4 Features of the Vatican’s New Documents on Apparitions

COMMENTARY: The new norms make no mention of Medjugorje, but it would be fair speculation to think that they were designed to make reaching a conclusion about Medjugorje easier.

Pilgrims visit the statue of the Virgin Mary at one of the sites of alleged Marian apparitions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Pilgrims visit the statue of the Virgin Mary at one of the sites of alleged Marian apparitions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty )

Apparitions and extraordinary spiritual phenomena are not necessary for salvation, but they can be spiritually fruitful. A new document from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) attempts to guide bishops in preserving the spiritual fruit while not having to take a position on the supernatural integrity of the phenomena itself.

The document, entitled “Norms for Proceeding in the Discernment of Alleged Supernatural Phenomena,” replaces the procedures put in place by Pope St. Paul VI in 1978. The new norms and their introduction by Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the DDF, make no mention of Medjugorje; however, it seems likely that the claimed apparitions there — which began soon after the 1978 norms, in 1981 — influenced the 2024 document. Medjugorje was addressed in the press conference presenting the document.

Declining to Determine Authenticity

The new norms stress that extraordinary spiritual phenomena are a sign of the Holy Spirit at work today and emphasize the role of the “faithful people of God.” Most apparitions in history have been to the lowly and marginal. Such phenomena show that the Holy Spirit is still active and blows wherever he wishes.

Discernment is needed by the local bishop to determine if the phenomenon is authentic, or the result of confusion, illness or fraud. The new norms regulate how the local bishop(s) are to go about that, in consultation with their national episcopal conference and with Rome.

The most significant change is that the new norms don’t require the local bishop to decide authenticity.

Previously, the 1978 norms required a bishop to make a judgment on the alleged miracle or apparition. He could render three judgments: confirmed to be of supernatural origin; not confirmed to be of supernatural origin; or confirmed to not be of supernatural origin.

The focus was on the miracle or apparition itself. Was it real? Various factors were taken into account, in particular the content of any messages and the character and conduct of the witnesses. But the focus remained: Was this real, authentic, true?

The new norms set that question aside and give six alternative judgments. At the highest level of “approval,” the local bishop can issue a nihil obstat (no objection), which permits, even encourages, the evident good fruit he observes. Critically, he does not have to pronounce on the supernatural authenticity of the event.

Learning From the Medjugorje Experience

The Medjugorje apparitions are relevant here. The Church has largely supported the good spiritual fruits there without endorsing that the Blessed Mother had been speaking there since 1981. The older norms required a decision on supernatural authenticity; the new norms do not.

In response to questions about Medjugorje, Cardinal Fernández said that it “would be easier to reach a conclusion” under the new norms, which allow for a wider range of judgments to be made. It would be fair speculation to think that the new norms were designed precisely to make reaching a conclusion about Medjugorje easier.

The six options in the new norms are as follows. One can see how, over the last few decades, Medjugorje would have fallen into various of the new categories:

Nihil Obstat: Without expressing any certainty about the supernatural authenticity of the phenomenon itself, many signs of the action of the Holy Spirit are acknowledged. The bishop is encouraged to appreciate the pastoral value and promote the dissemination of the phenomenon, including pilgrimages;

Prae oculis habeatur: Although important positive signs are recognized, some aspects of confusion or potential risks are also perceived that require the diocesan bishop to engage in a careful discernment and dialogue with the recipients of a given spiritual experience. If there were writings or messages, doctrinal clarification might be necessary;

Curatur: Various or significant critical elements are noted, but the phenomenon is already spread widely, and verifiable spiritual fruits are connected to it. Therefore, a ban that could upset the faithful is not recommended, but the local bishop is advised not to encourage the phenomenon;

Sub mandato: The critical issues are not connected to the phenomenon itself but to its improper use by people or groups, such as undue financial gain or immoral acts. The Holy See entrusts the pastoral leadership of the specific place to the diocesan bishop or a delegate;

Prohibetur et obstruatur (“prohibited and stopped”): Despite various positive elements, the critical issues and risks associated with this phenomenon appear to be very serious. The dicastery asks the local bishop to offer a catechesis that can help the faithful understand the reasons for the decision and reorient their legitimate spiritual concerns;

Declaratio de non supernaturalitate: The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith authorizes the local bishop to declare that the phenomenon is found to be not supernatural, based on concrete facts and evidence, such as the confession of an alleged visionary or credible testimonies of fabrication of the phenomenon.

