Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Real Apparitions are the Friends You Made Along the Way

Long time readers of this blog will know that I have always been deeply interested in the questions of how the Church evaluates alleged private apparitions. I have written extensively about Medjugorje, Bayside, and many other smaller apparitions. My approach has generally been critical, following the traditional approach wherein an alleged apparition is presumed to be false unless overwhelming evidence suggests otherwise. I have been alarmed and annoyed at the credulousness of those who chase after every spiritual novelty, and disheartened at the sluggish inactivity of the Church in checking their proliferation. 

The Vatican's new document, "Norms for Proceeding in the Discernment of Alleged Supernatural Phenomenon" is thus of great interest to me. This new document replaced the previous instruction issued in 1978 during the final weeks of Paul VI's pontificate. Unfortunately, I do not think this new document brings any discipline to the current situation. In fact, I believe it represents the Church's abdication of any role in assessing these phenomenon and will lead to the propagation of fake apparitions on a hitherto unprecedented level.

Universalizing the Medjugorje Model

The approach of the new document can best be understood as the universalizing of Francis's approach to Medjugorje. In the case of Medjugorje, Rome made a sharp distinction between the alleged apparitions and the manifestations of popular piety that emerged as a result of them. The ban on pilgrimages to Medjugorje was lifted, despite the fact that the Vatican took no position on the supernatural nature of the events. The Holy See Press Office said:

Considering the considerable flow of people who go to Medjugorje and the abundant fruits of grace that have sprung from it, this authorization is part of the particular pastoral attention that the Holy Father intended to give to that reality, aimed at encouraging and promoting the fruits of good (source).

The liceity of the cultus was divorced from the objective reality of the apparitions, as the Press Office made clear when it added, that clergy were to "take care to prevent these pilgrimages from being interpreted as an authentication of known events, which still require examination by the Church" (ibid). This is a truly remarkable statement, for why are there pilgrimages to Medjugorje at all save that participants believe the apparitions to be authentic? Does anyone go on pilgrimage to a site in whose apparitions they disbelieve? If a pilgrimage is not to be taken as an authentication of the apparitions, then to what does it testify, because every outward act of piety testifies to something.

The answer, amazingly, is that the pilgrimages themselves are self-validating. Archbishop Henrick Hoser, the pope's special envoy to Medjugorje and laughably known as the "Medjugorje Czar," believed that the scope and fruit of the pilgrimages was the true miracle. In commenting on the millions of pilgrims to Medjugorje and the hundreds of confessions heard there every day, he said:

This is a phenomenon. And what confirms the authenticity of the place is the large amount of charitable institutions that exist around the sanctuary. And another aspect as well: the great effort that is being made at the level of Christian formation. Each year, they organize conferences at different levels, for various audiences (source).
Did the Blessed Virgin Mary appear to six children in 1981? Who knows? The real phenomenon is not the apparition, but the spiritual fruits of the pilgrimages. Is there anything about the apparitions to authenticate them as supernatural? Doesn't matter, because "what confirms the authenticity of the place" is the spiritual fruits that are found there. Ultimately, the details of the apparition aren't as important as the people's faith. The real apparitions are the friends you made along the way. 

It is clear that the policy was formed in order to sidestep the question of the validity of the apparitions themselves. The Church believed good fruits were coming out of Medjugorje, and it wanted to find someway to encourage them while not committing either way about the apparitions themselves. So it shrugged its shoulders, said the pastoral situation is more important anyway, and welcomed the pilgrims while consigning the apparitions themselves to an eternity of "further study." Problem solved. 

Subjectifying the Supernatural

For me, the most striking difference between the 1978 norms and the new norms is that the possibility of authenticating an apparition is removed. Under the 1978 norms, there were three possible ways to categorize an apparition:
Constat de supernaturalitate: The supernatural claims about the apparition are declared worthy of belief. This is an "approved" apparition.

