I think that one mistake that we Catholics fall into is attempting to prove the faith without referencing the supernatural.
We’ll use Scripture and reason to show the truth of Catholicism (which is great, of course), but we tend to get awkward about using miracles, particularly to non-believers. We’re quick to talk about John 6 or the Five Ways. But many of us are slower to talk about, say, Lourdes, Padre Pio, or the Shroud of Turin.
I understand why we tend to hesitate here: especially, if we’re dealing with an atheist who rejects the possibility of miracles, or a Protestant who rejects the possibility of Marian apparitions, and thinks that miracles are just a thing in the Bible.
But I want to suggest why we need miracles in apologetics, what sort of miracles we should point to, and how we should use them.
I. The Need for “Signs and Wonders”
Miracles were one of the ways that the Israelites could determine that a specific message was from God: they’re intended to be a confirmation of the message, and sometimes, confirmation of the messenger.
So, for example, Deuteronomy 6:22 says that “the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes,” and it wason the basis of these signs that Israel believed in God (Exodus 14:31).
For this reason, miracles are often referred to as “signs” or “signs and wonders” in Scripture. Miracles don’t exist for their own sake; rather, they exist for the sake of the Gospel.
Nor is this only in the Old Testament. Jesus likewise confirmed His Gospel through a series of miracles. This is the primary purpose of the miracles He performs during His public ministry. At one point, Jesus prays to the Father for a miraculous cure, “that they may believethat Thou didst send Me” (John 11:40-42).
In his Pentecost homily, St. Peter describes Jesus as “Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22). And Hebrews 2:3-4 says that the Gospel “was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his own will.”
Nor do these miracles stop with Jesus. After His Resurrection, “many wonders and signs were done through the apostles” (Acts 2:43), as they “went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it” (Mark 16:20). St. Paul said that he would “not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:18-19).
For that reason, he and Barabas remained in Iconium “for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, Who bore witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands” (Acts 14:3). These signs and wonders were understood to be God’s confirmation of the message, which is why Paul and Barnabas later use these miracles as evidence that the Gospel is to be extended to the Gentiles (Acts 15:12).
II. What Sort of Miracles Are We Looking For?
A critical text in this discussion is John 14:10-12, in which Jesus says to the Apostle Philip,
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.
So Christ offers miracles that we might believe in Him, and promises that His followers will do even greater works. So what sort of works are we looking for? Let me offer five major categories, although these are not exhaustive.
1) Baptism and the Eucharist: Perhaps the most frequently mentioned signs used in Scripture are the Exodus miracles. The Israelites were repeatedly reminded that their deliverance was done in a miraculous way as a sign, that they might believe (Exodus 10:2, 12:13, 13:19, Numbers 14:22, Deuteronomy 4:34, 6:22, 7:19, 11:3, 26:8, 29:2-6, 34:11, Joshua 24:17, Psalm 78:43, 135:9, Jeremiah 32:20-21, etc.). One of those deliverance signs was the blood of the Passover lamb, smeared on the doorpost (Exodus 12:13). Another sign was the miraculous bread from Heaven, the Manna (Deut. 8:3, Duet. 29:6). St. Paul recalls these deliverance miracles in 1 Cor. 10:1-4,
I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
These were signs, not in the sense of being mere symbols, but in the sense of pointing to God. And each of them is surpassed by something greater in the New Testament: the parting of the Red Sea foreshadows Christian Baptism. This Baptism miraculously imparts the Holy Spirit, unlike prior, merely symbolic Baptisms (Acts 19:1-6). And as Paul points out, the New Covenant has spiritual food and drink in the Eucharist (1 Cor. 10:16-17). There have been several Eucharistic miracles in which the Host has turned visibly into Flesh and Blood. But whether it occurs visibly or invisibly, it remains miraculous.
2) The Forgiveness of Sins: Christ ties His ministry of miracles with the forgiveness of sins several times, most directly in Mark 2:1-12 and John 9:1-41. In the case of the forgiveness of sins, as with Baptism and the Eucharist, the miracle occurs invisibly. But the fruits of it are visible.
3) Exorcisms: The first miracle Jesus performs in Mark’s Gospel is an exorcism (Mark 1:21-28), and in Mark 16:17, He explicitly cites exorcisms as one of the signs of His followers. And He shows in Luke 11:14-23 that these exorcisms can only occur “by the finger of God.” He rejects the idea that Satan can cast out demons, since every “kingdom divided against itself is laid waste,” and a house divided cannot stand.
