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A Wicked Generation Seeks a Sign: Catholics and Private Revelation

Immaculate Heart of MaryHave you heard about how everything will be okay in this world once the Pope consecrates Russia to Mary’s Immaculate Heart, as stated by Our Lady of Fatima?  Have you heard the latest revelation from Medjugorje?    Maybe you wonder what the person calling themselves Maria Divine Mercy is saying.  One thing is for sure:  We Catholics love our private revelations.  Approved or unapproved, a sure way to generate traffic on your blog is to start promoting this or that private revelation.

I don’t really want to focus too much on which revelation is deemed worthy of belief.  (Though for a safe start, only have a devotion to those which the local ordinary has explicitly approved.)  I also do not wish to discount the good that has occurred from private revelation deemed worthy of belief.  Some of the messages (particularly Fatima’s insistence on penance and Eucharistic Adoration) are incredibly important for our time.  Instead I’m more concerned by what our present obsession with private revelation says about our faith, our Church, and the world at large.

As always, we should begin our discussion by laying out the bare essentials that the Catholic Church teaches about private revelation.  The Catechism states the following (CCC 67):

Throughout the ages, there have been so-called “private” revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.

One thing we must always remember is that private revelation is not binding upon anyone.  While you may have a particular devotion to Fatima, one is free to ignore Fatima, and neither person is inherently more or less Catholic because of that decision.  What matters is how faithful we are to the deposit of faith.  If Fatima encourages you to go to Eucharistic adoration on a daily basis, then blessed are you.  If another revelation causes you to take up this or that holy practice, that is a good thing.    While doing this we need to always remember what is important is the virtue being cultivated, not the source of the message that encouraged said virtue.

If human experience has shown anything, it is that we are terrible at living within these boundaries.  We look to turn these things into ideologies.  When we follow certain devotions, we are the True Catholic ™ and everyone else is impure.  Taken to their extreme, new sects have formed once they left the communion of the Church over said private revelation, which is certainly contrary to Our Lord’s prayer “that they may all be one” (John 17:21) and his promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church.  (Matthew 16:18)

Because of this tendency, the spiritual masters of Catholic Tradition have always been wary of private revelation.  Nobody was stronger in their warnings than the greatest of the West’s spiritual masters:  St. John of the Cross. While accepting such revelation can occur, in The Ascent of Mount Carmel (Chapter XI), he gives the following advice:

  • Reject all private revelation, good or bad.
  • Such private revelation is not necessary for salvation
  • As a general rule, private revelation comes from the Devil more than God
  • Private Revelation, due to its sensual nature (that is, being perceived by the senses) is inherently ambiguous, and many times provides more confusion than clarity.
  • Private Revelation can instill within the recipient (and just as much the devotee of said revelation) a sense of vanity, feeling that they are far more enlightened then they actually are.
  • Because of this, the devil frequently uses private revelation and apparitions to deceive people, especially those who are spiritually immature.
  • Far from being offended by rejecting these, God is pleased, because it shows a mature soul that walks by faith and not by sight.  (2 Cor 5:7)

When we examine the Holy Scriptures, we find ample evidence for the caution the Mystical Doctor advises.  At first, God gave his revelation through direct contact and the Ten Commandments.  When the Israelites demanded more proof that God was who He said He was, it quickly became apparent that signs and wonders were never enough, they continued to rebel.  Since they rejected the clear message of revelation, God sent the prophets to comfort His people (Baruch 4:5, IS 61:1) and to call them to repentance.  When that failed, He gave signs and wonders.  Finally, God gave the Israelites the “sign” of various foreign nations conquering them.

