The Catholic Church's position on private apparitions and revelations:
"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."
(The Catechism of the Catholic Church)
The Roman Catholic Church has prudently been cautious to approve, disapprove or condemn reported apparitions". In general, studied apparitions are classed as "not worthy of belief", "not contrary to the Faith", or "worthy of belief". The message of an approved apparition cannot have any content that is contrary to the teachings of the Church.
Throughout Christian history, there has been the grateful reception of miracles and apparitions when they occur, together with the acknowledgment that such phenomena are not a substitute for faith in God. The Church preserves the centrality and final revelation given in the person, acts, and words of Jesus Christ, while at the same time honoring the special insights of the saints many of whom received messages through apparitions. The Church takes the middle course between an empiricism which would a priori reject the miraculous and a credulity which accepts anything extraordinary as being miraculous.
Process of Ecclesial Approval
As established in the Council of Trent (1545-63), the local bishop is the first and main authority in apparition cases, which can be defined as instances of private revelation.
From the 25th session of the Council of Trent:
"And that these things may be the more faithfully observed, the holy Synod ordains, that no one be allowed to place, or cause to be placed, any unusual image, in any place, or church, howsoever exempted, except that image have been approved of by the bishop: also, that no new miracles are to be acknowledged, or new relics recognised, unless the said bishop has taken cognizance and approved thereof; who, as soon as he has obtained some certain information in regard to these matters, shall, after having taken the advice of theologians, and of other pious men, act therein as he shall judge to be consonant with truth and piety. But if any doubtful, or difficult abuse has to be extirpated; or, in fine, if any more grave question shall arise touching these matters, the bishop, before deciding the controversy, shall await the sentence of the metropolitan and of the bishops of the province, in a provincial Council; yet so, that nothing new, or that previously has not been usual in the Church, shall be resolved on, without having first consulted the most holy Roman Pontiff."
Bishops evaluate evidence of an apparition according to these guidelines:
The facts in the case are free of error.
The person(s) receiving the messages is/are psychologically balanced, honest, moral, sincere and respectful of church authority.
Doctrinal errors are not attributed to God, Our Lady or to a saint.
Theological and spiritual doctrines presented are free of error.
Moneymaking is not a motive involved in the events.
Healthy religious devotion and spiritual fruits result, with no evidence of collective hysteria.
Judgment can find that an apparition shows all signs of being an authentic or a truly miraculous intervention from heaven, that it is clearly not miraculous or there are not sufficient signs manifesting it to be be so, or that it's not evident whether or not the alleged apparition is authentic.
If a Marian apparition is recognized by the bishop, it means that the message is not contrary to faith and morals and that Mary can be venerated in a special way at the site. But, because belief in a private revelation is not required by the church, Catholics are at liberty to decide how much personal spiritual emphasis to place on apparitions and the messages they deliver.
Canon Law and the Obligation of Obedience by the Faithful
As the bishops are entrusted with the responsibilities of discerning and ruling on apparitions as stemming from the nature of their office, so there are fundamental responsibilities on the part of the members of the diocese. First, they are to obey their bishops when the latter act as Christ's representatives (canon 212), that is, when they teach formally or establish binding discipline as pastors of a particular church. This obedience owed to the bishops in their capacity as leaders of particular churches is intended to promote the common good. Canon 753 also speaks of the "religious assent" owed to the bishops' teaching authority, which means a special quality of respect and gratitude, along with critical awareness and good will. Hence, there should be intelligent obedience to ecclesiastical authority in the matter of alleged apparitions.
Categories of Approval
Official Church statements regarding the authenticity of apparition claims are placed into three categories:
Not Worthy of Belief
The statements to declare a private revelation false are given according to the Latin phrase: "Constat de non supernaturalitate" (It is established that there is nothing supernatural here) . It has been determined that there are no characteristics that show it to be from God thereby attributing it to fraud or another spirit.
