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Revelation: Public and Private

Jimmy Akin

In The Message of Fatima (see “Secret No More,” last month’s cover story), Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger offers a theological commentary that largely deals with the subject of private revelation. For those trying to keep up with the thoughts of the Holy See, this is extremely helpful, since normally it has very little to say on this topic.

There is a document the Holy See circulates privately to bishops who are examining reported private revelations that details the criteria for judging such events. (Though the text of this document has not been “leaked” to the public, there are general indications of what it contains.) The Catechism of the Catholic Church, being a summary of the Catholic faith as a whole, devotes only a single paragraph (number 67) to the subject, underscoring the comparatively minor place that private revelations play in the faith.

It is thus of great help to have a treatment of the topic from Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). While it may not have the same high status as an official decree of the CDF, given at the moment it was and in the way that it was the treatment provides a valuable look at the principles underlying the CDF’s understanding of such phenomena. It also allows us to compare the CDF’s principles with various magisterial documents and with the historic teaching of Catholic theologians.

Since the apparitions at Fatima received official approval by the Church 70 years ago, and since the manner of the disclosure of the third portion of the secret of Fatima itself displays a clear recognition that the secret is of God, Cardinal Ratzinger does not discuss the criteria by which genuine apparitions are discerned. Instead, he occupies himself with the essence and status of private revelations.

As one would expect, Cardinal Ratzinger points out that “the teaching of the Church distinguishes between ‘public Revelation’ and ‘private revelations.’” What might be surprising to some is what he then notes: “The two realities differ not only in degree but also in essence” (emphasis added). This tells us that the difference between public and private revelation is not simply that public revelation is given to or binding on all whereas private revelation is given to or binding on only some (restricted by time, place, or identity). More than that is involved: Public and private are two different kinds of revelation.

In the apologetics community, it is a commonplace to think of revelation simply as information revealed by God, especially if the mode of its revelation is supernatural or if the knowledge could not have been had apart from revelation. This model, conceiving of revelation as propositional statement of fact, is a valid and even traditional understanding of the concept of revelation (cf. A. Dulles, Models of Revelation). It is not, however, the model that Cardinal Ratzinger is using in this text. That’s fine. Terms can be used in more than one way, and in this case we are encountering a non-apologetic use of the term.

“The term ‘public Revelation’ refers to the revealing action of God directed to humanity as a whole and which finds its literary expression in the two parts of the Bible: the Old and New Testaments,” writes Cardinal Ratzinger. “It is called ‘Revelation’ because in it God gradually made himself known to men, to the point of becoming man himself, in order to draw to himself the whole world and unite it with himself through his Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. It is not a matter therefore of [merely] intellectual communication, but of a life-giving process in which God comes to meet man.”

Public revelation, using this definition, embraces the fullness of God’s self-revelation to man in Christ. It reflects the full plan of revelation, which Vatican II explained “is realized by deeds and words having in inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them” (Dei Verbum 2).

Of course, “At the same time this process naturally produces data pertaining to the mind and to the understanding of the mystery of God. It is a process which involves man in his entirety and therefore reason as well, but not reason alone” (Ratzinger, op. cit.).

Public revelation, Cardinal Ratzinger stresses, came to an end with God’s definitive Word to mankind—Jesus Christ—and with the New Testament. It is contrasted with “the concept of ‘private revelation,’ which refers to all the visions and revelations which have taken place since the completion of the New Testament” (ibid.).

Private revelation is different from public revelation in several important respects: “The authority of private revelations is essentially different from that of the definitive public Revelation. The latter demands faith; in it in fact God himself speaks to us through human words and the mediation of the living community of the Church. Faith in God and in his word is different from any other human faith, trust, or opinion. The certainty that it is God who is speaking gives me the assurance that I am in touch with truth itself. It gives me a certitude which is beyond verification by any human way of knowing” (ibid.).

Private revelation serves as a help to this divine and Catholic faith but does not itself demand this faith: “In this regard, Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, the future Pope Benedict XIV, says in his classic treatise, which later became normative for beatifications and canonizations: ‘An assent of Catholic faith is not due to revelations approved in this way; it is not even possible. These revelations seek rather an assent of human faith in keeping with the requirements of prudence, which puts them before us as probable and credible to piety.’ The Flemish theologian E. Dhanis, an eminent scholar in this field, states succinctly that ecclesiastical approval of a private revelation has three elements: the message contains nothing contrary to faith or morals; it is lawful to make it public; and the faithful are authorized to accept it with prudence” (ibid., cf. E. Dhanis, La Civiltà Cattolica 104 [1953], II, 392–406).

Because they do not require divine and Catholic faith, private revelations do not impose an obligation of belief of the sort that public revelation does. To disbelieve knowingly and deliberately anything God has revealed in such a way that it requires divine and Catholic faith is to commit mortal sin. However, since God has not issued private revelations with this degree of certainty, the burden is not imposed. Thus, “such a message can be a genuine help in understanding the Gospel and living it better at a particular moment in time; therefore it should not be disregarded. It is a help which is offered, but which one is not obliged to use” (ibid.).

“The criterion for the truth and value of a private revelation is therefore its orientation to Christ himself. When it leads us away from him, when it becomes independent of him or even presents itself as another and better plan of salvation more important than the Gospel, then it certainly does not come from the Holy Spirit, who guides us more deeply into the Gospel and not away from it” (ibid.).

In a section called “The Anthropological Structure of Private Revelations,” Ratzinger notes that “theological anthropology distinguishes three forms of perception or ‘vision’: vision with the senses, and hence exterior bodily perception, interior perception, and spiritual vision (visio sensibilis – imaginativa – intellectualis). It is clear that in the visions of Lourdes, Fatima, and other places it is not a question of normal exterior perception of the senses. . . . The same can be very easily shown with regard to other visions, especially since not everybody present saw them, but only the ‘visionaries.’”

The visions of private revelations also involve to a significant degree the perceptive capacity of the visionary. “[T]he subject shares in an essential way in the formation of the image of what appears. He can arrive at the image only within the bounds of his capacities and possibilities. Such visions therefore are never simple ‘photographs’ of the other world, but are influenced by the potentialities and limitations of the perceiving subject.

“This can be demonstrated in all the great visions of the saints. . . . The images described by them are by no means a simple expression of their fantasy, but the result of a real perception of a higher and interior origin. But neither should they be thought of as if for a moment the veil of the other world were drawn back, with heaven appearing in its pure essence, as one day we hope to see it in our definitive union with God. Rather the images are, in a manner of speaking, a synthesis of the impulse coming from on high and the capacity to receive this impulse in the visionaries. . . . For this reason, the figurative language of the visions is symbolic.”

Finally, the visions tend to synthesize events occurring at different points in time and space and compress them into a single image or series of images. “This compression of time and place in a single image is typical of such visions, which for the most part can be deciphered only in retrospect.”

Because of the compression, the symbolic nature of the visions, and the fact that they are not protected by divine inspiration the way Scripture is but are dependent on the seer’s capacity to receive the revelation, “not every element of the vision has to have a specific historical sense. It is the vision as a whole that matters, and the details must be understood on the basis of the images taken in their entirety.”


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