This was the context Christ lived in, and people constantly asked for a sign to prove He was the Messiah.  Christ’s response was telling.  “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks a sign.”  (Matthew 12:43)  Elsewhere Christ tells of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, where Abraham rebukes the rich man’s request for a sign be shown to his family by stating “they have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them.”  (Luke 16:29)

Christ’s point was simple.  He has already given us everything we need for salvation.  Why do we desire more?  This world desires more because it is looking for an excuse to not follow God.  We demand more because we are looking for an excuse to not follow God on His terms.  Isn’t that the general point of many of these apparitions?  Do Penance, be faithful to the Gospel, believe in the teachings of the Church.  If we had been doing these things, God wouldn’t be trying to get our attention with these revelations.

If we ever want to get out of the crisis the Church is currently in, we will not find it in a new private apparition or revelation.  We will only find it in following the Gospel.


  • ELC

    Thank you very much for this. I am going to share it on the “Catholic Party” group on Facebook, where somebody is posting the MDM stuff.

  • Ginge White

    “…say about our faith, our Church…” You mean ‘the’ Church. If you don’t get the basics right all the rest is meaningless.

    • http://commonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com/ Kevin Tierney

      No, I mean “our” Church. The Church is all of God’s people, whether they be clerics making up the Magesterium, or laymen participating in her mission in their own way.

      I don’t belong to some impersonal structure. I belong to the Body of Christ, and I’m a member of that body.

  • kelso

    Would you call Our Lord’s revelations to Saint Margaret Mary mere “private” revelation? Or Our Lady’s to Saint Catherine Laboure? 70,000 people saw the sun dance and fall at Fatima. The wet ground and mud dried up instantly. How “private” was that? Ignore Fatima at your own peril. Our Lady did not deliver so serious a message to be snubbed, but to be obeyed. Jesus obeyed her. Who are we to ignore her wishes? And what right does the pope have to reveal the vision part of the Third Secret and not the message that went with it? He has no right to disobey the Mother of God. The pope was ordered to consecrate “Russia” with all the bishops, collegially, to the Immaculate Heart and the past half dozen popes have refused her obedience. What you have posted is very misleading. Fatima is not Mejigourje. It is more than just a private revelation as many other visitations were.

    • http://commonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com/ Kevin Tierney

      Actually….. yes, that is private revelation. If it didn’t happen during the Age of Revelation (the time leading from Moses to the death of the Apostle John), then it is private revelation, no matter what it is. What I did was post the teaching of the Church by referencing the Catechism and the Spiritual masters.

      The Church is quite clear that such revelations cannot have the assent of faith. If you wish to cite official Church teaching for your position, you are welcome to do so. I’m just going to say, with all due respect, that this issue is about as crystal clear as they come.

      • Jordan

        Yes, but of course if you’re already blinded by devotion to a private revelation, crystal clarity does little good.

        • Headstand

          If only all of us developed as much devotion and faith in the Mass, sacraments, and magisterium of our Church which just mere private revelation always points us back to.

    • Paul Sho

      i agree with you absolutely. the last Fatima apparition occurred on 13th October. the Vision of Pope Leo XIII occurred on 13th October; and they both point to grave dangers facing the Church at the very top. Only a careless Christian will ignore these messages.

