How should Catholics treat private revelations when studying theology?18-min read (inc. footnotes)

It is a dogma that public revelation ended with the death of the last apostle. Nonetheless, throughout history God has made private revelations to chosen souls, even for the public good. Consider the revelations made to St Joan of Arc, which led to the victory of France over English rule; or the revelations of the Sacred Heart to St Margaret Mary Alacoque; or the revelations of the Holy Face to Sr Marie of St Peter. In our time, we can call to mind the apparitions of our Lady at Fatima, Portugal.

This much is certain, and we firmly believe that the Fatima revelations have an ongoing importance for our time – and that many of our problems are related to their being neglected.

But what place, in general, should such private revelations have in the life of the average Catholic?

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A case in point: the image above is of Maria Franciszka Kozłowska, a “mystic” condemned as heretical by St Pius X in 1906. This movement started with “conservative” things such as marian devotion, eucharistic adoration and a reform of the morals of the clergy – but there were serious distortions. The condemnation caused a schism in Poland. It created the “Mariavite” sect with around 600,000 (clergy and laity) leaving the Catholic Church, choosing their private revelations over ecclesiastical authority. It ended with things like female ordination. Image Source: Wiki Commons

To answer this, the WM Review are republishing an article from The Casuist,1 which was a compilation of moral theology questions that were answered in The Homiletic Monthly and was published in 1906. I have also included a mini-commentary (click on the green box) on the relationships between such revelations, theology, and how we make decisions in the current crisis.

Sadly, some of those who most need clarity on private revelations will not realise this to be so. There is a tendency amongst some traditionalist Catholics to think that they are safe from falling into errors or other problems, and to trust uncritically the clergy to whom they have attached themselves. They may read the text below without seeing that they are moving in a troubling direction, or they may find reasons to show how what they are doing is different to what is described.

Nonetheless, I hope that the republished extract and commentary prove useful to some.


There is a temptation to make apparitions and revelations the centre of the spiritual life, even to the detriment of learning basic sound doctrine. This comes with certain dangers, particularly a lack of proportion. This is to say nothing of those revelations which have not received that approval, or have even been condemned.

But things can go a step further when Catholic social action becomes too overtly tied to such things. The world’s recent problems are related to the liberty of the Church, the social rights of Christ the King, Catholic social doctrine and the right ordering of society, and the true nature of law and liberty. As an example of something done well (even if we disagree with its implications about Francis), one official flyer of UK Prays leaves aside details of private revelations, and focuses on these objective principles of the Faith, of philosophy and of natural law:

“As Catholics we pray the Rosary for cohesion and reconciliation in society, for peace, and true freedom. We pray for the people, for the rulers, and for the kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ in society. At the same time always for the freedom of the Church, for the clergy, for the bishops, for the Pope, and in reparation for the sins committed against God Almighty and His Holy Mother.”

Rosary vigil of reparation for state interference in the life and mission of the Church, outside Westminster Cathedral, London, Nov 2020. Photo by D.G. Wright

Beyond these factors, an exaggerated interest in private revelations can cause distortions in theology and in decisions in the current crisis. As this is a diversion from The Casuist, my comments, taking Fatima as the focus, are in this green drop-down section for those who wish to read them.

Click here for “Fatima, Theology and the Crisis” (drops down)

As I said, we believe that the revelations of Fatima carry a continuing importance for the Church and the World.

Nonetheless, it is important to have clear in our minds the proper role of such revelations, and how they interact with the doctrine and theology of the Church.

But what is this proper role, and what is the relationship between private revelations and theology, particularly regarding the decisions we must make in the post-conciliar wreckage?

Private revelations, theology and decisions in the crisis

Over the past sixty years, various different groups have tried to “co-opt” the messages at Fatima in support of their theological positions. Some have even gone further, and used these revelations to rule out competing theological positions.

To take an example, some speak as if the idea that “Paul VI and his successors have not been true popes” is refuted by the fact that Our Lady of Fatima requested that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart by the pope and the bishops.

