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Vatican sharpens rules on investigating supernatural

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The Vatican sharpened its rules for investigating supernatural events such as visions of Christ or the Virgin Mary, acknowledging Friday that overactive imaginations and outright “lying” risked harming the faithful.

The new norms allow for a more “prudent” interpretation of events that generally avoids declaring them outright a supernatural event.

They were published by the Holy See’s powerful Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and approved by Pope Francis.

“In certain circumstances not everything is black or white,” Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, who leads the dicastery, told journalists.

“Sometimes a possible divine reaction mixes with… human thoughts and fantasies,” Fernandez added.

The history of the Catholic Church is filled with episodes of strange or unexplained phenomena involving religious statues or other objects.

The new guidelines come two months after the Church said that a series of widely reported miracles attributed to a statuette of the Virgin Mary — including making a pizza grow in size — were false.

The new rules provide more guidance to bishops, who until now have been left relatively free to determine the authenticity of such visions on a case-by-case basis. It is the first time they have been updated since 1978.

Underscoring the complexity of the issue, the Vatican has completed only six cases of such alleged supernatural events since 1950, with one taking around “seventy excruciating years”, the document said.

– Causing scandal –

The new rules call for more collaboration between the bishops of the individual dioceses concerned and the Vatican over such investigations.

The final decisions of the bishops should be submitted to the dicastery for approval, it said.

Some incidents “at times appear connected to confused human experiences, theologically inaccurate expressions, or interests that are not entirely legitimate” the document noted.

Bishops might have to deal with “manipulation, damage to the unity of the Church, undue financial gain, and serious doctrinal errors that could cause scandals and undermine the credibility of the Church,” it added.

But in the absence of problems, dioceses will now be able to declare a “Nihil Obstat“, indicating there is nothing in the phenomenon contrary to faith and morals.

That falls short of an official declaration of its supernatural authenticity, which under the new rules is generally to be avoided unless the pope authorises it.

Fernandez explained that most of the Church’s major pilgrimage sites grew organically over years without an official declaration on the authenticity of the original “miracle”.

In the most serious cases however, to avoid confusion or scandal, the dicastery will ask the local bishop to state that belief in the phenomenon is not allowed, and explain why.

A faster response by the Church are needed because such phenomena are “taking on national and even global proportions” as they spread via the Internet, the dicastery said.

Factors to consider are “the possibility of doctrinal errors, an oversimplification of the Gospel message, or the spread of a sectarian mentality”, it said.

Believers could be misled by events attributed to a divine cause that might in fact be “merely the product of someone’s imagination” or those who have an “inclination toward lying”.

– Shaking the faith –

Fernandez could not comment how many supernatural events were alleged to occur each year, as most were managed by the dioceses.

Most recently, the Italian diocese of Civita Castellana declared in March that alleged miracles from a statuette of the Virgin Mary in the town of Trevignano Romano outside Rome were “non-supernatural”.

A self-professed visionary, previously convicted for fraudulent bankruptcy, had said her statuette cried tears of blood and made a pizza multiply in size.

Pilgrims flocked to the town after her proclamations, while some donors to a charity she founded said they had been duped.

The diocese said the affair had shaken the faith of many churchgoers.

In April 2023, the Vatican created the Observatory for Apparitions and Mystical Phenomena Related to the Figure of the Virgin Mary to help bishops confronted with such cases.

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Agence France-Presse (AFP) is a French international news agency headquartered in Paris, France. Founded in 1835 as Havas, it is the world's oldest news agency.

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