Saturday, January 29, 2011

Do we have a right to miracles?

Occasionally, amidst the dreck and smut of modern culture, you get glimpses of truths retained.

The late comedian Sam Kinison had spent some time as a revival-tent preacher; even in his last years, as his mind was sinking into a morass of drugs, sex and nihilism, he retained some elements of his Evangelical Christianity. The example I have in mind is an exchange he posed between Jesus and his disciples at the Eucharistic miracle of the loaves and fishes (Mt 14:13-21):

“Hmm … five thousand people, and nobody brought a sack lunch. Well, I guess you expect ME to get it!”

“Well, you are the Son of God.”

“Yes, but I didn’t come down to Earth to be ‘Jesus the Miracle Caterer’!”

Irreverent? Yes. But blasphemous? Not really; in fact, Kinison had a very valid point. Jesus healed, but he didn’t come to be a doctor. Jesus cast out demons, but he didn’t come to be an exorcist. So many of Jesus’ miracles accompany arguments and authoritative statements that it sometimes seems he uses miracles the same way other people use stories or jokes to punctuate their emphases, in a manner beyond the mere need to establish his street cred as Messiah and Son of God.

It’s just as important a reminder that Jesus cured ten lepers (Lk 17:11-19), but he didn’t wipe leprosy off the face of the earth. He healed the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13), but he didn’t free any slaves. He brought Lazarus and the little girl back from death (Mt 9:18-26; Jn 11:1-44), but they eventually died again.

Jesus alleviated instances of suffering, but he didn’t put an end to suffering; indeed, he suffered himself. Historical Christianity holds that Jesus was fully man as well as fully God.[1] As a man, Jesus ate and drank; it follows that he also shivered in the cold, sweated in the sun, ached when he was hungry, slept when he was tired, and possibly allowed himself to fall ill at times. It’s impossible to believe that the Love which set the universe in motion and holds it in its eternal dance did not weep when his earthly father, Joseph, passed away, just as he wept when told that his friend Lazarus was dead.[2]

Above all, he suffered the agony and humiliation of a cruel and unjust death, and even the unimaginable torment of feeling abandoned by himself, God forsaken of God: Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani (Mk 15:34)? Yet even this last cry of anguish is not borne of despair or disillusionment, but rather a final lesson: it is the first line of Psalm 22, pouring full meaning into it, and I doubt any pious Jew present could have missed the reference.

Without negating or contradicting any promise of what comes hereafter, it nevertheless remains true that Jesus didn’t come to do away with earthly suffering, or to institute material rewards for spiritual fidelity. God would like us to be happy; but our holiness, not our happiness, is Number One on His priority list. We’re not entitled to health; we’re not entitled to wealth; we’re not entitled to lives free from enemies and obstacles.

Above all, we’re not entitled to miracles.

I say this in reference to Mark Shea’s post in his National Catholic Register blog, in which he fisks Michael Kinsley’s rather whiny L.A. Times op-ed of January 19. I like Mark, who can often do a splendid job of unpacking Scripture and tradition. However, every now and again he gets so intent on bit-slapping the opposition that he misses a chance to do an in-depth exploration of a topic. To give credit, Shea was determined to point out Kinsley’s amazing errors of logic and misrepresentations of fact:

Having just said that “There is no way to diagnose Parkinson’s for sure”[,] Kinsley now offers not only his own expert diagnosis of his own Parkinson’s, but also his own expert prognosis that[,] if only the Church would support the slaughter of babies, [ ] Parkinson’s would be cured.  He also completely overlooks the fact that the Church has no problem with the use of adult stem cells, and that treatments derived from such stem cells work while embryonic stem cells have not produced a single successful treatment for anything. [Sorry for being a punctuation Nazi, Mark.]

But here is where I think Shea could have mined for Catholic gold, and I suppose I ought to thank him for leaving it open to others:

[Kingsley:] Congratulations to Sister Marie Simon-Pierre. It’s miraculous what a miracle can do. But I could use a miracle cure for Parkinson’s too, as could millions of others around the world who have Parkinson’s or will develop it.

