Friday, March 23, 2012

Dealing with Alleged Private Revelations: Some Tips (Part II)

(read Part I here)

Let’s dive right in, then, to Augustin Poulain’s (via Fr. Benedict Groeschel) operating instructions regarding alleged revelations.

Rule #1: Keep Perspective.

This is a good starting place when dealing with any form of private revelation: remember that as Catholics, our faith—our Church—never compels us to accept or embrace private revelations, ever.  Why?  Because:

a)      Revelation-with-a-capital-R is understood to be complete; the divine was fully visible in the person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  Sacred Scripture is also complete and although specific historical persons were chosen to write parts of it, we do not believe that the Holy Spirit works in that same way anymore.

b)      Private revelations do not add or change anything substantial to the deposit of faith and certainly not to doctrine.  They are for our encouragement (Lourdes) or perhaps they are meant to serve as a warning (Fatima). 

c)      Even in the case of approved revelations, the Church is merely saying, “This is probably authentic, most likely.  It is in harmony with all of the publicly revealed tradition of faith.” But it is never an absolute.

That third one was the most striking to me.  I’m not sure I ever heard it explained quite that way before, where a degree of uncertainty (even a very small one) is never ruled out.  In that sense, approved private revelations are never meant to instruct (in the same way that Sacred Scripture does) nor to replace aspects of public revelation. 

But don’t take it from me—why not listen to a pope!  Here is an excerpt from Fr. Groeschel’s book, quoting Benedict XIV, on the subject of the partially approved revelations of Saints Hildegaard, Bridget, and of Catherine of Sienna:
"What is to be said of those private revelations which the Apostolic See has approved of, those of the Blessed Hildegaard (which were approved in part by Eugene III), of St. Bridget [by Boniface IX], and of St. Catherine of Siena [by Gregory XI], and of St. Catherine of Siena [by Gregory XI]?  We have already said that those revelations, although approved of, ought not to, and cannot, receive from us any assent of Catholic, but only of human faith, according to the rules of prudence, according to which the aforesaid revelations are probable, and piously to be believed.”  (p.28)
Fr. Groeschel goes on to emphasize that distinction between faith as theological virtue and “human faith” that causes us to believe in what is real but unseen (love, or the merits of a democratic system, to borrow his examples).  He says: “When I am asked if I believe in a particular private revelation (even my favorite, Lourdes), I always reply that I believe in the Catholic Christian Faith and I think that Lourdes is a special gift of God to us all.” (pp. 28,29)

Rule #2: “No private revelation comes directly from God and therefore none can be assumed to be inerrantly true.

According to Fr. Groeschel, the simple reason we cannot consider any “message” to be directly from God, outside of Sacred Scripture, is that it has come through an intermediary whose own background, intellect, psychology—any number of forces—might have in some way negatively influenced the purity of the message.  For example, in the case of Lourdes, it is not that “Our Lady said” but that “St. Bernadette said our Lady said.”

Rule #3: "A private revelation by definition is personal and therefore must be carefully applied by those for whom it was meant and only within the limits of ordinary human prudence and never in an unreasonable way or against the teaching of the Church.  It must never be considered an infallible guide in any situation." 

Father Groeschel anticipates the objection: “But what about the papal encyclicals on the Sacred Heart?  A reading of any of these profound documents…will demonstrate that the popes as well as theologians do not derive their teaching from private revelations but from Sacred Scripture.  The several encyclicals over the centuries avoid all but the most circumspect mention of the revelations to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque in the seventeenth century.” (p.30)  It is not that Margaret Mary or her revelations were insignificant but that the love of God, as symbolized by the Sacred Heart, is infinitely more so.

Rule #4: “A person who is the recipient of an authentic revelation, even a canonized saint, may indeed make errors in understanding that revelation or in reporting experiences which are not authentic revelations.”

Several times within the book, he mentions the case of the unfulfilled prophecies reported by St. Catherine of Laboure.  Not all of what she predicted would occur did in fact take place.  When questioned, St. Catherine is reported to have said that she (herself) must have misunderstood.  In other words, she was certain of the source of the revelations, but not so certain that she had understood or reported them accurately.  This can and does happen, even to saints, and it is all the more reason we are not wrong to expect that a visionary would have a healthy degree of self-doubt and humility.  The absence of these qualities should be suspicious.  If it has not occurred to a visionary that they might be deceived in some way, they are being overly-confident.


All of this leads us right back to the very first operating rule—the one that states that private revelations should never be all-important in the spiritual life of a Catholic.  The Sacraments are essential, and so is Scripture reading.  Miracles and visions are not.  Nor are the claims of any living or deceased person, regardless how holy or sincere.  We’ve known that many holy people and even canonized saints who have made mistakes and a lot of them have even disagreed with each other and reported contradictory visions.  Sanctity then, refers, not to an error free life but rather a holy and virtuous life of persevering faith, and we already have everything we need to do that.


But what about the unapproved revelations?  The ones that are still under discernment and might fall anywhere from “probable” or “likely” to “suspect” and “fraudulent”?   Stay tuned for Part III. 

(Click here for Part III)

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