67 Throughout the ages, there have been so-called "private" revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.
Christian faith cannot accept "revelations" that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such "revelations".
Paragraph 67 is probably the first “directive” we have come across in our reflections upon the Catechism. Previous texts have laid out principles of the Faith, including last week’s teaching on the body of Revelation we are bound to uphold. Today’s text is a no-nonsense instruction which defines how para. 66 is to be enforced. There are no footnotes here, which suggests to me that the editors are addressing real time problems in the Church that call for clarification. To the best of my knowledge the Roman Catechism of 1570, by contrast, contains no such instruction.
There are a number of points to be made about this text, the first being the division of the teaching itself. I have reproduced the authoritative text as it appears in the original, the first paragraph in a smaller type than the second. The first paragraph is a historical and explanatory text describing “private revelations” with a deliberate “small r” in the word revelation, explaining the Church’s contemporary pastoral and doctrinal practice on such revelation. Regarding such private revelations, “some” have been recognized by the authority of the Church. To say that that the Church recognizes “some” private revelation is really to say that the Church recognizes the credibility of the subject of the vision and the message put forth, which must be synonymous with what Scripture and Church Tradition already teach. The religious experiences of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Teresa of Avila immediately come to mind, as both called for a reform of the Church and a return to its basic truths and practices. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The Church, obviously, would have no objection to the content of such revelations, as they repeat what St. Mark taught in his Gospel in the first century.
But what does constitute a private revelation? In my own terms, I would define para. 67’s discussion as involving a personal experience of God, the Virgin Mary, or a saint where the intent is proclamation to the wider Catholic community. The context of the Catechism here is God’s Revelation and its parameters, so the concern here is any visionary’s claim to be adding new information to the body of Christian faith. I would venture a guess that a large number of believers over two millennia have had corporal or spiritual encounters they ascribed to the presence of God in some way. I use the word “encounter” because the exact nature of a private revelation defies a scientific explanation, and descriptions of such revelations vary greatly. St. Francis of Assisi believed that a speaking crucifix delivered to him his life’s work. Joan of Arc testified that she heard the voices of three saints instructing her to take up arms for the French. Other mystics report intensive experiences of losing themselves or passing into states beyond sensory or literary description.
Our main concern here is a reported revelation claiming to carry important information for the Church. The Catechism is clear that no one’s experience can undo or add anything to the Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Tradition. It is the content of a private revelation and its claims upon the faithful today where bishops have a legitimate right of judging authenticity, in determining whether a “revealed message” in a private vision is consistent with the Apostolic Tradition. Perhaps the best contemporary example is the ongoing reported private revelations from the Virgin Mary to six individuals in Medjugorie, Bosnia-Herzegovina. These revelations began in 1981 and are continuing to this day. There is a home website maintained by believers in the revelation, and I have linked to a segment of the site where Mary’s reported instructions are posted verbatim, the most recent being this month.
Medjugorie, as many of you may know, has become an international site of devotion for many. You may also know that there has been a long running contention between the local Franciscan friars of the site and the regional conference of bishops and the Vatican involved in examining claims of authenticity. I reviewed periodic samplings of the text, and I did not see any major claims of new information—though Mary’s mention of six secrets of the future does seem to run counter to Christ’s teaching that only the Father knows the timing of the end days. But the Church’s rush to caution, so to speak, is well justified. I can single out several reasons, which would be applicable in any similar circumstance now and in the future.
My primary concern would be priorities. The three decades of Medjugorie revelations have coincided with the papacies of three remarkable men—Benedict, Francis, and of course St. Pope John Paul II in his writing and teaching prime. Each pontiff has written and taught the Church in his official capacity as successor of Peter in communion with all the world’s bishops. In addition, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued in 1993 under Pope John Paul. When one considers the richness of the last three decades in terms of the ordinary teaching power of the Church, or its Magisterium, one must ask why there is a need for an independent track of teaching from Eastern Europe when Jesus has commissioned the apostles and their consecrated successors, the bishops, who enjoy the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as first teachers and catechists of the Church and exercise this teaching authority magnificently in our own time?
There are other concerns about the content of this private revelation as the six individuals have reported it. The personality of Mary in the reported visions does not resonate with the Mary of the New Testament. There is estrangement from the life of the Church in that there is little connectedness to the Church’s liturgical cycle, and Mary’s reported messages include little recourse to the Scriptures and the ordinary teaching of the Church. As a catechist, one might ask whether the faithful are enriched or distracted from their Baptismal call through preoccupation with this local devotion. Reportedly some kind of decision about Medjugorie’s canonical status awaits the attention of Pope Francis; my guess is that he will pass over the matter in silence as his predecessors did, allowing the good sense of the faithful or the sensus fidelium to gently resolve the matter.
The second paragraph is stronger in its condemnation, and it does not seem directed toward the faithful who engage in the devotions of Medjugorie, who at the very worst can only be critiqued for faulty emphases. Rather, the text itself may be directed toward contemporary advocates of “liberation theology,” which attempts to redefine the mission of Christ as liberator from economic and social oppression. Liberation theology is based upon a scholarly reading of Scripture, however, and not from a unique vision or claim of separate revelation. Or it may be directed toward Islam, which has incorporated both Hebrew and Christian Scripture into the Koran toward a resolution far removed from Christian Tradition. Islamic faith is rooted in the unique visions or ecstasies of Mohammed. Again, it is hard to say precisely who is targeted in the text of para. 67; one would need to do considerable research into the archives of the Vatican committees to unpack the full meaning.
What can be safely assumed here is the desire of the Church to challenge all its members to remain focused upon the authentic teaching handed down to us from Christ through the agency of the Apostles and their successors, under the lasting presence of the Holy Spirit. Last week I mentioned that it is the mission of Catholic theologians to continue to unveil better understandings of this Tradition. Along the same lines, there is a mission too of select holy people to give witness to divine reinforcement of fidelity to this Apostolic Tradition. While we can never know the precise nature of these moments of enlightenment, the Church is fully empowered to assess the content for its fidelity and usefulness to the salvation of us all.
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