how the Vatican helps bishops to better discern

how the Vatican helps bishops to better discern

The text had been announced several weeks ago. It was finally published this Friday, May 17, with the main objective of recalling the norms and pastoral and canonical procedures to be followed, in particular by bishops, in the face of “alleged supernatural phenomena”. An expression which describes in particular announcements of Marian apparitions or miracles linked to people or places. “Le Pèlerin” offers you a decryption of this technical text around the main points to highlight

What is in this text?

The document is published by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, from the pen of Argentine Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez. It is made up of 23 introductory articles giving the general orientations of the work to be done in the face of a supernatural phenomenon of this kind. Followed by 27 articles which fall under canon law to clarify procedures, including the shared responsibility incumbent on bishops, the dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pope.

Why this text?

This text is an update of an older document, approved by Paul VI in 1978 and which will not be officially published until… 2011 under the pontificate of Benedict XVI grappling with the heavy crisis of scandals which were already shaking the Church.

This new document aims to speed up procedures to avoid creating fixing points that are then difficult to manage. In November 2023, the dicastery decided to go further than a simple update, in particular to clarify the role of everyone, particularly that of local bishops. The Pope finally accepted this reworked version on May 4.

What pastoral and theological issue?

After recalling that, due to the constant work of the Holy Spirit in History, “supernatural” events may well continue to take place, the document also emphasizes that the great Marian sanctuaries, for example, are also places of devotion and piety which bear many fruits, beyond theological discourses. These events underline that divine grace acts as it wishes, well beyond our immediate reasoning.

However, discernment is necessary, recalls the document signed by two Jesuits, Cardinal Fernandez and Pope Francis. Discernment to avoid the spiritual, psychological, moral and theological excesses that can be facilitated by the extraordinary reception of the irrational. An urgent and necessary reminder as the Catholic Church continues its work of clarification in the face of scandals of abuse or manipulation.


The document recalls that, in the past, the work of discernment of the local bishop has sometimes led to difficulties. Until then, he had at his disposal the tool of the “report of supernaturality” which is a public declaration that he can make at the end of his investigation to validate a supernatural phenomenon.

But such validation has often led to excesses in expressions or practices. A certain bishop suggested that from now on all the faithful must believe in a particular apparition. Such local leaders developed devotional practices which sometimes became uncontrollable.

However, in the Catholic tradition, if a Marian apparition can be recognized, it is never of the same order as the faith proclaimed in its creed, which is that of welcoming Christ as redeemer and faith in the Triune God.

The investigation procedure is so cumbersome and complex that, the text recalls, “after 1950, no more than six cases were officially resolved” by the canonical legal authorities.

A new tool

One way to move forward now is to use another pastoral tool. The bishop can express a Nihil obstat (translation: “Without obstacle”), to say publicly that it does not pose any obstacle to the faithful praying in a place of this type, having not identified, to date, any phenomena contradictory to the common faith of Christians.

“These possible conclusions do not normally include a declaration on the supernatural character of the phenomenon discerned, that is to say on the possibility of affirming with moral certainty that it comes from a decision of God who willed it directly. On the contrary, the concession of a Nihil obstat simply indicates, as Pope Benedict XVI has already explained, that with regard to this phenomenon, the faithful “are authorized to adhere to it in a prudent manner.” As it is not a statement about the supernatural nature of the facts, it is even clearer, as Pope Benedict XVI also said, that it is only an aid “but it does not “It is not obligatory to use it.”(5) On the other hand, this intervention naturally leaves open the possibility that, paying attention to the evolution of devotion, a different intervention may be necessary in the future. »

Excerpt from the Vatican document

A complex story

In fact, the 20th century saw several complex procedures of this kind. Without explicitly citing it, the document mentions in particular the management of the so-called Amsterdam Marian apparitions (1945-1959) which took more than half a century to be correctly discerned.

By avoiding the use of the “declaration of supernaturality” which then creates unmanageable expectations, the document instead offers the possibility to a bishop to support a phenomenon in a reasonable manner and without excessive enthusiasm.

