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Cardinal Fernández, at an April 8, 2024, press conferenceMichael Haynes

VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) –– Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández has issued new norms to assess and determine the authenticity of alleged visions, outlining a process which pulls power back to the Vatican and sets up the strong likelihood of confusion among the faithful. 

On May 17, the prefect of the Dicastery (formerly Congregation) for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), Cardinal Fernández, issued updated procedures for determining the veracity of alleged visions or supernatural events. The “Norms for Proceeding in the Discernment of Alleged Supernatural Phenomena,” he stated, are necessary due to the previous regulations rarely leading to a “clear” resolution.

However, the new document explicitly rejects the possibility of ruling on whether an alleged vision is of supernatural origin, reducing the highest form of approval to a Nihil Obstat, or “free from error,” meaning that an alleged vision is left without a decision on being supernatural in origin or not.

Opening by saying the norms are “not intended to control or (even less) stifle the Spirit,” Fernández wrote that with some “alleged” divine events “there are serious critical issues that are detrimental to the faithful,” such as when fame or money are sought. In such instances “one should not overlook, for example, the possibility of doctrinal errors, an oversimplification of the Gospel message, or the spread of a sectarian mentality,” he added.

The Church’s previous guidance was issued by Pope Paul VI in 1978 (published in English in 2011), entitled: “Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations.” Arguing that the 1978 norms resulted in too long a process in deciding on the authenticity of an alleged apparition, Fernández revealed that his new document was born out of a November 2023 meeting of the dicastery, before being presented to and approved by Pope Francis on May 4. 

In essence, what Fernández’s Norms will do is cause mass confusion, while simultaneously reducing the official import given to private revelation. With the highest form of approval simply being Nihil Obstat, the general faithful will simply hear that the Vatican has approved an apparition and likely proceed accordingly as if the event is divine. However, the Vatican will have only stated that no error has been found, due to explicitly refusing to weigh in on whether such an event is supernatural in origin. 

Meanwhile, by thus causing such confusion and reducing the official recognition given to such events, the cardinal prefect is demonstrating a significant move away from the weight and importance given to private revelation – a move which will be welcomed by the head of the Pontifical Marian Academy, who stated last year that the Vatican will judge any alleged Marian “apparitions which speak of the punishments from God” to be “absolutely false.”

READ: Vatican Mariologist suggests apparitions about God’s punishment are ‘false’ despite past approval

Questioning Fatima?

Fernández outlined a new style of approving an alleged apparition, seeking to centralize power over such decisions to the Vatican and away from local bishops. Due to some bishops historically making statements declaring that an alleged vision was supernatural, but on occasion – said Fernández – doing so without the DDF’s intervention, this “caused considerable confusion” and reportedly necessitated the new norms.

In making such a defense of the document, Fernández even highlighted the apparitions at Fatima as an example. He wrote that the CDF’s June 2000 statement that “the message contains nothing contrary to faith or morals” denoted the ecclesiastical approval, but shortly after warned against the faithful thinking they had to believe in the event, attesting that such visions “sometimes were valued more than the Gospel itself.”

However, the cardinal did not expand on his point to suggest that the apparitions of Fatima were in some way dubious or a cause of error. His reference appeared to be aimed more at downplaying the importance of the visions, by condemning expressions which “effectively oriented the faithful to think they had to believe in these phenomena.”

New method’s basis

Under the cardinal’s new manner of having the dicastery weigh in on assessing alleged apparitions, the criteria will thus be changed. Fernández stated that his department decided that the discernment process regarding an alleged vision would conclude with the pronouncement of a “Nihil obstat,” (free from error) rather than with a declaration of the vision being of supernatural origin, or “constat de supernaturalitate.” 

Such a move was defended as speeding up the process by producing some sort of decision more quickly. 

But it appears more than likely that the new process will only create much greater confusion. Should an alleged vision be declared as Nihil Obstat, but left without any decision as to its authenticity regards the supernatural origin, then it seems unlikely the common perception will be to differentiate between the two aspects.

In fact, Fernández removed the entire possibility of deciding on whether an alleged vision is from heaven or not.