  • Daniele

    Regarding the topic of private revelation that is
    mentioned here, it is important to get some things straight. Although the
    catechism briefly summarizes the Church’s position on private revelations in
    no.’s 66 and 67, the full understanding is obviously more complex than just a
    few paragraphs. This is rendered more complicated by the fact that this area
    has truly been neglected in theology. OFTEN, one finds a SIMPLISTIC
    MISUNDERSTANDING of the Church’s true teaching. More attention should be made
    to the word “EXPLICIT” in number 66. This is why the full teaching of the
    Council is important, and POPE BENEDICT, as Cardinal has done this in detail
    and it should be required reading for theology teachers. In the document
    entitled, The Message of Fatima,
    there is a section entitled “Theological Commentary.” It is here that the
    future Pope clarifies the Church’s teaching on Tradition in relation to private
    revelation. He does this first and foremost by putting it in the context of Dei Verbum, No. 8. There we read: “For
    there is a GROWTH IN THE UNDERSTANDING of
    the realities and the words which
    have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by
    believers, who treasure these things in their hearts, (cf. Lk 2:19, 51),
    through the intimate understanding of the
    spiritual THINGS THEY EXPERIENCE, and through the preaching of those who
    have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth” In the same
    section, the Council further clarifies: “This tradition which comes from the
    apostles DEVELOPS in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit …. For as the
    centuries succeed on another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the
    fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete
    fulfillment in her …. Thus God, who spoke of old uninterruptedly CONVERSES with
    the Bride of the beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living
    voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world,
    LEADS into all truth those who believe and makes the word of Christ dwell
    abundantly in them (cf. Col 3:16).” What is perhaps most striking is that the
    former Pope then went on to add the statement that “In this context it now
    becomes possible to understand rightly the concept of ‘private revelation’
    which refers to all the VISIONS AND REVELATIONS which have taken place since
    the completion of the New Testament.” He adds that Jesus was referring also to private revelations when he said: “I
    have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the
    Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not
    speak on his own authority … He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine
    and declare it to you” (Jn 16:12-14). The importance that the present Pope gave
    to private revelation would probably still be a surprise to many who interpret
    Tradition as merely regarding the statements of the Magisterium or the
    consensus of Catholic thought over the ages. The idea that private revelation
    should be viewed in the context of tradition has, however, in fact been the
    praxis of the Church, as is evident in the liturgical year. Thus, to name just
    a few, there is a feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, there is the solemn celebration
    of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, and most recently there has been the
    introduction of the Feast of Divine Mercy, which is part of the devotion which was
    spread by St. Faustina Kawalska. The Pope has expanded on the correct idea of
    Tradition in his talks on April 26, 2006 and May 3, 2006 which are easily found
    on the Vatican website. To conclude (to be brief), people who are dismissive of
    private revelation as being something of little importance are certainly not in
    harmony with the views of Pope Benedict.

    • http://commonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com/ Kevin Tierney

      “Although the catechism briefly summarizes the Church’s position on private revelations in no.’s 66 and 67, the full understanding is obviously more complex than just a few paragraphs.”

      Then why has the Magesterium not taken this alleged complexity into account? There’s a reason the situation is ‘briefly summarized.” From a Catholic perspective, there’s not much beyond it.

      You say it is “neglected in theology”, but then try to show how those who are simply going by what is written are false.

      Yes, private revelation can be used to gain a deeper understanding of the faith. Yet as Pope Benedict (the other Pope Benedict, as in Benedict XIV) points out:

      “Although an assent of Catholic faith may not be given to revelations thus approved, still, an assent of human faith, made according to the rules of prudence, is due them; for according to these rules such revelations are probable and worthy of pious credence.”

      You see that. “An assent of Catholic faith my NOT, NOT, NOT BE GIVEN TO REVELATIONS THUS APPROVED.”

      When it comes to private revelations being made into liturgical feasts, again, one is not required to accept they happened. They are made feasts because the theological message promoted is one vital for the Church. That message is what people are required to accept.

      Nothing Benedict XVI says contradicts this, but a lot of what you say directly contradicts the Catechism, the spiritual masters of the Church, and Pope Benedict XIV.

      My only point is that no Catholic is required to accept any private revelation, and that the greater spiritual tradition, while not being dismissive towards private revelation, is a lot more leery of it then we modern Catholics are. Indeed, Pope Benedict states that “it is possible to refuse to accept such revelations and to turn from them, as long as one does so with proper modesty, for good reasons, and without the intention of setting himself up as a superior.”

      But of course, we modern Catholics have a better understanding of spirituality than rubes like St. John of the Cross.

      • http://www.jonathanfsullivan.com/ Jonathan F. Sullivan

        Well, St. John of the Cross didn’t have the internets. How enlightened could he have been?

        • Headstand

          Most times I wish I didn’t live in the disinformation age magnified by the internet.

      • Daniele

        Actually, I was simply quoting Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, who also quotes the Council and the Bible. If you have any questions, write him.

