Monday, May 21, 2012

Determining an apparition's "worthiness" of belief

I wanted to elaborate on a point that I brought up (although not too eloquently) in class. I find the idea that the Church had standards by which all apparitions were to be judged to be puzzling, although at the same time (being skeptical myself) I understand where they are coming from. I think it’s an interesting dichotomy of their thought process, wherein utmost belief needs to be coupled with careful investigation. I can certainly sympathise with the latter, because it’s quite understandable that many people would want to take advantage of pulling wool over the Church’s eyes in search for fame, respect - in short, whatever may be gained from such a hoax. Such deceit can obviously not be tolerated by any religious institution, or indeed any well-meaning institution at all.
We discussed in class how the Church was very demanding of the apparitions; they had to fit a certain mould, and tick some checkboxes in order to be classified as a bona fide apparition. I looked this up online right after class today because I was curious to see what exactly these criteria were, and I’d like to share what I found on this website:

The positive criteria includes moral certainty (the certainty required to act morally in a situation of doubt) or at least great probability as to the existence of a private revelation at the end of a serious investigation into the case, with consideration of the following circumstances:

- an evaluation of the personal qualities of the person in question (mental balance, honesty, moral life, sincerity, obedience to Church authority, willingness to practice faith in the normal way, etc.)
- an evaluation of the content of the revelations themselves (that they do not disagree with faith and morals of the Church, freedom from theological errors)
- the revelation results in healthy devotion and spiritual fruits in people's lives (greater prayer, greater conversion of heart, works of charity that result, etc.)

The negative criteria include the following:
- glaring errors in regard to the facts
- doctrinal errors attributed to God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or to the Holy Spirit in how they appear - any pursuit of financial gain in relation to the alleged event
- gravely immoral acts committed by the person or those associated with the person at the time of the event
- psychological disorders or tendencies on the part of the person or persons associated.

(EWTN is a Roman Catholic-themed cable television network; they cite the “Norms of the Congregation for Proceeding in Judging Alleged Apparitions and Revelations”, issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees the Catholic Church doctrines.)

I think that, while the negative criteria are more defined and can be grounded in evidence (such as psychological disorders or doctrinal errors), it is much harder to fulfil the positive criteria in a decisive fashion. I am especially puzzled with the last sub-criteria: “The revelation results in healthy devotion and spiritual fruits in people’s lives”. How can you solely attribute the improvement in the devotion of a person to seeing an apparition of the Virgin? To play devil’s advocate here briefly, I would posit the idea that it is merely the thought or notion of having seen an apparition that might cause one to pray more sincerely and so on. Even with the assumption that the recognised apparitions were in fact truly apparitions, it would be hard (I think) to judge whether someone has been touched by an apparition or simply by a perceived apparition.
It’s also hard to gauge a lot of the attributes and qualities that comprise the positive criteria such as honesty, sincerity and moral life. Who can judge the “willingness to practice faith in the normal way” of the two children, Maximin and Mélanie, from the story of Our Lady of La Salette? Children are usually not considered to be fit to make decisions, and it’s hard to imagine that these two were special in any way. Regardless, they seemed to have ticked enough boxes for the Church to deem the apparition “worthy of belief”.
I would also like to touch briefly on the Church having such a clear-cut (or apparently clear-cut) way of determining whether or not an apparition is worthy of belief. The fact that Bernadette saw the apparition as a young girl is interesting, as we have mainly encountered the divinity of the Virgin in any context of her as a maternal figure, rather than her as a young girl who has yet to fulfil the prophecy of the virgin birth. It seems that perhaps the Virgin appears to different people in different forms. “But why?” one may ask, “Why does the Virgin appear in different forms? Shouldn’t there be some consistency?” To this, I think a good (if wishy-washy) answer is that the Virgin has never been one for crystal clarity - think about all the mystery surrounding her, like in certain passages in the Walter of Wimborne reading. I cannot explain her several different apparitions, but it certainly stays true to her inexplicability.
I think the Church is caught in an interesting catch-22 where they are criticised for not taking all apparitions to be true manifestations of the Virgin while they would be criticised as being superstitious and backwards for accepting all of them. While I can see why they would not accept every single “apparition” as being worthy of belief, I think that the criteria by which the Church judges worthiness is open to interpretation; hence investigation into an apparition may vary greatly depending on the conductor of the investigation. However in a situation where so much relies on faith, sincerity and devotion, it is unsurprising that it is these criteria that need to be fulfilled.