“It is not foreseen in these Norms that ecclesiastical authority would give a positive recognition of the divine origin of alleged supernatural phenomena,” the updated regulations state.

The cardinal’s six-point method for the DDF and bishops does not – he said – “include the possibility of declaring that the phenomenon under discernment is of supernatural origin – that is, affirming with moral certainty that it originates from a decision willed by God in a direct way.”

By doing so, Fernández stated that such a response – i.e., refusing to state whether the alleged vision is supernatural or not – “naturally leaves open the possibility that, in monitoring how the devotion develops, a different response may be required in the future.”

He also cited what he presented as an example of a reversed decision regarding an alleged 1950s vision being supernatural, arguing that it represented an example of how the Church could somehow change Her decision. Yet, as Fernández noted, the local bishop rule against the alleged visions and was supported by the Vatican in this. When local bishops ruled in favor of the event in 1996 and 2002, the Vatican in 2020 then re-iterated its former rejection – thus keeping the Holy See’s decision constant.

Therefore, Fernández stated that his new norms did leave “discernment” of alleged visions to the local bishop, but ordered that the DDF “must always be consulted and give final approval to what the Bishop decides before he announces a determination on an event of alleged supernatural origin.” Previously the local bishop was at liberty to request the Vatican intervention, but not – according to the 1978 norms – prohibited from acting on his own without needing recourse to the then-CDF. 

Under the new norms, a local bishop must wait for the DDF to give final approval to his own decision, and then the local bishop’s decision is given as “in agreement with the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

But Fernández also opened the possibility for his office overturning its own decision, in a move which could spell never-ending confusion regarding alleged apparitions. 

Plan and results of new decision process 

Under the detailed norms, a decision regarding an alleged vision suddenly becomes much more involved than previously. No longer is the local bishop at liberty to pronounce on his own. 

He must first liaise with the local bishops conference about an alleged vision, and then submit the initial thoughts on his decision – his Votum – to the DDF. He must then begin an investigation into the events, with the commission including a canonist, a theologian, and an expert in whatever phenomena is in question. 

The local bishop must submit the results of his investigation to the DDF, who will decide if they approve of the bishop’s actions so far regarding the veracity of the alleged vision. With detailed outlines for how such an investigation should be conducted, Fernández tasks the commission and the local bishop to evaluate their findings and then present such to the Vatican for further investigation. 

The local bishop accompanies these findings with his own Votum, giving his personal opinion on the matter, which serves to inform the DDF’s decision. 

Outlining his new Norms, Fernández presented the six possible outcomes regarding an alleged vision:

  • Nihil obstat: by which “many signs of the action of the Holy Spirit are acknowledged ‘in the midst’ of a given spiritual experience, and no aspects that are particularly critical or risky have been detected, at least so far.”
  • Prae oculis habeatur: In which “important positive signs are recognized,” but the local bishop also observes “some aspects of confusion or potential risks” which require “careful discernment and dialogue” with the alleged visionaries.
  • Curatur: In which “various or significant critical elements” are observed by the Church regarding the alleged vision, but it is judged that the popular cult has spread too widely to condemn the alleged vision without harming people’s faith. The bishop is asked not to promote the events. 
  • Sub mandato: In which the alleged vision is deemed to be without notable issues, but issues are arising from people connected to it “who are misusing it.” Such an example, wrote Fernández, would be when such people promote “pastoral activity apart from the one already present in the ecclesiastical territory without accepting the instructions of the Diocesan Bishop.”
  • Prohibetur et obstruatur: In which the “critical issues and risks” of the alleged vision outweigh any benefits, and thus the local bishop is instructed to prohibit adherence to the alleged vision.
  • Declaratio de non supernaturalitate: In which the DDF approves the local bishop to declare that an alleged vision is not of supernatural origin.

It remains to be seen in what manner Fernández’s norms will aid discernment in the authenticity of alleged visions, given that the document rules out making a decision regarding the supernatural origin of such an event. By reserving the right for the DDF to intervene at any point in the future, regardless of any decision taken even by the selfsame office, the new norms thus open the door for endless confusion and uncertainty about any alleged vision.