What are we to make of arguments like this? I will give four observations before we turn to The Casuist text below.

1. Attempts to shut down the debate

While questions on this topic can be genuine, arguments like this are generally attempts to end the debate, through an appeal to a perceived authority. This is essentially pious browbeating, by which someone uses their private interpretation of private revelation to shame their interlocutor into silence.

It is not legitimate to use such shame tactics based on private revelations in theological reasoning. If a Catholic in good faith is making erroneous points, these points must be refuted, not shamed off the table.

Ad hominem arguments can feasibly be used as a rhetorical device at the service of truth. But I would suggest that any attempt to use private revelations in this way simply betrays a lack of real arguments and understanding of the issues – both those of any given controversy, and of the relationship between private revelations and theology.

2. Bypasses the actual issues

By trying to short-circuit the discussion and shut down the debate, the actual issues are left in a sort of limbo. These issues do not go away or lose their importance simply because someone thinks that a private revelation contradicts a given conclusion.

To return to the previous example: those who hold to the conclusion that Paul VI and recent successors cannot have been legitimate do so, not because of any emotional reaction, but because of considerations about the Church’s indefectibility, infallibility, visibility, unity and the four marks, her conditions for membership of the Church and for holding office, and so on.

Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that the messages of Fatima prove that Paul VI etc were legitimate popes: if this was so, one would still be left with all of the considerations that led to the contrary conclusions in the first place. Some may think that they have saved the claims of Francis etc with their interpretation of private revelation – but they could only have done so at the expense of a received and traditional body of theology, which is very well established in the Church. This happens because they have misunderstood the relevant points and the force of the arguments.

This approach to private revelation implies either a) that this body of theology (approved and used by the Church) was in error – which is untenable; or b) that the “non-pope” conclusion did not, in fact, flow from its premises. In general, those taking this approach do not seem to realise the catastrophic implications of the first option; nor do they take any serious effort to demonstrate the second.

Even less do they realise that it is a worrying sign for them, if their private interpretations of private revelations contradict the settled theses of theology.

3. Not the purpose of private revelations

As suggested above, private revelations are not the proper data by which theological questions are decided. It is true that we are told that some theologians, such as St Thomas Aquinas, were assisted in their theological work by apparitions of Saints (in his case, Sts Peter and Paul). But while we may believe this, the reality is that St Thomas’s writings come with his authority and that of the Church approving them – not with the authority of such apparitions. This is so, even if they were true apparitions.

Some apparitions may provide a sort of “confirmation” of certain ideas – for example, the words of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1858 (“I am the Immaculate Conception”) are taken to be a confirmation of the 1854 definition. But while this is interesting and edifying, we should be clear that we did not need such a confirmation for something that had just been defined by the Church.

Aside from these points – which are sufficient in themselves to show that this is an improper way of approaching theology – we should also recall that private revelations generally serve a particular purpose, and ought not to be used to comment on some other issue.

For Fatima, this includes important things like:

  • The universal call to penance
  • The recitation of the Rosary
  • Devotion to the Immaculate Heart
  • The consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart by the pope, in union with the bishops
  • Warnings about what would happen if various requests were not fulfilled;

But these revelations were not intended to settle questions like those around the status of the post-conciliar popes (although perhaps the unreleased Third Secret may contain something on this topic). It would also be a mistake to take the apparent silence of an approved apparition as a piece of data: God has his own reasons for deciding what to reveal to his chosen souls, and we should not read into things in this way.

For theology as a science, what private revelations tell us might be interesting, enlightening and useful – but it would be gratuitous to think that God intended the Fatima apparitions to settle a dispute in the early twenty-first century, at least without some serious positive reason for thinking so. The way that radical theological disputes have been resolved in history creates a further strong presumption against this idea.

Needless to say, there is even less reason to think that Heaven would intend to cause a radical reform of the established theology of the Church by means of a private revelation. As I said above, any apparition that did try to cause such a thing would be immediately suspect.

