Vatican’s new norms on alleged supernatural phenomena reveal fine line between belief and delusion

When it comes to the interaction between the divine and the ordinary in the human Catholic experience, it’s generally fine for us to talk to God, but when God begins talking to you, that’s when the trouble starts! At lunchtime today the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith released a new document updating its guidelines for dealing with apparitions, visions, messages and other miscellanea relating to revelations and allegedly miraculous events.

The updated guidelines were long overdue; the previous iteration of the Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations were approved by Pope St. Paul VI in 1978 but remained confidential until they were officially published in 2011, some 33 years later.

The world has changed fundamentally since 1978, not least in the area of communications, which today enable even the smallest and most parochial of events to acquire a global audience instantly. In such a febrile environment of global interconnectivity, the discernment and control of phenomena claiming to have supernatural origins is never going to be easy. In the Catholic Church it’s a particularly difficult area, as we have a long and highly respected legacy of supernatural occurrences that offer the faithful, and even the wider world, an affirmation of the divine source of our faith.

In the real world we also know that the human imagination has an extraordinary capacity for both invention and self-deception, and the Church is often required to tread a complex and often non too obvious path between reality and fantasy. It was this challenge that today’s document has sought to address, and hopefully clarify to an extent.

Although it’s a timely update on the existing norms, today’s document really doesn’t say a great deal that hasn’t been stated already. In essence, the world is full of all sorts of religious occurrences, some of which may have divine origins, and some of which may not. As it was in 1978, it’s still pretty much up to the local bishop to work out what might or might not be going on in his diocese, though the new Norm does carry a list of six specific pronouncements or conclusions that a local bishop can make once a phenomenon has been investigated.

At the bottom end of the list Declaratio de non supernaturalitate is pretty self-explanatory, and means basically nothing supernatural is going on. Above that are four intermediary categories ranging from basically to be avoided and discouraged, rising to Prae oculis habeatur which translates as something definitely significant and positive going on here but could do with further checking and clarification.

At the top of the list is Nihil obstat, a phrase that will be particularly familiar to anyone involved in Catholic publishing – this is what any Catholic writer aspires to have on their flyleaf. Literally the phrase means ‘no obstruction’, or colloquially ‘go ahead.’ In publishing it’s granted after a theological expert has found that a book contains nothing that contradicts Catholic doctrine or teaching. It’s important, however, to point out that whilst this phrase is generally regarded as a formal endorsement  – ‘nothing wrong with it’ is not the same as ‘everything’s right with it’.

I was particularly warmed by the way in which the new Vatican document explains Nihil obstat in the context of supernatural events …

“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.”

“At least so far”, and here’s the crux of the problem. Supernatural phenomena, be they Catholic or otherwise, tend to follow a pretty consistent path of development – commencing with a specific individual or small group experience, but moving rapidly to become extremely complex, multi-layered events as soon as they move out into the wider public arena. Whilst it’s relatively straightforward for the Church to discern the veracity of an event in its early stages, once it has grown and set into a wider community of people it’s a virtual impossibility.

A case in point would be the hysteria that gripped the village of Ballinspittle, Co. Cork in southern Ireland in July 1985, when two teenage girls claimed to have seen a roadside statue of the Virgin Mary move spontaneously. Whilst checking this out ought to have been a simple case of monitoring the statue, before anyone could whip out an accelerometer the media was awash with reports of other moving statues in more than 30 locations across Ireland, and these not just limited to statues of the Virgin Mary. More than 100,000 people descended on Ballinspittle hoping to see a recurrence of the initial event, and each night many people claimed that they saw the statue move in some way, including changes of countenance, super-imposition of other sacred faces, opening and closing of eyes, movements of the hands, and rocking to and fro.

In response to the growing clamour on all sides, the bishop of Killala reasonably declared “We don’t mind people gathering together to pray, but we want them to go into the church to do it.” Bishop Michael Murphy of Cork was rather more reticent, saying that “common sense would demand that we approach the claims made concerning the grotto in Ballinspittle with prudence and caution,” but he couldn’t conceal his delight that “crowds are gathering there in a great spirit of prayer.”

