Discerning Private Revelation: A Particular Pitfall

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Over the course of my now fourteen years of studying and working with the Catholic Church’s theology of private revelation, I have come to understand a particular pitfall in discernment. This pitfall concerns the dissemination of alleged private revelations. Unfortunately, there appears to be many different ideas and opinions as to how this dissemination works. This difference is part of the reason why I wrote the book Refractions of Light. In the article, I would like to discuss this particular pitfall in order to shed some light on the confusion that today continues unabated in the Church.

Private Revelation—Discernment & History

To begin, it is important to note that the key word before us is “discernment.” Fairly knowledgeable Catholics have at least a working understanding of this term. At its core, the word means to figure out what is and what is not coming from God. It is a spiritual term, one deeply rooted in the Church’s history and theology. How well do we know this history in order to help us discern the voice of God? This question is imperative with respect to the Church’s theology of private revelation.

Beginning with the New Testament, we see a consistent pattern of discernment through the nascent and early Church. The Fathers and Doctors (both earlier and later) expounded upon the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ and established firm tenets that assist us in later generations to know better our Divine and Catholic Faith. Frequently, these things happened by way of defeating heresies that had arisen and which were condemned. It should also be observed that various processes that facilitate the Faith have changed over the years, usually in accordance with a growing understanding of said Faith and to reflect it better.

By the 15th Century, the Faith had been fairly well established in Western Civilization. A common Faith had united Europe, though this Faith had been challenged by and was faltering from the scandal of the Western Schism and many heresies that abounded around this time. In the midst of this milieu came Gutenberg’s printing press whereby a louder voice was now afforded for people to express their views and opinions. This ability created a new dimension to the perennial problem for the Church on teaching the Faith clearly. Anyone and everyone could now say what they wanted regardless of whether he or she was qualified.

What effect would this ability have on faith, good morals and good order in the Church? Legislation was enacted by Popes Innocent VIII and Alexander VI that began to address the new dimension that the printing press proposed. We know this legislation through popular secular history as “censorship.” Often seen negatively in a society that values free speech, “censorship” to the Catholic Church is simply an extension of her mission to “guard that which has been entrusted” to her (cf. 1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14).

Private Revelation & Censorship

“Censorship” undeservedly enjoys the negative connotation of major “crackdowns” or “inquisitions.” I make no excuse for excesses and abuses that have occurred, but one must, however, also remember that abusus non tollit usum—the abuse of a thing does not take away its use. The intention of censorship in the Catholic Church is both to ensure good order and proper facilitation of faith and good morals. For its part, the printing press—a blessing—could easily be abused, and such was done for the purposes of wild private revelations that disturbed the general populace.

Beginning with Innocent VIII and Alexander VI, a long list of Popes down to the present have justly upheld the Church’s right of censorship. Refractions of Light traces some of the highlights of this development. I focused on the Council of Trent through Pope Urban VIII to Pope St. Pius X and to Paul VI (from there to the more recent Popes, let me add). Even if they modified certain processes and legislations, they believed that there has to be good order in the Church respecting private revelation (alleged or authentic). It is clear that Papal legislation, strictly speaking, did not want such revelations to run freely in the Church unchallenged and unchecked.

Reform of Censorship & Its Effect on Private Revelation

By and large, the Church’s system of censorship manifested itself concretely in the Index of Forbidden Books as well as the processes for canonization and beatification, as demonstrated in Refractions of Light. Pope Paul VI made the decision to reform the Church’s system of censorship. This decision, regretfully, was horrifically misunderstood by private revelation enthusiasts, and this misunderstanding is at the heart of the reason for the present article. Prior legislation to 1966 ensured that material on alleged private revelations was properly examined by the competent Ecclesiastical Authority (usually one’s local Bishop).

Paul VI, desirous for the faithful to act out of love and not legal precept, wanted legislative reform to censorship that saw the faithful working with—yet submissively to—the Pastors of the Church. In the Pope’s vision, he saw a catechized faithful who understood and obeyed the precepts of the Church. What he did not foresee, one can argue, is the devastation of the vineyard that would manifest more powerfully after the Second Vatican Council. He saw it, perhaps, a bit too late as evidenced by many remarks of his from 1967 onwards, especially his June, 1972 famous remark on the “smoke of Satan” entering the Church through a “crack.”

