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Experts hail new Vatican norms on 'supernatural phenomena'

The norms candidly acknowledge they could be used in service of 'a sectarian spirit that seeks division in the church'
A view of St. Peter's Square in the Vatican City.

A view of St. Peter's Square in the Vatican City. (Photo: Unsplash)

Published: May 18, 2024 05:17 AM GMT
Updated: May 18, 2024 05:31 AM GMT

Clergy and experts in the U.S. are applauding newly issued norms from the Vatican on assessing the miraculous, the mundane and the flat-out maleficent among spiritual experiences.

On May 17, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith issued revised norms "for proceeding in the discernment of alleged supernatural phenomena," replacing the Vatican's previous guidance, which was issued in 1978.

DDF prefect Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández said in a May 17 press conference the document -- under development since 2019 -- was designed to provide a more streamlined process for such evaluation, eliminating confusion and error without suppressing the action of the Holy Spirit.

In a break from previous practice, the document specifies that a diocesan bishop must now make a call on alleged supernatural phenomena "in dialogue" with his national bishops' conference, and then submit his judgment to the DDF for approval.

The new norms also prevent bishops and the church itself -- but not the pope, who can "authorize a special procedure in this regard" -- from definitively declaring such phenomena as supernatural.

Instead, the bishops and the DDF must reach one of six conclusions:

- "Nihil obstat," by which bishops acknowledge signs of the Holy Spirit's work in an experience, while not affirming the experience itself as supernatural;

- "Prae oculis habeatur," where "some aspects of confusion or potential risks" must be addressed through dialogue and doctrinal clarification;

- "Curatur," by which widely embraced phenomena with "verifiable spiritual fruits" remain unbanned, but nevertheless are not to be encouraged by the diocesan bishop in favor of "alternative expressions of devotion";

- "Sub mandato," where the pastoral leadership connected with an otherwise positive experience that is being misused (possibly for financial gain, immoral acts or even an unapproved pastoral activity) is placed under the care of the diocesan bishop to reach "a reasonable agreement";

- "Prohibetur et obstruatur," where the DDF instructs a diocesan bishop to publicly prohibit adherence to phenomena with "critical issues and risks," and to offer catechesis regarding the decision;

- "Declaratio de non supernaturalitate," whereby the DDF authorizes the diocesan bishop to declare the phenomenon is not supernatural, based on "facts and evidence that are concrete and proven."

Although the Vatican's new norms prevent a definitive declaration of supernatural authenticity, they do not preclude the potential for future popular devotion on the scale of Our Lady of Fátima or Our Lady of Guadalupe, said Cardinal Fernández at the press conference.

"Positive" criteria for evaluating phenomena are the credibility, mental stability, moral and spiritual disposition of the alleged seers or recipients of the experience; doctrinal orthodoxy; the experience's "unpredictable" and therefore non-human nature; and the fruits of Christian life associated with the phenomena.

"Negative" criteria include the possibility of error, which may be unconscious and unintended; a "sectarian spirit" that breeds division in the church; pursuit of power, profit, fame or other personal interest; gravely immoral actions; and psychological or psychopathic tendencies in the recipient, as well as collective hysteria.

Chieko Noguchi, executive director of public affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told OSV News that "the new norms offer a helpful explanation of the process for discerning supernatural phenomena."

Both the document and its unveiling at the press conference underscore the words of St. John of the Cross -- who is cited in the document -- emphasizing that "everything has been said through God's Word (which is Christ)," said professor Robert Fastiggi, chair of dogmatic theology and Christology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and an expert in Marian apparitions.

Fastiggi said that in teaching courses on Mary, "I always stress that we cannot put even approved Marian apparitions at the same level as divine revelation or the Word of God."

At the same time, said Fastiggi, "when you have apparitions that now have feast days associated with them" -- such as Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec. 12), an obligatory memorial in the Americas, and Our Lady of Lourdes (Feb. 11) and Our Lady of Fátima (May 13), which are optional memorials -- "I think it would be very foolish not to believe in them."

Fastiggi said the shift to limiting the DDF and the bishops to a "nihil obstat" rather than an affirmation of supernaturality, along with the required consultation bishops must seek from the dicastery, were the major developments represented by the document.

The text "seems to be cautious, and it wants the bishops not to make positive judgments without consulting the dicastery," said Fastiggi.

That helps to "take the burden off the bishops," said retired Deacon Albert E. Graham of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in La Plata, Maryland, author of several books on mystical phenomena, including the new trilogy "Revelation, Mystical Phenomena and Divine Promises."

In addition, said Fastiggi, the new guidance can also help "to avoid … embarrassing reversals" of episcopal verdicts on phenomena, where one bishop cancels out a predecessor's ruling on an alleged supernatural experience.

"Now, a bishop … will have to consult with the DDF, which is not taking away his responsibility, but … (avoiding) these situations in the future," Fastiggi said.

The norms also candidly acknowledge that alleged supernatural phenomena could be used in service of "a sectarian spirit that seeks division in the church," he said, citing article 15 of the Vatican document.

Echoing that point was Father Vincent Lampert, exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and pastor of St. Michael and St. Peter Catholic Parishes in Brookville, Indiana.

"Only God is supernatural," he told OSV News. "I think the church is trying to make a clear distinction between something that's originated by God and maybe false things that are initiated by demons as a way to … sow division and dissension in the church."

Father Lampert said that the document is "trying to clarify the things that originate from God," since "down through history, there have always been some alleged apparitions (and) visions that prove not to be of God, but maybe of a demonic nature."

He also commended the norms for "reinforcing the deposit of faith" by underscoring that "any revelation or vision isn't presenting anything new. It may just be amplifying or focusing a particular component of our faith that maybe just needs to be heard a little bit more clearly in the world today, just because of where the world finds itself."

Father Lampert also said that a healthy spiritual life -- including the lifelong battle against sin and evil -- can actually look rather unremarkable, at least on the surface.

"You look at some apparitions (where) people are ready to jump on a bus and drive halfway across the country, yet you might look at a lot of churches today and at daily Mass, there's hardly anybody there," he said. "I always try to tell people as an exorcist that we need to focus more on the ordinary aspects of our faith. We don't have to do extraordinary things to defeat the devil; it's the ordinary things. … If you're going to Mass, you're praying, you're reading the Bible, you're celebrating the sacramental life of the church and living your faith -- the devil's on the run. It may sound simplistic, but it really is (down to) the ordinary parts of our faith."

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