The Consecration and Fatima, Redux
On our Facebook site, someone posted a long critique of my article On the Critics of Pope Francis’ Consecration to the Immaculate Heart. I also received a few long emails on the subject. All asserted, essentially, that there is a kind of revelation which resides somewhere between private and public, that is called “private prophetic revelation”, and that this special type of private revelation binds the Church in some way. Since enough people raised the issue, I’ll do my best to respond.
The first point I wish to make is that I personally believe that Our Lady’s apparitions in 1917 to Jacinta Marto, Francisco Marto, and Lucia Santos (who died in 2005) really took place, and I note here that the evidence for the Miracle of the Sun is overwhelming. During my print publishing days, I published some works by Fr. Robert Fox on Fatima, and also the brilliant history by the late Warren Carroll, 1917: Red Banners, White Mantle. I commend to all the spiritual insights offered by Our Lady at Fatima. I have led the daily Rosary in my family for more than thirty years, and have said a daily personal Rosary for more years than I care to count. I recommend this spiritual practice more highly than anything except the sacraments of the Church.
But the second point I wish to make is that even if the Church judges a private revelation as “worthy of belief” and suitable for the devotion of the faithful, she requires nobody to believe it. These things are not matters of Faith. Not even a pope has to believe in them, even though a prior pope may have reached an affirmative judgment. Some avid promoters of Fatima, however, have tried to impose this private revelation on the Church herself, by referring to it as a special category of revelation, as I indicated. But no such category exists in the Church’s theological lexicon. It is rather a category invented by some ill-advised proponents of the Fatima message who are disgruntled by what they see as the Church’s failure to respond to Fatima as these same proponents would have her do.
Let me do my best, once again, to clarify.
Public and Private Revelation
Revelation is called “public” if it is entrusted to the Church as the foundation of her mission—that is, if it is part of the deposit of faith which the Church exists to conserve, explain and propagate. This Revelation (capital R) was completed in Jesus Christ, communicated to the apostles, and closed with the death of the last apostle. It and it alone contains everything Our Lord desired us to know for our salvation. The Church can neither ignore nor change it; she is utterly bound by it.
In contrast, all other revelations (small r, such as audible locutions and visible apparitions and interior communications) are to private persons. These do not bind the Church in any way, nor are they an addition to Revelation, nor do they contain, even if approved, anything necessary for salvation that is not already found in Revelation itself. Because these things add nothing to Revelation (capital R), no one is obliged to believe any private revelation even if the Church, at some point, has made a positive judgment as to its authenticity as a private revelation. The assent of Faith is simply not required. The message may awaken us quite wonderfully, but our response is an inessential matter of human discernment.
As for prophecy, when and if it occurs, its interpretation is very complex. What appears on the surface is not always the point of the prophecy. Sometimes the full meaning becomes clear only over time, or in multiple ways. Foretelling the future is not even an essential element of prophecy, which is often aimed at the denunciation of present evils. And in the case of prophecy of the future, very often, one does not know if a prophet is genuine or the understanding of the prophecy is correct, unless or until something prophesied comes to pass in a particularly apt and fulfilling way.
Be that as it may, the Church has complete authority over private revelations of every kind. She can ignore them altogether, or if they attract sufficient attention, she may decide to investigate them for the good of the faithful, and she may make a positive or negative judgment, or no judgment at all.
The Church also has complete authority over how even an approved private revelation is to be interpreted or understood, its intent, whether people may respond properly in this way or that way, and so on. Her own discernment of this is final, and it eclipses even interpretations given by those who have received a locution or apparition or interior illumination, for they may not understand it properly or may not even communicate it accurately. It is a grave psychological and spiritual mistake—and a real danger—to become dependent on private revelations, or excessively preoccupied with them. Their only purpose, when given, is to turn us toward Our Lord and the Church, and to the Revelation Our Lord has given and the Church conserves. Needless to say, it is also a grave error to hold God to something we heard only through a “visionary”!
The Case of Fatima
In the case of Fatima, for example, we should not lose sight of the fact that Mary based pretty much everything on the need for a large number of persons to pray the Rosary and grow in union with the will of her Son. As a kind of precondition for the remarks she made about the future, it is very difficult to know whether or when that precondition has been or will be fulfilled.