God alone judges the uprightness of Paul VI’s intention in reforming the Church’s legislation on censorship. For our part, what is important to know is that Paul VI never intended private revelation to go unchecked in the Church. Perhaps this can be demonstrated by the fact that about six months prior to his death he ordered promulgated the famous 1978 Vatican norms for discerning alleged private revelations. Sadly, this document never made it into the 1983 Code of Canon Law and quickly began collecting dust in Diocesan archives around the world.

Instead, what arose was a hideous mischaracterization of what Paul VI intended for the reform of ecclesiastical censorship. After Paul VI abrogated canons 1399 and 2318 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, a claim quickly arose that Catholics could now disseminate alleged private revelations without having them first reviewed by the competent Ecclesiastical Authority (i.e. be “censored” by the Church). Sometimes there was a caveat put to this claim that went, “so long as the writing(s) do not contain anything contrary to faith and morals.”

Just how an alleged private revelation came to be judged as contrary or not to faith and morals without having them submitted to the proper Authority was never mentioned.

Private Revelation & Truth

Misunderstanding and pride arose in the hearts of men. A popular message that was reaching people’s ears in the 1950s was that it was now “the hour of the laity.” After historical events of the 1960s, an otherwise authentic point might very well have been misunderstood (and abused). A call went out that it was time for the laity to rise up and take their “rightful” place(s) in the Church. After all, they are baptized members of the Body of Christ and “have the Holy Spirit.” As James Davidson is said to have remarked, the days when the faithful simply “pray, pay and obey” were over. Why can they not decide for themselves what is and what is not faithful to the Deposit of Faith with alleged private revelations?

Concerning our topic at hand, it was not an authentic “hour of the laity” (one that worked with the Pastors of the Church as God established) that had struck. It was a veritable revolution, one that Paul VI is said to have remarked upon as the Church being in an “auto-demolition” and it has gravely devastated good order in the Church. This devastation continues today every time people write about alleged private revelations and their dissemination through such popular slogans as “We report, you discern.” Such slogans are inherently flawed as they are disruptive to the Natural Law, which forbids allowing disorder into our hearts and lives.

Moreover, such slogans aggregate/presume authority to the writer that he or she simply does not have. It is the Church, the Magisterium, which discerns alleged private revelations. She will either, after due examination, propose/permit them for the belief of the faithful, or will disallow them for the sake of faith, good morals and good order in the Church. To think otherwise is nothing other than an arrogant misappropriation of a function proper to the Magisterium. Simply put, it is the sin of pride, even if rooted in ignorance of the Church’s doctrine, precepts and legislative processes.

In conclusion, private revelation is not a subject with which one can trifle. It has a bearing upon one’s eternal salvation and we must be wary not to fall into particular pitfalls of discerning it. Such discernment belongs properly to the Church and the lay faithful do have a role in this process, but we must look to the guidelines that Holy Mother Church has established for guidance. That role is largely one of submission and requires study and humility. Finally, an awareness on the part of Catholic writers and publishing houses of their moral responsibilities must also be instilled for the sake of good order in the Church.

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46 thoughts on “Discerning Private Revelation: A Particular Pitfall”

