Authenticating Catholic Private Revelations
"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God" (1 John 4:1).
Disclaimer (Please read carefully)
As webmaster for Catholic Revelations for the last 7 years I have been at times bombarded with protests and complaints about the classification of the seers on this website. My replies in all cases have been constant. The Catholic Prophets Encyclopedia is an objective journalistic record of the judgments of the Church of Rome
Public and Private Revelation
Public, biblical or scriptural revelations, as they are known, refer to the public or universal revelations experienced by the prophets, the Apostles and Christ Himself which God permitted for the establishment of the Faith. The Church teaches as de fide (of the Faith) that all that the Father desired to reveal for our salvation has been revealed in His Word, Jesus Christ. The Word communicated this Revelation to His Apostles, who either wrote it down or handed it on (traditio) in their preaching and teaching (1 Cor. 15:1-3, 2 Thes. 2:15). The deposit of the Faith, therefore, is to be found in the twin fountains of Public Revelation, Sacred Scripture and Sacred (Apostolic) Tradition. 1 Public revelations ending with the death of the last Apostle St John therefore, must be believed by all Catholics as a matter of faith.
Private revelations however, which are the main subject of this website, refer to God’s revelations of Himself to individuals since the establishment of the Church. For that reason they are termed “private” and are given by God for the purpose of directing human acts. Private revelations are not considered binding on faith because everything God intended us to believe to hold the Catholic Faith has already been revealed to us in Public Revelation. St Thomas Aquinas summarizes these points by referring to Private Revelations as “not indeed for the declaration of any new doctrine of faith, but for the direction of human acts” (St Thomas Aquinas, Summas Theologica II –II q174 a6 reply 3). Even in cases where apparitions may appear to be directed to all Catholics (e.g. Lourdes, Fatima), rather than one individual, they are still technically regarded as private by the Church because they cannot add or substract from what must be believed in order to be a Catholic. Indeed because they add nothing new to what a Catholic must believe Private Revelations are not necessary for salvation. This means that a good Catholic who is utilizing the sacraments, sanctification and prayer is already employing the means of salvation. Church approved apparitions, visions, locutions and prophecies then act as lights to steer us through difficult times when Catholic doctrine needs to be Divinely re-stated (not added to) such as during times of heresy and apostasy in the Church or during time of war and famine in the world.
On the Matter of Private Revelations the Current Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
“66 "The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ." Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.
67 Throughout the ages, there have been so-called "private" revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.
Christian faith cannot accept "revelations" that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such "revelations."” 5
For example, alleged revelations which propose to improve upon, correct or entirely supplant Public Revelation are rejected by the Church as inauthentic, regardless of the claims made for them. Such revelations include those of Mohammed in the Koran, Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon, the writings of new age mystics, psychics and the like.6
Sources of Private Revelations
Approved private revelations derive from two sources. First, there is the mysticism of the Servants of God who have been proposed for canonization (e.g. St John Vianny, St Maximilliam Kolbe, St Padre Pio, etc) When the diocese which initiated the Cause has concluded its investigation and forwarded the documentation to Rome, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints undertakes its own study of the person's life. If the Congregation determines that he or she lived a life of heroic virtue this decision necessarily includes the judgment that the writings, including any mystical ones, are not contrary to faith and morals. If the Holy Father concurs the person is declared Venerable. The later canonization of the person (generally considered an act of papal infallibility), only heightens the credibility of the person's writings and the pious regard Catholics should have for them, according to the standard given by Benedict XIV.
The second kind of private revelation comes through apparitions. The person who receives an apparition is not necessarily far along in the spiritual life, though they are typically humble and simple souls. God grants this grace for the good of the Church and not as the fruit of contemplative prayer. When apparitions judged at the diocesan level constat de supernaturalitate (giving signs or evidences of supernaturality) receive the approbation of the Holy See, as indicated by a positive judgment, the granting of papal favors to the apparition site, the approval of a liturgical feast, the canonization of the seer or other clear signs of approval, the words of Pope Benedict XIV can certainly be applied, as well, "an assent of human faith, made according to the rules of prudence, is due them." 2
Three Types of Apparitions
1. Intellectual vision: The intellectual vision is perception without the presence of a visual object. As St. Theresa has said, "It is like feeling someone near one in a dark place." The object of an intellectual vision can be anything, but most often is a higher theological concept such as the Holy Trinity, the essence of the soul, the nature of heaven, and the like.
2. Imaginative vision: The imaginative vision is somewhat more 'concrete' than the intellectual. Although it also lacks a visual object, the human imagination is touched to create a visual representation. Often the visionary is aware that it is a purely reproduced or composite image, which exists only in the imagination. This kind of vision occurs most frequently during sleep.
