As Supernatural Claims Spread Online, Vatican Updates Its Rules on Them

The Roman Catholic Church has long been vigilant when it comes to supernatural apparitions like professed sightings of the Virgin Mary, weeping Madonnas or bleeding crucifixes. Over the centuries, it has endorsed only a small percentage of the thousands that have been claimed, in an effort to protect the faithful from charlatans, doctrinal errors or attempts to profit.

Yet the age of social media has accelerated the spread of unverified claims, leaving the Vatican fearful that such phenomena can easily spin out of hand and out of its control.

So on Friday, the Vatican unveiled new guidelines for evaluating visions of the Virgin Mary and other supernatural faith-based phenomena in a document that offers detailed instructions to bishops, who have been responsible for evaluating the nature of reported claims.

“The Church needs clear procedures,” states the document, whose guidelines were approved by Pope Francis this month, adding that the intention is not to deny all new claims that emerge.

“The norms for proceeding in the discernment of alleged supernatural phenomena that we now present here are not intended to control or (even less) stifle the Spirit,” the document says.

Given that apparitions or other sightings are private experiences for individuals, the church does not require the faithful to accept the authenticity of such events. But some of those that the Vatican has endorsed, like the 19th-century apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France, and those in early-20th-century Fátima, Portugal, have become hugely popular — and lucrative — pilgrimage destinations and focuses of faith.

The claims are not just from ages past. Last March, a local bishop shut down the claims of a self-proclaimed visionary who claimed to receive regular messages from the Virgin Mary.

Known as the “Madonna of Trevignano,” for nearly nine years hundreds of pilgrims gathered on the 3rd of each month on a hill above a lake near Rome to pray to a statue of the Virgin Mary, and hear her messages. A commission of theologians, psychologists and canonists delivered their conclusion this month, determining that it did not have a supernatural dimension.

The norms issued on Friday replace rules that were written in 1978 and made public in 2011. The new guidelines offer six possible “prudential conclusions” for church leaders investigating events of alleged supernatural origin, ranging from outright rejection to more nuanced reasonings. The Dicastery of Congregation of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, will also weigh in on each case.

Most significant, the church will no longer issue declarations that accepted the supernatural origin of a phenomenon.

Instead, “after assessing the various spiritual and pastoral fruits of the event and finding no substantial negative elements in it,” the church can issue a citation that essentially says nothing should stand in the way of allowing “the bishop to draw pastoral benefit from the spiritual phenomenon,” even promoting its spread.

The document does not cite any specific cases that might have prompted the review, beyond acknowledging that the 1978 norms “are no longer adequate.”

Giuseppe Ferrari, the secretary of an association in Bologna, Italy, that monitors socio-religious phenomena, said that cases of reported apparitions “increase constantly — some finish, some begin.” Social media is one factor in why such phenomena spread so widely, but many people also, he said, experience fragility and the need for “certainty in the afterlife.”

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