  1. You have raised some valid points about the risks of private revelation being given inappropriate attention, but for the most part, I must disagree with you, for several reasons. I’ll try to summarize the best I can.
    Christ Himself cautioned us to be wary of false prophets and many that would claim to speak in His name and deceive “even the elect”….Scripture also tells us, however, to not despise prophecy, but to test everything and hold fast to what is good (1 Thes 5:20-21). The Magisterium of the Church considers many factors in the determination of whether or not an alleged message or vision is worthy of belief. Most of these are common sense (or should be to the knowledgeable Catholic) criterion that anyone among the faithful should be capable of both understanding and applying for themselves. This is not to suggest that the Magisterium should not have the final say-so; but in these times, the numbers of alleged visions and messages are truly staggering. It is simply not possible for the Church to make a ruling on all, indeed not even most, of the reports of messages, visions, phenomenon. I have an inquiring and probing mind as do many other obedient and God-fearing souls I know and to suggest that I shouldn’t be allowed to read, digest, and discern with my God-given and (I hope) Spirit-guided intelligence is ludicrous. I have been studying prophecy for 25 years and I can personally attest that I have seen first-hand magnificent fruits and responses to alleged messages. I have ALSO witnessed and listened to reactions to alleged messages that are deeply disturbing. Sad to say, I have also been advised by priests to not pay any attention to (excuse the phrase) “that crap” even when the conversation involves a Church approved apparition.
    So please do not criticize Mr. Brown’s “we report, you discern” catch-phrase. I DO read and I DO discern. I have big questions and reservations about some alleged messages. I have a full joy and comfort in the sincerity and rock-solid doctrine of others. I keep an open mind because I have been blessed to see many signs of God’s work first-hand and I know that His ways are not our ways and we humans have a habit of trying to put God into a box and make a pronouncement on whether or not he would act a certain way.
    Consider also that the Church has reversed its decision on more than one occasion. Consider the prohibition against St. Faustina’s writings – later reversed of course.
    Here’s the bottom line. Are you willing to advise people to not read private revelation and wait until the Church has issued a decree and then, on the other side, have Jesus Christ ask you to your face this question: “Kevin, I spoke to my beloved prophet and asked for my message to be spread and YOU told them not to listen….Why, Kevin, why?” I for one, am not willing to take that chance. I do not presume to know the mind of God and I certainly am not one to decide whether or not he is speaking to a certain individual. I think you would be wise to reconsider your position and let us “read and discern” for ourselves.

    1. Good evening Miss Callender and thank you for posting.

      I believe that you will also benefit from reading my book “Refractions of Light.” It explains some key points in your post.

  2. Hey Kevin! Nice work with all your writings! Since you are well versed in private revelation, I wanted to know if you’re familiar with the book “He and I” by Gabrielle Bossis. While I am willing to take all non church approved private revelation with a grain of salt, this book moved me so deeply, and I can’t help but wonder what people more schooled in private revelation than myself think of it.

  3. How right it is that private revelations are a serious matter and we should not go flippantly condoning and promulgating them without carefully discerning them using Magisterial guidelines, lest we endanger the eternal salvation of souls.

    And yet, how utterly missed is the converse by so many: flippantly rejecting them (even if with the facade of scholarship) is an even greater danger.

    1. Good morning Mr. O’Connor! I note that you have not responded to me over at Patti Armstrong’s site.

      At what point do people “flippantly” reject private revelations?

    2. Mr. O’Connor, I cannot say that I appreciate or honor your approach to me.

      I have consistently referred you to my book as it helps to address some of the concerns you have discussed here or elsewhere. You have failed to do this yet continue to issue responses to me that, I cannot help but wonder, are imbued with an animus toward me. Here, your comment can be interpreted as lumping me in with those who “flippantly” dismiss private revelation. On Patti’s site, you attempt to discredit me because I question Medjugorje.

      If we disagree, fine, but at least have the courage to engage me where I am at.

    3. As a busy husband and father raising a family on a very low income, purchasing every book recommended to me is not an option — nor is engaging in every online debate that people would like to have with me (therefore I make online comments on my own terms, not on others’); try not to take offense or imply I am a coward because of it. I do not follow your writings so as to argue; mere chance has caused me to stumble upon them a scarce few times, however. I have no personal vendetta against you or anyone; but I am a zealous and unabashed supporter of things you are an unabashed opponent of. Furthermore, clearly the tone of this article is anti-SpiritDaily, a site I greatly appreciate, and with that I take issue, not with you.

    4. Mr. O’Connor, you and I have corresponded on E-mail. All you had to do was ask for a complimentary or review copy. We may disagree, but that does not mean I am heartless (you are not implying this, let me clarify). Also, Dr. Mahfood is the publisher. Wasn’t he at Holy Apostles Seminary when you were there studying for your M.A.?