3. Corporeal vision: The difference between an imaginative and a corporeal vision is that the imaginative, while having a visual component, is not seen by the eyes and leaves no physical evidence of its effects. The corporeal vision, on the other hand, is registered by the human eye and at times leaves physical effects. The corporeal vision can either be a figure really present or a power superior to man, which directly modifies the visual organ and produces in the composite a sensation equivalent to that which an external object would. The presence of an external figure may be seen in two ways. Sometimes the very substance of the being or the person will be presented; sometimes it will be merely an appearance consisting in a certain arrangement of luminous rays.
Note: Sometimes the apparition is only heard, usually as an inner voice. This phenomenon is called locution. Phenomena such as weeping images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary and people showing the marks of stigmata may obviously also be considered as divine apparitions. These are therefore often investigated and judged by the Vatican congregation, which deals with private revelations. 3
A Note to the Skeptics and Higher Critics
If we are not required to believe in Private Revelations as articles of faith then why bother with them at all? The classic view on this matter was expressed by Pope Benedict XIV, as follows: "Although an assent of Catholic faith may not and can not be given to revelations thus approved, still, an assent of human faith, made according to the rules of prudence is due them; for, according to these rules such revelations are probable and worthy of pious credence." (Pope Benedict XIV, 1675-1758, De Serv. Dei Beatif.)
Similarly one of his predecessors His Holiness, Pope Urban VIII refering to Marian private revelations in particular also stated “In cases which concern private revelations, it is better to believe than not to believe, for, if you believe, and it is proven true, you will be happy that you have believed, because our Holy Mother asked it. If you believe, and it should be proven false, you will receive all blessings as if it had been true, because you believed it to be true."(Pope Urban VIII, 1623-44)
Some people tend to go to one extreme or the other on private revelation; they either completely reject the concept or they consider private revelation their chief rule of faith. The original sixteenth century Protestant Reformers denied all private revelation—they had to, for all the miracles that had occurred and all the private revelations that had been received over the previous fifteen hundred years had confirmed rather than attacked the Catholic faith. The original Reformers’ actions were in direct disobedience to the binding command of the New Testament: "Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good” (1 Thess 5:19-21). The Reformers’ eradication of all new revelation led people to forget the distinction between public and private revelation. Thus when people appeared claiming to have new revleation, Protestants were left vulnerable to thinking any new revelations would be binding on all Christians. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, religious organizations which claim such new revelations have evolved in Protestant circles; for example, the Irvingites, the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the current "Word Faith" or "Prosperity Gospel" movement. When the Pentecostal movement started in 1900, it faced the problem of explaining why private revelations had ceased for so many centuries, as the original Protestant Reformers claimed, only to begin again during this century. The correct answer…is that private revelation never did stop. "Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything," directs St Paul (1 Thess 5:19-21).6
Church Assessment of Private Revelations
The Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17) reserved the approval of all new prophecies and revelations to the Vatican. And at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) it was established that the local bishops should investigate alleged apparitions by the support of doctors and theologians before public worship of these could take place. Apart from some minor changes, this practice has continued to this day. In February 1978, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Rome’s present policy on Private Revelations entitled Norms of the Congregation for Proceeding in Judging Alleged Apparitions and Revelations. 4 which does not can be read here
When an alleged divine apparition has occurred, it is the responsibility of the local bishop to conduct an investigation, usually through a committee of experts. Determinations at the local level are however not final but are subject to the higher authority, which can either ratify the findings made at the local level or reserve judgment. When investigating miracle claims, the Church initially proceeds with caution. Their first step is therefore merely to wait to be sure that all natural explanations are exhausted and to observe whether believers continue showing an interest towards the phenomenon. After a while, the bishop, in whose Diocese it has occurred, can decide to set up a commission to investigate an alleged apparition. These investigations are usually thorough and lengthy. The commission may include scientists, doctors and theologians depending on the nature of the phenomenon. After the investigation has been carried out the bishop usually issue an official statement. Often the Vatican doesn’t comment on statements made by the local bishop’s. But if it’s decided to pursue the matter further, the case is passed on to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Congregation can also decide to intervene on their own account at an earlier stage if the event assumes national or regional importance and affects a broad portion of the Church or if the local bishop requests them to. If necessary a new examination will then be carried out either by the Congregation itself, or by a commission especially established for this purpose. A positive statement from the local bishop thus only serves as a temporary official approval. It’s not until the Vatican eventually decides to ratify this, that an apparition has attained full recognition.8 Hence the catagories of Bishop’s (Initial) Approval and Full Church Approval on this website.
