“Private revelations cannot be used to contradict traditional theology without creating serious problems.”
Throughout history God has made private revelations to chosen souls, even for the public good. We could 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.
At The WM Review, we believe that the revelations of Fatima carry a continuing importance for the Church and the World.
At this time, it is more important than ever 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?
Image: people looking at the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima. Source: Wiki Commons.
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 a controversial example: it is well-known that some have concluded, based on the facts and traditional theology, that Francis cannot be the legitimate Roman Pontiff. Some go further and apply this to Francis’ recent predecessors.
However, some really believe that Our Lady’s request for the pope to consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart refutes such ideas.
In other words, this request to consecrate Russia is “proof” that Francis and recent predecessors must have all been true popes.
What are we to make of this? Whatever we think of the conclusion, is this a proper way to go about studying difficult questions?
1. Attempts to shut down the debate
While there can be genuine questions on how the pope question and Fatima work together, arguments based on this “incompatibility” are often attempts to end the debate through an appeal to a perceived authority. This is essentially pious browbeating, by which someone uses his private interpretation of private revelation to shame his 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 any attempt to use private revelations in this way betrays a lack of real arguments, a lack of understanding of any given controversy, and a misunderstanding 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 numerous considerations arising from the Church’s teaching about herself.
Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that the messages of Fatima do indeed prove that Paul VI etc were legitimate popes: if this were so, we would still be left with all of the considerations that led to the other conclusion in the first place. Some may think that they have saved the claims of Francis et al 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 for reasons discussed below; 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 if their private interpretations of private revelations contradict the settled theses of theology, this is a very worrying sign.
The recent “consecration”
This issue recently appeared more grave, when it was believed that Francis was going attempt to fulfil the request of Our Lady of Fatima and consecrate Russia. In reality, little appears to have come from this – but what if it had?
To repeat: the papal claims of Francis are incompatible with the traditional body of theology as received before the council. If that theology received, approved and promoted by the Church for centuries was dangerously wrong, then it is difficult to see how this would not constitute a defection of the Church. But this is impossible; therefore the problem must lie elsewhere.
This problem could be a misunderstanding of that theology, or in a misunderstanding of contingent facts. We believe that we have taken all due precautions to understand this theology correctly; as such we choose what it teaches over the contingent claims of particular claimants.
Now – assuming Francis is not the pope – many have wondered what could happen if a false pope consecrates Russia, in line with all of the other requirements specified by Sister Lucie? There are a few possibilities, which we discussed elsewhere. To these, we could mention our friend Louie Verrecchio, who suggested that such a thing might provoke both blessing and chastisement. Our Lady will not despise the petitions of those who will have sincerely fled to her protection; even if there will be grave punishment for others. But naturally, nothing short of the conversion of Russia could even start to vindicate a false pope’s claim.
But could that happen? Let us imagine that something apparently like a spectacular “conversion of Russia” occured. This could be more or less impressive – but even if it appeared to be a true conversion, it would not somehow resolve the many questions around the recent popes by default.
If it were to resolve the Pope Question by default, it would require a radical “rethink” of those doctrinal issues which had pointed to that conclusion, including Church membership and loss of office, the immunity of the magisterium from dangerous errors, the infallibility of canonizations, the Church as a visible institution and a visible unity of faith and so on.
In this context, “rethinking” is perhaps too polite: if we accept Francis as pope, we must reject the settled Catholic doctrine on these issues – which we cannot do. This brings us once again to the dilemma above.
In any case, it seems inevitable that this consecration will cause serious division amongst Catholics trying to hold to tradition – division which would be impossible if we made traditional theology our criteria rather than our interpretation of private revelations and apparently miraculous occurrences.
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, which we have written about elsewhere, including:
- 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 there is no reason to think that the Fatima apparitions are intended by God to settle theological disputes amongst traditionalists. Radical theological disputes from history have not been resolved in this way, which creates a 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. 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. It is possible that when our current crisis is resolved, the resolution will be confirmed by miracles related to Fatima – although the triumph of the Church will be a great moral miracle in itself.
But we must keep things in the right order, and remember 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 – and a radical reformation or rejection of traditional theology would be just that.
4. Illogical arguments and inaccurate representations of the 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 – assuming that Heaven never requests or commands an impossibility:
- In 1929, Our Lady of Fatima requested that the Pope consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart.
- Our Lady would be requesting something impossible if there were a long interregnum from around 1965.
- Therefore there cannot have been a long interregnum from around 1965.
The second premise is clearly gratuitous. The popes prior to an interregnum could have fulfilled the request; and so could a pope that 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 these arguments.
All of this goes to show the danger of using private interpretations of private revelations to overthrow the settled theses of theology. Typically, those doing so are not aware of what they are doing, and simply deny that this is what their ideas entail.
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.
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 the focus for this short piece, I am by no means denying their singular and ongoing importance for our time. Nor am I criticising anyone interested in these revelations.
But I am arguing, again, that private revelations cannot be used to contradict traditional theology, or the conclusions that flow from it, without falling into serious problems.
Apparitions and Theology
1. The King of France, Fatima and the Crisis in the Church
2. How should Catholics treat private revelations when studying theology?
3. Initial Thoughts on the Consecration of Ukraine and Russia to the Immaculate Heart
4. An “Ottaviani Intervention” on Signs and Wonders
5. Possible Miracles, Possible Deception: How credulity can lead us to ruin
6. Fatima, Theology and the Crisis: What should be their relationship?
Why the Rosary and the Immaculate Heart are Fatima’s Two Last Remedies (M.J. McCusker)
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