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In New Vetting Process for Apparitions, Vatican Nixes ‘Supernatural’ Label

A statue of Mary is seen in 2011 outside St. James Church in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Vatican ambassador to the United States reminded bishops of a doctrinal congregation ruling that it was not yet possible “to state that there were apparitions or supernatural revelations” by visionaries in Medjugorje. (Photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

By Elise Ann Allen

ROME — The Vatican has rolled out a new expedited procedure for vetting alleged Marian apparitions or other spiritual phenomena, ruling that they will no longer be deemed supernatural but simply that nothing stands in the way of encouraging devotion.

In an introductory presentation of the new norms, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), said one of the biggest novelties is that, in order to prevent delays in the vetting process for alleged apparitions, the discernment process will end “not with a declaration of ‘de supernaturalitate’ (of the supernatural).”

Rather, six different “prudential conclusions” will be given, depending on the case, he said, insisting that “as a rule,” these conclusions “do not include the possibility of declaring that the phenomenon under discernment is of supernatural origin – that is, affirming with moral certainty that it originates from a decision willed by God in a direct way.”

Fernández explained that the decision was made largely on the grounds that a ruling on alleged supernatural phenomena would be reached faster, which is especially important in the digital age. To avoid any confusion, belief in these phenomena is obligatory.

The new norms “entirely” replace the previous set, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1978 and published only in 2011. They spell out six new rulings the DDF can give when cases of alleged apparitions arise while insisting that from now on, no ruling deeming them to be “supernatural” in nature is to be given.

Among other things, the new norms also appear to acknowledge the use of false mysticism, the use of spiritual images or symbolism, in recent abuse scandals in the Church, insisting that careful attention must be paid to whether the alleged supernatural events are being used “as a means of or pretext for exerting control over people or carrying out abuses.”

Fernández, in his preparatory note, said that part of the logic for the new norms was that in the past, decisions “took an excessively long time, sometimes spanning several decades,” meaning a ruling often came when it was “too late.”

He said a revision of the 1978 norms began in 2019 and that during a November 2023 session in the DDF, it was agreed that “a comprehensive and radical revision” was needed.

The final draft of the new norms was presented to the pope on May 4, and he approved them, decreeing that they take effect on May 19, 2024, the Solemnity of Pentecost.

Fernández said another reason new norms were needed was that in the past, bishops would obtain the required clearance from the Vatican to encourage devotion to an alleged apparition, but they were not allowed to say the DDF was involved.

He said some bishops had also made confusing statements implying that the faithful were obliged to believe in the phenomenon, such as, “I confirm the absolute truth of the facts” and “the faithful must undoubtedly consider as true,” at times acting as if the apparitions “were valued more than the Gospel itself.”

Fernández also noted that “very few cases” of alleged apparitions ever clearly determined their supernatural status, saying only six cases since 1950 had been definitively resolved.

The new norms were clear in stating that the Gospels contain “all you need for the Christian life” and that supernatural phenomena such as apparitions are not necessary or obligatory. However, at times, God grants them “not to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history.”

Once the local diocesan bishop has completed an inquiry into an alleged apparition or spiritual event and sent it to the DDF with his opinion, the Vatican office can, according to the new norms, respond with one of six conclusions.

Rather than a positive ruling on the supernatural nature of the alleged event, the DDF will now offer a conclusion of nihil obstat or ‘nothing stands in the way.’

According to the norms, this ruling is given when “Without expressing any certainty about the supernatural authenticity of the phenomenon itself, many signs of the action of the Holy Spirit are acknowledged…and no aspects that are particularly critical or risky have been detected, at least so far.”

In this case, the diocesan bishop is encouraged to promote devotion and pilgrimages.

The DDF can also issue the conclusion, Prae oculis habeatur, “it should be kept in mind,” which is to be given in cases in which “positive signs are recognized,” as well as “some aspects of confusion or potential risks.”

A third possible ruling is Curatur, or “it is taken care of,” which, according to the norms, will be given when devotion to an alleged event has already spread widely, but “various or significant critical elements are noted.”

In this case, the norms say, “a ban that could upset the People of God is not recommended.” Still, the diocesan bishop is asked not to encourage the phenomenon and to promote alternative devotions instead.