B. Criteria for Judging the Supernaturality of Private Revelations
1. Rule out preternatural “angelic” phenomenon and establish Supernatural Miraculous intervention. Unless God needs to act to immediately produce an effect (creation of something out of nothing) He uses the created angelic nature to produce mystical phenomena like visions, locutions, ectasies, mystical knowledge etc). Whether the burning bush which Moses saw, the ecstatic flights of St. Joseph Cupertino, the stigmata of St. Francis or the revelations of St. Catherine, the general rule in the spiritual order is that God does not do immediately and directly what can be done mediately through a lower order nature, in this case the good angels. 7 Since both good and evil angels posess the angelic nature the presence of such mystical phenomena alone is not a certain sign of authenticity. Indeed since angels are pure spirits they can dominate anything in the sensual realm and produce corporeal or imaginative visions, falsify ecstasy, cause a person to hear sounds or locutions, produce an occasion of bilocation, make a person speak in tongues, “cure” disequilibrium or sickness caused by diabolical oppression and even produce stigmata. Similarly being unimpeded in space they can cause a person to declare a fact which is hidden or distant, eavesdrop on the secret counsels of men and predict the future with confidence and even “create and validate” the future by inducing the sensual perception of a vision and then later surreptitiously fulfilling it through the manipulation of human affairs and other natural causes. Unexplained phenomena arising out of the manipulation of perfectly natural (but sometimes hidden) physical laws can also occur without indicating positively that the event is from God. Hence the term “preter-natural” which refers to the superior created angelic intelligence. For instance the transmutation of iron rosary beads into gold (something scientists have recently duplicated in costly atomic laboratory experiments), “miraculous” images on camera negatives (by exposure to physical illumination), levitation (by applying invisible physical force) are all exploits quite within the range of the devil’s repotoire as well as the good angels. Whatever nature or science can cause, the devils too are able to cause, according to what God may permit. See the Book of Exodus where the magicians and sorcerers of Pharaoh were able to accomplish some of the prodigies wrought by Moses and Aaron (Ex 7:11-12; 7:22; 8:7; 8:18-19; 9:11). Close to 200 A.D., Tertullian writes, "first of all, they [the demons] make you ill; then to get a miracle out of it, they prescribe remedies either completely novel, or contrary to those in use, and thereupon withdrawing hurtful influence, they are supposed to have wrought a cure." (Apology of the Christian religion, 22).9 In its decision making then the church looks for effects beyond the ability of men and angels which can be attributed to God alone. For instance the creation of a substance out of nothing ex nihilo which, as an act of creation, is proper only to God (like rosary beads, a scapular etc), miraculous medical cures (like those at Lourdes) or natural prodigy (like the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima) which defy natural laws are considered proofs of God’s intervention. (There must be no doubt that what is occuring is truly exceptional and beyond human explanation)
2. Assess the qualities of the seer(s) For a positive judgment to be made the seer must be emotionally and mentally sound (is there any past or current evidence of depression, hysteria, schizophrenia, dementia, substance abuse etc ? Does the seer remain calm during the vision? Has the seer always sought the gift?), honest (has the seer accepted money or favours for his services?), sincere, of upright morals and conduct, (sanctity of life is promising but in itself not essential for authenticity) accurate (are his prophecies fulfilled in time?) and obedient to a competant Church authority such as his local Bishop (Does the seer remain open that his experience may be delusion? Will the seer be silenced by his Bishop pending the results of the investigation? - The Bishop himself must be obedient to Rome for this to count).
3. Assess the content of the revelation or message If the private revelation is supernatural in origin it must be morally and theologically sound and free of error and hence the subject of an Episcopal Imprimatur or Nihil Obstat (Does it claim to add to, improve upon or substract from existing Public Revelation? Does it contradict any infallible and solemnly defined article of the faith as given by tradition in the Ordinary Universal Magisterium or ex-cathedra in the Extraordinary Magiesterium? Does it contain a morally ambiguous or harmful message?)
4. Assess the fruits of the revelation Similarly if authentic the Church expects to see good fruit ripen from the events among the seers and those affected by them with positive spiritual assets (like increased prayer, charity, local conversions and healings) which endure.
C. Types of Decisions
A vision, apparition or locution is either supernatural in origin (from God) or it is not. Three possible judgments then in respect of incidents of private revelation exist.
