One of the features of international travel on an airplane is watching movies. Those long hours of airtime seem to fly by rather quickly with a good movie or two. On the way back to the States from Fátima, I was able to watch Angry Birds. As I watched, a theme it contained jumped out at me, namely deception in private revelation and how we respond to it.
Angry Birds and Private Revelation:
In Angry Birds, the main character, Red, has a problem with anger. Everyone else around him lives in relative peace on an island, but he chooses to be an outcast. When some pigs come to the island and feign friendship through partying and entertainment, Red is suspicious. His well-founded concerns are summarily rejected by the other birds who have been wined, dined and shown a good time, and believe Red to be nothing more than a rude, angry upstart.
While watching Angry Birds, I noted how the pigs deceived the birds. They put on a festival which distracted and ingratiated the birds to the pigs. This ingratiation was used against Red to silence his “opposition.” The whole of the society was against him and no opposition was tolerated. Red cared enough to want to help himself and others, but was refused out of a mistaken notion of friendship and hospitality/charity.
As I watched Red struggle to warn about the pigs and their leader’s covering up of his lies, I was reminded how devious and clever are Satan’s deceptions and our helplessness. Sometimes, his machinations are so clever that, on the personal level, certain schemes often make the innocent out to be wrong, pillorying them in an attempt to pressure them to accept error and reject Jesus Christ. On a professional level, they also force theologians back to the drawing board in order to discover the precise error. It is pain-staking, time-consuming work.
With respect to individual cases of private revelation, who among the average Catholic wants to, has the training, or has the time to put such energy and effort into long-term or deep examination of the facts of a case? Is it even the place of the average Catholic to do this sort of work? These questions are important to consider and not to be taken lightly. They touch upon some rather serious matters affecting the Church today, among them being ecclesiastical discipline and the proper relationship between the pastors of the Church and the lay faithful.
Private Revelation and Ecclesiastical Discipline:
In 1978 the Holy See established a set of norms and criteria to discern alleged private revelations. These norms are “indicative” and “not exhaustive” (indicativa, non taxativa), and intended primarily for local Ordinaries (usually Diocesan Bishops) for use in formal examinations. There is, however, some application of the norms for the average Catholic in his or her own private assessment of a claim. Let us look at a particular criterion in the document as an example of how both applications work.
One of the criteria given in the norms concerns the “personal qualities” of the alleged seer(s). These qualities are specified as things like “psychological equilibrium” (aequilibrium psychicum) and “honesty and rectitude of moral life” (honestas et rectitudo vitae moralis). This criterion is, arguably, one of the most sensitive because it concerns some very personal areas of the alleged seer(s). Many Catholics dare not examine or at least publicly discuss this area, usually upon grounds of charity and ignorance. Instead, they defer to the competent ecclesiastical authority.
There is wisdom in this approach. Many Catholics with an interest (vested or otherwise) in specific cases of alleged private revelation have a knee-jerk reaction against a non-authority figure publicly relaying negative aspects of an alleged revelation. This fact is kind of like how, in Angry Birds, Red’s reputation for anger led him to have little standing in his society, which, in turn, affected how his warnings were received.
To many people, any such discussion on the personal qualities of an alleged seer will come across as an ad hominem attack. Here, a careful distinction must be made procedurally between “examine” and “publicly discuss.” It may not be wise to discuss publicly the personal qualities of the alleged seer(s). Consider the very real possibility of a civil (perhaps even canonical) lawsuit, about which more shall be said further below.
Ecclesiastical Discipline and Social Communications:
The Vatican’s norms acknowledge the ability of contemporary social communication to disseminate information rapidly. Various online services exist which provide very helpful tools to investigate alleged seers. Any member of the faithful with an Internet connection has the potential to engage in such work, though many do not and not without reason. As was asked earlier, who has the time, energy and general wherewithal to do such work? What will they even do with this information once obtained? These are serious questions which must be asked.
