Vatican moves to adapt to hoaxes, Internet

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican on Friday overhauled its process for evaluating alleged visions of the Virgin Mary, weeping statues and other seemingly supernatural phenomena that have marked church history, putting the brakes on making definitive declarations unless the event is obviously fabricated.

The Vatican’s doctrine office revised norms first issued in 1978, arguing that they were no longer useful or viable in the internet age. Nowadays, word about apparitions or weeping Madonnas travels quickly and can harm the faithful if hoaxers are trying to make money off people’s beliefs or manipulate them, the Vatican said.

The new norms make clear that such an abuse of people’s faith can be punishable canonically, saying, “The use of purported supernatural experiences or recognized mystical elements as a means of or a pretext for exerting control over people or carrying out abuses is to be considered of particular moral gravity.”

The Catholic Church has had a long and controversial history of the faithful claiming to have had visions of the Virgin Mary, of statues purportedly weeping tears of blood and stigmata erupting on hands and feet evoking the wounds of Christ.

When confirmed as authentic by church authorities, these otherwise inexplicable signs have led to a flourishing of the faith, with new religious vocations and conversions. That has been the case for the purported apparitions of Mary that turned Fatima, Portugal, and Lourdes, France, into enormously popular pilgrimage destinations.

Church figures who claimed to have experienced the stigmata wounds, including Padre Pio and Pope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, have inspired millions of Catholics even if decisions about their authenticity have been elusive.

Francis himself has weighed in on the phenomenon, making clear that he is devoted to the main church-approved Marian apparitions, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, who believers say appeared to an Indigenous man in Mexico in 1531.

But Francis has expressed skepticism about more recent events, including claims of repeated messages from Mary to “seers” at the shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, even while allowing pilgrimages to take place there.

“I prefer the Madonna as mother, our mother, and not a woman who’s the head of a telegraphic office, who sends a message every day at a certain time,” Francis told reporters in 2017.

The new norms reframe the Catholic Church’s evaluation process by essentially taking off the table whether church authorities will declare a particular vision, stigmata or other seemingly divinely inspired event supernatural.

Instead, the new criteria envisages six main outcomes, with the most favorable being that the church issues a noncommittal doctrinal green light, a so-called “nihil obstat.” Such a declaration means there is nothing about the event that is contrary to the faith, and therefore Catholics can express devotion to it.

The bishop can take more cautious approaches if there are doctrinal red flags about the reported event. The most serious envisages a declaration that the event isn’t supernatural or that there are enough red flags to warrant a public statement “that adherence to this phenomenon is not allowed.”

The aim is to avoid scandal, manipulation and confusion, and the Vatican fully acknowledged the hierarchy’s own guilt in confusing the faithful with the way it evaluated and authenticated alleged visions over the centuries.

The most egregious case was the flip-flopping determinations of authenticity by a succession of bishops over 70 years in Amsterdam about the purported visions of the Madonna at the Our Lady of All Nations shrine.

Another similar case prompted the Vatican in 2007 to excommunicate the members of a Quebec-based group, the Army of Mary, after its founder claimed to have had Marian visions and declared herself the reincarnation of the mother of Christ.

The revised norms acknowledge the real potential for such abuses and warn that hoaxers will be held accountable, including with canonical penalties.

The norms also allow that an event might at some point be declared “supernatural,” and that the pope can intervene in the process. But “as a rule,” the church is no longer in the business of authenticating inexplicable events or making definitive decisions about their supernatural origin.

And at no point are the faithful ever obliged to believe in the particular events, said Argentine Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the head of the Vatican doctrine office.

“The church gives the faithful the freedom to pay attention” or not, he said at a news conference.

Despite the new criteria, he said the church’s past decision-making on alleged supernatural events — such as at Fatima, Guadalupe or Lourdes — remains valid.

“What was decided in the past has its value,” he said. “What was done remains.”

To date, fewer than 20 apparitions have been approved by the Vatican over its 2,000-year history, according to Michael O’Neill, who runs the online apparition resource The Miracle Hunter.

Neomi De Anda, executive director of the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton, said the new guidelines represent a significant and welcome change to the current practice, while restating important principles.

“The faithful are able to engage with these phenomena as members of the faithful in popular practices of religion, while not feeling the need to believe everything offered to them as supernatural as well as the caution against being deceived and beguiled,” she said in an email.

Whereas in the past the bishop often had the last word unless Vatican help was requested, now the Vatican must sign off on every recommendation proposed by a bishop.

Robert Fastiggi, who teaches Marian theology at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan and is an expert on apparitions, said at first glance that requirement might seem to take authority away from the local bishop.

“But I think it’s intended to avoid cases in which the Holy See might feel prompted to overrule a decision of the local bishop,” he said.

“What is positive in the new document is the recognition that the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Mother are present and active in human history,” he said. “We must appreciate these supernatural interventions but realize that they must be discerned properly.”

He cited the biblical phrase that best applies: “Test everything, retain what is good.”

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