This simply accentuates the freedom of the Church. Thus the Church might decide that the conditions are not right for any further action on her part, or that it is now too late and the time of opportunity has passed, or that the prophecy does not mean what many people take it to mean, or that it will likely be fulfilled in "layers", as is often the case, or that ultimately it will have a complete fulfillment in the end times. Or she could decide that the whole thing is a low priority at the moment, or cannot for whatever reason be incorporated into her current mission in any particular way.
It goes without saying, then, that the Church could also decide that the consecration requested at Fatima has been made to Our Lady’s satisfaction, and that what Our Lady intended for Russia has come to pass, since Russia abandoned Communism and ceased to spread its errors throughout the world, which is at least a plausible interpretation of one prophecy. Indeed, many see things this way, especially factoring in Mary’s particular intervention in preserving the life of John Paul II when he was shot, probably by arrangement of the KGB. Thus: Pius XII consecrated Russia to the Immaculate Heart in 1952, John Paul II consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart in 1982, and the Soviet Union officially dissolved in 1991. Nobody can claim to know better than the Church what such things mean.
But the most important point is this: Private revelations, no matter how well-attested, require nothing of the Church, which is governed by the Vicar of Christ, and not by His Mother, or by any saint or any angel. Mary certainly knows this. We must be sure that we know it too, avoiding quarrels—especially quarrels with Church authority itself!—based on any personal spiritual “lights”, including the lights we may derive from private revelations. Private revelations begin, lose their immediacy with age, grow old, and pass from memory. Only Jesus Christ is both the beginning and the end, both ever ancient and ever new.
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Posted by: oakes.spalding7384 -
Oct. 19, 2013 10:44 AM ET USA
Private revelation may not bind anyone, least of all the Church, on any matter of faith, but as a matter of logic the 2nd "Secret" explicitly puts forward a number of "if, then" clauses that concern not unimportant earthy matters-war, peace, the suffering and martyrdom of many, etc., as well as at least one unearthly one-the salvation of certain souls. Considering such statements seriously is not to bind God or turn Mary into a linguistic trickster. It's rather to, well, take Mary at her word.
Posted by: spnorton1403 -
Oct. 18, 2013 11:19 PM ET USA
This is an intelligent and well formed opinion about private revelations, something I learned many years in a college apologetic course. The Church is always the guardian and guide in these matters. There are divine reasons for authentic revelations and it is for the Church to discern these reasons. I am not sure about the alleged revelations at Medugorje and I only hope that when an opinion or decision or whatever is offered by the Church it will be accepted with respect.
Posted by: Victoria -
Oct. 18, 2013 10:39 PM ET USA
Thank you!!!!! This article is so helpful in clarifying an issue over which I have quietly been at odds with many of my traditional Catholic peers. Please keep up the great work of speaking complexly and intelligently (not emotionally) about complex issues; you and the Pope (and my pastor) are among the few people I have encountered who do so. Brilliant!
Posted by: colinlavergne9538 -
Oct. 18, 2013 5:43 PM ET USA
As one who is a strong believer in the gift of prophecy (as I have experienced it in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal), I find your comments here to 100% right on. I make these points over and over again to friends, but it is sometimes hard to convince someone that even a genuine 'word' from God is ONLY private revelation and can not be required to be believed by anyone else.
Posted by: wojo425627 -
Oct. 18, 2013 3:14 PM ET USA
Well said Jeff. I was friends with a Girl whose family came under the influence of an SSPX priest and began attending their chapel. One day we were talking about private revelations. I was telling her that the Church was the decider of the authenticity of private revelations and that public revelation provides everything we need for our salvation. She essentially said that she would listen to Mary over the Pope as regards church teaching.Not sure it this is typical of SSPX followers or teaching.
Posted by: koinonia -
Oct. 18, 2013 2:08 PM ET USA
Posted by: jg23753479 -
Oct. 18, 2013 8:36 AM ET USA
I too believe in Fatima and have visited the place twice, the last time on my honeymoon. That said, there does seem to be a large element of truculence on the part of some of its partisans. I second your call for saying the Rosary daily, all 20 decades; it is a marvelous 'school' whose great worth dons only slowly on its practitioners. It gradually provides insights and wisdom unavailable through books, regardless of how well-written they may be. I can no longer even imagine a day without it.