March 19, 2009
A Crackdown on Miracles?
— Heather A. Hartel
There has been a recent flood of speculation that silence will be considered golden by the Vatican in cases of apparitions, revelations, visions, and miraculous happenings such as weeping statues and stigmata, at least until officials conduct a formal investigation and give permission for the claim to go public if it passes muster. According to reports, a Vatican spokesperson for the Congregation on the Doctrine of Faith denied that the 1978 "vademecum" handbook is being revised to mandate silence as a first test of authenticity; but rumors of a Vatican crackdown on miraculous claims appeared in a number of media sources - from FoxNews TV to the Irish Catholic Times - in mid-January, and continue to reappear in many other sources without mention of the Vatican's denial.
These rumors originated from more conservative elements of the Church, specifically those who publish Petrus, the online Italian periodical in which the news first appeared. Writers of the original report fervidly view unapproved extraordinary events as hazardous to the faith and risky for the faithful. However, the wide spread of the news might be driven by other forces, such as public anxiety about the Church's slowness to declare the final word on some of the more popular Marian visions of the late twentieth century, most notably those at Medjugorje. The jury is still out on the validity of the visions there in 1981, yet pilgrims have been visiting the site for more than two decades, and there is little evidence of the movement waning.
The speculations and the Vatican's denial also represent tensions that can arise between popular and official forces in cases of miraculous happenings. Extraordinary incidents can become deeply contested and reveal power struggles between popular devotional practices and official regulation. The enthused faithful often have different ideas about the meaning of the miraculous than Church authorities have; and the authorities, in turn, feel an urgent obligation to prevent the laity from being misled. The norm is for authorities to try to redirect or reign in popular devotion until investigations have concluded, sometimes without much success.
A good question to pose, then, is whether the devotional life of the Catholic Church should happen from the top down or from the bottom up, or whether its development should continue to be the result of an ongoing negotiation between the people and the hierarchy. New stricter regulations would tip the scales in favor of Church authorities, something that would certainly appeal to authors of the Petrus article, but that might cause fear and anxiety for those whose spiritual lives have come to depend upon alleged miraculous happenings.
When people are permitted to recognize miraculous events before an official decision, devotional fires are fueled by the hope that a connection with the divine exists. But if the Church were to require silence, these happenings would be prevented from entering devotional networks in the first place, and popular movements would stand little chance of participating in the dynamic dialectic with the hierarchy that characterizes these kinds of events and helps maintain a lively culture of Catholic devotion.
The claims of Petrus bring up another issue as well. Because innovative technologies can spread news of Marian apparitions, visions, and miracles with lighting speed, devotional culture has taken on its own virtual life in the twenty-first century. Thus, the need to reduce the number of suspect miracles must seem all the more pressing to some factions within the Church. But if the Vatican were to actually start cracking down on false claims and demanding silence, it would also have to contend effectively with today's and tomorrow's technology. It seems unlikely that the Vatican, which has only had its own Youtube channel for a few months, would be up to such a task anytime soon.
Given virtual devotional culture, cases like Garabandal (a site to which pilgrims continue to flock despite official statements that the occurrences there were not supernatural), and publications like Mary's Message to the World (1991, 2005) by self-proclaimed Texas visionary Annie Kirkwood (which remains an underground bestseller), it is unlikely that Church authority will be able to completely control either the story of a compelling miraculous event or vision or the power behind it, even if new stricter policies are enacted. At least for now, it appears that the dialectical development of devotional Catholicism will continue, despite efforts to award the Vatican with a home field advantage.
Heather A. Hartel holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Iowa and works as an online adjunct professor for St. Leo University and the University of Maryland University College.