916 (which forbids receiving Communion in a conscious state of sin), as interpreted by the pontifical council for legislative texts in its declaration concerning the admission to Holy Communion of those who are divorced and remarried, those who are divorced and remarried may receive Eucharistic Communion without separating from each other under the following conditions:

  • For serious motives they are not able to separate
  • They intend to refrain from acts proper to spouses
  • They have received the sacrament of Penance with this intention
  • They receive in such a way as to avoid scandal

If we generalize these conditions somewhat and refer them to that which gives them their moral and ecclesial significance, we can say, those who appear to be publicly persisting in sin can receive Eucharistic Communion when:

  • For serious reasons they are not able to remove that which gives the public appearance of persisting in sin
  • They intend to refrain from sin
  • They reasonably believe themselves to be in the state of grace, or at least should not reasonably conclude that they are in a state of sin (*)
  • They receive in such a way as to avoid leading other persons to disrespect of the Eucharist or of the good that seems to be contradicted by their public apparent sin

How do these conditions compare with the conditions for non-Catholics, and in particular, Orthodox oriental Christians, to receive the Eucharist from a Catholic minister? (As I pointed out five years ago in that post on the Church's declarations on the matter, this allowance of non-Catholics to receive Communion is the basis of one of the strongest arguments that the Church's current legislation on the reception of Communion by the divorced and remarried is not in its entirety a necessary consequence of the nature of Eucharist and marriage.) Canon 844 § 3 requires that:

  • The non-Catholic members of the oriental Churches ask on their own for the sacraments
  • The non-Catholic members of the oriental Churches are properly disposed.

Since these Christians are in a public state of material schism or material heresy, why doesn't canon 915 exclude them from Eucharistic Communion?

I'm not aware of any even semi-authoritative account, but suggest that the presumption is made that they are not culpable for their schism or heresy, and that this is a common and public presumption. Consequently:

  • they are not able at the time to cease from the public schism, as that would be contrary to their convictions in conscience
  • They are well-disposed, having confessed any grave sins they are aware of and intending to avoid them in the future, etc.
  • It is common knowledge that orthodox are sincerely convinced of their position rather than moved by bad-will, so their receiving communion on their own request causes no great scandal with respect to the obligation to seek and adhere to the true Church.
  • There is no general invitation made to non-Catholics to receive, so it remains clear that it is not a normal, but an exception for them to receive

Would canon 915 require excluding from Eucharistic Communion a divorced and remarried Orthodox Christian who is permitted Communion in his own Church? Or would not the common and public presumption of good-will apply to them in this matter just as much as it does in regard to their schism, so that the objective disorder, the objective sin of adultery would not be an instance of "manifest grave sin" in the sense intended by canon 915?

Are there also particular circumstances in which there can be and is a de facto, common, and reasonable presumption of good-will on the part of divorced and remarried Catholics? If so, the objective disorder and sin as such would be per se no greater grounds for exclusion from Eucharistic Communion than the objective disorder and sin of the separated Orthodox Christians is.

As I pointed out in my previous post, Pope Francis seems to deliberately avoid an express mention of Eucharistic Communion with divorced and remarried Catholics. But the tenor and trend of comments made at multiple places in the exhortation suggests, I think, this view and the corresponding pastoral practice.

What would this look like, concretely? Something along the following lines, perhaps? Everyone in a parish knows that a couple in an irregular marital-like union discussed their situation with the pastor, everyone knows that they would have talked about the Church's teaching on marriage and the Eucharist in their talks with the pastor, and everyone knows that they would not go up to receive unless after those talks with the pastor they were doing the best to follow their conscience (whether trying to abstain from sexual intercourse with each other, or whether yet unable in conscience to accept/believe that abstinence from sexual intercourse was God's will for them).

The big question is, is such a thing really possible, and is it really desirable? How is the congregation going to determine whether a given couple is only going to go up to receive if they are sincerely doing their best to follow their conscience, without classifying people into the "good, sincere and well-intentioned folks" and others who are less well-regarded by the congregation? If the congregation cannot determine that, and the pastor has to allow communion to one couple who have had talks with him (including confidential talks pertaining to the interior forum), and refuse communion to another, is that not a violation of the interior forum?

I note, however, that this big question was, in a sense, just as much a question prior to Amoris laetitia, even if it was pertinent to much fewer couples. If a divorced and remarried couple was refraining from sexual intercourse with each other, it was still the big question, how can they receive Communion in such a way as to avoid scandal?

