A Question About Private Revelation

A reader writes:

I was finally received into the Church a month ago after several years of investigating and fence-sitting.  I read a ton, I love the sacraments, and it has been tremendous.  But every now and then something happens that resurrects all my doubts and makes things seem off again.

The problem is this: I have two Catholic friends who are absolutely overjoyed to have me and think I am the ultimate weapon against their Protestant friends (I have a more “Louis Bouyer” attitude towards my prior spiritual homes).  They’ve latched onto me and feel they need to initiate me into all the “Catholic things.”  One in particular has been passionately assailing me with a nonstop barrage of conversations about Eucharistic miracles, Marian apparitions, Padre Pio, holy cards, Shroud of Turin, Medjugorje, miraculous medals, special prayers to particular saints that have supposedly been proven to be effective, etc., etc.  These things all clearly form an integral part (if not the primary substance) of his faith and he is very eager for me to read and talk about them.  It seems to me sometimes that they are less concerned with the real problems of sin, confession and penance, grace, etc. than the latest Catholic miracle.

The problem is that these are hurting, not helping my faith.  It seems like whenever I investigate things he tells me about, all I can see is hoax, fraud, and unsubstantiated rumor.  I don’t know how to explain to him that what he sends me is just not very convincing and actually makes me more skeptical.  I was raised in a very Charismatic Protestant background and developed a strong distaste for anything that smacks of turning faith into superstition, stories of supernatural events, and the profitable popularity of those around whom such stories revolve.  I was drawn to the steady and quiet piety of many Catholics I knew - who weren’t blown by the wind of every new fad, but kept their lives grounded in the mass.

Now that I am a Catholic, how many of these things am I really obligated to believe in?  Obviously some are speculative or even condemned by the Church (medjugorje…), but some seem to be tightly wound up with Church practice and teaching.  I just heard a priest preach a homily on wearing the Miraculous Medal.  Try as I might to read explanations and justifications, I still can’t see the Miraculous Medal-wearing thing as anything other than dangerous superstition and corruption of the Gospel. How do I respond to my friends?  And how do I learn to appreciate those Catholics whose piety revolves around concerns whose value I just can’t see?

Dear reader:

First off, welcome!  May you find in the Church a spiritual home and a place to grow in grace!  May God guide you by the Holy Spirit and hook you up with some sound spiritual guidance from mature folk who can help you pass through the storms and squalls of doubt that are a normal part of the Catholic life.

As to your friends, they no doubt mean well, but I suspect you are right to resist their eagerness.  Of course, they hope to evangelize, but it can often turn out that gung ho Catholics (particularly the young single males who tend to comprise the cadre of zealous apologetic subculture folks) can forget about persons in their zeal to win arguments.  I write about this subculture here. It’s well-meaning and can do real good.  But it can also do real damage if it forgets you are a human being and starts treating you like a scalp or a notch in the belt.  If you are feeling ambivalent (“I should be willing to help witness and I must be a bad and selfish person for not playing ball with my friends.  But I feel uncomfortable too.”), ask yourself this:  Are your friends treating you like a human being who is the only thing in creation God has willed for your own sake?  Or are they treating you like a means to an end?  If the latter, tell them so.  It does not matter one iota what that end is.  No human being should be treated like a means to some greater end.  There is no greater end than the glory of a human being fully alive in Christ.  When they stop treating you as a friend and a fellow human being and start seeing you as a resource to be exploited for some other end, they are making a mistake that is damaging to you and them.

Regarding private revelation, the good news is that the Church binds you to none of it.  You can use that as a shield against the pressure and expectation some Catholics (not all or even most, thank God) try to put on you to sign off on their particular fave rave private revelation.  The great thing about the Church is that it’s full of all kinds and is, well, catholic.  If some private revelation does not help you, feel free to drop it.  Don’t own the pressure friends may put on you, but also don’t feel like you have to fight back.  Practice a certain detachment, nodding your head politely as you might if you were a tourist in a foreign country when one of the locals regales you with the legend of a local saint.

That’s not, by the way, to say that all claims of private revelation are fictional, mythic, or otherwise untrue.  For example, I think that a dispassionate look at the evidence for, say, the apparations at Fatima reveals a very solid factual case to be made that Mary did, in fact, appear there.  I contrarily think a dispassionate look at the evidence (or rather lack of evidence, not to mention counter-evidence) against the claim of Medugorje make it highly unlikely Our Lady appeared there.  But even with well-established cases like Fatima or Lourdes, the Church *still* doesn’t bind our conscience.  If it helps your devotion to Christ, then great.  If not, or if it gives you trouble, just stick with the public revelation and it will be fine.

As to what you should do about your friend’s enthusiasm, I think Paul’s counsel in Romans 14 is the soundest.  The Catholic summary of that counsel is “In essential things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.  If some private revelation helps your brother stay close to Christ thank God for it.  Doesn’t mean you have to feel something about that devotion.  If something seems dubious, find out if it is, in fact, dubious or if it merely feels that way because of your personal psychological history.  As a general rule, if the Church approves a private revelation, that’s good reason to suppose there’s something in it, but even then you have to remember that you are not looking at the same thing as doctrinal development or public revelation.  So, for instance, St. Catherine of Siena gives us spiritually fruitful insights in her Dialogues with God the Father—but she also delivers herself of the opinion that God the Father personally told her that Mary was not immaculately conceived.  Sorry, Kate, but that was just your Dominican team spirit siding with St. Thomas, who was as wrong as you were.  That doesn’t mean Catherine’s mysticism is worthless.  It means that Catherine was human and private revelation requires discernment subject to the Church.

You are right to be wary of miracle chasing.  God does, in fact, still do wonders in our time, of course.  But there is, as you rightly intuit, something unhealthy in the mentality that is constantly looking for signs and wonders or (worse) substituting the latest visionary or folk hero for the teaching of the Church.  Avoid that like poison.  But at the same time, have pity on those who are trapped in that addiction to the latest vision, or prophetic fad.  Such folk are found in the Catholic communion just as in Protestantism (since the Church is “Here comes everybody”).  And though I’ve never met one who believes Mary is another God, I’ve met plenty who think she is another Pope.  You are under no obligation to comply.  Instead, pray for such folk that they gain a more mature faith.  The need for signs and wonders is a mark of a weak faith.  Weak faith needs to be strengthened, not shunned, feared, or ridiculed.

Finally, with respect to common devotions like the Miraculous Medal, such things take time to process for Protestant converts like us.  We have our antennae out for magical fetishes and good luck charms, and forget that what is at work here is, of course, sacramentality, not magic.  The Miraculous Medal is, in a minor key, what the sacraments are in major keys: grace mediated to us through some physical token.  It’s no more superstitious than a wedding ring.  Rather, like a wedding ring, it’s a sign of one’s love for our Lady and of her love for you.

Hope that helps!