Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

On Elephants and Apparitions

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 28, 2009

With regard to my item on The Anger of the Elephants, a supporter whose alias is kman wrote:

Re: "Thus the story is rated at our lowest level of importance" Funny... I would have expected you to leave that to the readers to decide. Where would you rank a story about a poor ignorant peasant girl who claimed to see a "beautiful lady" in a dump?

And today poppop63633971 wrote that “Dr. Mirus should offer a response to the question about the peasant girl at the dump.”

Fair enough; I have three things to say.

  1. We really do need to get rid of these infernal aliases! They were rendered much worse when we merged Catholic World News and and so added random numbers onto the ends of most aliases to ensure that no two were the same. The nature of most Sound Off! comments is such that our users would undoubtedly be willing to post under their own names. I’ll get around to making this change soon. We’re something of a community here, and there is no need, I think, to be terribly obscure about our names. But of course I’ll ask users their opinion first.
  2. There is a good reason for our ranking of news stories. As I wrote privately to kman, lest there be any misunderstanding, the news team ranks each story when it is posted, on a scale of significance from 1 to 10, with 1 being the most important. This is akin to page placement in a newspaper. Obviously, we don’t want the announcement of a new encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI to inadvertently sort to the bottom of the heap because there are also several stories that day about purely local matters.

    We want the top stories to make it into the group of four headlines displayed on the home page; we want them to appear at or near the top of the list on the page devoted to each day’s news; and we want the weekly and monthly views of the news, which would otherwise display anywhere from 40 to 400 stories, to show only the more important stories for each period as a matter of efficiency and convenience. This is part of our editorial service to users; the decision is a rough approximation based purely on the editors' own sense of things at the time. But this does not mean that some story ranked as less significant on any given day will not be more significant to some.
  3. Apparition stories take shape slowly. As for the Lady in the dump (presumably a reference to Lourdes), it is important to recognize that stories of alleged apparitions take shape slowly. They inevitably begin as dubious reports which may (or may not) be the products of either a fevered imagination or a duplicitous desire for fame. They then grow in importance in proportion to two subsequent features, their attractiveness to large numbers of the faithful (and very often corresponding turmoil in the local church), and their evaluation by the proper ecclesiastical authority. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of claims of apparitions and locutions around the world each and every year. Most are, presumably, entirely bogus. is likely to report these things only when they reach a certain critical mass in terms of attraction to the faithful, and we are likely to urge that people pay positive attention to them only if they pass ecclesiastical scrutiny. The Church has always taught that belief in private revelations is optional, even for those that have received ecclesiastical approval, including apparitions that have been both well-authenticated and supported by many popes, such as those at Fatima. Just as their authenticity remains open to debate, so too does their importance, which consists primarily in their positive (or negative) impact on the spiritual life of each soul who encounters them.

To return to the story of the elephants which prompted all these comments, it is necessary to state that it is very difficult to assess the miraculous nature of any experience with sufficient certainty to propose it for acceptance by others, which is why the Church takes such great care in the evaluation of miracles reported at Lourdes or in the causes of her saints. Moreover, it is even more difficult to determine what God intends to teach or demonstrate through a miraculous intervention.

I am reminded here of a story which originated shortly after the death of St. Catherine of Siena, in which the body of the saint was seen to raise its foot to the lips of a person who bent forward to kiss it. In the ensuing depositions, the priest who led the investigation for the Church was interviewing a young nun who had been present. In a burst of enthusiasm, the nun began to explain what God had meant to communicate. “My dear sister," interposed the investigator, "I do not ask you what God meant to communicate. Did you or did you not see the lifting of the foot?”

In the behavior of elephants, or any other alleged miracle, the rule which is always used in judging private revelations applies. Insofar as any of these things are authentic, they contain or communicate nothing essential to salvation (that is, no teaching on faith or morals) not already found in Revelation (that is, in Scripture and Tradition as elucidated by the Magisterium of the Church). For this reason, Catholics may be spiritually harmed by attaching themselves to a miracle or private revelation in any way which suggests they take it as a unique and indispensable lifeline to holiness and salvation.

At the same time, a well-authenticated miracle or private revelation can and ought to be received as further evidence of God’s action in history, and as both a reminder and an inspiration to attach oneself more firmly to the Gospel. In the last analysis, then, each person bears a serious responsibility for the importance of any alleged miracle or private revelation in his own life, just as he does in assessing the importance of any news story for his own purposes.

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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  • Posted by: jonesd1936 - Dec. 29, 2009 3:24 PM ET USA

    Now THAT is a RESPONSE. Wonderful !!!

  • Posted by: - Dec. 29, 2009 2:08 PM ET USA

    This is very generous but probably a waste of time. The simple facts are: it was an editorial decision, you're the editor, you decided. The internet is chock-a-block with sites willing to fill people in on the mind of God as expressed by a herd of elephants. Let them chase those will o' the wisps and keep giving us the hard, impartial news that's so hard to find anywhere.