The Ballinspittle incident really does illustrate the difficulty that our Church has always faced when trying to make sense of supernatural events. On the one hand it’s fundamental to our faith that God interacts with the human world, so why wouldn’t such things happen occasionally? Conversely, it’s also imprinted in the human DNA that we seek to reach out to God, or to the generally supernatural in search of solace and confirmation that something actually does exist beyond the mundanity of mortal life.

Thus humanity creates a very thin curtain between the mortal and the divine, the inspired and the deluded.

Although it wasn’t mentioned specifically in the new document, the events at Medjugorje that began in 1981 also provide a good example of how initially parochial incidents can rapidly become a global phenomenon that is extremely difficult to rationalise or control. Commencing with a claim by six young children that they had seen the Virgin Mary on a hillside in a small rural hamlet, the Medjugorje pilgrimage site is now a global destination that has since attracted more than 30 million pilgrims. The path from local event to global phenomenon is particularly complex in the case of Medjugorje, and illustrates well how difficult it can become for the Church to discern such experiences once they have moved into the realm of widespread acceptance.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s Medjugorje found itself at the epicentre of the bitter and bloody Bosnian war, and much happened there that both confused and tarnished both its role as a place of pilgrimage, and its spiritual significance. Opinions on Medjugorje became astonishingly polarised and at times highly embittered, and it proved an almost impossible task for the Vatican to separate subsequent non-supernatural developments from the original experiences of the young visionaries. In the end there was clearly much about the development and curation of the Medjugorje phenomenon and the management of the shrine that was highly questionable, but no-one could detract from the spiritual value of the story, nor the millions of pilgrims who persisted in visiting. In the end it took until 2019 for the Vatican to separate out these complex issues, authorising pilgrimages to Medjugorje but still stopping short of confirming that the original events were of supernatural origin.

Speaking of the Medjugorge apparitions and daily messages in 2017, a rather skeptical Pope Francis quipped: “I would rather believe in ‘the Mother Madonna’ … and not the ‘Madonna who is head of a telegraph office and sending daily messages.”’

At today’s press conference, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, was asked directly about Medjugorje, and confirmed that no decision had been reached about its status.

Writing more generally in his introduction to the new document, Cardinal Fernandez noted that “there are serious critical issues that are detrimental to the faithful; in these situations, the Church must respond with utmost pastoral solicitude.

“In particular, I am thinking of the use of such phenomenon to gain ‘profit, power, fame, social recognition, or other personal interest,” he continued, “even possibly extending to the commission of gravely immoral acts or the use of these phenomena ‘as a means of or pretext for exerting control over people or carrying out abuses.’”

In many respects this advice draws a very helpful line in the sand when it comes to discerning phenomena of supernatural origin, be they Catholic or otherwise. Whilst it’s extremely hard to come to any definite conclusion about whether or not events beyond our rational understanding have divine origins and it’s wise to give such experiences a fair degree of latitude, what certainly isn’t of divine origin is profiteering or manipulation on the back of such things. Thankfully most people are well able to make this particular distinction and know that ‘when money comes in, spirituality goes out’.

Although the new Vatican guidelines were needed in the light of the sweeping societal changes that have occurred since the last document was issued, it’s very likely the case that the rapidly developing and uncontrolled phenomena that occurred across the past 30 years are actually far less likely to be repeated in an age that is becoming increasing weary of the means of mass communication. There is an underlying fear in contemporary society that minor actions can spark global consequences, whereas in fact we are far more alert to fake news and, perhaps sadly, far more cynical and reticent about accepting what is presented to us as factual and truthful.

The future challenge for the Church in the area of supernatural phenomena is likely not going to be how to discern and control such events, but rather how to convince the world that truly remarkable and inexplicable things actually do take place from time to time.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian