THE CHURCH'S POSITION ON MARIAN APPARITIONS
In the Vatican II document “Lumen Gentium,” paragraph 12, we read:
"These charisms, whether they be the more outstanding or the more simple and widely diffused, are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation for they are perfectly suited to and useful for the needs of the Church. [...] but judgment as to their genuinity and proper use belongs to those who are appointed leaders in the Church, to whose special competence it belongs, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to that which is good. (cf. 1 Tes 5, 19-21)"
Pope Paul VI, on Feburary 24th, 1978, approved norms established by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on how to proceed in the discernment of supposed apparitions and Marian revelations.
Supernatural phenomena present difficult situations in the life and mission of the Church, as was noted by the pastoral solicitude of the Bishops from the XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October, 2008. This same concern was expressed by the Holy Father Benedict XVI in an important passage of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, placing it within the context of the plan of salvation.
The Congregation considered it convenient to publish the afore-mentioned norms, including a translation into various important languages.
SACRED CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH NORMS REGARDING THE MANNER OF PROCEEDING IN THE DISCERNMENT OF PRESUMED APPARITIONS OR REVELATIONS
Origin and character of these norms
During the annual Plenary Session in November 1974, the Fathers of this Sacred Congregation examined the problems relative to presumed apparitions and to the revelations often connected with them and reached the following conclusions:
1. Today, more than in the past, news of these apparitions is diffused rapidly among the faithful thanks to the means of information (mass media). Moreover, the ease of going from one place to another fosters frequent pilgrimages, so that Ecclesiastical Authority should discern quickly about the merits of such matters.
2. On the other hand, modern mentality and the requirements of critical scientific investigation render it more difficult, if not almost impossible, to achieve with the required speed the judgments that in the past concluded the investigation of such matters (constat de supernaturalitate, non constat de supernaturalitate) and that offered to the Ordinaries the possibility of authorizing or prohibiting public cult or other forms of devotion among the faithful.
For these reasons, in order that the devotion stirred among the faithful as a result of facts of this sort might manifest itself in full communion with the Church, and bear fruits by which the Church herself might later discern the true nature of the facts, the Fathers judged that in this matter the following procedure should be promoted.
When Ecclesiastical Authority is informed of a presumed apparition or revelation, it will be its responsibility:
a) first, to judge the fact according to positive and negative criteria (cf. infra, no. I);
b) then, if this examination results in a favorable conclusion, to permit some public manifestation of cult or of devotion, overseeing this with great prudence (equivalent to the formula, “for now, nothing stands in the way”) (pro nunc nihil obstare).
c) finally, in light of time passed and of experience, with special regard to the fecundity of spiritual fruit generated from this new devotion, to express a judgment regarding the authenticity and supernatural character if the case so merits.
I. CRITERIA FOR JUDGING, AT LEAST WITH PROBABILITY,
OF THE PRESUMED APPARITIONS OR REVELATIONS
A) Positive Criteria:
a) Moral certitude, or at least great probability of the existence of the fact, acquired by means of a serious investigation;
b) Particular circumstances relative to the existence and to the nature of the fact, that is to say:
1. Personal qualities of the subject or of the subjects (in particular, psychological equilibrium, honesty and rectitude of moral life, sincerity and habitual docility towards Ecclesiastical Authority, the capacity to return to a normal regimen of a life of faith, etc.);
2. As regards revelation: true theological and spiritual doctrine and immune from error;
3. Healthy devotion and abundant and constant spiritual fruit (for example, spirit of prayer, conversion, testimonies of charity, etc.).
B) Negative Criteria:
a) Manifest error concerning the fact.
b) Doctrinal errors attributed to God himself, or to the Blessed Virgin Mary, or to some saint in their manifestations, taking into account however the possibility that the subject might have added, even unconsciously, purely human elements or some error of the natural order to an authentic supernatural revelation (cf. Saint Ignatius, Exercises, no. 336).
c) Evidence of a search for profit or gain strictly connected to the fact.
d) Gravely immoral acts committed by the subject or his or her followers when the fact occurred or in connection with it.
e) Psychological disorder or psychopathic tendencies in the subject, that with certainty influenced on the presumed supernatural fact, or psychosis, collective hysteria or other things of this kind.
It is to be noted that these criteria, be they positive or negative, are not peremptory but rather indicative, and they should be applied cumulatively or with some mutual convergence.
OF THE COMPETENT ECCLESIASTICAL AUTHORITY
1. If, on the occasion of a presumed supernatural fact, there arises in a spontaneous way among the faithful a certain cult or some devotion, the competent Ecclesiastical Authority has the serious duty of looking into it without delay and of diligently watching over it.
2. If the faithful request it legitimately (that is, in communion with the Pastors, and not prompted by a sectarian spirit), the competent Ecclesiastical Authority can intervene to permit or promote some form of cult or devotion, if, after the application of the above criteria, nothing stands in the way. They must be careful that the faithful not interpret this practice as approval of the supernatural nature of the fact on the part of the Church (cf. Preliminary note c).
3. By reason of its doctrinal and pastoral task, the competent Authority can intervene motu proprio and indeed must do so in grave circumstances, for example in order to correct or prevent abuses in the exercise of cult and devotion, to condemn erroneous doctrine, to avoid the dangers of a false or unseemly mysticism, etc.
4. In doubtful cases that clearly do not put the good of the Church at risk, the competent Ecclesiastical Authority is to refrain from any judgment and from any direct action (because it can also happen that, after a certain period of time, the presumed supernatural fact falls into oblivion); it must not however cease from being vigilant by intervening if necessary, with promptness and prudence.