- AC


  1. Thank you for finding these guidelines! I think they're going to spark some interesting discussion/further reconsideration of what we talked about in class. What I find most intriguing is that the person must possess, pre-apparition, moral qualities like honesty and "willingness to practice faith in the normal way." Certainly, apparitions could (should?) appear to the faithful, but the ones that have always been most important seem to have been the ones that appeared to the unconverted or disbelievers. After all, would it have been as much of a miracle if Saul was already a follower of the resurrected Christ, or if Thomas didn't need to touch Jesus' wounds? I think this primacy of the need for faith a priori really underlines the "catch-22" you wrote of that problematizes the whole question of legitimization.

  2. AC, You make a very good point regarding the difference in "quality" (for lack of a better term) between the two different criteria. A question I would ask of the class, not just you, is what happens to those apparitions that don't meet enough of either criteria or any of the criteria? As you say, AC, we can very easily see when an apparition isn't of God. You also mention that it is difficult to tell when an apparition is of God because of the ambiguity of the positive criteria. But what happens when it neither contains immoral acts nor creates intense devotion to Mary?

    Blair also brings up a nice point about those who receive apparitions. Earlier in the course, we ran into those who were already deep in devotion as the ones receiving the apparitions. Now, we run into laymen who aren't deep in devotion (if at all) seeing Mary as well. a response question to that would be, is Mary changing? Or better yet, Why is she changing from clergy to laymen? Has she always appeared to laymen but we are only hearing (or reading as the case may be) now? Is she following the model that has been set before by Christ? Before Christ, only the priests saw the miraculous signs of God. During and after Christ, we see the common folk seeing those signs. What's going on?

  3. I second Blair's appreciation that you found those guidelines! Regarding your concern about recognizing the "spiritual fruits in people's lives," it seems clear that people find some apparitions more compelling than others. If people found all apparitions equally compelling then all apparitions would garner devotion on the scale of Guadelupe or Lourdes. The criterion of producing spiritual fruits is an indicator of the capacity of the apparition to produce compelling meaning for believers and bring them closer to God. It is true that if someone encounters Mary, the perception of the encounter alone could be enough to spur increased devotion by that person. However, firstly I want to point out that all apparitions are “perceived apparitions” in that Mary’s act of appearing to someone entails that person perceiving her. This might seem obvious or nitpicky but it is important to remember that all spiritual experience only ever exists through the filter of human perception. It seems unreasonable to me to question the "spiritual fruits" based on the fact of the apparition in human perception, since this will invariably be an issue in every case not only of Marian apparitions but in every spiritual experience that ever occurs. The role of perception in spiritual experience is important to discuss but we can’t reject spiritual encounters based on this unless we want to discount the idea that anybody ever has a genuine spiritual encounter of any kind (which maybe you do, but I don’t). Secondly, the criterion (at least as phrased in this document) refers to spiritual fruits not only in that person’s life but in “people’s” lives. The concern you raise seems to be somewhat mitigated if we are looking for the spiritual meaning the encounter produces for *other* people, since many people are inclined initially to disbelieve reports of apparitions.
    The question of whether or not a particular apparition is compelling to people also relates to something I wanted to bring up in class about why Mary appears differently at different times. You make a good point that this is a part of her mystery. I also think her different appearances function to provide people with the direction they need at particular times and places. For example, it is appropriate that Mary appears to Bernadette as a child when one of the important aspects of the content of this vision is the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Her appearance as a little girl corresponds to a part of her life story she wants to clarify and emphasizes her purity. If Mary always appeared the same, there would be less room for the content of her apparitions to change with the times & with people’s needs. One can understand the criterion of “healthy devotion and spiritual fruits” in relation to this, in that it makes sense that if Mary is going to appear to people, the apparition will probably be relevant to some problem or concern the people are having, or perhaps to something they have neglected to concern themselves with. An apparition that looks the same as all other apparitions and has similar content will not produce the same kind of results that an apparition with new content will.
    In response to Blair's comment, I don't think it's fair to go all the way back to the New Testament for the precedent of the apparitions "that have always been most important." I don't know a lot about the theology of this but it seems to me that the resurrected Christ is a completely unique case in the Christian tradition & it is not clear to me that that would constitute an apparition rather than represent its own separate category of phenomenon. In terms of Marian apparitions/visions, it seems that they appear to a variety of people depending on the context, some of whom are very pious (all of our nuns and monks etc.), some of whom are less overtly pious or outsiders.

