The Vatican publicly shared, on May 17, 2024, their revised standard operating procedures regarding claims of religious supernatural phenomena. The document includes an introduction and a set of rules or actions on how to investigate and conclude an incident of reported supernatural phenomena. It’s interesting reading if you can handle religious legalese. The document reveals that the Catholic Holy Office has the same internal administrative issues as all offices – managing work load, efficiency, decision-making, and public relations.

Vatican releases new norms on alleged supernatural phenomena
The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith releases a document detailing new norms regarding cases of reported supernatural phenomena. As a rule, neither the local bishop nor the Holy See will declare that these phenomena are of supernatural origin, but will only authorize and promote devotion and pilgrimages.
Document (English) Accompanying Press Release

In the Norms for Proceeding in the Discernment of Alleged Supernatural Phenomena, we are told that supernatural events are sometimes legitimate (which is debatable in the larger context, but I’ll overlook that for now) and are important for growth in faith and devotion. They use the word “fruits” to mean such outcomes. We are also assured that God’s ways are secret and ultimately unknowable. And, since he created nature, he can work in supernatural ways if he wants to.

However, not all reported supernatural events are legitimate. The church is well-aware. More so today, but really, throughout history, claims of miracles have been used for “profit, power, fame, social recognition, or other personal interest”. Or worse. Also, the church notes people make mistakes in interpreting events or are misled by others.

Direction is needed for modern times

Church leaders are charged with guiding the faithful in thinking about these events, which is ever more difficult in the modern age of instant mass (mis)communication.

It appears the process of revising the 1978 Norms began in 2019. Earlier this month, the final version was approved by the Pope. The norms provide what looks to many of us administrative workers as a standard operating procedure, except this one is about investigating and handling situations where “supernatural occurrences” are reported. The faithful need guidance on whether to disregard it as a hoax or to hit the road on a holy pilgrimage.

Our Lady of Ocotlan, Tlaxcala, Mexico 1541

According to the church doctrine, the Holy Spirit may reach us through supernatural means such as apparitions or visions of Jesus or Mary, written messages or voices, phenomena related to religious items (weeping and bleeding objects, and the like), and psychophysical phenomena (levitation, stigmata, etc.). They recognize, however, that mistakes can be made in interpretation or that there might be outright fraud at work. Reading a bit between the lines, it seems like the church may have had an issue with Bishops of local Dioceses declaring a phenomenal event as being of divine origin and promoting it. We have certainly seen examples of supposed miracles drawing thousands to see for themselves. The church also recognizes that in the modern world, news travels very fast. Nothing extraordinary stays local and things can rapidly get out of hand.

The Catholic faithful may look to the church for clarity about these alleged events. In the Intro to the Norms document, the Prefect makes clear that the church wishes to avoid “such complicating situations” that create “confusion among the faithful”. Additionally, it’s no surprise that the work relating to investigation of supernatural events is long, taxing and controversial. If you are going to declare something a supernatural divine action, you better have put all your ducks in a row.

Sidesteps a declaration of “supernatural”

The old process of waiting for a declaration about the supernatural nature of the event took too long, and “resulted in very few cases ever reaching a clear determination.” The introduction text says that since 1950, “no more than six cases have been officially resolved”. The claims have only increased in number; the process was not working. In the example given, regarding a case of apparitions from the 1950s, flip-flopping determinations of supernaturality continued for 70 years.

The revised norms incorporate a way to sidestep the declaration of supernaturalness, and hopefully avoid the embarrassment of being called out for condoning a hoax later on. The rules provide a way for the Church to discern if the phenomena show the following: signs of divine action, conflict with teachings, problems or risks in appreciating the events, and if the events should be promoted. As a general rule, the church would not declare that the phenomena are certainly “supernatural”. That’s convenient.

From my superficial reading of this, and from knowing a bit about supernatural claims, it’s obvious that the church as the authority in religious matters is pressured to make a declaration about the incident. In doing so, they influence the attention, crowds, and donations that may result. It’s a big responsibility!

The Intro cites that, in the past, some Bishops wanted to make statement about the events by saying, “I confirm the absolute truth of the facts” and “the faithful must undoubtedly consider as true…”. This was a form of coercion deemed problematic, particularly if it was weakly supported or conflicted with other teachings. With the new procedure, the Bishop is still tasked with examining the cases and making the decision, which then goes for approval to a higher department. He can’t make public statements about the authenticity or nature. If things move fast with the public, the Bishop has to move faster and prevent misinformation from spreading. It does take some responsibility away from the Bishop who might want to promote it for local benefit. It also might relieve them from making a very touchy conclusion.

Options for conclusions (loosely translated into modern speech)

Six potential conclusions of an investigation are given. I have distilled the (English) text into colloquial language or “in a nutshell” translation:

Nihil obstat (Nothing hinders) – We’re not saying it’s supernatural but it could be the Holy Spirit at work, which we believe can do fancy-schmancy things. So far, it seems harmless so feel free to get excited about it, including making a trip to see for yourself. Have fun, but don’t go nuts. (Expect this new can’t-lose option to be put into heavy rotation.)

Prae oculis habeatur (It should be kept in mind) – There are supernatural vibes happening, but some aspects are sus. Really, don’t go nuts.

Curatur (It is taken care of) – Ok, you’ve gone nuts. The horse has left the barn before we could close the door and, if we aren’t careful, we could cause a ruckus. Call in the fixers.

Sub mandato (Requires special vigilance) – This is overall great, but someone is using this event for their own gain — we are going to make them a deal they can’t refuse to shut it down.

Prohibetur et obstruatur (Should be discouraged) – Oh boy, this could blow up in our faces. Send in the special forces to shut this s*** down now.

Declaratio de non supernaturalitate (It is declared not supernatural)- Everyone go back to your business, nothing to see here. Put the nonsense to bed and we wipe our hands of it.

These aren’t altogether unreasonable. Sure, the paranormal skeptics will make fun of this framework, but context is important. All people don’t live by laws of rationalism and scientific authority and we’re not going to get there anytime soon. Specifically, however, the norms do mention use of scientific assessments, which is a plus. The norms incorporate processes like using scientific tests on “tears” or blood. The text includes the following regarding the investigation phase of objects: “The aim of this investigation is to reach a scientific, doctrinal, and canonical assessment of the objects to aid in the subsequent evaluation.”

In conclusion, this is a decent process (in context) surrounded by the expected religious trappings and doctrinal language that isn’t going to put a damper on a sensational claim if it gets people back into churches. Notably, the nihiil obstat gives the religious officials a way off the hook by stating: We’re not going to declare it’s supernatural but, just saying, sometimes the Holy Spirit can work in supernatural ways. Maybe this is one of those times, but we can’t quite decide.

All policies like this have to be tried out in the real world and updated as real world conditions change. It might be interesting to watch. Or maybe not. I can’t quite decide. I’ll just equivocate instead.

1 thought on “Vatican releases Supernatural Standard Operating Procedures

Leave a Reply (Comments are reviewed. There may be a delay before they appear.)

Back To Top