1. Established as Supernatural (Constat de Supernaturalitate): An apparition judged supernatural (formerly called worthy of belief) has manifested signs or evidence of being an authentic or truly miraculous intervention from heaven. This judgment is possible when there is evidence of supernatural phenomena, sound doctrine, moral probity, mental health and sound piety of the seer(s) and enduring good fruits among the faithful.10 Where the church has accepted a private revelation as credible they receive the approbation of the Holy See as indicated by a positive judgment and promotion of devotions and pilgrimages. The next stage up in approval would be a public statement from the Pope himself (not a private statement, or private audience, but an official public statement) that he is favourably disposed to the events and contents of the apparition (again, for this to count he must be speaking publicly in his office as Pope and not as a private theologian). Examples here might be Pope Piux XII’s official public recognition of the Fatima apparitions. Ultimately the summit of ecclesiastical recognition comes with the granting of Papal favours to the apparition site, the approval of a feast on the Church Liturgical calendar or the canonization of the seer.
2. Not Established as Supernatural (Non Constat Supernaturalitate): The first type of “Negative” decision. It may not be evident whether or not the alleged apparition is authentic. This judgment, although admitting no supernatural evidence, has a provisional character and would seem to be completely open to further evidence or development. 12 The Church takes a neutral stance because although the revelation may or may not be supernatural in origin there is nothing in it that is contrary to the faith. This has been the case with Apparitions such as Garabandal in Spain and Julia Kim in Naju, Korea. Unfortunately in cases like these the jury may remain “out” for many years until further evidence warrants a new investigation. Enthusiasts can at least be reassured that the material is safe for consumption but must be wary of giving a premature assent of human faith to undecided phenomena.
3. Established as not Supernatural (Constat de non Supernaturalitate): The second type of “negative dcecision” whereas the first type may have a provisional character pending new results or reopening the case, the second has final character. The judgment that an alleged apparition has been shown not to be supernatural means it is either clearly not miraculous or lacks sufficient signs of the miraculous.11 If deemed not supernatural in origin it means that the revelation is definitely false and either of human manufacture or diabolical inspiration. This covers a rather large spectrum of material from naturally inspired imaginary flights of artistic endeavour which do not contradict Catholic Teaching (and hence may even qualify for a Bishop’s Imprimatur or Nihil Obstat) with no fraud intended (e.g. The Messages of Teresa Lopez and the apparitions of Estella Ruiz) to doctrinally dangerous material containing definate theological and moral deviations or even hostility to the Church which are inspired by the demon himself (like the messages of Vassula Ryden, Mary Ann Van Hoof or William Kamm “Little Pebble”). In the latter case there may be expressions of authentic Catholic teaching in the content and even extraordinary signs accompanying the revelation but since the Devil mixes truth and lies to deceive the evidence is never far away. Defects in the seer himself like hostility or a refusal to submit to eccesiastical authority, an attitude of pride or judgment towards the Faith and subsequent bad fruit and discord amongst the supporters are clear signs of the devil’s presence. This distinction isn’t always clear cut however, as it must be noted that sometimes non-supernatural works that are actually consistent with the Catholic faith must be considered with caution if the seer continues to make supernatural claims for it despite the Church’s formal pronouncement.
4. Non investigated Apparitions
Because positive or negative judgements by the Holy See are rare and take time the Church is often silent leaving final judgements up to the individual which is not an ideal situation by any measure. As a general rule when considering the myriad reported apparitions around the world today we are reminded that the best course of action, ultimately, is to wait for a decision by the Church as to (a) its supernaturality (Constat non-supernaturalitate, Non constat supernaturalitate, Constat supernaturalitate) or where that is unavailable (b) at least its doctrinal safety (Bishop’s Imprimatur, Nihil Obstat), before trusting it. Ostensibly the vast majority of today’s seers and their supporters seeking some form of ecclesiastical judgment are usually left with the latter option. Indeed we have seen that a good yardstick of credibility is whether an apparition is consistent in content with Public Revelation. It must be remembered, however, that a Bishop’s Imprimatur or Nihil Obstat whether accompanied by glowing recommendation or not, in itself gives no information whatsoever of the supernaturality of an apparition. Our advice in instances where there is a healthy interest in private revelation is to stay away from the ambiguous or un-investigated cases and consult the Church’s great archive of officially approved Private revelation as given under the Full Church Approval Section to this website with full confidence in their authenticity. These materials stretch back 2000 years and are often significantly more prophetic in character and edifying in their consistency than their modern claimants. As Fr Brian Wilson, L.C. states “If I were starving and had nothing else at hand, I would no doubt take my chances with a piece of meat that had a distinct whiff of being well past its sell-by date. But I would be just plain foolish to do so if there were an abundance of fine, fresh, tender cuts on hand just waiting to be slapped on the grill.” 13
What about Fully Approved apparitions received before the Church started deploying heavily formalised and legalised theological and scientific commissions to investigate them a few centuries ago? The same criteria cited above applies but with the addition of asking (i) was the seer ‘s printed works extant Imprimatured by his Bishop? (ii) Was he publicly promoted by his religious superiors at the time e.g. his Bishops, abbots and abesses as a prophet or seer? (iii) Did he receive some kind of Papal recognition or approbation at the time? (iii) Was he a Pope? (iv) Was he was later declared to be a Father, Doctor, Blessed, Venerable or a Saint of the Church? (We must also bear in mind that the rigorous process of declaring someone Blessed, Venerable or even canonizing them as a Saint has not always existed according to todays scrupulous standards). Unlike with contemporary commissions where information is abundant there is obviously a greater weight placed on posthumous judgments by the Hierachy here which makes the selection process all the more demanding and meticulous.