Non constat de supernaturalitate: Known as "nothing contrary to faith," this designation means that the supernatural nature of the apparition is not affirmed, but neither does it contain anything contrary to faith. It means the apparition may or may not be supernatural.

Constat de non supernaturalitate: This is an apparition that is "not worthy of belief." In other words, it has been positively deternined that the apparition is not supernatural.
The new instruction replaces these three designations with six possible designations, the details of which do not concern us here, save to say that the positive determination (constat de supernaturalitate) has been removed. This is stated plainly in the General Guidelines:

As a general rule, it is not foreseen in these Norms that ecclesiastical authority would give a positive recognition of the divine origin of alleged supernatural phenomena. (§11)

The highest level of recognition an apparition can receive is now called a Nihil obstat, "nothing obstructs," which is analogous to the second designation in the old system. The Nihil obstat says nothing about the objective nature of the apparitions; it merely affirms that they have pastoral value and are not positively dangerous. Here is how Nihil obstat is defined:

Nihil obstat–Without expressing any certainty about the supernatural authenticity of the phenomenon itself, many signs of the action of the Holy Spirit are acknowledged “in the midst” of a given spiritual experience, and no aspects that are particularly critical or risky have been detected, at least so far. For this reason, the Diocesan Bishop is encouraged to appreciate the pastoral value of this spiritual proposal, and even to promote its spread, including possibly through pilgrimages to a sacred site. (§17)

The bishop is encouraged to promote the spread of devotions to an apparition "without expressing any certainty about the supernatural authenticity of the phenomenon itself." The "action of the Holy Spirit" as manifest in the "spiritual experience" of the people is far more important. It thus no longer matters whether a supernatural event really happened; the real importance of an apparition is that it offers the faithful “ways to deepen one’s knowledge of Christ and to give oneself more generously to him, while rooting oneself more and more deeply in communion with the entire Christian people.” (§12) But the document is clear that none of this is to be interpreted as endorsing the supernatural nature of any phenomenon; in fact, authorities are positively prohibited from saying such:

It is reaffirmed that, as a rule, neither the Diocesan Bishop, nor the Episcopal Conferences, nor the Dicastery will declare that these phenomena are of supernatural origin, even if a Nihil obstat is granted. (§23)

The Holy See reserves the right to make such declarations in extraordinary circumstances, but from the tenor of the document, one can presume such declarations are not envisioned. The result here is that focus is entirely shifted to the experience of the worshiper and away from the objects of veneration. The objects are almost irrelevant; the most we can say about them is that they don't contradict the faith. Beyond that, all we can do is shrug our shoulders. 

The Crux of the Matter

What is the point here? Why is the Church doing this? Ultimately, I suspect the crux of the matter is that the Church is terrified of being mocked by reductive science. The modern Church has bent itself into contortions to prove that it is not an opponent of modern science. The affirmation of a supernatural event is the ultimate affront to the sensibilities of modern reductive science. It's one thing to affirm the miraculous nature of ancient events that are so far removed from our own experience that they cannot be subjected to empirical scrutiny; it's another to affirm the miraculous nature of something that occurred in the age of digital tech and advanced forensics. I think the Church's worst nightmare here is declaring something miraculous that is subsequently debunked by science. You can see from the document that Fernandez is not even comfortable with previous declarations of constat de supernaturalitate, as he goes out of his way to stress that historical judgments of the "supernaturalness" of prior events are subject to revision. In theory, even the supernatural nature of apparitions like Guadalupe or Lourdes could be reversed. The document states:

Moreover, it should be noted that reaching a declaration affirming the “supernaturalness” of an event, by its very nature, not only requires a suitable amount of time to carry out the analysis but it can also lead to the possibility that a judgment of “supernatural” today might become a judgment of “not supernatural” years later—and precisely this has happened. An example worth recalling is a case involving alleged apparitions from the 1950s. In 1956, the Bishop issued a final judgment of “not supernatural,” and the following year, the Holy Office approved the Bishop’s decision. Then, the approval of that veneration was sought again. In 1974, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared the alleged apparitions to be “constat de non supernaturalitate.” Thereafter, in 1996, the local Bishop positively recognized the devotion, and in 2002, another Bishop from the same place recognized the “supernatural origin” of the apparitions, leading to the spread of the devotion to other countries. Finally, in 2020, at the request of the Congregation, a new Bishop reiterated the Congregation’s earlier “negative judgment,” requiring the cessation of any public disclosures regarding the alleged apparitions and revelations. Thus, it took about seventy excruciating years to bring the whole matter to a conclusion.