I don’t truly know whether Kinsley is an atheist or not. Nevertheless, the temptation is there to pose him the question: “Have you tried asking for a miracle? I mean, as opposed to demanding one as your right?”

The nature of God’s grace is that it is freely given.[3] Given God’s absolute, unconditioned Being, He has no need or obligation to pay any attention to us, let alone show concern for our suffering. There are two sides to this coin: 1) That He is concerned and does pay attention to us is itself a grace, one that we don’t merit but which comes from His goodness; but 2) We can’t compel special graces, or bargain for them as a child bargains for an extra hour up at night or for a pet dog.

But aren’t all things possible for one who has faith? you ask. Yes, BUT (you knew there had to be a “but” there, right?) true faith doesn’t act as an onus on God to do your will: “By the authority of my faith in Thee, do Thou as I command!” Prayer is supplicative, not imperative; it recognizes the basic and eternal inequality of the relationship between Creator and creature. The crucial words in the Lord’s Prayer are not “My will be done” but rather “Thy will be done”. God can grant or deny the request; that the mountain didn’t suddenly hurl itself into the ocean is not proof that your faith was insufficient but that the request was denied for good reason. All requests hinge on His ratification, and must work within the context of His Will, which no one—not even the Catholic Church—can claim to know in minute detail.

From the perspective of the unbeliever, that Sr. Marie’s cure should come at the intercession of Ven. John Paul II should be a matter of irony, since the Pope himself got no such miraculous cure for his own Parkinson’s. Yet seeing such an irony would be a failure to get the point; for if anyone embraced his own suffering, it was Papa Wojtyła. Indeed, there could be no further distance between Kinsley and John Paul than between the former’s self-pity and the latter’s self-abnegation. For John Paul could offer up his suffering to “fill up what was lacking in Christ’s” (Col 1:24), and therefore give it meaning. Kinsley, blinded by the wretched unfairness of it all, can only deny that Sr. Marie had Parkinson’s … thereby impugning the competence of every doctor who ever looked at her case.

I’m called to remember a scene from Blade Runner: Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) comes to plead with Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) to extend his life, as his model of replicant has a four-year life span built-in; Tyrell answers sorrowfully that it can’t be done. In a parody of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Batty confesses to “questionable things”, Tyrell gives absolution, they exchange a kiss of peace … then Batty kills his creator, screaming, “I want more life, f***er!”

Only at the end does he realize that nothing he has done or will do—killing Tyrell, killing Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford)—will add a second more to his life. He saves Deckard, then sits down to mourn himself and die.

Kinsley claims that, by interfering with the use of fetal stem cells for research, the Catholic Church is denying him and millions of other Parkinson’s disease victims a “miracle” of their own. In the proper sense of the word, though, no one has a “right” to a miracle. In Kinsley’s hyperbolic sense, it betrays a frightening utilitarianism: having lost the birth lottery, the unwanted, excess human zygote must be good for something besides taking up space in cryogenic storage. And it’s the same utilitarianism that justifies creating those excess zygotes in the name of a woman’s desire to be a biological mother.

Kinsley says, in effect, “I want more life, f***er!”

But with all due respect and reverence to the medical profession, no matter how far we extend life and how many diseases we find cures for, we must eventually face that point where no more earthly life is coming, when our death is in front of us and there’s no evasion possible. It isn’t wrong to desire to live. It is wrong to make others die so you can extend your own life, so you can ameliorate your own suffering, so you can gratify your own needs. It is wrong to create artificial categories of humanity so you can justify using some as guinea pigs.

No one has a right to this kind of “miracle”.

[1] Established as de fide by Chalcedon IV in 451, listed as dogmatic propositions 143 et seq. in the Enchiridion symbolorum (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 147).
[2] Cf. Ott, pp. 173-174.
[3] See Ott, pp. 236-238.