Understanding the New Vatican Norms for Discerning Supernatural Phenomena

Perhaps surprisingly, the new DDF norms for evaluating apparitions and other supernatural phenomena are reasonable and helpful.

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

When I first started exploring Catholicism as a Protestant in the early 1990’s, I was taken aback by the fact that many of the Catholics I knew believed the Blessed Virgin Mary was appearing in a small village in then-Yugoslavia. The seemingly outlandish tale conflicted with my stereotype of Catholics as more interested in rituals and rules than visions and heavenly visitors.

As I came to study Catholicism more, I found that not only did Catholics claim the Virgin Mary has appeared multiple times over the past few centuries, but that the Vatican had approved many of those apparitions as legitimate and even having a supernatural origin. Even though I did not hold to Catholic Marian doctrines at the time, it made me more comfortable with Catholicism, knowing that it wasn’t just an ossified shell of a religion as sometimes thought, but attested to the continued intersection of heaven and earth, even officially so.

Over decades as a Catholic, I continued to see much good fruit from many of these apparitions, particularly from those in Lourdes and Fatima. Yet I also witnessed some troubling features among those who closely followed various apparitions. Too often they jumped the gun, declaring an apparition definitely authentic before the Church did, at times elevating a visionary’s words (or their interpretation of them) to dogmatic levels, insisting all Catholics must follow them. Not all the fruits were positive, in other words, even from Vatican-approved apparitions.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Cardinal Victor Manual Fernández has released new norms for discerning alleged apparitions, along with other supernatural phenomena such as “visions, interior or exterior locutions, writings or messages, phenomena related to religious images, and psychophysical phenomena” (n. 6). These norms are intended to update a 1978 Vatican document that was more limited in scope. So what are the new norms? Are they helpful or not?

Before I get into that, let me be clear: I don’t trust Cardinal Fernández. His Fiducia Supplicans, allowing for the blessing of same-sex couples, was a disaster. His views on the development of doctrine are contrary to an even understanding of the topic and engender his abuse of the Deposit of Faith with innovative teachings. He’s a horrible pick to head the DDF.

Can I be more clear on my view of Cardinal Fernández?

Yet all that being said, these norms are in general reasonable and helpful. Although I think they tend to minimize too much the authority of local bishops (something common in the Francis pontificate), they do give solid guidelines for evaluating alleged supernatural phenomena.

Before detailing the major changes flowing from this document, I must note that, as is typical of Cardinal Fernández’s writings and the writings of many modern Vatican documents, this document is full of unnecessary Vatican IIish Churchspeak. I really wish they would cut the fluff and get to the point more directly. Until that happens, we will have to slog through it.

One thing the new norms change is how the local bishops interact with the Vatican when evaluating a potential supernatural phenomenon. In the past, the local bishop was encouraged to consult with the Dicastery, but it had to do so secretly, and the local bishop still had authority to make a definitive decision. Now, however, the Dicastery will be publicly involved and importantly, a bishop must submit his decision to the Dicastery for final approval.

It’s likely that the reason for transferring ultimate authority from the local bishop to the Vatican is that in our age of modern communications, there is no such thing as a local phenomenon—everything is global. Yet I can’t help but see in this change a further enforcement of the Francis Pontificate’s desire to accumulate all power to Rome. It’s no secret that the Vatican under Francis sees diocesan bishops as his middle managers. Francis and his advisors clearly don’t trust diocesan bishops; it wouldn’t surprise me if they wished they could do away with the office completely. 

While this change impacts the procedure for evaluating phenomena, the real crux of the document addresses the potential judgements given to those phenomena. In the past, alleged supernatural occurrences were essentially grouped into one of two categories: supernatural or not supernatural (technically, the Church would say it gave evidence of being supernatural, but most took that to mean it had supernatural origins). This document lists six levels of classification when evaluating claims of the supernatural. 

The six levels include:

  • Nihil obstat
  • Prae oculis habeatur 
  • Curatur 
  • Sub mandato
  • Prohibetur et obstruatur
  • Declaratio de non supernaturalitate

You can read the document to understand the differences between these classifications, but they range from “no aspects that are particularly critical or risky have been detected” (Nihil obstat) to declaring that the phenomenon is not supernatural (Declaratio de non supernaturalitate). The classifications in-between those two extremes reflect the various differences that can occur among phenomena, including any risks perceived in a phenomenon and the resulting fruits associated with it.

What is noteworthy is that while the bottom classification, Declaratio de non supernaturalitate, can say a phenomenon is not of supernatural origin (as was the case before these norms), even in the case of  Nihil obstat, no bishop, episcopal conference, or the DDF itself can declare a phenomenon to be supernatural in origin. This is reserved for the pope alone, and it seems this is intended to be a very rare occurrence. The hesitancy to declare any phenomena as giving evidence of being supernatural appears to stem from two main fears. No bishop, episcopal conference, or the DDF itself can declare a phenomenon to be supernatural in origin.Tweet This

The first is that waiting for such a determination can understandably take years, during which time the phenomenon could have a significant impact on the faithful. With such a high bar—supernaturalness—the Church has been rightfully deliberate before making a definitive declaration. But by creating this high bar, the Church also allows a phenomenon to grow in importance, for good or ill, without any final word from the Church.

The second fear is that declarations that a private revelation is supernatural in origin appears to conflict with the Church’s teaching that private revelations are never obligatory for the faithful to believe. But if a revelation is supernatural in origin, how could a Catholic rightfully deny it? Yet doing so was explicitly allowed by the Church. Such a conundrum is avoided if no phenomena is ever declared supernatural in origin. Although by avoiding any declarations of supernaturalness, it’s likely we’ll never see an authentic apparition like Lourdes or Fatima make as great an impact on the Church as long as these norms are in place. 

Overall, however, the new norms are welcome. Yes, the aggregation of power away from local bishops is a serious problem, which I’ve addressed in the past, and past formal declarations endorsing the supernaturalness of private revelations like Lourdes and Fatima have greatly enriched the faithful. But there are significant dangers associated with attaching the Gospel message too closely to private revelations. I have many times witnessed Catholics insist that some words of an alleged Marian apparition must be believed because they “come from the Virgin Mary herself.” That goes farther than the Church has ever said, but it’s an understandable view if the Church is also saying it’s supernatural. The stakes are high here, because a misunderstanding of the role of private revelations threatens to undermine the faithful’s conception of what is necessary for salvation. 

God is not a God of confusion, and yet the preponderance of modern apparitions has led to much confusion. As Catholics, we believe that public revelation, which ended with the death of the last Apostle, is all that is necessary for salvation. At the risk of being repetitive, this by definition means that no private revelation is necessary for salvation. Private revelations can be helpful in leading people to believe in public revelation and thus find salvation, but they can also lead people astray. These “exciting” private revelations can end up replacing what can seem to be “boring” public revelation in the minds of the faithful. And it goes without saying that the devil can—and has—used our propensity to follow these private revelations to further his work by creating false revelations or twisting authentic revelations for his diabolical purposes.

I recently talked on the podcast about the dangers of “sign-chasing”—the desire for extraordinary signs, which can lead to ignoring the ordinary signs in our midst such as the Eucharist and the presence of God in daily life. Faithful Catholics who fight against the materialism all around them naturally are attracted to anything that might pierce that materialistic shield. And so we want to find extraordinary phenomena everywhere. I hope these new norms will remind us that God is still active in the world, but that His activity is primarily through the ordinary means He publicly gave the whole Church: the Sacraments, charity, and prayer. By clinging to those instead of chasing after visions, we can surely be saved.


  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...