Discerning Private Revelation: Part Two

Originally published at Catholic Stand on January 23, 2016.

In the light of my previous article, Discerning Private Revelation: A Particular Pitfall, it seems right and just to offer another discussion on a particular area of private revelation that is also often in dispute. I am speaking of what I will here call “belief and unbelief” and it is to this theme that the present article is devoted.

In my travels and work with the Church’s theology of private revelation, I often hear the various reasons why people believe or do not believe in a claim of private revelation. From these reasons I argue that Catholics generally fall into various categories. I will, however, only refer to two: “believers” and “non-believers.” The “believers” are people who believe in a claim of private revelation. “Non-believers,” generally speaking, are people who do not believe in a particular private revelation.[1]

Private Revelation: Believers

“Believers” can be generally described as people who are simply desirous to serve God and are possessed of a simple faith. This fact is a very noble reality, amiable and worthy of emulation. To be truthful, many times I have been blessed to be around such people and be edified by them. Based more often than not on piety and devotion, their disposition toward private revelation is usually one of openness (if not straightforward acceptance). Their understanding and discernment of private revelation will vary in accordance with the catechesis they have received.

Within this category of “believers” is a sub-section of people with, as a friend once described, “an intellectual habit of consistent credulity that is motivated by a problematic spiritual attitude. This attitude is a weak faith in the Public Revelation of God and a difficulty in living a normal life of faith.[2] That faith life is characterized by a kind of ‘darkness’ in which we rely on faith as the ‘substance of things unseen’ (Hebrews 11).” Concerning these people, one will often hear them referred to in slang as “apparition-chasers,” “thrill-seekers” and “sensationalists” (terms which are generally considered derogatory in almost all quarters).[3]

Private Revelation: Non-Believers

The “non-believers” category may surprise the reader because in some ways it is not altogether dissimilar to “believers.” As I said above, people in this category do not believe in a particular private revelation. The question of how non-believers arrived at this conclusion varies. The conclusion may be reached by good and faithful Catholics who have looked into the matter and found something contrary to Divine and Catholic Faith. The conclusion may even be reached before the competent Ecclesiastical Authority has rendered a formal judgment on the claim.[4]

As with the “believers” there is also a sub-section of non-believers with different reasons for not believing. This group can be characterized (again as a friend once put it) as having an “intellectual habit of consistent skepticism that is motivated by a problematic spiritual attitude—namely, a lack of openness to what God may do in relation to our times.” This consistent skepticism may be a species of unbelief, perhaps even rooted in a form of atheism. It is at the very least a noteworthy error for two reasons. The first is because it appears to disregard the Church’s teaching that states God assists people to live the Gospel in a particular moment of history, i.e. private revelation (CCC 67). Secondly, it can be used to support heresy.

Consistent skeptics often cite in their defense another tenet of Catholic teaching on private revelation, namely that such revelations do not belong to the Deposit of Faith (CCC 67). Therefore, it is not necessary to believe in a specific private revelation to be a Catholic in good standing. We only give our assent of Divine and Catholic Faith to the Public Revelation of God. Private revelations require human faith, as was discussed by Cardinal Lambertini (later Pope Benedict XIV).[5] Finally, they argue, if we simply adhere to Public Revelation, we will be alright.

Disregard and Obligation

While the defense given above is accurate in that these points are, in fact, also Catholic teaching, there is more to that teaching. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote on the matter, “Such a message can be a genuine help in understanding the Gospel and living it better at a particular moment in time; therefore it should not be disregarded. It is a help which is offered, but which one is not obliged to use.” The dynamic here presented by Cardinal Ratzinger concerning disregard and obligation forms the basis for a debate that is currently taking place in the Church over the direction in which she is going. Some may even say the contention concerns the very soul of the Church.

This debate is very difficult to describe without going into a long description. I will instead keep my remarks brief and say that the debate is viewed as being fought between two sides. The first side is comprised of those who believe that we are going through extraordinary times. Commensurate with this belief is that we are receiving special assistance from heaven which ought not to be disregarded. The second side is said to be those who do reject this assistance and are marching to the national anthem of hell (i.e. “I did it my way,” to modify an expression from Peter Kreeft) by disregarding a help offered by God.

For our purposes, various believers accuse consistent skeptics of disparaging private revelation. By disparaging it, believers say, and any warnings or indications from heaven, we are running headlong into ruin. Such disparaging raises questions over piety and devotion to God. In other words, why, so the argument goes, would we reject assistance offered by God our Father? Would we slap our father’s hand away when he picks us up after falling? Of course not, so why would we do such to the Eternal Father whom we profess to love?

Moreover, believers take umbrage with the claim that all we need to do is adhere to Public Revelation and all will be well. Believers accept this argument as it is representative of Church teaching at face value, but they disagree with its application. They believe it presents a myopic view of the contemporary state of affairs. The fact is, believers argue, that not everyone is adhering to Public Revelation, hence the assistance offered by God precisely in order to get mankind back on track.

Appearances of the Debate

What both sides, I would argue, appear to have missed is that the devil and his angels are in the details and working both sides. On the side of the “believers,” the devil is wreaking havoc by distilling false doctrine and false hopes through false private revelations. These are disseminated especially by those who do not live a normal life of faith.[6]

To the consistent skeptics, the above course of action appears to look like superstition or piety gone awry. It then promptly confirms (at least to their mind) their rejection of private revelation. This confirmation scandalously reinforces the skeptics’ rejection of the authentic helps that God has offered at this time in human history. Thus the devil and his angels succeed in cutting off such salvific and timely aid to these people, to say nothing of confirming them in error (and thereby questioning their eternal salvation).

In all of the above, there are many finer shades of distinctions and I have summarized various points of view in my own words. It is truly a vicious cycle and my nightmare to watch it unfold before my eyes these past 14 or so years. I am a passionate writer and do my best to use that passion to be an impassioned observer and objective writer of the facts. Where I have failed, I ask pardon. Where I have done right, may God be praised.

[1] These categories are, admittedly, debatable. There are many finer shades of meaning that astute scholars could point out. I accept this fact, but, for the purposes of the present discussion, the above categories are helpful and intended to be tools for discussion. The details will emerge as we continue.

[2] As a friend once put it, “It is also possible that people are simply looking for a gratification of curiosity or are simply prideful. This latter possibility is rooted in the quasi-gnostic temptation of wanting to ‘know the secret’ of what God is doing.”

[3] I have heard this phenomenon spoken of in terms of people turning an otherwise beautiful gift from God into spiritual “crack” and each time a person seeks it, he or she is seeking a “fix.”

[4] It should here be noted that if anyone has found such contrary matter to faith and good morals, he or she should report it to the competent Ecclesiastical Authority. I argue that he or she is bound by canon law to do so (cf. canons 209-213, 222, 225, 228 §2).

[5] Concerning this teaching, the Church has stated that one is not obliged by Divine and Catholic Faith to accept an authentic private revelation. What does not appear to be addressed, however, is whether we are obliged by human faith to believe in an authentic private revelation. While Cardinal Lambertini/Pope Benedict XIV clearly gave the norm on the rule with Divine and Catholic Faith, he also wrote without disputation about a comment made by Cardinal Cajetan. This comment indicates that Catholics also “cling to the revelations made to the saints, whose doctrine the church accepts as probable; so S. Augustine and S. Thomas have written, and experience continually testifies.” This comment, it seems to this author, touches upon the point made later in the present article about the role of piety and devotion.

[6] These falsehoods, arguably, are less prominent among “believers” who possess more theological training and catechesis, though this fact should not make them any less vigilant. In fact, it is meant to provide them with opportunities to practice humility and charity.