Moreover, the task of a comprehensive examination belongs to the competent ecclesiastical authority. This authority has, according to the Vatican’s norms, “the serious duty of looking into [the matter] without delay and of diligently watching over it” (…ecclesiasticae Auctoritati competenti grave munus incumbit sine mora sese informandi atque diligenter invigilandi). Anything which encroaches upon this responsibility is suspect and so the greatest tact is necessary.
While such extensive examinations of the facts are proper to the competent authority, this fact does render the faithful impotent. Individual members of the faithful have the moral responsibility not to expose themselves to material that is (or could potentially be) injurious to faith and good morals. Thus, when presented with an alleged revelation, the faithful are bound to two things in particular:
- their duty to obey the ecclesiastical authority, and
- the Scriptural mandate to test the spirits (1 John 4:1).
In the first case, if the character of the alleged revelation is not established, then it is best to wait upon the competent authority’s decision before one declares their belief in an alleged revelation. If it is a question of a devotion being promoted, one needs to wait for a decision as well. The well-oiled machine envisioned in the Vatican’s norms presumes that such authority works “without delay” (sine mora) and issues directives to the faithful. If the authority fails to do so, a vacuum is created, causing many of the faithful to fall back onto their own devices, which could potentially end in very real error.
To the second case, all of the faithful are obliged not to accept blithely a claim of private revelation. There still remains the fact of one’s measure of personal discernment. The catch, however, is that one’s understanding ought to be formed by proper catechesis and the imparting of at least a basic understanding of the duties and responsibilities of the faithful in these matters (of private revelation). Curiously, there seems to be little to no dissemination of this information to the faithful and error potentially abounds.
Not a few of the alleged seers of today maintain a presence on the Internet either directly or indirectly. This fact makes it relatively easy for individuals to do some modest, private research. This information can then be taken and weighed against the Church’s teachings and norms. Taken in conjunction with directives/advice from their own pastor, spiritual director or otherwise knowledgeable person, a system of discernment can be developed. Through this, the possibility of falling into error is severely mitigated, and authentic Christian charity is preserved.
While such a method is the ideal, it is oftentimes not what happens in fact. There remains the question of the fate of the information one has gathered in his or her personal examination of the facts. Contemporary social communication allows information to be published immediately and is an option readily available for those with the technological know-how. Ought one to take this route? From personal experience and those of others, it seems to me that there are some serious considerations one must factor before deciding to publish any such information.
Above all, there must be a reason to disseminate publicly the information. Usually, that reason is grave scandal and the necessity to warn others of it. While a noble consideration, an individual must ask him- or herself to whom should information be revealed? It is relatively easy with contemporary technology to present information to the larger populus. What about simply communicating it only to the competent ecclesiastical Authority? This manner of proceeding is often not considered for various reasons.
Some might object, saying that they have a right to express their opinion to the public. Pope Benedict XV taught that Catholics are free to express and defend their opinion in the public forum. He did so, however, with the caveat that certain conditions be met:
As regards matters in which without harm to faith or discipline – in the absence of any authoritative intervention of the Apostolic See – there is room for divergent opinions, it is clearly the right of everyone to express and defend his own opinion. But in such discussions no expressions should be used which might constitute serious breaches of charity; let each one freely defend his own opinion, but let it be done with due moderation, so that no one should consider himself entitled to affix on those who merely do not agree with his ideas the stigma of disloyalty to faith or to discipline (Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, 23).
Considering this, let us ask a question. If we enjoy the ability to express and defend our opinion, does that mean we ought to express it? Not necessarily as prudence must be exercised. It is a fact that the lay faithful do not enjoy the same measure of canonical protections as does ecclesiastical authority (although the former are likewise not subject to the same level of accountability).
Consequences of Publishing:
People sometimes hastily hit the publish button not having considered potential consequences. Perhaps not all of the facts are known; one has to consider the character of the alleged visionary; there could even be some spiritual repercussions from a demonic source.
Regarding the character of alleged visionaries, there are those who threaten other individuals—even Dioceses—with lawsuits if something negative is said of him or her. This threat might impede a canonical investigation if the ecclesiastical authority allows itself to be intimidated. If there is no such threat, the alleged visionary might threaten (directly or indirectly) harm to someone in name, by reputation or professionally. On the lower end of possibilities, the alleged visionary may simply claim that he or she has been misrepresented or taken out of context. If true, it is then incumbent upon the individual to prove clearly the error and hopefully elicit a retraction.