6. Statistical Results as a yardstick
As of the year 2003 a statistical analysis of the Marian apparition directory reveals the following results. During the twentieth century, there have been 386 cases of Marian apparitions. The Church has made "no decision" [uninvestigated] about the supernatural character regarding 298 of the 386 cases. The Church has made a "negative decision" [“Not supernatural” and “Supernaturality Not Established, Not Excluded”] about the supernatural character in 79 of the 386 cases. Therefore out of the 386 apparitions, the Church has decided that "yes" there is a supernatural character only in 9 cases: Fatima (Portugal), Beauraing (Belgium), Banneux (Belgium), Akita (Japan), Syracuse (Italy), Zeitoun (Egypt), Manila (Philippines), (according to some sources), Betania (Venezuela) (according to some sources), and Amsterdam, (Holland). Local bishops have approved of the faith expression at the sites where these 8 apparitions occurred. Besides the 9 or so approved supernatural apparitions, there have only been 11 (out of the 298 cases of “no decision”) which have not been approved with a "supernatural character", but which have received a "yes" to indicate the local bishop's initial "approval of faith expression (prayer and devotion) at the site". 14 Makes you think doesn’t it?
The first responsibility of the faithful is to remain firmly established in the faith, in the sacraments and in communion with the Traditional Catholic Faith. Any Catholic who gives their primary attention to alleged private revelation at the expense of Sacred Scripture, the teaching of the Church (e.g. the Traditional Baltimore Penny Catechism), sacramental practice, prayer and fidelity to the Traditional Catholic Church authority is off course. The running after spiritual phenomena, such as alleged revelations, is condemned by St. John of the Cross as spiritual avarice. This means that pious souls who would be repulsed by crude materialistic greed think nothing of being greedy to know revelations and prophecies. An exclusive, or even a predominant attention to these matters (especially apocalyptic ones), cannot help but produce an unbalanced spirituality. Should the Church condemn some favorite alleged revelation such a person may find themselves believing more in it than in the supernatural authority of the Traditional Catholic Church. The devil will have succeeded in what he had set out to do.
The second responsibility is to have regard, in the first place, for those private revelations and apparitions approved by the Traditional Catholic Church prior to the Conciliar reforms of the Second Vatican Council as opposed to the swarms of false revelations and “muddied waters” that have materialized (some of which appear to have even received dubious ecclesiastical approval) in its wake.
Within a balanced practice of the faith the edifying content of approved private revelations can be a motive for deeper piety and fidelity to the Gospel. God has chosen to give guidance to the Church in particular eras in this way and we would, as I noted above, be imprudent to disregard altogether what are credibly His prophetic interventions in the life of His Church. 14
1. Eternal Word Television Network Apparitions/Private Revelations (http://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/apparitions.htm)
3. Living Miracles Apparitions (http://www.livingmiracles.net/Apparitions.html)
5. Op cit. Eternal Word Television Network (accessed Jan 14, 2005)
6. Catechism of the Catholic Church (http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc.htm)
7. Op cit. Eternal Word Television Network (accessed Jan 14, 2005)
8. Catholic Answers Private Revelation (http://www.catholic.com/library/private_revelation.asp)
9. Fr Peter Joseph Apparitions True and False (http://www.christianorder.com/features/features_2004/features_oct04.html)
10. Op cit. Eternal Word Television Network (accessed Jan 14, 2005)
11. Living Miracles Op cit. (accessed Jan 14, 2005)
13. Envoy Magazine I Have a Question by Fr Brian Wilson, L.C. (http://www.envoymagazine.com/backissues/4.4/question.htm, accessed Jan 18, 2005)
14. Marian Apparitions of the 20th Century (http://www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/aprtable.html)
15. Op cit. Eternal Word Television Network (accessed Jan 14, 2005)