(*) Cases could, at least, in principle occur where a divorced and remarried person is not guilty of the sin of adultery: e.g., (1) a woman with good reason divorces a husband who abuses her and their children, he goes missing in war, she remarries, he turns out to be alive again, and from the time she discovers that, she ceases marital intercourse with her new partner; or (2) a catholic turned protestant who was married in the Catholic Church is led to believe his first marriage was declared invalid by the Church, he remarries as a protestant, then later converts to Catholicism, and discovers there was no declaration of nullity by the Church)

Amoris Laetitia – Gospel and Grace of Marriage and Family

I've just finished (quickly) reading Pope Francis's Exhortation Amoris laetitia. Here a first few remarks on it.

  1. While at times wordy, there is a great deal of good, deep and concretely helpful advice in the exhortation for families and those who accompany them: about love and emotion, attentiveness to and communication with one's spouse, mutual forgiveness, educating children, the changes in the relationship of spouses to each other as children are born, grow up and leave, about various possibilities and ways for the Church to bring the Gospel to individuals, couples, and families, etc.
  2. The responsibility of the State is touched upon in a number of cases, but mostly just in passing.
  3. An underlying concern in the entire document seems to be: that the Gospel, the call, and the grace of God be spoken and extended to all persons here and now, not only when they are or become willing to hear and accept it in its totality, not only when they themselves take initiative to learn and embrace it. "Pastoral care for families has to be fundamentally missionary, going out to where people are. We can no longer be like a factory, churning out courses that for the most part are poorly attended." (Paragraph 230)
  4. This concern manifests itself most directly in chapter 8, titled "accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness". The tension between the fullness of the Gospel of marriage and family and the family situations of weak and sinful human beings is not to be resolved by abandoning the Gospel with its ideal of marriage and accepting those irregular situations as normal in the world of today, nor by abandoning those human beings who have not yet accepted or have deviated from God's plan for marriage and family. This tension must be upheld.
  5. The Pope does not make an express statement on the hot-button issue of Communion for divorced and remarried persons, but implicitly addresses it and locates it within this general concern, that God's call and mercy be extended to divorced and remarried persons, not only when they are able and willing to recognize and follow God's call in its fullness, but even when they recognize and/or follow it only imperfectly and with admixture of error, weakness and sin.

What Pope Francis seems to be suggesting regarding Communion for divorced and remarried persons I'll take up in a separate post. (Here a previous post on Church statements on the reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics.)

Does Believing Something Make it More Certain?

When I choose to believe something, do I thereby consider it to be more certain than I considered it before having chosen to believe?

In favor of this: belief implies holding to something as true, rather than as possibly true or probably true; when I choose to believe something for which the evidence is merely probable, I assent to as true, whereas previously I assented to it as probably true, and so I consider it more certain than I did before believing.

Against this: if surely assenting to something implies that I can treat that as an sure truth in itself, I will necessarily consider my belief to be infallible. Suppose, for example, the evidence strongly suggests that someone is telling the truth. I choose to believe that he is in fact telling the truth. Now I know I hold the belief that he is telling the truth. And I know that in all cases in which I hold a belief that X is true and in which X is true, my belief that X is true is true. So if my belief allows me to take the proposition "X is true" as sure in itself, I will conclude that there is it is absolutely certain that my belief is true. This is manifestly unreasonable. Therefore, giving credence to something does not entail or allow me to treat it as certain in itself. A similar problem will follow if I treat it as more certain than before, except to the extent that my belief is in fact evidence of its being true.

The problem here seems to be that we're comparing apples to oranges in comparing the firmness of assent in believe with my estimation of the certainty of some matter (= subjective certainty established by reasoning). To the extent that belief involves choice, and so an act of will moved by the good, whereas my subjective estimation of an objective probability or certainty does not involve choice (per se) but perception, the subjective certainty arising from will may be analogous, but is not directly comparable to the subjective certainty arising from perception or reasoning.

Commitment of Faith

Can (religious) faith entail an absolute commitment to the one in whom we place faith and his word, such that one should hold that "no circumstances could arise in which I would cease to believe", (see the middle of this post, and this post and discussion) as marriage is a commitment to a person such that one intends and may hold that "under no circumstances will I cease to be faithful to this person"? Or must any rational person admit the (at least theoretical) possibility of certain things that would make it rationally and morally necessary to cease believing?

Since faith by definition is about things that we do not see to be true, there is no inherent contradiction in faith as such being contradicted by things we do see to be true, such an absolute assent of faith seems to imply an assent to the content of faith so strong that one would desire to hold to it as true, "even if it (the content of faith) were to be false". Can such faith be justified?

