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Vatican tightens rules on supernatural claims in the digital age

Women pray in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary that weeps a red liquid that Venezuelans say is blood March 25, 2003, in Caracas, Venezuela.  (Getty Images)
By Anthony Faiola and Stefano Pitrelli Washington Post

ROME – When is a weeping statue of the Virgin Mary truly a weeping statue of the Virgin Mary?

From now on, only the Vatican decides – and such events will very rarely if ever be declared “supernatural” by the Roman Catholic Church.

With the backing of Pope Francis, the Vatican on Friday issued sweeping new guidelines on unexplained religious phenomena. The guidelines, the first since 1978, reflect a desire to root out fraudsters and flights of fancy and to address how 1.4 billion Catholics should view the mystical side of their faith in a digital age supercharged by artificial intelligence.

“The church rejects false mysticism,” Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, head of the Vatican’s powerful Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith, which issued the new guidelines, told reporters Friday.

The revisions are likely to ripple through a global faith that is based in part on credence in miraculous events. Super natural experiences – such as tear drops of blood emanating from statues, or esoteric apparitions and stigmata markings reminiscent of the crucifixion – have become touchstones for some Catholic faithful, particularly in Southern and Eastern Europe and Latin America. Recognition of such sightings is also seen as a pathway to sainthood – making them a temptation for fame-seekers and tricksters.

Previously, rulings on the validity of such sightings were the purview of bishops, and could take decades for final determinations. But with today’s technology, wild claims of mystical experiences are spreading faster and farther than ever before.

“I think they figured out how the internet revolution has reshaped Catholicism,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Catholic theologian at Villanova University. “It used to be that someone would say, ‘I saw the Madonna,’ then the local newspaper would drop by, then the national one, then maybe an international one. Now anyone who has a mobile phone and is savvy enough can cause a sensation.”

Some events have obtained the status of high Catholic lore, such as the sighting of the Virgin at Lourdes, France, in 1858 by the 14-year-old girl who would become Saint Bernadette. In 1917, the prophecy of three shepherd children who said the Virgin Mary appeared to them at Fatima, Portugal, led to the “Miracle of the Sun,” when those gathered reported the celestial body dancing in the sky.

Both cities remain sacred – and highly lucrative – pilgrimage sites for millions of Catholics.

But the Vatican on Friday said that bishops had too often bought into false claims. Other times, confusion reigned, because a prelate’s successor might contradict a previous ruling, leaving the faithful guessing. Now, those determinations will be left to the Vatican’s department of doctrine – formerly known as the Office of the Inquisition – and the faithful will not be compelled to believe in such claims.

“Everyone is free to believe in this – or not,” Fernández said.

In fact, the Vatican said it will largely do away with definitive declarations of such events as officially “supernatural” – although, in exceptional cases, a sitting pope may still make such a declaration.

“Rome is taking upon itself a power that was until now chiefly entrusted to the bishops,” Faggioli said. “It reveals what Fernández and his boss see in today’s church and bishops, i.e. less confidence in the local churches and bishops’ abilities to handle this.”

Early in his papacy, Francis – who hails from Latin America, where a more mystical form of Catholic worship thrives in some quarters – was seen to embrace the esoteric side of the church, including exorcisms and the power of saintly relics. But he has also expressed deep skepticism at some apparition claims. In 2017, for instance, he cast doubt on the Medjugorje Apparitions, or claims by six young Bosnians to have seen the Virgin Mary.

“I would rather believe in ‘the Mother Madonna’ … and not the ‘Madonna who is head of a telegraph office and sending daily messages,’ ” the pope said then.

False claims can also fan divisions. In one Italian town 30 miles northwest of Rome, a claim of apparitions of the Virgin Mary were recently declared “non-supernatural” by a local bishop, but not before crowds of worships drawn to the spot insisted they were channeling divine messages against same-sex marriage and abortion.

Almost all cases will now be assigned into six new categories offering varying degrees of guidance to the faithful. The most accepted phenomena will be labeled as “nihil obstat,” in which a bishop will be encouraged to “appreciate” the pastoral value of a vision, and be permitted to promote it, but without expressing “certainty” about its “supernatural authenticity.” The most discounted will be categorized as “declaratio de non supernaturalitate,” and bishops will be told to publicly declare the claimed phenomena as not supernatural.