        • http://commonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com/ Kevin Tierney

          And you were showing you completely missed his point. Yes, private revelation can help us come to a deeper understanding of the faith. That’s simply restating the Catechism.

          That isn’t the same as saying that Private Revelation is binding upon all Catholics, or that the approach of those like the great Mystical Doctor is not a sound one.

  • Shawn McElhinney

    For those who question Kevin’s approach to private revelation in this article, I want to point them to the instruction of Pope Benedict XIV who wrote the following in his highly influential multi-volume Treatise on the Beatification and Canonization of the Servants of God(*) on how to approach private revelations:

    ###”To [private] revelations, even those approved, we must not and cannot give the assent of Catholic faith, but only that of a human faith, according to the rules of prudence, as these indicate that such revelations are probable and piously credible.” [Pope Benedict XIV: De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et de Beatorum Canonizatione Bk. III, c. 52-53; thus (ch. 53, n. 15)]###

    Another rendering of this judgment is as follows:

    ###”It is not obligatory nor even possible to give them the assent of Catholic faith, but only of human faith, in conformity with the dictates of prudence, which presents them to us as probable and worthy of pious belief’ (De canon., III, liii, xxii, II)”###

    The general understanding of these matters was explained in this fashion by the one-time Vatican Librarian under Pope Pius IX:

    ###”Everyone knows that we are fully at liberty to believe or not in private revelations, even those most worthy of credence. Even when the Church approves them, they are merely received as probable and not as indubitable. They are not to be used as deciding questions of history, natural philosophy, philosophy, or theology which are matters of controversy between the Doctors.” [Cardinal Jean Baptiste Francois Pitra]###

    If you want to make the argument that Pope Benedict XIV’s instruction above is not a part of his papal magisterium, that well be right about but observe how the principles set down by Benedict XIV and elaborated on by Cardinal Pitra have been embodied in subsequent magisterial texts. For example, we have the following from a Decree of the Sacred Council of Rites under Pope Pius IX published on May 2, 1877:

    ###”Such apparitions or revelations were neither approved nor condemned by the Apostolic See, but only permitted as things to be believed with a merely human faith, according to the tradition they bear, confirmed by suitable testimonies and monuments.”###

    Notice how the instruction from 1877 bears the unmistakable stamp of Pope Benedict XIV’s earlier (circa 1743) exposition on the matter! Furthermore, Pope Pius X in his Encyclical Letter Pascendi Dominici Gregis had this to say about pious traditions of the sort that private revelations fall under:

    ###”When a judgement is to be made about pious traditions, one needs to remember that the Church uses such great prudence in this matter that it does not permit such traditions even to be put in writing without great caution and only if the statement of Urban VIII is placed as a preface. Even if this is done correctly, the Church does not assert the truth of the fact but, unless human arguments for believing it are lacking, simply does not forbid its being believed. So, thirty years ago, the Sacred Council for protecting legitimate rites declared (Decree of May 2, 1877)…” [Pope Pius X: Pascendi Dominici Gregis September 8, 1907 (ASS 40 [1907], 649)]###

    In short, no private revelation is of required belief -it is purely to the discretion of the individual using rules of prudence. Consequently, private revelation as they involve mere human faith cannot be used to decide questions pertaining to philosophy, theology, or any other field of endeavour. Therefore, any Catholic who tries to do this is no Traditionalist properly speaking but instead is engaging in spiritual abuse deserving of no small rebuke. And that is the bottom line really!

    (*) This work is *the* most significant source of the past two hundred and fifty years influencing the beatification and canonization process.

  • http://www.gadel.info/ GADEL

    Interesting post.

  • existentialiste832

    Laudable is author’s concern i.e., for some (if not, most) Catholics, private revelation has become or is becoming the focal point of their faith. In the prefatory statement however, the phenomenon at Fatima (Church-approved) is associated with the presumably spurious ones. Yes, private revelation is never an article of Catholic faith but the Church approves it nonetheless for the edification of the faithful and—for this reason, she developed guidelines for its discernment.