Consider the following situation: a woman has grounds to suspect her husband is cheating on her; there is a lot of evidence that he is; even when she asks him and he tells her that he is not, she must admit that the sum of evidence including his testimony is against him, and he probably is cheating. Still, she decides to believe him. I argue that the very act of believing him entails a commitment to him such that once she has given faith to his word, while it is still in fact possible that she is believing him though he is actually lying, this possibility is less relevant for her than it was prior to her giving faith. In this sense, after faith, the "if it were to be false" becomes less of a consideration for the believer, and to this degree she wills faith "even were it to be false".

A more detailed analysis of the situation: various persons present her with claims or evidence that her husband is cheating on her. Before confronting him or asking him if he is, she collects various evidence for and against it. She decides that since believing him if he is dishonest is not without its own evils, if the evidence that he is cheating (after taking into account the evidence constituted by his statement on the matter) constitutes a near certainty that he is cheating — let's say, over 95% probability that he is cheating — that she shouldn't believe him if he says he is not, but must either suspend judgment or maintain that he is cheating. Now, suppose the man says that he is not cheating, and the evidence is not quite that much against him, let's say, the evidence indicates a 90% probability that he is cheating, and a 10% probability that he is not. She makes the decision to believe him. Since she would not decide to do so unless she believed that it were good to so, she is giving an implicit negative value to "believing him, if he is in fact lying", a much greater positive value to "believing him, if he is speaking the truth", and consequently an implicit positive value to "believing him," (even though he is probably lying).

Going forward, she is presented with an easy opportunity to gather further evidence about whether he is in fact cheating. She must make a decision whether to do so. If she is always going to make the same decision at this point that she would have made if she had not yet decided to believe him, it seems that her "faith" she gives him and his word is rather empty. A given decision to pursue further evidence, while not incompatible with faith, is a blow against it — to the extent that, out of fidelity to him, she accepts his claim as sure, she must operate either on the assumption that further evidence will vindicate him, or that he is innocent despite the evidence. But to the extent she operates on one of these assumptions, there is no need to pursue further evidence. Pursuing evidence, therefore, implies abstracting from her faith in him. To pursue evidence because it is possible that further evidence will be even more against him and provide her with enough grounds to withdraw her assent to his claim of innocence means giving that faith a lesser role in her life and relationship with him, and is thereby a weakening of the exercise of that faith. Consequently, if that faith is a good thing, then, having given such faith, she must be more reluctant to seek a greater intellectual resolution of the case by greater evidence than she was before she had given it.

In the act of giving faith, one makes a commitment to the person and his word; if such a commitment is good, and the breaking of such a commitment bad, then the value of that faith is thereby increased. So "believing him, if he is in fact lying" becomes overall less negative than it was prior to giving faith, and "believing him, if he is speaking the truth" becomes overall a greater positive value. Believing makes the possibility that objectively what one believes might be wrong less subjectively relevant, and makes one generally operate on the assumption that what one believes will not be proven false.

These considerations don't give a direct answer to the original questions, but do shed some light on them. If even faith given to persons in individual cases and in a limited respect entails a certain unwillingness (though not an absolute and unqualified unwillingness) to act upon the possibility that one's faith might not correspond to the truth, much more so in the case of religious faith given in relation to God and the whole of one's life.

Why are miracles rare?

Why are miracles rare? And might they be rarer today than in past times?

Let's take as the working definition of miracle, an event that cannot reasonably be explained by natural causes or laws and that, in its context, gives substantial credibility to a claim that it is caused by God apart from natural causes, and/or to a claim that a person is speaking for God or doing God's will.

It is evident that such events are rare, at least today, in western society. Why are they?

One modern explanation, of course, is that miracles never happen, that apparent miracles are the result of misinterpreting events, and that since we now both understand natural causes better, and know better the limitations of our knowledge, it rarely happens that what can't (yet) be explained by natural causes can't simply be attributed most reasonably to chance and/or to the limitations of our knowledge.

But suppose we don't accept the premise that miracles never happen, and assume some genuine miracles occur. Why might they be a rare occurrence? At least two philosophical and two theological answers suggest themselves.

(1) Because it is self-contradictory for them to be frequent, as if they were frequent, they would necessarily have some overall determinate intelligible pattern, at least statistically — and that especially if they are to give credibility to a claim about their connection with God — and would thereby be part of the natural intelligible order of the universe, and in this sense explainable by natural laws.

(2) Because God places great value on the natural order, which would be undermined if things such as miracles that cannot be assigned a proper place IN that order were to occur frequently. And God places value on it because of its order, or intelligibility.

(3) Because of our lack of faith. (Cf. Mt 21:21, Mk 11:23, Lk 17:6)

(4) Because of man's lack of faith in general. (Cf. Mk 5:6-7, "He could not do any miracles there" and Mt 13:58 "He did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith")

These two philosophical explanations for why miracles are rare correspond fairly closely to the most common philosophical arguments for why miracles are impossible. Noteworthy about them is that they both suggest that genuine miracles will be less frequent the better man understands nature. The better he understands nature, and sees patterns within it, the more easily would an event that was previously explained as due to a special divine intervention, yet still within the mysterious workings of the world, be now either assigned a place within the natural order, or seen as deeply contrary to the natural order.