Saying this does not mean that the importance of private revelations are necessarily limited to the chosen soul herself – think of the national significance of the Sacred Heart for France, for example. I am not saying that they cannot be enormously important for our time. But we must keep things in the right order, and remembering that the Catholic religion as represented in the catechism is already complete and sufficient. There are no secret, mystical or esoteric updates to our religion ahead of us.

4. Inaccurate representations of private revelations themselves

Frequently the arguments mentioned do not even make sense. We can see this most clearly when they are expressed in syllogistic form. For example:

  1. In 1929, Our Lady of Fatima requested that the Pope consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart.
  2. Our Lady would be requesting something impossible if there were a long interregnum from around 1965, which is absurd.
  3. Therefore there cannot have been a long interregnum from around 1965.

The second premise is clearly gratuitous. Of course, Our Lady could not request or command an impossibility. But the popes prior to an interregnum could have fulfilled the request; and so could a pope that arrives after an interregnum. As such the conclusion does not follow.

But it is even more absurd – really, very absurd – to insist that a group of putative popes must have been legitimate, because otherwise they could not have done something that they did not in fact do.

Further, as I have shown elsewhere, the actual words of the messages of Fatima can even be read so as to promise a long interregnum if the divine requests were not fulfilled. Does this prove our point? No, it is just interesting, and shows the uncertainty of the other arguments.

All of this goes to show the danger of using private interpretations of private revelations to overthrow the settled theses of theology. We are as interested in the Fatima messages as anyone else, but we must keep an order of priority of things in our minds. We do not need these things in the same way that we need our basic catechism, basic doctrine and basic theology.

And if this is how we should treat revelations approved by the Church, should we not fly anything that takes us away from these foundational things or runs contrary to them, as well as all kinds of esotericism and any thirst for mystical novelties?

Although I have taken the Fatima revelations as my focus in this green box, I am by no means denying their singular and ongoing importance for our time. Nor am I suggesting that the revelations, or an interest in them, falls under the criticisms of the text below.

With all this in mind, let us turn to the article from The Casuist.

Concerning the Perusal of Private Revelations

The Casuist, 1906

(UK readers click here)

Images from Internet Archive.

1. There are many persons, especially women endeavouring to lead a holy life, who occupy themselves a great deal with so-called revelations made to pious persons, even to the exclusion of all other spiritual reading matter. Sometimes such persons study the revelations made to some particular saint, drawing all their spiritual nourishment from them; then having their appetite whetted by the perusal of one book of this kind, they eagerly devour anything of the same nature that they are able to lay hold of. They believe in these revelations as firmly as they believe in the Gospels and are strongly disposed to brand as heretics, or at least as suspects, all who do not put the same faith in them as they do themselves. This disposition alone is sufficient to prove that the perusal of these private revelations is not a healthy, spiritual exercise for all indiscriminately, and it becomes necessary from time to time to instruct the faithful on this head.

2. That there may be, that there have been, and that there are at present revelations made to private individuals is beyond question. We are speaking, of course, of revelations made to holy and devout persons, which have been investigated by the Church and declared to contain nothing against faith or good morals. No positive ecclesiastical approbation is ever given to such revelations.

3. When the Church revises and approves revelations and visions in this sense, all she does is to certify that these visions and revelations contain nothing against the “rule of faith,” the “regula fidei“; so that the faithful may believe them without injury to their faith (pie creditur) and use them as a guide to conduct without fear of believing or doing anything unauthorized by the Church. Where the Church has thus given her approval to any particular private revelation, it is no longer permitted to ridicule or to despise it. Fas non est, says Card. Franzelin, tales revelationes contemnere (de div. trad. 22). To do so were to fail in the respect due to the Church. But not to believe the revelation is no sin against the obedience we owe the Church. For the Church, by her approval or quasi-approval of these revelations, has no intention of obliging the faithful to believe them. Whoever believes in them, does so fide humana, and not fide divina, at least not fide divina Catholica. “In spiritual things,” says Catherine Emmerich, “I never believed anything except what was revealed by God and proposed for my belief by the Catholic Church. What I saw in visions I never believed in this way.”

