Vatican moves to adapt to hoaxes, Internet and overhauls its process for evaluating visions of Mary

The Vatican has radically reformed its process for evaluating alleged visions of the Virgin Mary, weeping statues and other seemingly supernatural phenomena
Bosnian Roman Catholic women pray on the occasion of the feast of the Assumption in Medjugorje, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo on Tuesday, August 15, 2000. Some 19 years ago six young people claimed Holy Mary appeared to them in the town of Medjugorje. On Friday, May 17, 2024, the Vatican will issue revised norms for discerning apparitions "and other supernatural phenomena," updating a set of guidelines first issued in 1978. (AP Photo/Hidajet Delic, File)

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Bosnian Roman Catholic women pray on the occasion of the feast of the Assumption in Medjugorje, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo on Tuesday, August 15, 2000. Some 19 years ago six young people claimed Holy Mary appeared to them in the town of Medjugorje. On Friday, May 17, 2024, the Vatican will issue revised norms for discerning apparitions "and other supernatural phenomena," updating a set of guidelines first issued in 1978. (AP Photo/Hidajet Delic, File)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican on Friday overhauled its process for evaluating alleged visions of the Virgin Mary, weeping statues and other seemingly supernatural phenomena that have marked church history, putting the brakes on making definitive declarations unless the event is obviously fabricated.

The Vatican’s doctrine office revised norms first issued in 1978, arguing that they were no longer useful or viable in the internet age. Nowadays, word about apparitions or weeping Madonnas travels quickly and can harm the faithful if hoaxers are trying to make money off people’s beliefs or manipulate them, the Vatican said.

The new norms make clear that such an abuse of people’s faith can be punishable canonically, saying, “The use of purported supernatural experiences or recognized mystical elements as a means of or a pretext for exerting control over people or carrying out abuses is to be considered of particular moral gravity.”

The Catholic Church has had a long and controversial history of the faithful claiming to have had visions of the Virgin Mary, of statues purportedly weeping tears of blood and stigmata erupting on hands and feet mimicking the wounds of Christ.

When confirmed as authentic by church authorities, these otherwise inexplicable signs have led to a flourishing of the faith, with new religious vocations and conversions. That has been the case for the purported apparitions of Mary that turned Fatima, Portugal, and Lourdes, France, into enormously popular pilgrimage destinations.

Church figures who claimed to have experienced the stigmata wounds, including Padre Pio and Pope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, have inspired millions of Catholics even if decisions about their authenticity have been elusive.

Francis himself has weighed in on the phenomenon, making clear that he is devoted to the main church-approved Marian apparitions, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, who believers say appeared to an Indigenous man in Mexico in 1531.

But Francis has expressed skepticism about more recent events, including claims of repeated messages from Mary to "seers" at the shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, even while allowing pilgrimages to take place there.

“I prefer the Madonna as mother, our mother, and not a woman who’s the head of a telegraphic office, who sends a message every day at a certain time,” Francis told reporters in 2017.

The new norms reframe the Catholic Church’s evaluation process by essentially taking off the table whether church authorities will declare a particular vision, stigmata or other seemingly divinely inspired event supernatural.

Instead, the new criteria envisages six main outcomes, with the most favorable being that the church issues a noncommittal doctrinal green light, a so-called “nihil obstat.” Such a declaration means there is nothing about the event that is contrary to the faith, and therefore Catholics can express devotion to it.

The bishop can take more cautious approaches if there are doctrinal red flags about the reported event. The most serious envisages a declaration that the event isn’t supernatural or that there are enough red flags to warrant a public statement “that adherence to this phenomenon is not allowed.”

The aim is to avoid scandal, manipulation and confusion, and the Vatican fully acknowledged the hierarchy's own guilt in confusing the faithful with the way it evaluated and authenticated alleged visions over the centuries.

The most egregious case was the flip-flopping determinations of authenticity by a succession of bishops over 70 years in Amsterdam about the purported visions of the Madonna at the Our Lady of All Nations shrine.

Another similar case prompted the Vatican in 2007 to excommunicate the members of a Quebec-based group, the Army of Mary, after its founder claimed to have had Marian visions and declared herself the reincarnation of the mother of Christ.

The revised norms acknowledge the real potential for such abuses and warn that hoaxers will be held accountable, including with canonical penalties.

The norms also allow that an event might at some point be declared “supernatural,” and that the pope can intervene in the process. But “as a rule,” the church is no longer in the business of authenticating inexplicable events or making definitive decisions about their supernatural origin.

And at no point are the faithful ever obliged to believe in the particular events, said Argentine Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the head of the Vatican doctrine office.

“The church gives the faithful the freedom to pay attention” or not, he said at a news conference.

Despite the new criteria, he said the church’s past decision-making on alleged supernatural events — such as at Fatima, Guadalupe or Lourdes — remains valid.

“What was decided in the past has its value,” he said. “What was done remains.”

To date, fewer than 20 apparitions have been approved by the Vatican over its 2,000-year history, according to Michael O’Neill, who runs the online apparition resource The Miracle Hunter.

Neomi De Anda, executive director of the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton, said the new guidelines represent a significant and welcome change to the current practice, while restating important principles.

“The faithful are able to engage with these phenomena as members of the faithful in popular practices of religion, while not feeling the need to believe everything offered to them as supernatural as well as the caution against being deceived and beguiled,” she said in an email.

Whereas in the past the bishop often had the last word unless Vatican help was requested, now the Vatican must sign off on every recommendation proposed by a bishop.

Robert Fastiggi, who teaches Marian theology at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan and is an expert on apparitions, said at first glance that requirement might seem to take authority away from the local bishop.