  4. It is interesting to look at these criteria for Marian apparitions in comparison with the less modern examples of Marian apparitions we have read about. Specifically, I'm thinking of the story in the Cantigas of Alphonso X about the Jewish boy who receives communion from an apparition of the Virgin Mary (Cantiga 4). True, the boy seems interested in converting to Christianity, but he is still a Jew when he sees the apparition, which appears to violate the requirement that he practice Christianity in a normal way; also, the Virgin is portrayed as fulfilling the role of a priest, which goes against the official doctrine on Mary. Then again, one could argue that since these are modern guidelines, the doctrine may have changed since then and the idea of Mary as a priest might not have been as taboo then.
    It also struck me as strange that there would be this requirement that apparitions had to conform to accepted doctrine because it makes it sound like it's preventing the acceptance of any new revelations. In an extreme example, if Mary came to earth as an apparition with a message for the people that all the rules of Christianity were suddenly going to change, would this be automatically dismissed as a false apparition? Or by the facts of doctrine do they only mean 'historical' facts, like about Mary's birth, etc?

  5. AC:
    You write that you understand the church’s policy of examining apparitions because “many people would want to take advantage of pulling wool over the Church’s eyes in search for fame, respect - in short, whatever may be gained from such a hoax. Such deceit can obviously not be tolerated by any religious institution.” I agree. But there are less “cynical” aspects off all of this that are equally interesting, and to which the criteria you have gathered seem to point: sincerely believing but deceived or mistaken individuals (thus, e.g., “mental balance” as a criterion, as well as harmony between the revelations and established doctrines), or the possibility of “pious fraud” (which, in its earliest treatments is constituted by the subject’s complex shifting between genuine conviction and doubt about the reality of what they are experiencing).

    I think that your “catch-22” is absolutely in effect. “Approved” apparitions are in the extreme minority given the total claims for apparitions globally and throughout time (I have spoken with people who claim to have witnessed Marian apparitions), yet, as noted in class, even in official Vatican documents there seems to be a “preemptive” skepticism or at least rationality. In my view, the church’s efforts both to examine apparitions rigorously *and* also (or even in order) to claim a number of them as real and valid is a remarkable thing. To me it evinces not only devotion to the Virgin, but also integrity and sincerity of conviction.

    Concerning your “devil’s advocate” position expressed in “the idea that it is merely the thought or notion of having seen an apparition that might cause one to pray more sincerely and so on,” has there been an apparition that we have read about that did not include directives or instructions beyond the apparition itself?

  6. Good thinking to check for the criteria that the Church has used for judging an apparition's worthiness of belief. Alas, there is a catch-22 here, too: these are the criteria that were agreed upon in 1974; they were not formulated yet at the time that the bishops approved any of the apparitions that we discussed in class (La Salette, approved by Bishop Bruillard of Grenoble in 1851; Lourdes, approved by Bishop Laurence of Tarbes in 1862; and Fatima, approved by Bishop Correira da Silva of Leiria in 1930). So trying to evaluate these earlier visions on the basis of the current criteria is inevitably going to be circular: these are the visions that were used as the models for what an approved vision looks like. Which simply puts us back where we started: why did Bishops Bruillard, Laurence, and Correira da Silva consider these visions worthy of belief?


  7. The criteria you have listed it correct, but it is important to remember a few additional things surrounding them. Whether they are positive or negative, they are indicative standards and NOT final arguments. There are also other authorities entitled to intervene, with the first being the local Ordinary. The regional and national Episcopal Conference is also entitled to intervene if the local Ordinary resorts to them for a study of the event or if the event gains national or regional significance. The Apostolic See can also intervene at the request of the local Ordinary, a qualified group of the faithful, or even directly by the Pope. Also, each rule in the criteria is not by any means set in stone. For instance, the determination of whether or not "the revelation results in healthy devotion and spiritual fruits in people's lives" is obviously subjective to the situation and not the same for every evaluated apparition. As Professor Fulton Brown mentioned, however, this criteria was not formulated at the time of Bruillard, Laurence, and Correira da Silva. Thus I do not know what the criteria was at the time, but nonetheless, while the apparitions are approved, the Catholic Church does not require that its members believe in them because they are considered to be private revelations.


  8. I found the apparition criteria you posted very interesting, especially since I've never really questioned the validity of apparitions before. Attending Catholic grade and junior high school made me take everything in the Catholic religion as absolute Truth. I had heard the story of Mary of Guadalupe so many times, that I never thought it fabricated or absurd. I just took the story for what it was. The discussion in class and your post really made me think about how absurd it would have seemed for Don Juan to claim he saw the Virgin. Another aspect I never deliberated is how apparitions vary. Why does Mary appear different in almost every vision of herself she sends? Is it because each person has his own version of Mary inside their minds? Does Mary appear to us just as we would picture her? And how can anyone know then exactly what Mary looks like? It seems that her apparitions come more on individual terms than on wide-scale terms, which is something I never speculated before.