III. AUTHORITIES COMPETENT TO INTERVENE
1. Above all, the duty of vigilance and intervention falls to the Ordinary of the place.
2. The regional or national Conference of Bishops can intervene:
a) If the Ordinary of the place, having done his part, turns to it to judge the matter with greater certainty;
b) If the matter pertains to the national or regional level; always, however, with the prior consent of the Ordinary of the place.
3. The Apostolic See can intervene if asked either by the Ordinary himself, by a qualified group of the faithful, or even directly by reason of the universal jurisdiction of the Supreme Pontiff (cf. infra, no. IV).
IV. ON THE INTERVENTION
OF THE SACRED CONGREGATION
FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH
1. a) The intervention of the Sacred Congregation can be requested either by the Ordinary, after he has done his part, or by a qualified group of the faithful. In this second case, care must be taken that recourse to the Sacred Congregation not be motivated by suspect reasons (for example, in order to compel the Ordinary to modify his own legitimate decisions, to support some sectarian group, etc.).
b) It is up to the Sacred Congregation to intervene motu proprio in graver cases, especially if the matter affects the larger part of the Church, always after having consulted the Ordinary and even, if the situation requires, the Conference of Bishops.
2. It is up to the Sacred Congregation to judge and approve the Ordinary’s way of proceeding or, in so far as it be possible and fitting, to initiate a new examination of the matter, distinct from that undertaken by the Ordinary and carried out either by the Sacred Congregation itself or by a special Commission.
The Present Norms, deliberated in the Plenary Session of this Sacred Congregation, were approved by the Supreme Pontiff, Paul VI on 24 February 1978.
In Rome, from the palace of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 25 February 1978.
Francis Cardinal Šeper
Jérôme Hamer, O.P.
Fundamentally, the procedure by which an apparition may be approved is fairly simple and generally follows these steps:
1. The parish priest is informed of a private apparition/revelation.
2. The parish priest does a preliminary investigation and decides whether or not to bring the matter to the attention of the local Ordinary, that is, the bishop, with sufficient evidence to guarantee the bishop’s attention.
3. The bishop decides, based on the given evidence, if the event merits further investigation.
4. The bishop forms a commission for investigation.
5. If he considers the results of the commission valid, then:
a. If the apparition/revelation no longer occurs, then the bishop approves it, declaring it “worthy of faith” and presents the documentation to the Vatican.
b. The Vatican designs a commission to revise the bishop’s report before the event is labeled “worthy of belief.”
6. If the apparition/revelation has not ended o the event is one of great magnitude (in Garabandal, for example, with 1800 apparitions), the bishop may leave the case “open” to receive new information, which means it is a temporal approval, pending the completion of his study.
7. If the results of the commission indicate an event which is not supernatural, or is supernatural but of demonic origin, then the bishop will issue a document to officially reject the event and to encourage the faithful and clergy to avoid it.
From this, it follows that it is technically impossible for the Church to give a final approval of the events of Garabandal (as for example is the case in Medjugorje) because there are prophesies which have not been fulfilled, but which could be (which would put the process at step 6).
The criteria for the approval of a Marian apparition are:
1. APPROVAL OF THE EXPRESSION OF FAITH: the local bishop fosters, or at least tolerates, the diverse manifestations of faith (mass, prayer, devotion, confessions, conversions), which are produced in relation to the supposed apparition.
1.1 When it is “explicitly” approved CONSTAT DE SUPERNATURALITATE, the apparition and its approved messages have the assurance of not going against theological, doctrinal or biblical criteria. The faithful are not personally obliged to approve them, but they are obliged to not publicly declare them invalid if the authorities have officially declared them valid. (Fatima, Lourdes)
2. NEGATIVE DECISION: the decisions of this nature include both:
2.1 NO CONSTAT DE SUPERNATURALITATE: can be a negative decision of provisional character, pending new results or the re-opening of the case. It is a “no” open to a possible “yes.”
2.2 CONSTAT DE NO SUPERNATURALITATE: this decision is a “no” of a final and definitive character. It is a “no” of “never.”
Therefore, the first representative of the Church who has to examine the matter is the local bishop, in this case, of Santander. He has the responsibility to study the case and issue a judgment on the apparitions. Normally, the judgment of the bishop, that is his confirmation or rejection, resolves the issue. This was the case in Lourdes and in Fatima. But it does not always happen this way. On the occasion of the closure of the Jubilee in Fatima, in October 1942, the Patriarch of Lisboa, Cardenal Cerejeira, referring to the approval of the apparitions in Fatima given by the bishop of Leiria-Fatima in October, 1930, observed: “The approval is not irrefutable; the Holy See can confirm or annul it.”
The local bishop acts as judge in the first instance. But there is a higher ecclesial authority, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly called the Holy Office, which acts as a Court of Appeals. This is an administrative organism that represents the Pope in matters of faith and morals. However, not even it has the last say; this is reserved for the Pope, the supreme judge.
In the case of the apparitions of Garabandal, the Congregation could intervene and take the responsibility for investigating the apparitions; in this case, it would be out of the bishop of Santander’s hands. However, the Congregation has persistently refused this possibility of stepping outside of the normal process, arguing that no important event had occurred in recent times and, therefore, the Congregation had no reason to intervene. It concluded by leaving the matter in the hands of the bishop, including the issuance of guidelines, and praising him for the zeal that he had manifested in this subject. It can be inferred that when the announced Warning or the Miracle occur, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith could change its decision.
So, at least for the moment, the Congregation will be content with what it has frequently done in the past: to accept the status quo and wait for results. A long history of experience in matters of this nature has taught it that when something comes from God, in the end it overcomes any opposition. In other words, the Congregation has chosen the only practical option it has, to leave the preliminary judgments in the hands of the local bishops until it can be sure to count on sufficient and effective representatives in order to personally take responsibility.