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Scene in Medjugorje

New Procedures for Handling Supernatural Claims

May 22, 2024


On the Solemnity of Pentecost (May 19, 2024), new Vatican norms went into effect guiding the process for discerning alleged supernatural phenomena, such as Marian apparitions. The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) published the legislative document on Friday, May 17, along with a prefatory presentation written by the dicastery’s prefect, Víctor Manuel Cardinal Fernández. Therein, he offers important contextual details that help explain the rationale behind the procedural changes. Here, I will summarize the contents of both Cardinal Fernández’s presentation and the new norms themselves as well as offer some of my own commentary. The focus will be on two questions: (1) Why were changes needed? and (2) What are the major changes?

Without a doubt, miraculous events and private revelations have played an important role in Catholic devotion and liturgy. The Divine Mercy Chaplet has become a favorite devotion, which stems from private revelations from Our Lord to St. Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun. What is more, Pope St. John Paul II made the Octave (Second) Sunday of Easter Divine Mercy Sunday. Additionally, the General Roman Calendar includes no less than six optional memorials associated with Marian apparitions: Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of Loreto, and Our Lady of Guadalupe (which is a feast day in the United States).

Even purported apparitions that have not received official approbation by the Church have significant influence, positive or negative. On the negative side, they can lead to contentiousness. For example, many Catholic families and friendship-circles have members with very strong and polar-opposite views about Medjugorje. On the positive side, whether such apparitions are real or not, they can sometimes lead to authentic conversions. Hence, the Church has allowed pilgrimages to Medjugorje while insisting at the same time that pilgrims not be given the impression that the apparitions themselves are in any way approved by the Church.1 

Given the potential impact of supernatural phenomena like apparitions of Our Lord and of Our Lady, including the potential dangers of false apparitions, it is important for the Church to respond to such situations for the good of the faithful. As Cardinal Fernández points out, however, the previous norms governing the discernment process were put into place back in 1978 during the pontificate of Pope St. Paul VI. In the forty-six years since their initial promulgation, the procedural norms proved inadequate to address the pastoral issues surrounding supposed supernatural events and claims about private revelations.

Severely delayed or completely non-existent ecclesial resolutions can endanger the faithful from a pastoral perspective.

One major issue was timeliness. As Cardinal Fernández says, “After the 1978 Norms were put into practice, however, it became evident that decisions took an excessively long time, sometimes spanning several decades,” which mean that pastoral guidance “often came too late.” In some cases, no official resolution was ever reached. “In fact,” writes Cardinal Fernández, “since 1950, no more than six cases have been officially resolved, even though such phenomena have often increased without clear guidance and with the involvement of people from many Dioceses.” 

That is problematic. Severely delayed or completely non-existent ecclesial resolutions can endanger the faithful from a pastoral perspective. When a supposed spiritual phenomenon becomes known, there can be an immediate and intense interest on the part of some of the faithful. Pastoral exigencies require some sort of prompt direction for the faithful: warnings or encouragements.

Even when responses were given, there were sometimes problematic aspects to them. The Church has always held that private revelations are not binding on consciences. De facto, however, there were instances where individual bishops made bold proclamations such as “the faithful are justified in believing it to be indubitable and certain”2 or “one cannot doubt the reality of the tears,” to give two examples from Fernández. “These expressions,” he notes, “effectively oriented the faithful to think that they had to believe in these phenomena, which sometimes were valued more than the Gospel itself.” Many of us are probably familiar with folks who have a greater devotion to some apparition or another than they do to the Scriptures, and that is a real danger. Thus, there is need to be more careful and precise in adjudicating such occurrences.

Another issue with the publication of decisions was that, in some instances, the individual bishops, who followed the proper protocols in conferring with the CDF (now DDF), were basically told to make the proclamation but without acknowledging that the Congregation (or dicastery) was involved. In other words, the Congregation didn’t want people to know that they were behind the decision. Yet, people thinking that approval (or disapproval) came only from the local bishop then started pushing for the Congregation to clarify the Church’s stance, when the Congregation had already been involved. That lack of transparency has now been deemed inappropriate and counterproductive.

The Dicastery’s involvement will now be clear and obvious. While some are upset that this appears to detract from the local bishop’s own authority, the reality on the ground is that such instances—especially in the internet era—often have an impact throughout the world, and since they have an international pastoral effect, the Church as a whole does need to respond via cooperation between the local bishop and the Vatican.

Many of us are probably familiar with folks who have a greater devotion to some apparition or another than they do to the Scriptures, and that is a real danger.

The new Norms are meant to aid the Church’s discernment, focusing on four main questions: “(a) whether signs of a divine action can be ascertained in phenomena that are alleged to be of supernatural origin; (b) whether there is that [sic] anything conflicts with faith and morals in the writings or messages of those involved in the alleged phenomena in question; (c) whether it is permissible to appreciate their spiritual fruits, whether they need to be purified from problematic elements, or whether the faithful should be warned about potential risks; (d) whether it is advisable for the competent ecclesiastical authority to realize their pastoral value” (10).