A ruling of Sub mandato, “under command,” is to be given when the critical issues do not involve the alleged phenomenon, but the person or people involved “who are misusing it” either for profit, for immoral acts or for some other personal gain.

Diocesan bishops, in these cases or others delegated by the Holy See, will intervene directly, or if they are unable to, “will try to reach a reasonable agreement.”

The DDF can also issue the ruling Prohibetur et obstruatur, “it is forbidden and obstructed,” when there are serious concerns surrounding an alleged supernatural event. In this case, the bishop is asked to make a public declaration that devotion is not allowed and prepare a catechesis explaining why.

Finally, the DDF can issue a Declaratio de non supernaturalitate, “a declaration of non-supernaturalism,” when an event is found to be definitively “not supernatural.” For example, when an alleged visionary admits to having lied or “credible witnesses” provide proof of falsity.

In all cases, the norms reiterate that “as a rule, neither the Diocesan Bishop, nor the Episcopal Conferences, nor the Dicastery will declare that these phenomena are of supernatural origin, even if a Nihil obstat is granted.” However, the pope can authorize “a special procedure in this regard” if he chooses.

Fernández said in his preparatory note that while in the past there has been confusion surrounding alleged apparitions, including cases of back-and-forth approvals and disapprovals, this can be solved “by ensuring a quicker and clearer involvement of this Dicastery.”

It can also be avoided by no longer striving for a declaration of “supernaturalness,” which he said “carries high expectations, anxieties, and even pressures.”

The issuing of a Nihil obstat instead, he said, authorizes positive pastoral work while also downplaying expectations.

He also pointed to the use of new language in the norms, which state that the Holy Spirit can act “in the midst of” alleged supernatural events. This change in language, he said, “clarifies that even if the event itself is not declared to be of supernatural origin, there is still a recognition of the signs of the Holy Spirit’s supernatural action in the midst of what is occurring.”

In terms of procedures, when an alleged supernatural event occurs, it is the task of the diocesan bishop, according to the norms, to personally investigate himself or through a delegate in consultation with the national bishops’ conference and the DDF.

As part of his inquiry, the bishop must establish a commission with at least one theologian, one canonist, and one expert chosen based on the nature of the alleged phenomenon.

The bishop will also name a delegate to coordinate its work and a notary who will attend all meetings and interviews, take minutes, and assist with organization.

The norms say that members of the commission must be of “unquestionable reputation, sure faith, certain doctrine, and proven prudence” and must never have direct involvement with the people or events being evaluated.

If multiple dioceses are involved, an inter-diocesan commission will be established to review the alleged events in collaboration with the national bishops’ conference.

Any witnesses interviewed as part of the inquiry must be deposed in front of the entire commission, if possible, and they must be interviewed as soon as possible.

The commission must also carefully examine any relevant audio and visual materials, and any organic material—such as bread or wine in the case of an alleged Eucharistic miracle—must be sent to a lab while maintaining due reverence for the sacrament.

If the alleged supernatural events continue during the investigation, the diocesan bishop is asked to avoid any “uncontrolled or dubious displays of devotion.”

Once an inquiry is completed, the bishop must issue his vote, or opinion, on the report, and submit it to the DDF.

As the case is being evaluated, special attention must be given to the good reputation and ecclesial standing of any witnesses and any potential causes for concern, such as efforts to seek profit or personal gain.

“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 norms say.

Once the case arrives at the DDF, officials will evaluate it and respond with a ruling, which the bishop must communicate to the people.

If a Nihil obstat is granted, bishops are instructed to carefully evaluate the fruits and growth of devotion, ensuring “the faithful do not consider any of the determinations as an approval of the supernatural nature of the phenomenon itself.”

However, at any point, the alleged event can be traced to a scammer or someone who seeks profit or other personal interests. In that case, the diocesan bishop must apply “on a case-by-case basis, the relevant canonical penal norms in force.”

The new norms come into force amid several recent controversial cases of alleged apparitions, including the controversial Marian apparitions in Medjugorje; a suspected case of a Marian statue that cried blood in Trevignano Romano, Italy, that was eventually debunked as false, and an apparent apparition in Amsterdam in which Mary allegedly asked the pope to declare a new dogma assigning her the title, “Co-redemptrix.”