Sunday, May 26, 2024

Problems with the Vatican’s new norms for vetting supernatural phenomena (Contribution)

New Vatican norms regarding supernatural phenomena

One of the most compelling attractions of Catholicism is the immersion in the supernatural. The Church birthed with the miracle of the resurrection. It was launched with the miracle of Pentecost. 

The old pagan gods of the Roman Empire gave way before the supernatural potency of the sub-Apostolic Church. Despite the best efforts of schismatics down the ages, God has renewed and refreshed his Church with infusions of the mystery of the miraculous.

Protestantism has increasingly succumbed to either dull rationality or hyper-hysteria. 

In the Catholic world the apparitions of Our Lady remain one of the most powerful tools of renewal of piety, repentance and faith.  

But the supernatural is double edged.  It presents us with authentic interventions, but equally with distorted and even diabolic phenomena. It is a truism that evil has the capacity to present itself as good. It is equally true that the supernatural can be mimicked. 

The Catholic Church has taken the task of discernment with the utmost seriousness. A good deal hangs on being able to tell good from evil and the authentic from the illusory.

The last procedure for assessing the authenticity of supernatural phenomena took place in 1978.

There are a number of cogent reasons for giving fresh thought to the process, as the Vatican did this month when it published new norms for vetting private revelations, of which the most persuasive is the development of social media.

The new norms rightly point out that social media works to catapult ideas, experiences and news into the public space with unparalleled speed; and one of the consequences of this is the loss of space to think, pray, test and evaluate.

If we evaluate the new norms from a practical perspective, they offer some sensible reasons for reviewing the norms now. 

But there are other perspectives which raise more complex issues and threaten to cause the faithful some anxiety.

The first is that in a careful analysis of the supernatural the document begins by rightly pointing out that even authentic episodes can become tainted by abuse. It then continues sensibly:

“When considering such events, one should not overlook, for example, the possibility of doctrinal errors, an oversimplification of the Gospel message, or the spread of a sectarian mentality. Finally, there is the possibility of believers being misled by an event that is attributed to a divine initiative but is merely the product of someone’s imagination, desire for novelty, tendency to fabricate falsehoods (mythomania), or inclination toward lying.”

It fails to mention the additional danger of diabolic impersonation. And it is this absence of the full perspective of the supernatural that leaves the reader with the unsettling feeling that if the Vatican feels too uncomfortable even mentioning the possibility of diabolic interference, it may not be staffed with people sufficiently well-qualified theologically to tell the difference between the authentic, the anthropologically mimetic and the satanic.

At one level, changing the categorisations available so that the possibility of authenticating a private revelation or an apparition no longer exists may be arguable on a pragmatic basis. “Heaven” intervenes seldom, most phenomena carry a level of ambiguity with them, and it may well be that “Nihil obstat” is an appropriately circumspect response from the centre.

In fact, given the intractable problem that Medjugorje poses, one can have some sympathy for the authorities. They are faced on the one hand with a highly politicised ultra-nationalistic context, a problematically long time scale, and a library of “messages” that vary greatly in content and form; and on the other hand with enormous numbers of passionate pilgrims who want to publicise their joy and experiences that range from profound conversion to intense spiritual renewal. If these new categories are intended to side-step a problem to which there is no obvious solution, one can only be sympathetic. 

However, hard cases make bad law; and the whole strategy of changing the rules for one apparition would not be sensible if that was the main cause.

But perhaps there are other causes?

When Heaven does intervene authentically, it is usually because something is wrong and needs putting right. Many of the Marian apparitions, ranging from those like Fatima which have been fully authenticated, to Akita in Japan, or Quito in Ecuador, have at their centre a powerful rebuke for the clergy and senior prelates for having compromised, distorted or repudiated the faith. You don’t have to be cynical to think that it might be a little too convenient for those who might be or are the target of the Marian call to repentance to slip into a comfortable place of metaphysical agnosticism when it comes assessing the validity of the intervention. 

It is odd too for a pope who unremittingly lets it be known he wants a climate of mutual accompaniment and interdependent, reciprocal synodality, to remove the apostolic responsibility from the local bishop and restrict the power of recognition to himself. Of course the local bishop and his advisors are more likely to know the full context in which the phenomena are taking place and the consequences for good or ill that flow from it. Why would the Vatican want to remove the responsibility and authority, and restrict it to the centre in that way? 

Within the document the new norms allow the Vatican to retrospectively change the recognition and affirmation of an event. To do so, however, would be disastrous for the confidence of the laity. If there is a universal complaint about the present pontificate, it is the justifiable lament that it has brought with it unnecessary un-Catholic ambiguity, and flowing from that in various areas of Catholic life, something approaching chaos.

Chaos and ambiguity are not recognised as fruit of the Holy Spirit. So in circumstances where the present senior hierarchy appear under-equipped to practice discernment adequately on their own ministry, these new norms will not easily deepen lay confidence in the relationship between the hierarchy of the Church and the baptised laity looking for guidance and sustenance in their prayers, and judgements seeking the renewal of the Church in a time of crisis.