ROME – On Friday, the Vatican rolled out a new expedited procedure for vetting alleged Marian apparitions or other spiritual phenomenon, ruling that they will no longer deemed supernatural, but simply that nothing stands in the way of encouraging devotion.

In an introductory presentation of the new norms, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), said one of the biggest novelties is that, in order to prevent delays in the vetting process for alleged apparitions, the discernment process will end not with a declaration of ‘de supernaturalitate’ (of the supernatural).”

Rather, six different “prudential conclusions” will be given, depending on the case, he said, insisting that “as a rule,” these conclusions “do not include the possibility of declaring that the phenomenon under discernment is of supernatural origin – that is, affirming with moral certainty that it originates from a decision willed by God in a direct way.”

Fernández explained that the decision was made largely on grounds that a ruling on alleged supernatural phenomena would be reached faster, which is especially important in the digital age, and to avoid any confusion that belief in these phenomena is obligatory.

The new norms “entirely” replace the previous set, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1978, which were only published in 2011, and spell out six new rulings the DDF can give when cases of alleged apparitions arise, while insisting that from now on, no ruling deeming them to be “supernatural” in nature is to be given.

Among other things, the new norms also appear to acknowledge the use of false mysticism, the use of spiritual images or symbolism, in recent abuse scandals in the Church, insisting that careful attention must be paid to whether the alleged supernatural events are being used “as a means of or pretext for exerting control over people or carrying out abuses.”

Fernández in his preparatory note said that part of the logic for the new norms was that in the past, decisions “took an excessively long time, sometimes spanning several decades,” meaning a ruling often came when it was “too late.”

He said a revision of the 1978 norms began in 2019, and that during a November 2023 session in the DDF, it was agreed that “a comprehensive and radical revision” was needed.

The final draft of the new norms was presented to the pope on May 4, and he approved them, decreeing that they take effect on May 19, 2024, the Solemnity of Pentecost.

Fernández said another reason new norms were needed was the fact that in the past, bishops would obtain the required clearance from the Vatican to encourage devotion to an alleged apparition, but they were not allowed to say the DDF was involved.

He said some bishops had also made confusing statements implying that faithful were obliged to believe in the phenomenon such as, “I confirm the absolute truth of the facts” and “the faithful must undoubtedly consider as true,” at times acting as if the apparitions “were valued more than the Gospel itself.”

Fernández also noted that “very few cases” of alleged apparitions ever achieved a clear determination on their supernatural status, saying only six cases since 1950 had been definitively resolved.

The new norms were clear in stating that the Gospels contain “all you need for the Christian life,” and that supernatural phenomena such as apparitions are not necessary or obligatory, however, at times God grants them “not to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history.”

Once an inquiry into an alleged apparition or spiritual event has been completed by the local diocesan bishop and sent to the DDF with his opinion, the Vatican office, according to the new norms, can respond with one of six conclusions.

Rather than a positive ruling on the supernatural nature of the alleged event, the DDF will now offer a conclusion of nihil obstat, or ‘nothing stands in the way.’

According to the norms, this ruling is given when, “Without expressing any certainty about the supernatural authenticity of the phenomenon itself, many signs of the action of the Holy Spirit are acknowledged…and no aspects that are particularly critical or risky have been detected, at least so far.”

In this case, the diocesan bishop is encouraged to promote devotion and pilgrimages.

The DDF can also issue the conclusion, Prae oculis habeatur, “it should be kept in mind,” which is to be given in cases in which “positive signs are recognized,” as well as “some aspects of confusion or potential risks.”

A third possible ruling is Curatur, or “it is taken care of,” which according to the norms will be given when devotion to an alleged event has already spread widely, but “various or significant critical elements are noted.”

In this case, the norms say, “a ban that could upset the People of God is not recommended,” but the diocesan bishop is asked not to encourage the phenomenon, and to promote alternative devotions instead.

A ruling of Sub mandato, “under command,” is to be given when the critical issues do not involve the alleged phenomenon, but the person or people involved “who are misusing it” either for profit, for immoral acts, or for some other personal gain.

