Action Alert!

The Petrus Rumor: Hot News or Hoax?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 19, 2009

Last Tuesday (January 13, 2009), I called attention to a lengthy report from the Italian journal Petrus which asserted that Benedict XVI was close to promulgating strict new guidelines for the screening of alleged Marian apparitions. Because Petrus has generally been a reliable source of information in the past, and because such guidelines would appear to reflect Benedict’s typical caution about such matters, I thought the article might prove accurate. Knowing the keen interest users have in such matters, I therefore posted the article, but with appropriate cautions.

Interestingly, a significant number of proponents of the alleged apparitions of Our Lady at Medjugorje took exception to this decision. Because the Petrus article reflected a viewpoint profoundly suspicious of the large number of alleged apparitions over the past generation or so, and of Medjugorje in particular, my critics—thoughtfully and courteously in every case—suggested that the report was motivated by bias and, as no evidence was presented, was likely to be unreliable. They also pointed to the fact that the article was unsigned.

The lack of a personal name on the piece did not bother me, as news reports are very frequently unsigned, and many organizations put out information or positions in the name of the organization only, without naming the individuals who drafted the statement. The identity of the organization was clear; there was no mystery about where the report originated.

Still, while I thought the report very interesting, my critics were more sensitive to the anti-apparition bias; they argued, with some justice, that in the absence of corroboration it would have been more prudent to leave it alone. It is only fair to say that our news department took the same view. Not being able to find any other sources hinting at the alleged new guidelines, Phil Lawler chose not to report the story. For this reason, the involvement of Trinity Communications was limited to calling attention to what I regarded as an interesting report—with express cautions—rather than reporting it as news ourselves.

But my critics did have a legitimate point and, in fact, it now appears as if they were correct in their assessment of the Petrus report. Responding to growing international rumors (all emanating from the one source), the National Catholic Register interviewed an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (alas, once again, no name!), who categorically denied the report. Thus the Petrus report passes from being a hot item to an historical oddity, or perhaps even a deliberate hoax. Petrus could have reported this in good faith, certainly, and it could also be on to something nobody is yet willing to talk about. The journal is sticking by its story, asserting that the denials are false. But the complete absence of any other “leaks” in the face of increased scrutiny raises serious doubts.

It is a good reminder to all of us—and not least to myself—of the need for care in the handling of rumors.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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