Discerning Private Revelation: A Particular Pitfall

Originally published at Catholic Stand on January 16, 2016.

Over the course of my now fourteen years of studying and working with the Catholic Church’s theology of private revelation, I have come to understand a particular pitfall in discernment. This pitfall concerns the dissemination of alleged private revelations. Unfortunately, there appears to be many different ideas and opinions as to how this dissemination works. This difference is part of the reason why I wrote the book Refractions of Light. In the article, I would like to discuss this particular pitfall in order to shed some light on the confusion that today continues unabated in the Church.

Private Revelation—Discernment & History

To begin, it is important to note that the key word before us is “discernment.” Fairly knowledgeable Catholics have at least a working understanding of this term. At its core, the word means to figure out what is and what is not coming from God. It is a spiritual term, one deeply rooted in the Church’s history and theology. How well do we know this history in order to help us discern the voice of God? This question is imperative with respect to the Church’s theology of private revelation.

Beginning with the New Testament, we see a consistent pattern of discernment through the nascent and early Church. The Fathers and Doctors (both earlier and later) expounded upon the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ and established firm tenets that assist us in later generations to know better our Divine and Catholic Faith. Frequently, these things happened by way of defeating heresies that had arisen and which were condemned. It should also be observed that various processes that facilitate the Faith have changed over the years, usually in accordance with a growing understanding of said Faith and to reflect it better.

By the 15th Century, the Faith had been fairly well established in Western Civilization. A common Faith had united Europe, though this Faith had been challenged by and was faltering from the scandal of the Western Schism and many heresies that abounded around this time. In the midst of this milieu came Gutenberg’s printing press whereby a louder voice was now afforded for people to express their views and opinions. This ability created a new dimension to the perennial problem for the Church on teaching the Faith clearly. Anyone and everyone could now say what they wanted regardless of whether he or she was qualified.

What effect would this ability have on faith, good morals and good order in the Church? Legislation was enacted by Popes Innocent VIII and Alexander VI that began to address the new dimension that the printing press proposed. We know this legislation through popular secular history as “censorship.” Often seen negatively in a society that values free speech, “censorship” to the Catholic Church is simply an extension of her mission to “guard that which has been entrusted” to her (cf. 1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14).

Private Revelation & Censorship

“Censorship” undeservedly enjoys the negative connotation of major “crackdowns” or “inquisitions.” I make no excuse for excesses and abuses that have occurred, but one must, however, also remember that abusus non tollit usum—the abuse of a thing does not take away its use. The intention of censorship in the Catholic Church is both to ensure good order and proper facilitation of faith and good morals. For its part, the printing press—a blessing—could easily be abused, and such was done for the purposes of wild private revelations that disturbed the general populace.

Beginning with Innocent VIII and Alexander VI, a long list of Popes down to the present have justly upheld the Church’s right of censorship. Refractions of Light traces some of the highlights of this development. I focused on the Council of Trent through Pope Urban VIII to Pope St. Pius X and to Paul VI (from there to the more recent Popes, let me add). Even if they modified certain processes and legislations, they believed that there has to be good order in the Church respecting private revelation (alleged or authentic). It is clear that Papal legislation, strictly speaking, did not want such revelations to run freely in the Church unchallenged and unchecked.

Reform of Censorship & Its Effect on Private Revelation

By and large, the Church’s system of censorship manifested itself concretely in the Index of Forbidden Books as well as the processes for canonization and beatification, as demonstrated in Refractions of Light. Pope Paul VI made the decision to reform the Church’s system of censorship. This decision, regretfully, was horrifically misunderstood by private revelation enthusiasts, and this misunderstanding is at the heart of the reason for the present article. Prior legislation to 1966 ensured that material on alleged private revelations was properly examined by the competent Ecclesiastical Authority (usually one’s local Bishop).

Paul VI, desirous for the faithful to act out of love and not legal precept, wanted legislative reform to censorship that saw the faithful working with—yet submissively to—the Pastors of the Church. In the Pope’s vision, he saw a catechized faithful who understood and obeyed the precepts of the Church. What he did not foresee, one can argue, is the devastation of the vineyard that would manifest more powerfully after the Second Vatican Council. He saw it, perhaps, a bit too late as evidenced by many remarks of his from 1967 onwards, especially his June, 1972 famous remark on the “smoke of Satan” entering the Church through a “crack.”

God alone judges the uprightness of Paul VI’s intention in reforming the Church’s legislation on censorship. For our part, what is important to know is that Paul VI never intended private revelation to go unchecked in the Church. Perhaps this can be demonstrated by the fact that about six months prior to his death he ordered promulgated the famous 1978 Vatican norms for discerning alleged private revelations. Sadly, this document never made it into the 1983 Code of Canon Law and quickly began collecting dust in Diocesan archives around the world.

Instead, what arose was a hideous mischaracterization of what Paul VI intended for the reform of ecclesiastical censorship. After Paul VI abrogated canons 1399 and 2318 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, a claim quickly arose that Catholics could now disseminate alleged private revelations without having them first reviewed by the competent Ecclesiastical Authority (i.e. be “censored” by the Church). Sometimes there was a caveat put to this claim that went, “so long as the writing(s) do not contain anything contrary to faith and morals.”

Just how an alleged private revelation came to be judged as contrary or not to faith and morals without having them submitted to the proper Authority was never mentioned.

Private Revelation & Truth

Misunderstanding and pride arose in the hearts of men. A popular message that was reaching people’s ears in the 1950s was that it was now “the hour of the laity.” After historical events of the 1960s, an otherwise authentic point might very well have been misunderstood (and abused). A call went out that it was time for the laity to rise up and take their “rightful” place(s) in the Church. After all, they are baptized members of the Body of Christ and “have the Holy Spirit.” As James Davidson is said to have remarked, the days when the faithful simply “pray, pay and obey” were over. Why can they not decide for themselves what is and what is not faithful to the Deposit of Faith with alleged private revelations?

Concerning our topic at hand, it was not an authentic “hour of the laity” (one that worked with the Pastors of the Church as God established) that had struck. It was a veritable revolution, one that Paul VI is said to have remarked upon as the Church being in an “auto-demolition” and it has gravely devastated good order in the Church. This devastation continues today every time people write about alleged private revelations and their dissemination through such popular slogans as “We report, you discern.” Such slogans are inherently flawed as they are disruptive to the Natural Law, which forbids allowing disorder into our hearts and lives.

Moreover, such slogans aggregate/presume authority to the writer that he or she simply does not have. It is the Church, the Magisterium, which discerns alleged private revelations. She will either, after due examination, propose/permit them for the belief of the faithful, or will disallow them for the sake of faith, good morals and good order in the Church. To think otherwise is nothing other than an arrogant misappropriation of a function proper to the Magisterium. Simply put, it is the sin of pride, even if rooted in ignorance of the Church’s doctrine, precepts and legislative processes.

In conclusion, private revelation is not a subject with which one can trifle. It has a bearing upon one’s eternal salvation and we must be wary not to fall into particular pitfalls of discerning it. Such discernment belongs properly to the Church and the lay faithful do have a role in this process, but we must look to the guidelines that Holy Mother Church has established for guidance. That role is largely one of submission and requires study and humility. Finally, an awareness on the part of Catholic writers and publishing houses of their moral responsibilities must also be instilled for the sake of good order in the Church.