So exorcisms are a critical sign in determining whether the Church is acting for or against Christ. The true Church will do them, and they’re a uniquely helpful sign that someone is operating on behalf of God. So why not point to the fact thatCatholic priests perform numerous exorcisms every year throughout the U.S., and around the world? This fact alone debunks the old Protestant theory that the Catholic Church is the Antichrist, since the devil cannot be the one driving out demons.
4) Miraculous Healings: Acts 19:11-12 says that “God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” Those items that have touched a Saint are what we today call “relics,” and we continue to use them to perform miraculous healings.
Miraculous healings happen several other ways in the New Testament, and several other ways in the Catholic Church today. For example, the waters of Lourdes have healed numerous people. Or talk to any priest: they can likely recount several healings that they have personally witnessed after the anointing of the sick, following James 5:14-15.
5) The Church Herself: The biggest miracle is one that no one can deny. Under the Old Covenant, the Jews themselves were a miracle. God chose them because they were small and weak. Their continued existence over thousands of years is a demonstration of His Divine Power, and a confirmation that the God of the Jews is the true God. We see this played out throughout Scripture. For example, the Israelites who scouted out the Promised Land returned with accounts of its bounty, but also with a warning (Numbers 13:28-29):
Yet the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amal′ekites dwell in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jeb′usites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country; and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.
Today, where do we see the descendants of Anak, or the Amal′ekites, the Hittites, the Jeb′usites, or the Amorites? They’ve all long since disappeared, yet the Jews remain.
In Matthew 13:31-32, Christ improves upon this miracle, in His promises to His Church, the Kingdom of God. Like the Jewish people, the Church will never be destroyed. But the Church will go from being “the smallest of all seeds” to becoming a great tree. She won’t just survive: She’ll thrive.
Of course, the Catholic Church has born this out. She has survived for two thousand years, and is the oldest government in the world. Innumerable empires have attempted to suppress Her: they’ve faded away, while She’s continued to grow. Throughout those two millennia, She’s kept an astonishingly consistent set of doctrinal beliefs. Who else can boast this track record?
III. The Use of Miracles
Some people are more disposed than others to the possibility of miracles. For those who are disposed, use them to show that God has confirmed the message of the Catholic Church. For those who aren’t, treat the topic the way you would to someone skeptical of the Empty Tomb. Leave it to the skeptic to explain how Lanciano, bilocation, Guadalupe, and the miracle of the sun are hoaxes or forgeries. Personally, I am partial to Msgr. Knox’s explanation in The Belief of Catholics:
It belongs to the courtesies of duelling that the challenger should offer his opponent a choice of weapons. In this debate, which here reaches its critical point, it is the Catholic Church which challenges the human intellect. In courtesy, therefore, the reader must be allowed his choice of weapons, if he is prepared to abide by it.
If you are prepared to admit the possibility of miracle, then you will naturally expect that an event so full of importance for the human race as a personal revelation from Almighty God should be accompanied by evidences of his miraculous power. It will be my object in the later part of this chapter to show that the Christian revelation fulfills the conditions so laid down.
But if you are determined, from some preconceived prejudice, some strange inhibition of thought, to rule out the possibility of miracle; if you are prepared to dismiss as a fiction any story which involves a miracle, for the reason that it involves a miracle and for no other–then I will do my best to give you satisfaction on your own terms; but you must abide by your own terms. You must consider, in all honesty, whether the life of our Lord does not give you every possible assurance of his Divinity, short of a miracle. I do not say that such assurance would ever satisfy me, but it must satisfy you. It must satisfy you, because it is precisely the kind of assurance you have demanded.
You must not say that no revelation would satisfy you unless the guarantee of miracle accompanied it, and then say in the same breath that you will refuse to accept any story of miracle precisely on the ground that it is miraculous. That is as if you were to invite your opponent to stab you with a pistol. If you will not have miracles, then you must be prepared to be satisfied without them.
This puts the burden where it belongs: on the person who dogmatically rejects the possibility of miracles, while refusing to believe in Christianity (or in Catholicism) on anything less than miraculous evidence.
Of course, the role for the miraculous should be to supplement the Scriptural and reasonable case for Catholicism, but in the right context, it’s got a very important role to play.