Nothing Contrary to the Faith
When locally it is decided or suggested that the reported apparition might or might not be of supernatural origin, the apparition is assigned to the category of "Non constat de supernaturalitate" ( It is not established that something supernatural is here). Apparitions in this category do not enjoy approval of their supernatural character but are determined to contain nothing that is contrary to faith and morals.
The supernatural chracter of the apparition is declared worthy of belief ("Constat de supernaturalitate") and contains nothing that is contrary to faith and morals. But belief in the apparition (even the true one) is not necessary for salvation.
Criteria for Discernment
A Vatican document, Norms of the Congregation for Proceeding in Judging Alleged Apparitions and Revelations (original in Latin or English translation) approved by Pope Paul VI on February 27,1978, sets out the procedures to be followed in investigating the authenticity of extraordinary claims. The document calls for examination of three questions. First, Church officials are called to assess the phenomena themselves, and the people who report them, looking for evidence of authenticity. Next they are to study any message that is associated with the extraordinary reports, to ascertain whether that message conforms to orthodox Church teaching. The third question raised by the document, appraises the pastoral implications of the phenomena, by studying the "fruits" of the reported apparitions. Click here to read the document.
According to the International Marian Research Institute, there are four criteria that determine whether a Marian apparition is to be approved or not :
1) The first norm for evaluating miraculous events is that there be moral certainty, or at least great probability, that something miraculous has occurred. The commission may interview the visionaries, call other witnesses, visit the site of the events.
2) The second norm deals with the personal qualities of the subjects who claim to have had the apparition; they must be mentally sound, honest, sincere, of upright conduct, obedient to ecclesiastical authorities, able to return to the normal practices of the faith (such as participation in communal worship, reception of the sacraments).
3) A third category deals with the content of the revelation or message: it must be theologically acceptable and morally sound and free of error.
4) The fourth positive criterion is that the apparition must result in positive spiritual assets which endure (prayer, conversion, increase of charity).
Concern of Church Authority
The Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17) reserved the approval of new prophecies and revelations to the Holy See; however, the Council of Trent (1545-63) authorized bishops to investigate and approve such a phenomenon before public worship could take place.
The discernment of apparitions and miracles is the responsibility of the local bishop, and ordinarily the Vatican does not become involved in the process. However, two items show the Vatican's concern about the issue. The Activities of the Holy See (1996) noted that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was studying correlations present with the phenomenon: "alleged apparitions are frequently joined with claims of supernatural messages, and with weeping statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary or of saints." It is the right and responsibility of local bishops to investigate and make judgments about alleged apparitions; at the same time, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has an obligation of "guidance and vigilance."
Special Assembly for America of the Synod of Bishops (Encounter with the Living Jesus Christ: Way to Conversion, Communion and Solidarity in America):
"Within the church community, the multiplication of supposed 'apparitions' or 'visions' is sowing confusion and reveals a certain lack of a solid basis to the faith and Christian life among her members. On the other hand, these negative aspects in their own way reveal a certain thirst for spiritual things, which, if properly channeled, can be the point of departure for a conversion to faith in Christ." (33)
History of Apparition Approval
Throughout Christian history, there is a similar acceptance of apparitions and miracles when they occur, together with the reservation that such phenomenona are not a substitute for absolute faith in God. The Church preserves the centrality and final revelation given in the person, acts, and words of Jesus Christ, while at the same time honoring the special insights of the saints many of whom received messages through apparitions. The Church takes the middle course between an empiricism which would a priori reject the miraculous and a credulity which accepts anything extraordinary as being miraculous.
The revelations accorded to St. Bridget of Sweden were considered at the Council of Constance (1414-18) and Basle (1431-49). The Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17) reserved the approval of new prophecies and revelations to the Holy See; however, the Council of Trent (1545-63) authorized bishops to investigate and approve such phenomenon before public worship could take place. Prospero Lambertini (1675-1758), the future Benedict XIV, provided several rules for discernment of private revelations and the miracles needed with the canonization of saints in De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et de Beatorum Canonizatione (click here to download PDF- 44 MB) in 1840. Such events must present themselves to human reason as being truly extraordinary and beyond the scope of natural causes. The Code of Canon Law of 1917 (1399, #5) forbade the publication of anything about "new apparitions, revelations, visions, prophecies, and miracles" withoout the local bishop's approbation. In 1966, Paul VI, implementing the Vatican II's statement on the right of the mass media to information, lifted the requirement that all writings about apparitions needed ecclesiastical approval before publication.