4. The body of revealed truth, necessary to salvation and bearing the seal of infallibility, was completed and closed, once for all, by the teachings of Christ and the apostles. When the Church defines a new dogma, she simply declares authoritatively that it is contained in the teachings of Our Lord and the apostles. Just as private revelations do not bear the seal of infallibility, so neither do they bear the mark of inerrancy. There is no divine inspiration guaranteeing the correct recording of private revelations, as is the case with the Holy Scriptures, even though the fact of the revelations has been established. Private revelations are exposed to a threefold danger. The understanding may err in receiving the revelation. The memory may fail in recording orally or in writing the contents of the revelation. The tongue may err in its effort to clothe the revelation in human words. Moreover, as Bened. XIV remarks, notions and ideas acquired previous to the revelation may be confounded by the person receiving the revelation with the things learned in the revelation, and thus the saints have sometimes considered things to have been revealed to them which were in nowise revealed. Hence the contradictions in different revelations.

5. The supernatural communication, therefore, as well in its reception as in its transmission, may be unwittingly falsified. The Holy Scriptures alone are preserved from such falsifications. And thus it happens that the private revelations of different holy persons contradict one another openly, and in many things.

6. All that the Church says, therefore, when she lends her approval to the private revelations of the saints or other holy persons, is that these revelations may be believed “fide humana” [human faith], and that they are adapted and may be used for the edification of the faithful. The declaration of Benedict XIV does not contradict this: “When the Church has examined and approved these visions, no one may any longer doubt their supernatural and divine origin.” The Pope speaks only of their origin, and not at all of their contents, nor of their correct reproduction. And even a refusal to believe in their divine origin would not be a sin against Catholic faith.

7. After these theoretical remarks let us add a few words of a practical nature. The reading of these visions and private revelations is in nowise adapted to the needs of ordinary people, even though they may have correct notions about the credibility of private revelations. Many of these revelations are beyond the needs and the intelligence even of persons already far advanced in the spiritual life, and are often clothed in language quite unintelligible. And herein precisely lies a new source of anxiety, because a new danger, namely, the danger of understanding the revelation in a wrong sense, which may easily lead to positive error and sin against the “rule of faith.”

8. Besides the danger just mentioned there is another, namely, the danger of a one-sided and an imperfect direction in holiness, and of laying great stress on trifles and things of secondary importance. But what is worst of all is that the reading of these revelations gives rise to secret spiritual pride and makes silly pious people, for it is such persons that are most addicted to this kind of reading, that imagine themselves farther advanced in the ways of perfection than others and think that they know more about matters of faith and morals than most other people, even more than the priests themselves.

9. It may cause some surprise if we add a warning for members of religious orders, especially of women. As a general rule, it is not advisable to make use of histories of private revelations, made to pious and holy persons, for general community reading. And those in authority in religious communities should be very slow to allow individual members of the community to make use of the same for their private reading. Women in religious orders who are endeavouring to lead holy lives are more apt to evince a weakness for what is extraordinary than for what is ordinary in their quest of perfection, than their sisters in the world. They prefer the revelations of St. Brigitta or of St. Gertrude to an ordinary introduction to the spiritual life. And it is precisely those who are by no means firmly grounded in the spiritual life who hanker after what is higher before they understand or put into practice the most ordinary and necessary requirements of spiritual growth. In the case of religious the evil effects of this kind of reading are more pronounced and more disastrous than in the case of lay people, and they sometimes create disturbance and division in an entire convent.

10. Some may think these remarks and warnings too severe and even exaggerated. And such indeed were the case did we apply them, a priori, to all private revelations. They hold good only for those who read indiscriminately, and without selecting, especially revelations made to holy persons in times long gone by, and which are profoundly mystic, not to say apocalyptic in their presentation. Simple books, and books that may be readily understood, like the visions of Catherine Emmerich concerning the life and sufferings of Our Lord and His Blessed Mother, are much to be preferred to others, and we would even recommend them.

Source: The Casuist, Vol. I 1906 (UK readers click here), also available at the Internet Archive.


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