The Catholic Church published a document on Friday providing new guidance for the discernment of alleged supernatural phenomena.

The document — translated into seven languages — specifically addresses how the Church should investigate events “that seem to exceed the bounds of ordinary experiences and present themselves as having a supernatural origin (such as alleged apparitions, visions, interior or exterior locutions, writings or messages, phenomena related to religious images, and psychophysical phenomena.)”

Throughout the history of Christianity, most church denominations have acknowledged supernatural occurrences and miraculous events variously attributable to the Holy Spirit, angels, saints, or other benevolent entities.

“When spiritual experiences are accompanied by physical and psychological phenomena that cannot be immediately explained by reason alone, the Church has the delicate responsibility of studying and discerning these occurrences carefully,” the Vatican document states.

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The document offers the following four considerations for the Church when addressing alleged supernatural occurrences: “(a) whether signs of a divine action can be ascertained in phenomena that are alleged to be of supernatural origin; (b) whether there is anything that conflicts with faith and morals in the writings or messages of those involved in the alleged phenomena in question; (c) whether it is permissible to appreciate their spiritual fruits, whether they need to be purified from problematic elements, or whether the faithful should be warned about potential risks; (d) whether it is advisable for the competent ecclesiastical authority to realize their pastoral value.”

According to the new guidelines, the Church will no longer aim for authoritative affirmation of the supernatural origin of an event, but instead approve or reject the public’s devotion and popular piety based on available evidence.

Multiple reasons were offered for this change, namely the amount of time necessary to confidently rule on supernatural phenomena and the increasing impact of rapid, worldwide mass communication.

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Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), announced at a Vatican press conference on Friday that the decision is due to these factors leading to greater danger of misinformation and manipulation.

The DDF warns that incidents claimed to be of supernatural origin can be manufactured by people seeking “profit, power, fame, social recognition, or other personal interest” and can contain “doctrinal errors, an oversimplification of the Gospel message, or the spread of a sectarian mentality.” 

The Catholic Church believes that a miracle or manifestation of divine origin cannot teach or propagate ideas contrary to Scripture or Sacred Tradition — in other words, a supernatural event cannot witness against or contradict established Christian doctrine.

The DDF considers such contradictory incidents “merely the product of someone’s imagination, desire for novelty, tendency to fabricate falsehoods, or inclination toward lying.”

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A full investigation into the origins and explanations of an alleged supernatural event by the DDF can take years, even decades. This slow turn-around time on investigations means their findings are often delivered far too late to affect the local community’s interpretation of events, leading to theological confusion.

Only six cases of alleged supernatural events have been conclusively closed by the Vatican since 1950, according to Fernández.

Additionally, the DDF notes technology’s globalizing effects on the Catholic Church and how “with the development of modern means of communication and the increase in pilgrimages, these phenomena are taking on national and even global proportions, meaning that a decision made in one Diocese has consequences also elsewhere.”

Local bishops are now instructed to document their own investigations of alleged supernatural phenomena in their dioceses before forwarding their findings to Rome.

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The DDF will examine and further investigate the claims before offering a ruling on how the clergy and laity should proceed.

Possible rulings range from nihil obstat (“nothing stands in the way), to prohibetur et obstruatur, (“forbidden and obstructed”) to the most conclusive outcome, Declaratio de non supernaturalitate (“declaration of non-supernaturalism.”)

The DDF may also instruct bishops to refrain from publicizing alleged supernatural events due to concerns about authenticity or exploitation by self-interested parties.

“As a rule, neither the Diocesan Bishop, nor the Episcopal Conferences, nor the Dicastery will declare that these phenomena are of supernatural origin, even if a Nihil obstat is granted,” the DDF stated. “It remains true, however, that the Holy Father can authorize a special procedure in this regard.”

The Friday document fully replaces guidelines previously established under Pope Paul VI in 1978.

The Catholic Church urges “extreme prudence” before ascribing phenomena to a supernatural force, warning that being too quick to attribute divine origin to explainable occurrences can damage the faith and warp belief.

Harsh canonical penalties exist for members of the Catholic Church who knowingly falsify evidence of a miraculous event.