      Finally, my article concerns those who have usurped a Magisterial function. You have claimed there is an association with Spirit Daily, sir, not me.

    5. Kevin, don’t even try to pretend that your claim that “We report, you discern” is “disruptive to the natural law” isn’t a condemnation of SpiritDaily

    6. One key to test the truth and veracity of any private revelation is that true test of truth and of much human endeavor: FOLLOW THE MONEY! If there is money to follow, then that so-called “revelation” and any so-called seers, actually $eer$, should not be believed. Putting aside the magisterial teaching that nothing supernatural is happening at Medugorje, the $seer% homes, vision fees, and bank accts are enough proof that they are not of God. Guy McClung, San Antonio Texas USA

    7. The local Ordinary and local Episcopal Conference have both given negative indications. Consistently. Those are indications, thus far, from the authority of the Church. Moreover, if what is coming out of Rome–and Pope Francis’ own mouth–is any further indication, then I do not have much hope for Medjugorje receiving Rome’s “constat de supernaturalitate” either.

    8. and that is the “magisterial teaching” that we have-to date. What a tour guide says or what a pilgrim says, even one who has gone 4 times, made “offering$s” again and again, and seen the devotion of hundred$s of others does not rise to the level of magisterium. Guy McClung, San Antonio Texas USA

    9. Yes, they are.

      Sir, you REALLY need to read my book “Refractions of Light.” In the meantime, see my other articles here on Catholic Stand about Medjugorje.

    10. Dan, I read about your book . Where can I get a copy? Have you read Father Joseph Iannuzzi’s work on Luisa Piccarreta? He has helped me very much to understand her private revelations. I was wary of her before, but now understand the substance and depth of what God has given to her. I am anxious to read your book.

    11. Dan, thanks for pointing out that it is just as injurious to the Church and souls ‘to flippantly reject’ private revelations. It is disconcerting to me that Mr. Symonds often arrogates to himself the role of the Church in deciding which private revelations are authentic and which are not. I understand he speaks favorably–as in considering her harmless–the psychic from New York, Theresa Caputo. This is astounding to me. On the other hand, he has pre-empted the authority of the Church concerning the validity of Medjugorie although the Church has not yet definitively ruled on the apparitions there. Pride is very insidious and can deceive one. It pollutes true discernment.

    12. Good morning! I think clarity is necessary on some points you have made in this comment.

      1) I have no idea what you are talking about with Theresa Caputo. Can you please enlighten us as to your source(s)?

      2) Secondly, concerning your point on Medjugorje, you are a bit vague on “the authority of the Church.” The “authority of the Church” is tri-fold when it comes to private revelation: the local Ordinary, the local Episcopal Conference, and finally the Holy See. The first two levels HAVE issued statements on Medjugorje, both of which are not favorable to Medjugorje. Now, as pertains to the Holy See, there is no formal statement just yet. However, if the indicazioni coming from Rome lately–and out of Pope Francis’ own mouth–are any sign of what is to come, then I am compelled to believe that the preponderance of evidence overall is certainly in favor of the approach I have adopted to Medjugorje.

      3) Thirdly, your point on “preempting” is a two-way street; for it is equally true that the “authority of the Church” has NOT approved Medjugorje. If you believe Medjugorje, then you cannot condemn or accuse me of pride without perishing on your own sword.

      Pray tell, do you know Mr. O’Connor?

      Have a good day!
      -Kevin Symonds
      1-22-16 A.D.
      6:33 a.m.

    13. Dear Mr. Symonds,
      As you pointed out in your response to me, the final– papal–authority has not yet spoken. YOU have already spoken, as if there really is no need for their final judgment of Rome since YOU have it all figured out. The Church has always taught that Catholics may believe in private revelations unless and until Her proper authority negates them. The issue is not finished. Allow Rome to negate the apparitions of Mejugorje officially. Do not pre-empt the Church. YOU may be ‘compelled’ to believe that the preponderance of evidence overall is certainly in favor of the approach YOU have adopted to Medjugorje’. You are assuming that YOU are right and that settles the issue. Again, do not pre-empt the Church.
      Regarding Theresa Caputo, why don’t you tell me where you stand regarding her right now? Put it out there for me and the debate will be over.