When under duress, we show our true character; this is likewise true of alleged visionaries. They who at first come across as humble or pious sometimes show their true colors when challenged (either initially or over a period of time) by the competent ecclesiastical authority or individual members of the faithful. When negative elements arise under such duress, that is to be considered as belonging to the “fruit” of the claims. Depending upon the specific action, it may also concern the “gravely immoral acts” (actus graviter immorales) criterion in the Vatican’s norms.
In some cases, it can happen that alleged visionaries fear the loss of control. In response to this fear, they (or others) will react negatively and severely to people (even those who may give them credence) who, for example, attempt to ask questions. The control may be about the visionary manipulating people, wearing them down so there is no resistance. It may be about guarding a carefully constructed narrative about one’s person, reputation or contacts/network of friends. This last point conveys the image of making one seem important, well-liked by respectable people, etc. which adds credibility to the alleged seer.
Severely criticizing or even denigrating dissenters has the effect of setting an example to followers. In such cases, the alleged visionary typically has an exaggerated sense of importance about him- or herself. Crossing him or her is thus seen as a “challenge” which must be answered. Their pride, after all, has been wounded and will not suffer such an affront. The form of the response will be different in accordance with the one who has “crossed” the alleged visionary.
In the case of a follower, such a one is more directly under the control and influence of the alleged visionary. Thus, more personal acts can be perpetrated such as ostracizing the person from an entire community of followers. The idea here is to knock a follower back into line through some form of public humiliation or manipulative control such as withholding love, affection or attention. This act also serves, at least indirectly, to give warning to other followers.
If it is a non-follower who crosses the alleged seer, doubt or questions regarding authenticity of the “message” or the messenger must be prevented. Depending on the gravity of the challenge, the “seer” must assert his or herself and the challenge addressed. As it is not a follower who has done the crossing, the response will not be as meaningful on a personal level but generally falls into the same line of public humiliation. An attempt will be made, usually under the form of an article or some other writing, to show the wrongness of the challenger. In a public setting, the challenge may be done gracefully, with the focus being on the argument of the challenger and not ad hominem attacks. Even if a more tactful response is issued, that does not mean all is well.
A man’s character is judged not by public acts but rather by private ones. Some alleged visionaries are simply less than gracious. They can create an impressive image for the public eye, but deeper examinations can turn up some surprising results. Such examinations are, however, usually limited to the competence of professional theologians and other subject matter experts. In any case, wisdom knows the difference and discernment sees the situation for what it is as St. Paul did with the energumen in Acts 16:16-18. Though the woman was telling the truth, St. Paul exorcized her on the spot because he saw that it was a demon speaking.
In Angry Birds, the other birds were having a grand old time with the pigs. Red is viewed as the proverbial “stick in the mud” for asking critical questions. It is the same with private revelation. People who question alleged visionaries are seen as interrupting the “party” and attacking those who are providing it. The party is, however, a lie, a fabrication, all smoke and mirrors designed to cheat and swindle people.
In spiritual terms, people are being cheated of their God-given dignity as children of the light. They are made to look foolish before God and man. It is really an indirect attempt by Satan at offending God who otherwise takes delight in His children. Red prevailed against the odds because he had the insight to ask questions, and the courage and fortitude to do what was right in consequence despite the cost to himself. May we Catholics learn from Red’s example and be willing to engage in the search for truth and the against evil so as to keep away the darkness and shine the light.
 Not long ago, I posted an article about Pope Leo XIII, Fátima and the 100-years’ discussion. In that post, I discussed how people often get defensive with private revelation as it gives people a security blanket against the ugly things of this world. Revealing a private revelation as false “tears away” that security, leaving people feeling very vulnerable. What often happens is that the one who demonstrated the falsity of the alleged revelation will be rebuked by the followers (asseclae) of the alleged seer.