Under the previous norms it was difficult for a bishop to guide — much less encourage — the good fruit that he could see without also endorsing the entire phenomenon as being of supernatural origin. The new norms give the bishop more flexible categories in order to move more quickly, essential in the digital age of instant communication. A determination of supernatural origin could take years, even decades, in the past.

Rome Rules

The 1978 norms — kept secret until 2011 — required the local bishop to consult with Rome, but he did not always need Roman approval to act. And even when Rome ruled, the local bishop was not permitted to say what Rome had said.

Now, the DDF has to sign off on all decisions made by the local bishop and, in some situations, may give its own judgment. The decisions of Rome are now to be made known. This centralization in Rome is a hallmark of Pope Francis when it comes to any putative work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Father has previously required, for example, Roman approval for local bishops to start religious orders at the diocesan level.

An interesting note was made in the prefect’s introduction to the new norms. Cardinal Fernández said that several drafts of the new norms had been produced and discussed since 2019.

“During the subsequent five years, several proposals for revision were made, but all were considered inadequate,” the prefect wrote. “In the Congresso of the Dicastery on 16 November 2023, it was acknowledged that a comprehensive and radical revision of the existing draft was needed. With this, the Dicastery prepared a new and entirely reconsidered draft that clarified the roles of the Diocesan Bishop and the Dicastery.”

After five years of work, the DDF threw everything out, began anew and completed the task in less than five months, with approval coming in April 2024. The DDF, under its new prefect, moves at a speed that is highly unusual in Rome.

Free to Believe but Not Worship?

“The Church has stated that the faithful are never forced to believe in this phenomenon. They are never obliged. There’s no obligation,” said Cardinal Fernández when presenting the new norms. “The Church, as a matter of fact, leaves the faithful free to devote their attention to these phenomena or not. Revelation that has already happened is the word of God. It contains everything we need for our Christian life.”

That is true enough, but are Catholics really free to believe that the Blessed Mother did not appear at Guadalupe, Lourdes or Fatima? How could someone at Mass on those days — or the priest himself — join in prayers which mark something that they believe didn’t happen? Lourdes and Fatima are “optional memorials,” so a priest who believed in neither would not have to pray those prayers. Not so for Our Lady of Guadalupe, a “feast” that is obligatory.

It is inconsistent for the Church to teach that no one is “forced” to believe and yet insert those apparitions into the liturgy. That is a long-standing issue that is not addressed, let alone solved, in the new norms. However, the older norms — which required a finding of supernatural origin – made it easier to require assent in worship. If the Church now only issues a nihil obstat regarding a future apparition, it seems very difficult, on that lower threshold, to commemorate such an apparition liturgically.

The Church does teach, though, that canonizations are infallible acts. That means that the Church teaches infallibly that someone is in heaven — Sts. Juan Diego, Bernadette Soubirous, Francisco and Jacinta Marta, Faustina Kowalska — but that belief in the events that animated their entire lives is not required. It’s one thing to believe that St. Thomas Aquinas is in heaven but prefer another approach to theology. Is it rational to believe that St. Bernadette is in heaven but that she was wrong about Our Lady appearing at Lourdes? That question remains outstanding, as it has been for centuries.

The older approach proved able to deal with Guadalupe, Lourdes and Fatima. The new norms may make it easier to achieve a resolution on Medjugorje.