    14. Hi! Again, we seem to have some difficulty with your propositions and I would like to address them one at a time.

      1) “The Church has always taught that Catholics may believe in private revelations unless and until Her proper authority negates them.”

      Once more, you are speaking vaguely. Can you please clarify what you mean here? Moreover, can you provide a reference/source that verifies your claim?

      2) “Do not pre-empt the Church.”

      I reiterate: you have here fallen on your own sword if you believe in Medjugorje and encourage others to believe the same.

      3) “Regarding Theresa Caputo, why don’t you tell me where you stand regarding her right now? Put it out there for me and the debate will be over.”

      There is no debate with Caputo. You’ve made an assertion, thus the burden of proof is on you to prove your claim. As of this moment there’s no “debate” until you demonstrate your claim.

      Lastly, you did not answer my question about your association with Mr. O’Connor. Do you, in fact, know him and/or are associated with him?

      -Kevin Symonds
      3:30 p.m.
      1-22-16 A.D.

    15. Firstly, if you can refute my claim that, according to the teachings of the Catholic Church, Catholics may believe in private revelations until they are negated by the Church’s authority, then do so. It is a matter of common knowledge for those who understand the dogmas of the Catholic Faith.. Show me where it says otherwise. You will not be able to do so.
      Secondly, why do you ASSUME that I believe in Medjugorje and encourage others to do the same? I did not say that I believed in Medjugorye, nor did I assert that I ‘encourage others to do the same’, did I? You came to an assumption not based on facts. In addition, you did not address my charge that you are pre-empting the Church Whose authority it is to negate with certitude the apparitions there. Stop deflecting from the issue.
      Regarding Theresa Caputo, why not just tell me what you believe about her? Frankly I read it on your website about mystics. You claimed there that you think she is harmless. I am not looking anything up for you. You know what you believe and you know what you have posted. And now you have a perfect opportunity right on this blog to refute my assertion. Go for it. Am I wrong about your view of her? If so, say so.
      Whether or not I am a friend/associate/colleague of Mr. O’Connor is none of your business. I am astounded that you would ask such a thing. Just to keep your mind from ‘ASSUMING’ the worst, I have never met him before this encounter on this blog.

    16. Ma’am,

      You are attempting to question me in the court of public opinion regarding my supposed approval of a psychic. You have thus far failed to produce any clear evidence in support of this claim. Until you are able to produce irrefutable evidence of your claim, we have nothing further to discuss. If you are unable to do so, I kindly request you to cease and desist your libelous attack against me.

      -Kevin Symonds
      1-22-16 A.D.
      6:01 P.M.

    17. My attack is not libelous.  If I am wrong, tell me.  You can clear this up by stating clearly whether or not you indeed did state or did not state on your website about mystics that, in your opinion, Theresa Caputo is harmless.  I will take you at your word.  You do know what you have or have not stated on your website, do you not?  Why are you refusing either to confirm or to deny what I have stated?  If you are refusing to answer, you give credence to my point.

    18. Again, I reiterate: you have not provided a shred of evidence. All you’ve done is make an assertion without proof. You have two options and two only: 1) Provide the evidence or 2) accept the charge of libel.

      Until you provide the evidence, we have nothing more to discuss.

    19. I received your lengthy and wordy missive from Catholic Stand. The more you multiply your words, the less convincing you are. I would tell you that truly intelligent people are able to state things simply. As a very wise person told me once, ‘Mistrust complications. The truth is very simple.’ Please do not write to me again. As you pointed out, we have nothing more to discuss.

  4. I’m a convert to Catholicism from Protestantism where everyone follows their own musings and believes they are “God breathed”. One of the greatest things about the Church is her faithful protection of the true teaching. For Catholics who were born into the faith, I don’t know if they realize what a great wonder, a great gift and a great blessing that is.

    As a result, the only private “revelations” I have followed are those ok’d by the Church: Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe and Divine Mercy and even then those do NOT trump the Bible and the CCC.

