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Vatican wary of ‘miracles’ in new rules on recognising supernatural phenomena

21 May 2024


Pilgrims at Apparition Hill, in Medjugorie, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Pilgrims at Apparition Hill, in Medjugorie, Bosnia-Herzegovina

THE Vatican has published new rules for assessing miracles, apparitions, and mystical visions, which avoids definitive rulings on their authenticity and frees Roman Catholics from having to believe in them.

“Occasionally phenomena occur that seem to exceed the bounds of ordinary experiences and present themselves as having a supernatural origin,” the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith says in an 8500-word document, signed by its Argentinian prefect, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández. “Speaking accurately about such occurrences can surpass the capabilities of human language.

“With the advent of modern means of communication, these phenomena can attract the attention of many believers or cause confusion among them. Since news of these events can spread very quickly, pastors of the Church are responsible for handling them with care, recognising their fruits, purifying them of negative elements or warning the faithful about potential dangers.”

The warning is contained in the document Norms for Proceeding in the Discernment of Alleged Supernatural Phenomena, which took effect on Sunday after approval by Pope Francis.

The document says that the Holy Spirit has always led believers towards “an ever deeper understanding of revelation”, but has also granted “distinct experiences of faith” to some which have taken on “national, even global proportions”.

It says that the new norms should help diocesan bishops and episcopal conferences to discern whether reported apparitions contain “signs of divine action” or potential risks to “faith and morals”.

It adds, however, that even approved occurrences should not become “objects of faith,” and will no longer be declared “phenomena of supernatural origin. . .

“Some phenomena which could have a supernatural origin at times appear connected to confused human experiences, theologically inaccurate expressions, or interests that are not entirely legitimate,” the document says.

“Sometimes the discernment may also deal with problems, such as delicts, manipulation, damage to the unity of the Church, undue financial gain, and serious doctrinal errors that could cause scandals and undermine the Church’s credibility.”

The document says that it will be up to diocesan bishops to examine supernatural phenomena, following some 60 stipulated procedures, before submitting their assessments to the Vatican.

They must avoid publicly authenticating supernatural claims, and be ready to intervene in cases of “confused religious manifestations” such as weeping images and bleeding communion hosts, or of immoral psychopathic behaviour.

To judge claims, bishops will now have six categories to choose from: Nihil obstat (no obstacle), Prae oculis habeatur (to be kept in mind), Curatur (under guidance), Sub mandato (under order), Prohibetur et obstruatur (forbidden and barred), and Declaratio de non supernaturalitate (declared non-supernatural).

In an accompanying explanation, Cardinal Fernández says that the new norms are not “intended to control or (even less) stifle the Spirit”, and acknowledges that apparitions and visions, described by St John of the Cross (1542-91) and other mystics, have long yielded “a great richness of spiritual fruits, growth in faith, devotion, fraternity, and service”.

Some “events of alleged supernatural origin” have raised “serious critical issues”, however, such as when involving “profit, power, fame, social recognition or other personal interest”, or abusive, controlling, or sectarian behaviour.

The Cardinal says that previous norms, approved by Pope Paul VI in 1978, remained confidential, and were not published until 2011, causing “considerable confusion” and protracted decision-making. Work began in 2019 to revise the norms, which were finally approved by Pope Francis on 4 May.

RC church leaders have long been cautious about recognising reported “miracles” — a word used only once in the Vatican document — with many now favouring an emphasis on unexplained cures.

At the French sanctuary of Lourdes, where St Bernadette Soubirous experienced the first of 18 visions of the Virgin Mary, aged 14, while gathering firewood, in 1858, more than 7000 cures have been claimed by pilgrims and visitors, but only 68 have been confirmed as scientifically inexplicable by an International Medical Committee, the most recent in 2011.

And although 42,000 apparitions have been claimed at Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where six teenagers said they first saw the Virgin Mary while herding sheep in June 1981, the local diocese of Mostar-Duvno has refused to recognise the site, and a ban on organised pilgrimages was lifted only in May 2019, under a papal decree.

In his explanation, Cardinal Fernández lists examples in which local bishops conversely confirmed the authenticity of alleged supernatural events, pressuring laypeople to believe in “phenomena sometimes valued more than the Gospel itself”.

Despite an increase in reported phenomena, no more than six cases have been “officially resolved” since 1950, the Cardinal says, while, in one unspecified case, it took “about 70 excruciating years to bring the whole matter to a conclusion”.

“Most of the shrines that today are privileged places of popular piety for the people of God have never had an official declaration of the supernatural nature of events there — rather, the sensus fidelium intuited the activity of the Holy Spirit,” he says.

“God is always present in human history, and never stops bestowing his gifts of grace upon us through the workings of the Holy Spirit, daily renewing our faith in Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. It is the responsibility of the pastors of the Church to keep their faithful always attentive to this loving presence.”

The document is the latest intervention by Cardinal Fernández’s Dicastery, which reaffirmed the RC Church’s condemnation of abortion and assisted dying in a 16,000-word April declaration, Dignitas Infinita (News, 12 April), and conditionally authorised priests to bless same-sex couples in Fiducia Supplicans last December (News, 22 December).

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