I was delighted to read the headline, “Pope declares ‘holy war’ against people who falsely claim to have seen the Virgin Mary”. That is, I was until I read the details.
The pontiff is publishing guidelines to help bishops “snuff out an explosion of bogus heavenly apparitions” (says reporter Simon Caldwell), to “distinguish between true and false claims of visions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, messages, stigmata—the appearances of the five wounds of Christ—and weeping or bleeding statues.”
Six years earlier, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he warned about the boom in pseudo-mystics who, claiming a direct connection to God, were often luring the Catholic faithful into cults. As pope, he is now demanding the “utmost rigor” in investigating supernatural claims.
Unfortunately, the new handbook (to be published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) will merely prompt the local bishop to create an investigating commission of psychologists and psychiatrists, as well as theologians and priests. And that is nothing new.
The church has long been using that basic procedure—with mixed results. For example, the 1981 case of an alleged weeping and perambulating statue at Thornton, California, was effectively determined by a clerical commission to be a probable hoax. On the other hand, Padre Pío, despite evidence he faked his stigmata, was made a saint—albeit not for his wounds but for posthumous, supposedly miraculous healings. (See Joe Nickell, Looking for a Miracle , 1993, pp. 184, 223; Joe Nickell, “Padre Pío: Wonderworker or Charlatan?” Skeptical Inquirer , Sept./Oct. 2008, pp. 19—21.)
In any event, the newly published criteria are to be essentially theological: the intent is to determine whether claims are consistent with Catholic doctrine, not whether they are supportable by science. Worse, in some cases exorcists may be employed to determine whether a supposedly credible claim is of “divine” or “demonic” origin.
Exorcists! It leaves one sadly shaking his head at the ignorance and superstition that are being perpetuated.