Vatican issues new norms to rein in supernatural phenomena

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Weeping Madonnas, bleeding hosts and saintly apparitions will have to be approved by the Vatican's doctrinal office, according to a new document issued by the same office on Friday, at a time when social media spreads reports of supernatural occurrences well beyond diocesan borders and away from church oversight.

The new norms "are not intended to control or (even less) stifle" the spirituality of the faithful, read the statement by the Vatican Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, but "in some events of alleged supernatural origin, there are serious critical issues that are detrimental to the faithful."

While the Shrines of Lourdes, Fatima, Aparecida and Guadalupe are widely known sites of miracles and Marian apparitions, there are hundreds of supernatural reports every year. Since the 1950s only six cases have been officially investigated by the Vatican, meaning that most cases "were either handled differently or just not handled at all," the statement read.

According to the new norms, the local bishops will have to investigate the supernatural phenomenon by creating an Investigatory Commission, made up of one theologian, one canonist and one expert on the specific occurrence, and submit their judgment for approval to the Vatican's doctrinal office.

Until the bishop receives the Vatican approval, he is not allowed to make any public pronouncement on the case.

After its own investigations and reflections, the Vatican will confirm the bishop's decision or issue a new judgment. The Vatican may decide that the case needs further study; that, while some issues remain, its popularity among the faithful makes it difficult to discern; or that a group or individual are using the supernatural phenomenon for their own gain. They might also declare that there are critical issues in the phenomenon that need clarification or that the event is not of a supernatural nature.

A novelty in the new guidelines is that the Vatican or local bishops will no longer make a pronouncement declaring there is certainty of a miracle, apparition or supernatural event. Instead, the church will issue a "nihil obstat," which in English translates to "nothing impedes," which allows faithful to approach the supernatural phenomenon but doesn't sign off on its miraculous nature. Previously approved cases will not be changed, but only the pope will have the power to confirm a supernatural event from now on.

"Granting a Nihil obstat simply indicates that the faithful 'are authorized to give (the phenomenon) their adhesion in a prudent manner,'" the document stated.

The Vatican's doctrinal department can at any time change its pronouncement on a supernatural event, the document states.

The new norms replace the previous ones, which were drafted in 1978 and only made public in 2011. Previously, it was up to the bishops to determine the veracity of a supernatural event, which the Vatican believes led to confusion among the faithful. The bishop's approval of a miraculous phenomenon "oriented the faithful to think they had to believe in these phenomena, which sometimes were valued more than the Gospel itself," the statement read.

The previous norms also led to decadeslong investigations and — sometimes contradictory — pronouncements by the Vatican and the local bishops.

The decision by the Vatican to rein in supernatural apparitions is partly motivated by the considerable number of cases where these events are used to trick, defraud or abuse faithful. In the document, the Vatican also warned against doctrinal errors and the spread of "sectarian mentalities." The recent case of the Madonna of Trevignano, in a small town near Rome, saw the self-declared clairvoyant Maria Giuseppe Scarpulla placing pig's blood on a statue of Mary to get $100,000 checks from unsuspecting believers.

Speaking at a press conference presenting the new guidelines on Friday, the head of the Vatican's doctrine office, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, recounted cases where he had to decide on supernatural claims. One woman once said she felt at home at a Marian shrine, and only later the cardinal learned that it was because she thought she was the Virgin Mary herself. Another woman claimed she was told by God that she would become the mother of the new Messiah, and Fernandez said he was shocked when the woman said he had to be the father.

"These events are quite frequent in certain cases, but it's often a situation where norms and procedures are not necessary," he said. "In other cases there may be a phenomena that does not stop and attract the attention of many people," he added.

Social media has also impacted the Vatican's evaluation of unexplained phenomena, since strange events are quickly ascribed to the supernatural and can gather a wide following. "Now more than ever, these phenomena involve many people from various dioceses and spread rapidly across different regions and even countries," the statement read. The Vatican doctrinal office encouraged bishops to create interdiocesan commissions to address cases that spread over various church territories.

Pope Francis has displayed a strong personal devotion to the Virgin Mary and often visited the shrines where she is said to have miraculously appeared, but he has also warned faithful not to be fooled by far-fetched stories and tales of miracles. Such apparitions "are not always real," he said in an interview in June last year.

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