“But I think it’s intended to avoid cases in which the Holy See might feel prompted to overrule a decision of the local bishop,” he said.

“What is positive in the new document is the recognition that the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Mother are present and active in human history,” he said. “We must appreciate these supernatural interventions but realize that they must be discerned properly.”

He cited the biblical phrase that best applies: “Test everything, retain what is good.″

Argentine Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, left, head of the Vatican doctrine office, is flanked by Sister Daniela del Gaudio, head of he Observatory on Marian Apparitions and Mystical Phenomenon, during a press conference at the Vatican, Friday, May 17, 2024. The Vatican on Friday radically reformed its process for evaluating alleged visions of the Virgin Mary, weeping statues and other seemingly supernatural phenomena that have long punctuated church history, putting the brakes on making definitive declarations unless the event is obviously fabricated. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

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Pilgrims walk around a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary near the church of St. James in Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo on Sunday, June 25, 2006. On Friday, May 17, 2024, the Vatican will issue revised norms for discerning apparitions "and other supernatural phenomena," updating a set of guidelines first issued in 1978. (AP Photo/Amel Emric, File)

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Argentine Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, left, head of the Vatican doctrine office, and Sister Daniela del Gaudio, head of he Observatory on Marian Apparitions and Mystical Phenomenon, attend a press conference at the Vatican, Friday, May 17, 2024. The Vatican on Friday radically reformed its process for evaluating alleged visions of the Virgin Mary, weeping statues and other seemingly supernatural phenomena that have long punctuated church history, putting the brakes on making definitive declarations unless the event is obviously fabricated. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

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Faithful light candles while visiting the Virgin of Guadalupe's Sanctuary to celebrate her day in Guatemala City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2002. On Friday, May 17, 2024, the Vatican will issue revised norms for discerning apparitions "and other supernatural phenomena," updating a set of guidelines first issued in 1978. (AP Photo/Jaime Puebla, File)

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Argentine Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, left, head of the Vatican doctrine office, and Sister Daniela del Gaudio, head of he Observatory on Marian Apparitions and Mystical Phenomenon, shake hands at the end of a press conference at the Vatican, Friday, May 17, 2024. The Vatican on Friday radically reformed its process for evaluating alleged visions of the Virgin Mary, weeping statues and other seemingly supernatural phenomena that have long punctuated church history, putting the brakes on making definitive declarations unless the event is obviously fabricated. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

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A Franciscan friar blesses pilgrims as they kneel in prayer around a statue of the Virgin Mary at the Hill Of Appearance in the southern Bosnian town of Medjugorje,160 kms south of Sarajevo, Saturday, June 25, 2011, where it is believed that the Virgin Mary showed herself and conveyed messages of peace to six children on June 25, 1981. On Friday, May 17, 2024, the Vatican will issue revised norms for discerning apparitions "and other supernatural phenomena," updating a set of guidelines first issued in 1978. (AP Photo/Amel Emric, File)

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Pilgrims say prayers at the 'Hill of Appearance' in the southern-Bosnian town of Medjugorje, 100 kms south of Sarajevo, on Friday, June 25, 2010, where it is believed that the Virgin Mary showed herself and conveyed messages of peace to six children on June 25, 1981. On Friday, May 17, 2024, the Vatican will issue revised norms for discerning apparitions "and other supernatural phenomena," updating a set of guidelines first issued in 1978. (AP Photo/Amel Emric, File)

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Pilgrims walk on a rocky terrain to say their prayers on the Hill Of Appearance in Medjugorje,100 km south of Sarajevo, Monday, June 25, 2012, where it is believed that the Virgin Mary showed herself and conveyed messages of peace to six children on June 25, 1981. On Friday, May 17, 2024, the Vatican will issue revised norms for discerning apparitions "and other supernatural phenomena," updating a set of guidelines first issued in 1978. (AP Photo/Amel Emric, File)

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Pilgrims pray at the Roman Catholic shrine in Lourdes, southwestern France, Friday, Feb.11, 2022. On Friday, May 17, 2024, the Vatican will issue revised norms for discerning apparitions "and other supernatural phenomena," updating a set of guidelines first issued in 1978. (AP Photo/Bob Edme, File)

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Pope Francis in his popemobile leaves at the end of a Mass where he canonized shepherd children Jacinta and Francisco Marto at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, Saturday, Friday, May 13, 2017, in Fatima, Portugal. On Friday, May 17, 2024, the Vatican will issue revised norms for discerning apparitions "and other supernatural phenomena," updating a set of guidelines first issued in 1978. (Paulo Novais/Pool Photo via AP, File)

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Argentine Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, head of the Vatican doctrine office, poses for photographers at the end of a press conference at the Vatican, Friday, May 17, 2024. The Vatican on Friday radically reformed its process for evaluating alleged visions of the Virgin Mary, weeping statues and other seemingly supernatural phenomena that have long punctuated church history, putting the brakes on making definitive declarations unless the event is obviously fabricated. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

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Argentine Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernandez, head of the Vatican doctrine office, poses for photographers at the end of a press conference at the Vatican, Friday, May 17, 2024. The Vatican on Friday radically reformed its process for evaluating alleged visions of the Virgin Mary, weeping statues and other seemingly supernatural phenomena that have long punctuated church history, putting the brakes on making definitive declarations unless the event is obviously fabricated. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

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Sister Daniela del Gaudio, head of he Observatory on Marian Apparitions and Mystical Phenomenon, leaves at the end of a press conference at the Vatican, Friday, May 17, 2024. The Vatican on Friday radically reformed its process for evaluating alleged visions of the Virgin Mary, weeping statues and other seemingly supernatural phenomena that have long punctuated church history, putting the brakes on making definitive declarations unless the event is obviously fabricated. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

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