It is easier, therefore, to refrain from affirming that anything is supernatural, for while our assessment of the supernatural character of an event may be subject to empirical scrutiny, people's experiences cannot be questioned. By shifting the locus of the apparition from the event to people's spiritual experiences in reference to the event, the apparition retreats behind a wall of subjectivism that empirical scrutiny cannot overcome. If I am growing in charity, if my prayer life is changing for the better, if people are coming to confession, how can these be questioned? They can't; they are people's experiences, and they are what they are, independent of the veracity of the apparition that occasioned them. Since they are unassailable, the Church chooses to shift the focus of apparitions here as a bulwark of safety against scientific criticism.

Of course, philosophy matters, and this turn to the subjective will have profound consequences. The new document retains the Church's prerogative to rule negatively on an apparition. The Church believes it can still wield Constat de non supernaturalitate while relinquishing Constat de supernaturalitate. It hopes to use its authority to curb the spread of false apparitions while maintaining silence about the "supernaturalness" of true ones. In reality, this policy will weaken people's faith in credible apparitions while failing to curb the spread of the less credible. Remember, the manifestations of piety themselves are central to authenticating an apparition; we have seen how a totally bogus apparition like Medjugorje received some sort of official status now that the popular piety surrounding the site can be abstracted from the facts of the apparition itself. This precedent will only encourage the continued persistence of other false apparitions, like Garabandal, Bayside, etc. 

The document also removes the final determination from the local Ordinary and entrusts it to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. The premise for this is twofold (1) because of digital communication, "local" apparitions are no longer local; they take on global significance and hence merit the intervention of Rome, and (2) this will expedite the process of evaluating apparitions, resulting in quicker determinations. 

First, I am hard pressed to think of any circumstance where sending a problem up to Rome results in a quicker resolution. But second, this will merely create more confusion at the local level as every crackpot visionary is given standing to persist in their madness—no matter how bizarre their messages, how incredible their claims, how opposed by the local Ordinary—on the grounds that "Rome hasn't condemned it yet," since the norms say that even a negative judgment must be confirmed by the Dicastery in Rome. And while everyone waits for years for Rome to make a decision, devotion to the apparition will proliferate, until such a time when, as the document states, " a ban that could upset the People of God is not recommended" due to how upsetting it will be to the tens of thousands of devotees invested in the apparition. (§19). Faced with a fait accompli, Rome will throw up its hands and authorize pilgrimages.

The late James Larson, in his magnum opus The War Against Being and the Return to God, noted that so much of today's theological errors are predicated on a turn to the subjective, enabling theologians to retreat from the ground of objective truth into a citadel of personal experience where they will be safe from the ravages of reductive science. I believe this latest document is one further manifestation of this tendency.

There is much more that can be said about this document, and many others have offered their own insightful observations on it. I, too, have more that can be said, but that is sufficient for now.


Anonymous said...

I have read a few books of the Medjugorje subject; and what never does sit well with me is the reference of the alleged "seers" as "CHILDREN"- They were not children at all!

The youngest perhaps was 9-13, the rest were young adult adolescents.

Anonymous said...

Then you could better read John 21 5, Jesus called his apostles with same term. The same is about st Paul, he literally talks about ''his children', and gives reason why, Gal 4,19
my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!

Anonymous said...

There is not any problem with that just read John 21. 5, or Galatians 4. 19. It has very natural spiritual meaning.