Notification concerning the abolition of the Index of Forbidden Books, (June 14, 1966)
Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS) 58 (1966) 445; Nuntius 1 (1967) 10-11; DOCUMENTA 2
Decree Regarding Canon 1399 and 2318 No Longer in Effect (November 15,1966)
See Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS) 58 (1966), 1186.
Since 1966, and especially after 1981 (the beginning of the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje) reports of apparitions are frequent, "numerous and even disturbing," in the words of Fr. René Laurentin at a conference at Czestochowa.
Scripture-based Discouragement for Seeking Miracles
Many visions and miracles are recorded in the Scriptures. After the Resurrection, Christ appeared to "Peter and then to the Twelve" (I Cor. 15, 5). Paul spoke of "visions and revelations" from the Lord (II Cor. 12, 1-6), and the deacon Stephen saw the heavens open and Christ at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 7, 55-56).
Christ worked many miracles of healing, but, at the same time, he did not appear to encourage the search for miracles. "An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given therm except the sign of Jonah" (Mt. 16:4). In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Christ announces that no messenger from the next world will be sent to the brothers of the rich man to have them repent. . "If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from tile dead" (Lk. 17.31). Finally, we have Christ's words to Thomas after the apostle placed his hand on the side of the risen Lord. "Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed" (Jn. 20:29).
Commentary from St. Louis de Montfort
This selection from St Louis de Montfort's True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin presents the proper position that should be taken towards unapproved Marian devotions and accordingly toward alleged apparitions.
"It is all the more necessary to make the right choice of the true devotion to our Blessed Lady, for now more than ever there are false devotions to her which can easily be mistaken for true one. The devil, like a counterfeiter and crafty, experienced deceiver, has already misled and ruined many Christians by means of fraudulent devotions to Our Lady.
Day by day he uses his diabolical experience to lead many more to their doom, fooling them, lulling them to sleep in sin and assuring them that a few prayers, even badly said, and a few exterior practices inspired by himself, are authentic devotions.
A counterfeiter usually makes coins only of gold or silver, rarely of other metals, because the latter would not be worth the trouble. Similarly, the devil leaves other devotions alone and counterfeits mostly those directed to Jesus and Mary ... It is therefore very important, first to recognize false devotions to our Blessed Lady so as to avoid them, and to recognize true devotion in order to practice it."
(True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin 90-91)
Commentary from Pope Benedict XVI
In an interview at Fatima, Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) spoke about visions and apparitions: "To all curious people, I would say I am certain that the Virgin does not engage in sensationalism; she does not act in order to instigate fear. She does not present apocalyptic visions, but guides people to her Son. And this is what is essential."
He continued, "The Madonna did not appear to children, to the small, to the simple, to those unknown in the world in order to create a sensation." Mary's purpose "is, through these simple ones, to call the world back to simplicity, that is, to the essentials: conversion, prayer, and the sacraments."
According to Pope Benedict XVI in Verbum Domini, apparitions or "private" revelation is "judged by its orientation to Christ himself. If it leads us away from Him, then it certainly does not come from the Holy Spirit, Who guides us more deeply into the Gospel and not away from it… Ecclesiastical approval of a private revelation essentially means that its message contains nothing contrary to faith and morals, it is licit to make it public, and the faithful are authorized to give it adhesion… A private revelation can have a prophetic character and can be a valuable aid for better understanding and living the Gospel at a certain time. Consequently, it should not be treated lightly. It is a help which is offered but its use is not obligatory."
Commentary from Pope John Paul II
"Veneration of Mary, when properly understood, can in no way take away from 'dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator.' Mary in fact constantly point to her Divine Son and she is proposed to all believers as the model of faith which is put into practice"
(John Paul II, The Coming Third Millennium, 43)