Faced with objective proof of falsification, the bishop will, however, be able to more easily make a declaration of non-supernaturality which remains in use.

A new procedure and six levels

The process is thus clarified: it is always the local bishop who exercises the pastoral and spiritual discernment of a phenomenon of this kind. However, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith must always be consulted before any possible approval. And it becomes an official partner of this decision.

  • THE Nihil obstat (“Nothing stands in the way”) gives authorization to deploy the place of apparitions as a pastoral proposition, but without forcing anything, and without expressing a definitive judgment on the supernatural authenticity of a phenomenon.
  • One degree below, the statement Prae oculis habeatur (“It should be kept in mind”), emphasizes a mixture of positive and negative things in a given phenomenon, and the need for further clarification
  • One degree lower still, the statement Curator (“Take charge”). These are phenomena with ambiguous dimensions which prevent the bishop from encouraging his faithful to go there. But its responsibility is also to support those who do it anyway.
  • There statement Sub-mandate (“Under mandate”), underlines the presence around this phenomenon of people who make abusive use of it, particularly with financial abuses or in opposition to the local bishop. The latter, with the support of Rome, must intervene to resume pastoral direction.
  • There statement Prohibition and obstruatur (“Forbidden and prevented”) takes place in the case where the critical points predominate over more positive dimensions. The bishop must then explain to the faithful why this phenomenon should not be offered to their devotion.
  • Finally, the declaration ofnon-supernaturality» is a public declaration which denounces the abusive nature, based on concrete facts, of a phenomenon falsely announced as supernatural.

This gradation allows a more subtle accompaniment of complex realities with an important common point: neither the bishop nor the dicastery will unequivocally declare that a phenomenon is of supernatural origin.

Necessary reminders

The first articles of the document remind us that no supernatural phenomenon can claim to add anything to the biblical Revelation of Christ. Faced with unexplained phenomena at a given moment, spiritual discernment must be exercised to know if this is the work of a divine action, if the teachings received are compatible with the Gospel, if the fruits borne are good. , etc.

In the procedures to follow, in the form of the canonical articles of the second part of the document, it is recalled that everyone will refrain from making a definitive public declaration, and invites the bishops to constant work of support and discernment.

It is emphasized that sensationalism cannot be used in these phenomena (tears of blood, transformed hosts, etc.)

It is also specified that after having organized a team of experts to evaluate with him a phenomenon of this kind, the bishop must also hire a notary who will take note of all the acts of the commission.

It is also clarified the place of confessors and spiritual companions of clairvoyants or miraculous people, the place of a scientific investigation when it is necessary, etc.

Finally, it is emphasized that alongside the serious work of the bishop and his commission, the dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith retains the possibility of intervening at any time in the process.

In conclusion

We will have understood that at a time when the Catholic Church is making a great effort to clarify things to escape the excesses of corruption, manipulation and abuse, this document is one more stone in the building.

He tackles head-on and publicly a complex question, that of the unexplained phenomena of miracles, apparitions and other personal revelations. A question all the more complex because with current means of communication, the slightest event of this kind can have a global impact, with its share of emotions and debates which then make the work of the ecclesial authorities particularly difficult.

If the document implicitly mentions the apparitions of Amsterdam, it says nothing about those of Medjugorge which is one of those files with a stormy history and complex discernment.

It is a safe bet that with the new reading grid in six levels proposed here, a declaration on the status of these apparitions will be easier in the future, without falling into the trap of pure validation and without nuances, as well devotees of these places would like.

This exercise of discernment in the service of pastoral care and piety, of which miraculous phenomena are one of the places of expression, should be highlighted here. It will be interesting to hear the reception of the bishops of the world who, confronted with these phenomena, are often helpless, sometimes clumsy, even tempted to get carried away in what could also be an “easy” operation of pastoral renewal through of the miracle.

Pope Francis, for the sake of the dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, offers here a beautiful exercise of clarification which accepts the complexity of situations, but without letting them transform into confusion of minds and hearts.

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