Boniface said...


The original comment is not referring so much to Mary calling the seers "children" so much as the promotional materials/marketing/propaganda/narrative which consistently says Mary appeared to six "children" which is factually inaccurate.

Anonymous said...

Medjugorje is fake. The messages contain heresies. There are fruits ,not because of the fake apparitions, but because of God's loving response to man's hunger for God.

Zacchaeus said...

Is there an agenda behind this latest move of the DDF? Since the “new norms” make the determination of the objective validity of the supernatural origin of any “private revelation” moot, it leaves open the possibility that “private revelations” outside the Church could be promoted for their “fruits” in, say, building “human fraternity” and producing signs of (superficial) peace among adherents of different religions, the existence of which—remember!—God wills, according to the heretical Abu Dhabi document. We simply do not have to be concerned at all about the objective truth of any religious claims, only about their so-called “fruits” in “brotherhood”. So, this formulation of “new norms” opens the door to the blossoming of a syncretistic one-world religion that transcends the particularism of Catholicism and all other historical religions. Here is my fundamental point: Why am I suspicious of a Vatican agenda? Well, if I, an absolute nobody, can foresee such dangerous possibilities in the actions of the officials of this pontificate, is it reasonable to believe that those officials, who have responsibility for their actions to the whole Church, do NOT foresee them and should NOT be expected to protect the faithful and the whole world from them? I’m afraid that common sense prevents me from accepting an assumption of ignorance and innocence on their part.

Zacchaeus said...

The very day after my first comment posted, we spoke about Matthew 21:23-27 (cf. Mark 11:27-33; Luke 20:1-8) in an apologetics seminar in our chapel. I saw immediately the scriptural passage's relevance to the issue at hand. It seemed an act of Providence. In Matthew, the chief priests and elders interrogate Jesus about the source of His authority for the things He does. Before responding to their inquiry, Jesus asks them, in verse 25, to identify the source of authority for the baptism of John, whether from heaven or from men. The chief priests and elders--the precursors of the Catholic hierarchy--proceed to calculate the consequences for their social standing and power base of identifying publicly either alternative and decide to respond,"We do not know" (verse 27). Whereupon Jesus responds, "Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things." This is to tell them that, just as they are not prepared to put faith in the supernatural origin of the Baptist's words and deeds, neither would they be prepared to put faith in Jesus's words and deeds; so that to answer them would be pointless. They are without supernatural faith and obsessed by a worldly concern for their social and political standing. The analogy between the chief priests and elders and the DDF in our day is transparent. This passage from Matthew 21 is thus a word to Cardinal Fernandez and his collaborators.

Perfectior said...

I would like to point out that the example given to the following sentence of the Roman document is quite deceiving:
"a judgment of “supernatural” today might become a judgment of “not supernatural” years later".

The example they're giving is the false apparitions of Amsterdam.
The so-called apparitions were condemned by the Ordinary, the bishop of Amsterdam, and his decision was confirmed by the Holy See in 1957.
Therefore, when other bishops of Amsterdam in 1996 and 2002 recognized these apparitions as true, their sentence was null and void. No bishop can reverse a decision of the Holy See. Once Rome has spoken, the former affair / decision is no longer an episcopal affair / decision. Rome however did not protest before 2020 when the Patriarch of the Maronites asked Rome for intervention. The most recent intervention of the bishop of Amsterdam against the apparitions is not properly a reversal of the decisions of his predecessors, but a recognition of the invalidity of their decisions.
Therefore, it is deceiving to conclude (as the Roman document does):"Thus, it took about seventy excruciating years to bring the whole matter to a conclusion."
Had the bishops (and Rome) been more careful, the whole ghastly story after 1957 would have never happened.

(The same story-line applied to the false apparitions of Lipa, condemned by the bishop and by Rome; but here, when a modern bishop recognized them, Rome directly intervened to remind him that this affair, being already judged in Rome, was no longer in his hands.)