Can we prove the efficacy of prayer?

Can we prove the efficacy of prayer?

Is it possible to demonstrate that praying affects the outcome of the matter prayed for, makes it more likely to occur? A number of studies have been made that seek to answer this question, or at least to provide evidence one way or another.

But prior to making or considering any such studies, what should we expect from them a priori?

In the previous blogpost, on praying for temporal goods, I argued that, if holiness does not correlate with an increase in any particular temporal goods such as health, wealth, intelligence, or the like, then we should not expect prayer to, in general, merit any increase in such goods, but only to help ensure that our use of those goods, or our way of dealing with a lack of those goods, helps us to attain heaven.

Here I give another argument that our a priori expectation should be that such studies of prayer will long-term be inconclusive or find no evidence for the efficacy of prayer, because God respects not only natural causes and laws that act necessarily, but also natural causes that act for the most part and the corresponding statistical laws.

To show that prayer is efficacious means showing that, under given conditions X, when Y is prayed for (in manner M), after controlling for the influence of the prayer on the prayer P, who makes the prayer, and any involved subjects S, who hear the prayer, Y is more likely to occur than when Y is not prayed for (in manner M). (Strictly speaking, even this won't strictly show that prayer is efficacious by reason of a non-human or supernatural power, as the prayer could be efficacious in virtue of a mental or spiritual influence  of the subjects P and S on the person or thing prayed for.)

For example, if, in given weather conditions, when a farmer prays for rain it is more likely to rain within the next two weeks than when he does not pray, this shows the efficacy of his prayer, at least unless his prayer itself is partly caused by a modification of the conditions insufficiently controlled for, e.g., if he prays when he feels "in his bones" that it is high time for rain.

Or again, if patients overall have a 35% chance of recovery from a given illness in a given condition overall or when their recovery is not prayed for, and a 37% chance when their recovery is prayed for, after controlling for any direct influence of the prayer upon the patient by way of his knowing that someone his praying for him, of the doctor's who treat him knowing that someone his praying for him, etc., this would demonstrate the efficacy of prayer for healing.

A strict demonstration of the efficacy of prayer in this sense seems impossible without a miracle of providence or something approaching thereto. By that I mean the happening/working of an event possible in itself, yet with a chance less than 1 over the the number of events occurring in the entire observable history of the universe. For example, tossing a dice 1000 times in a manner such as to actually give it each time an equal probability of each number from one to six, yet in fact always getting three. Since nature is a principle not only of what is necessary, but  also of what is for the most part, such an occurrence is as much praeter or contra naturam as any event such as the instantaneous regrowth of a limb.

A true demonstration of the efficacy of prayer would involve an event (or conglomerate of events considered as one) with just such a low probability. For, given that one has indeed controlled for all natural confounding factors, the efficacy of prayer would be demonstrated in that, e.g., the persons prayed for recover more frequently than the odds given all natural causes, and that in a long-term consistent manner. For 37 out of 100 persons to recover given that each has a 35% chance, has a significant chance of happening, for 370 out of 1000 a significant, but significantly smaller chance, for 3,700 out of 10,000 an even lower chance, and so on. So, for this sort of thing to happen consistently is humanly speaking certain not to happen by natural causes, and is thus a miracle of providence.

Now, given a context in which miracles of the obvious sort are rare, whether that is because God generally upholds the laws of nature he created, or because God is "a God who hides himself", it seems most reasonable to assume that miracles of providence will be similarly rare.

Consequently, to claim to a scientist, "when you consider the results when people are prayed for, you can conclude with certainty that a non-human or supernatural being is involved in answering prayers," is making as much a claim to God's working a miracle in the case as to claim "when you consider the result you're about to see — this person's arm, which was amputated, growing back within one hour — you can conclude with certainty that a non-human or supernatural being did it."

If this argument is right, our a priori expectation should be that all studies of the efficacy of prayer will, taken together, conclude with either "no evidence for the efficacy" or "inconclusive"; the evidence in the latter case tends either to show that prayer makes the event more likely, or that it makes it less likely, but is in a range that doesn't allow for any conclusion with certainty.

This conclusion may be discomfiting to some, as seeming to deny any value to prayer, but it's significance for prayer is ultimately the same as what was argued for the in the previous blogpost, that we should expect no temporal recompense for either holiness or piety, but only the grace — actual grace and the workings of providence — to use the temporal goods we have so as to attain union with God.