 The more that I delve into the larger tradition behind the norms, the clearer the wisdom of the norms. Christian doctrine is meant to be savored over time. It does not work well with our contemporary “sound-byte” culture. It is the “quick-fix” answers that often create confusion.
 Normae S. Congregationis, Section I, Part A, sub-section b-1. Hereafter NC followed by Section, Part and sub-section.
 If stated in a private setting, this reaction may not be as severe, but can still be present depending upon the response of the individual receiving the information.
 This observation does not, however, mean that people are unable to investigate and examine facts for themselves, and perhaps influence others in private settings.
 Cf. NC Preliminary Note 1.
 This information is usually available in the promotional literature from the alleged seer(s), though is not necessarily a given—especially in cases of “anonymous” persons. Even then, one would be surprised at how quickly such anonymous persons can be identified.
 NC II:1.
Hence, therefore, whenever legitimate authority has once given a clear command, let no one transgress that command, because it does not happen to commend itself to him; but let each one subject his own opinion to the authority of him who is his superior, and obey him as a matter of conscience. Again, let no private individual, whether in books or in the press, or in public speeches, take upon himself the position of an authoritative teacher in the Church. All know to whom the teaching authority of the Church has been given by God: he, then, possesses a perfect right to speak as he wishes and when he thinks it opportune. The duty of others is to hearken to him reverently when he speaks and to carry out what he says.
 Sadly, instead of adopting a critical stance from the beginning, there is a general tendency for people to believe first, then (if they are so inclined) to question. This stance is a most serious error. Another example of error was pointed out in my book Refractions of Light. Much confusion arose over the actions of Pope Paul VI with the abrogation of canons 1399 and 2319 in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. People believed they could now promote alleged revelations without the approval of the Church. That interpretation was seriously flawed, the effects of which we see today with the profuse dissemination of unapproved and alleged revelations.
 On average, alleged contemporary visionaries take advantage of the Internet in order to disseminate their “messages.” While viewed primarily as working in favor of said visionary, it also works against him or her.
 One must also consider the nature of the information. Does the information already exist in the public forum? Was it information obtained privately from otherwise knowledgeable and reputable sources?
 Among these reasons, in my experience, are pride, thoughtlessness, impatience and ignorance.
 Cf. NC I:A:b:3.
 NC I:B:d.
 It is particularly more devious when alleged visionaries allow other people to do the pillorying for them. In so doing, they provide some measure of protection for themselves. This protection shields them from criticism, at least on a surface level.
 In Angry Birds, we see this when the leader of the pigs has to create another lie in order to cover up the first lie. Whether the attempt at pillorying is to a follower or not, the idea is to make an example so as to keep control. It is narcissism, which may pertain to the criterion in the Vatican’s norms on psychopathic tendencies within the alleged visionary (morbi psychici/tendentiae psychopaticae; cf. NC: I:B:e).
 The visionary becomes the “guru,” the one who “gets it” and is trying to lead others to “enlightenment.” These other people are then made to feel gratitude for this person. If such is not shown, that person is shunned. Followers are made to feel special, i.e. “love-bombing” especially the closer they become to the alleged visionary. If the followers do not “get it” likewise, they will do almost anything to obtain it. Here the social phenomenon of not wanting to be left in the lurch can be particularly devastating. The followers become insecure (a fact which does not go unnoticed by corrupt “seers”) and, sometimes, will defend the “visionary” in an attempt to curry favor with him or her. They will even attempt to defend what are otherwise indefensible actions by the alleged visionary as said person is perceived as unable to do wrong and “there must be an explanation.” Concerning such willful ignorance, there is nothing anyone can do. Such persons are to be left to Jesus in prayer. If the matter is public, then a public disavowal from the competent Authority may be necessary to save, for example, the reputation of a local church.
 It is not “usually” so because information has a way of finding people regardless of their state in life. For example, perhaps someone left the community surrounding an alleged visionary and this person relates to friends what he or she witnessed. Here, much caution must be exercised because the one relaying the information is typically negatively labeled by said community in an effort to downplay or cast doubt upon the gravity of his or her claims.