EWTN Catholic Q&A
Question from Anne Powell on 11-23-2004:

What is the process that the Church adheres to when investigating the authenticity of apparitions?

This is for a Religion assignment for a 15yr old, so any information in general terms would be greatly appreciated.

Answer by Rev. Mark J. Gantley, JCL on 11-23-2004:

In 1974 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued "Norms of the Congregation for Proceeding in Judging Alleged Apparitions and Revelations."

These norms contained the following provisions:

The diocesan bishop can initiate a process on his own initiative or at the request of the faithful to investigate the facts of an alleged apparition. This is especially urgent for him to do if there is danger of the spread of doctrinal or moral errors or false worship. If there are no dangers, the bishop may refrain from looking into it if he chooses, especially if he thinks that not much will come of the event.

The national conference of bishops may intervene if the local diocesan bishop refers it to him or if the event becomes important nationally or at least in more than one diocese.

The Apostolic See (the Vatican) can also intervene at the request of the local bishop himself, at the request of a group of the faithful, or on its own initiative. (The Supreme Pontiff always has a right to intervene in any situation if he chooses. See information on the intervention of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith below.)

In terms of the steps of the investigation:

First, there is an initial evaluation of the facts of the alleged event. This evaluation is based on both positive and negative criteria. As stated above, this investigation is ordinarily conducted by the diocesan bishop (or someone delegated by him).

The positive criteria includes moral certainty (the certainty required to act morally in a situation of doubt) or at least great probability as to the existence of a private revelation at the end of a serious investigation into the case, with consideration of the following circumstances: - an evaluation of the personal qualities of the person in question (mental balance, honesty, moral life, sincerity, obedience to Church authority, willingness to practice faith in the normal way, etc.) - an evaluation of the content of the revelations themselves (that they do not disagree with faith and morals of the Church, freedom from theological errors) - the revelation results in healthy devotion and spiritual fruits in people's lives (greater prayer, greater conversion of heart, works of charity that result, etc.)

The negative criteria includes the following: - glaring errors in regard to the facts - doctrinal errors attributed to God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or to the Holy Spirit in how they appear - any pursuit of financial gain in relation to the alleged event - gravely immoral acts committed by the person or those associated with the person at the time of the event - psychological disorders or tendencies on the part of the person or persons associated

After this initial investigation, if the occurrence meets the criteria, positive and negative, an initial cautionary permission can be granted that basically states: "for the moment, there is nothing opposed to it." This permits public participation in the devotion in regard to the alleged apparition.

Ultimately, a final judgment and determination needs to be given, giving approval or condemnation of the event.

If the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith gets involved, the congregation will take into account what has already happened with regard to involvement by the local bishop. If the congregation gets involved at the request of a group of the faithful, the congregation would especially want to determine if people are just unhappy with the local bishop's decision. If the congregation gets involved on its own initiative, then it will always consult with the local bishop and sometimes also the conference of bishops of the country.

The congregation will then direct or approve the investigation conducted by the local bishop and if necessary, carry out a new investigation. If it carries out a new investigation, it can appoint a commission especially established for this purpose, if it chooses.