In order to serve the desire for expediency, the new standard procedure will be less ambitious in its conclusions. Since determining that something is definitely of supernatural origin requires a lot more time and care than to conclude—more modestly—that there is nothing in it that appears to be seriously defective or dangerous, the latter conclusion—a nihil obstat (nothing stands in the way)—will now be the normal highest form of approbation. The document describes a nihil obstat thusly:

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).

While the nihil obstat is now the normal highest conclusion to be expected, the new norms do state that the pope “can authorize a special procedure” with respect to a specific case that could lead to a stronger declaration that something is of supernatural origin. So that possibility is still there, but it is no longer a part of the usual process. The idea seems to be that only in the rarest of cases, when a particular occurrence seems to be so obviously of heavenly origin (think Fatima), would the pope call for the alternate process to make a bolder affirmation.

In addition to nihil obstat, the new norms list five other possible conclusions that could be reached. We’ll describe them here in descending order of approval. Immediately below nihil obstat, there is the category of prae oculis habeatur (“it should be kept in mind” or, as Jimmy Akin renders it more literally, “let it be held before the eyes”). This conclusion would be applied when an occurrence has “important positive signs” but “some aspects of confusion or potential risk are also perceived,” or when “doctrinal clarification might be necessary,” in the case of purported messages (18). It basically means there are promising elements but there’s still some concerning co-factors, and so the phenomenon should be watched closely by the local bishop, who should interact with those involved to continue further discernment.

The third conclusion is labeled curator. That Latin word has a variety of possible meanings. It is a passive form of the verb “to take care of.” Given the context, I think it generally means something like “to be taken cautiously” or simply “caution.” I say this because the description of the cases where this applies are ones in which the investigation finds “significant critical elements” (apparently “critical” in the negative sense), but “the phenomenon has already spread widely” and, at the same time, “there are verifiable spiritual fruits connected to it” (19). The Norms essentially say that, in such cases, there are reasons to be skeptical of the supernatural origin of the incident(s) but there has been enough widespread spiritual benefit from people’s attachment to it that an outright rejection of it might cause more harm than good. Nevertheless, the local bishop is “asked not to encourage this phenomenon but to seek out alternative expressions of devotion and possibly reorient its spiritual and pastoral aspects” (19). It seems to me that this would be the level that something like Medjugorje would be placed in: the Vatican does not think it is of supernatural origin, but people’s spiritual practices in response to it have borne real fruit. The pastoral response is thus basically: be cautious, there are reasons to be suspicious of the claims, but we are not going to be draconian in opposing it either.

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The next conclusion on the list is interesting: sub mandato (under command) (20). It makes a distinction between the occurrence itself and people surrounding it. Vatican News describes it this way: “The critical issues are not connected to the phenomenon itself but its improper use by people or groups, such as undue financial gain or immoral acts.” In other words, something that is itself good and potentially of supernatural origin is being exploited in a very concerning way. In these instances, the diocesan bishop or a Vatican delegate will be tasked with handling the difficult circumstance.

The penultimate—or second lowest—conclusion is prohibetur et obstruatur (to be forbidden and obstructed). Without definitively declaring that the phenomenon is definitely not supernatural, this decision nevertheless expressly forbids people adhering to it. The reason is that, despite the “some positive elements, the critical issues and risks associated with this phenomenon appear to be very serious” (21). In other words, the possibility or actuality of harm done is greater than the good purported to be sought.

Finally, the gravest conclusion is declaration de non supernaturalitate (declaration of non-supernaturality). “In this situation, the Dicastery authorizes the Diocesan Bishop to declare that the phenomenon is found to be not supernatural. This decision must be based on facts and evidence that are concrete and proven” (22). The Norms give examples, such as when a person admits that they lied or if other people offer proof that it was fabricated, was motivated by bad intentions, or was due to “mythomania” (22).

In addition to the new categories of possible “conclusions,” there are norms governing the actual process that leads to such conclusions. In summation, ultimately, the diocesan bishop (of the relevant territory)—in communication with his episcopal conference (e.g., the USCCB for the United States)—is to undertake an examination and come to a judgment. Documentation of the investigation and the bishop’s conclusion are then submitted to the DDF for its evaluation (Art. 1). The DDF may approve or deny approval to the bishop’s judgment (Art. 2). In cases where the phenomenon crosses diocesan boundaries—or has a widespread following—a commission of bishops may be formed with one acting as the head (Art. 4).

There are several other details that pertain to various elements to an investigation, which we won’t belabor here. The interested reader can read the entire document for themselves. But we have covered the most important and noteworthy aspects of the new norms, hopeful that doing so provides the essential data that would be of interest and concern to our readers. 

1 See Tom Nash, “The Church’s Current Position on Medjugorje,” Catholic Answers, available here.
2 For some reason, the English text of the document keeps this quote in French; the translation into English is my own.