Diocesan bishops in these cases, or others delegated by the Holy See, will intervene directly, or if they are unable to, “will try to reach a reasonable agreement.”

The DDF can also issue the ruling, Prohibetur et obstruatur, “it is forbidden and obstructed,” when there are serious concerns surrounding an alleged supernatural event. In this case, the bishop is asked to make a public declaration that devotion is not allowed, and to prepare a catechesis on the reasons why.

Finally, the DDF can issue a Declaratio de non supernaturalitate, “a declaration of non-supernaturalism,” when an event is found to be definitively “not supernatural,” for example, when an alleged visionary admits to having lied, or “credible witnesses” provide proof of falsity.

In all cases, the norms reiterate that “as a rule, neither the Diocesan Bishop, nor the Episcopal Conferences, nor the Dicastery will declare that these phenomena are of supernatural origin, even if a Nihil obstat is granted,” although the pope can authorize “a special procedure in this regard” if he chooses.

Fernández said in his preparatory note that while in the past there has been confusion surrounding alleged apparitions, including cases of back-and-forth approvals and disapprovals, this can be solved “by ensuring a quicker and clearer involvement of this Dicastery.”

It can also be avoided by no longer striving for a declaration of “supernaturalness,” which he said, “carries high expectations, anxieties, and even pressures.”

The issuing of a Nihil obstat instead, he said, authorizes positive pastoral work while also downplaying expectations.

He also pointed to the use of new language in the norms, which state that the Holy Spirit can act “in the midst of” alleged supernatural events, a change in language he said, “clarifies that even if the event itself is not declared to be of supernatural origin, there is still a recognition of the signs of the Holy Spirit’s supernatural action in the midst of what is occurring.”

In terms of procedures, when an alleged supernatural event occurs, it is the task of the diocesan bishop, according to the norms, to personally investigate himself or through a delegate, in consultation with the national bishops’ conference and the DDF.

As part of his inquiry, the bishop must establish a commission with at least one theologian, one canonist, and one expert chosen based on the nature of the alleged phenomenon.

A delegate will also be named by the bishop to coordinate its work, and a notary will also be appointed who will attend all meetings and interviews, take minutes and assist with organization.

Members of the commission, the norms say, must be of “unquestionable reputation, sure faith, certain doctrine, and proven prudence,” and must never have direct involvement with the people or events being evaluated.

In the case where multiple dioceses are involved, an inter-diocesan commission will be established to review the alleged events, in collaboration with the national bishops’ conference.

Any witnesses interviewed as part of the inquiry must be deposed in front of the entire commission, if possible, and they must be interviewed as soon as possible.

Any audio and visual materials that are relevant must also be carefully examined by the commission, and any organic material – such as bread or wine in the case of an alleged Eucharistic miracle – must be sent to a lab, while maintaining due reverence for the sacrament.

If the alleged supernatural events continue during the investigation, the diocesan bishop is asked to avoid any “uncontrolled or dubious displays of devotion.”

Once an inquiry is completed, the bishop must issue his own votem, or opinion, on the report, and submit it to the DDF.

As the case is being evaluated, special attention must be given to the good reputation and ecclesial standing of any witnesses, as well as any potential causes for concern, such as efforts to seek profit or personal gain.

“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 norms say.

Once the case arrives to the DDF, officials will make their own evaluation and respond with a ruling, which the bishop must communicate to the people.

If a Nihil obstat is granted, bishops are instructed to carefully evaluate the fruits and growth of devotion, ensuring “the faithful do not consider any of the determinations as an approval of the supernatural nature of the phenomenon itself.”

However, if at any point the alleged event can be traced to a scammer or someone who seeks profit or other personal interests, the diocesan bishop must apply “on a case-by-case basis, the relevant canonical penal norms in force.”

The new norms come into force amid several recent controversial cases of alleged apparitions, including the controversial Marian apparitions in Medjugorje; an alleged case of a Marian statue that cried blood in Trevignano Romano, Italy, that was eventually debunked as false; and an apparent apparition in Amsterdam in which Mary allegedly asked the pope to declare a new dogma assigning her the title, “Co-redemptrix.”

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