BREAKING: New norms give Vatican greater say on alleged apparitions

BREAKING: New norms give Vatican greater say on alleged apparitions

Breaking News / CNA

Rome Newsroom, May 17, 2024 / 05:33 am (CNA).

The Vatican’s top doctrinal office is centralizing its authority over the investigation of alleged Marian apparitions and other religious phenomena under new norms it issued Friday, a break from past protocols that gave local bishops greater autonomy in discerning such cases.

While emphasizing that “discernment in this area remains the task of the Diocesan Bishop,” the new guidelines state that the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith “must always be consulted and give final approval to what the Bishop decides before he announces a determination on an event of alleged supernatural origin.”

The document spelling out the new procedures, titled “Norms For Proceeding In the Discernment of Alleged Supernatural Phenomena,” explains that the doctrinal office previously played a role in the evaluation process, but generally did so behind the scenes.

“While previously the Dicastery had intervened but the Bishop was asked not to mention it, today, the Dicastery openly manifests its involvement and accompanies the Bishop in reaching a final determination,” the document states. “Now, when the Bishop makes his decision public, it will be stated as ‘in agreement with the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.’”

The DDF’s prefect, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, who signed the document, held a press briefing for journalists at the Vatican Friday at noon local time.

The new norms take effect on Pentecost Sunday, May 19, abrogating the previous norms established under Pope Paul VI in 1978.

Centralizing control

In the document’s introduction, Fernández observes that under the older norms, “decisions took an excessively long time, sometimes spanning several decades,” delaying “the necessary ecclesiastical discernment.”

Fernández also highlights that in the past there was greater deference to the local bishop in ascertaining the validity of alleged supernatural events, stating that “some Bishops insisted on being able to make a positive declaration of this type.”

“Even recently, some Bishops have wanted to make statements such as, ‘I confirm the absolute truth of the facts’ and ‘the faithful must undoubtedly consider as true …’”

“These expressions,” Fernández states, “effectively oriented the faithful to think they had to believe in these phenomena, which sometimes were valued more than the Gospel itself.”

Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, speaks during a press conference about a new Vatican document on human dignity on April 8, 2024. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

Responding to the “development of modern means of communication,” and “the increase in pilgrimages,” the document notes that these alleged events assume a global character “meaning that a decision made in one Diocese has consequences also elsewhere.” The DDF’s document makes no mention of any specific cases.

The document also emphasized that there have been cases of alleged supernatural events which have been “detrimental to the faithful,” adding that the Church “must respond with utmost pastoral solicitude.”

Some of the issues Fernández outlines included “the possibility of doctrinal errors,” “an oversimplification of the Gospel message” and “the spread of a sectarian mentality.”

Restrictions on pronouncements

The new guidelines note that during the discernment process “the Diocesan Bishop is to refrain from making any public statement in favor of the authenticity or supernatural nature of such phenomena and from having any personal connection with them.”

The document continues: “If forms of devotion emerge in connection with the alleged supernatural event, even without true and proper veneration, the Diocesan Bishop has the serious obligation of initiating a comprehensive canonical investigation as soon as possible to safeguard the Faith and prevent abuses.”

In those cases, the bishop must establish an investigatory commission to include at least one theologian, one canonist, and “one expert chosen based on the nature of the phenomenon.”

The document also stipulates that an interdiocesan commission must be created to evaluate cases that involve “the competence of multiple Diocesan Bishops.”

The new norms emphasize that should “alleged supernatural events continue” during the  investigatory process and “the situation suggests prudential measures,” then it is incumbent upon the bishop to “enforce those acts of good governance to avoid uncontrolled or dubious displays of devotion, or the beginning of a veneration based on elements that are as of yet undefined.”

Weighing positives and negatives

During the evaluation phase, the commission is to look at both the “positive” and “negative” criteria of the alleged apparition, the DDF’s new norms state.

The document identifies four positive criteria:

“The credibility and good reputation of the persons who claim to be recipients of supernatural events or to be directly involved in them, as well as the reputation of the witnesses who have been heard.”

“The doctrinal orthodoxy of the phenomenon and any messages related to it.”

“The unpredictable nature of the phenomenon, by which it is evident that it is not the result of the initiative of the people involved.”

“The fruits of the Christian life, including a spirit of prayer, conversions, vocations to the priesthood and religious life, acts of charity, as well as sound devotion and abundant and constant spiritual fruits.”

The new norms also set forth six negative criteria to be considered:

“The possibility of a manifest error about the event.”

“Potential doctrinal errors.”

“A sectarian spirit that breeds division in the Church.”

“An overt pursuit of profit, power, fame, social recognition, or other personal interest closely linked to the event.”

“Gravely immoral actions committed by the subject or the subject’s followers at or around the time of the event.”

“Psychological alterations or psychopathic tendencies in the person that may have exerted an influence on the alleged supernatural event.”

At the end of the evaluation process, the bishop and a delegate he appoints to oversee the commission’s work are to prepare a “personal Votum” in which the bishop proposes to the dicastery a final judgment. That decision will normally follow one of six formulas:

Nihil obstat: “Without expressing any certainty about the supernatural authenticity of the phenomenon itself, many signs of the action of the Holy Spirit are acknowledged ‘in the midst’ of a given spiritual experience, and no aspects that are particularly critical or risky have been detected, at least so far,” the document states.

Prae oculis habeatur: “Although important positive signs are recognized, some aspects of confusion or potential risks are also perceived that require the Diocesan Bishop to engage in a careful discernment and dialogue with the recipients of a given spiritual experience.”

Curatur: “Although important positive signs are recognized, some aspects of confusion or potential risks are also perceived that require the Diocesan Bishop to engage in a careful discernment and dialogue with the recipients of a given spiritual experience.”

Sub mandato: “In this category, the critical issues are not connected to the phenomenon itself, which is rich in positive elements, but to a person, a family, or a group of people who are misusing it.”

Prohibetur et obstruatur: “While there are legitimate requests and some positive elements, the critical issues and risks associated with this phenomenon appear to be very serious.”

Declaratio de non supernaturalitate: “In this situation, the Dicastery authorizes the Diocesan Bishop to declare that the phenomenon is found to be not supernatural,” the document states.

Next steps

Following the DDF’s final decision, the diocesan bishop, unless directed otherwise by the dicastery, “will inform the national Episcopal Conference of the determination approved by the Dicastery” and “will clearly make known to the People of God the judgment on the events in question.”

The document notes that a Nihil obstat “allows the pastors of the Church to act confidently and promptly to stand among the People of God in welcoming the Holy Spirit’s gifts that may emerge ‘in the midst of’ these events.”

The document explains that the phrase “in the midst of” denotes 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.”

But the norms stress that in cases where a Nihil obstat is granted, “such phenomena do not become objects of faith, which means the faithful are not obliged to give an assent of faith to them.”

As in the case of charisms recognized by the Church, the document states, “they are ‘ways to deepen one’s knowledge of Christ and to give oneself more generously to him, while rooting oneself more and more deeply in communion with the entire Christian people.’”

This is a developing story.

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