    But I have met Catholics who don’t care if some private revelation is ok’d by the Church. I’ve looked up some of these revelations and the heresy contained in the messages is appalling. I do not understand why these Catholics go after such things while tossing the pearl of great price in the mud.

    1. The Eucharist. I was Protestant. As a child I read the Bible and what Jesus said at the last supper and in John 6 and what my minister said about it didn’t match. He kept saying Jesus was just being figurative. I went to the bible book store to the commentaries and they all said the same thing but I didn’t see where they were getting that from.

      My uncle married a Catholic woman. Their wedding was a Mass. When I asked my mom about that she told me it was like communion. When I said, “Oh! We’ll have communion!” My mom said no as Catholics believed differently from us about communion. Inside I thought, “They do?!” So I called the other book stores asking if they were Catholic. There was one not far from my home. I biked there and asked if they had any books on communion. The woman said the Eucharist? I said yes and she picked out her favorite.

      It was wonderful to read the Church’s teaching and it didn’t twist scripture.

      Now, it took years for that to bear fruit, but about 28 years later, at the age of 40, I entered the Church 🙂 Between the Eucharist, the Church sticking to Biblical morality, and her consistent doctrinal teaching for 2000 years, I just couldn’t NOT convert! After I had my first confession, I couldn’t understand why more Catholics didn’t go! The Catholic faith continues to be such a rich blessing!

    2. Wow!
      As a cradle Catholic, I am so impressed to read the stories of converts…
      you have such a beautiful story and I hope a fulfilling life in your love and
      service to our Lord Jesus Christ…

    3. Dear Welder Chick, that would make a fine article and great witness-your story and the Eucharist. A good reference for it-and great quotes-would be the work of numerous Fathers Of The Church saying this truly is the actual physical body of Christ and really is His blood. Sometimes these quotes are very easy to spot in the end-of-the-19th century protestant translation: they try-in footnote after footnote-to explain away, to explain that God in Scripture and the Fathers did not mean what they were saying. And isn’t it amazing, like a huge strong tractor beam pulling in a space ship in a SciFi movie, He pulled you in. Guy McClung, San Antonio Texas USA

    4. Wow! What an amazing story that unfolded over 28 years!
      A former pastor Ulf Eckmann(the Rick Warren of Sweden) with thousands of followers had the same type conversion.
      He said he had to overcome previously taught prejudices that kept him from seeing the fullness contained in the Catholic Church. After studying the Early Church Fathers and seeing the COMPLETE Scriptural basis for all of the Sacraments and doctrine he realized the Eucharist is what he longed to receive.
      I personally, had a reversion.
      I was given the gift of my Catholic faith as a baptized baby. Fell far away from it in high school.
      After some pretty life-changing, stressful events I went into the nearest Catholic Church at 18 years old. I had a very powerful, personal, spiritual experience praying before the Blessed Sacrament which changed my life.
      The Blessed Mother(through praying the Rosary, Marian pilgrimages, Marian Consecration) then brought me back into her Son’s fold, she really does ask her Son to help those who have fallen away.
      It’s like the wedding at Cana, She can ask Jesus to perform miracles. He’s bound by the Fourth Commandment of honoring His Mother and Father(meditate on that one 🙂 It was a miracle I came back to the Faith.
      Let’s pray for each other, life is short; heaven is eternal 🙂

    5. Amen!! Wonderful story and yes, Mary is quite the rounder-upper! I often think of her rosary as like a lasso and she uses it to bring in the straying sheep to her son 🙂

  5. Kevin-Thanks for all the work [and years] that went into this-well done. I think we hear, and promulgate, those “private” revelations that we like, that we agree with. I am so saddened by those who accept a new , often counter-magisterium, in this or that alleged revelation. It was stated well by Simon and Garfunkel:
    “The Boxer
    Simon & Garfunkel
    I am just a poor boy
    Though my story’s seldom told
    I have squandered my resistance
    For a pocketful of mumbles
    Such are promises
    All lies and jest
    Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
    And disregards the rest”

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