Sometimes it seems as if there are only two kinds of Catholics: those who believe in Medjugorje and those who don’t. The first rush off to Bosnia-Herzegovina at every opportunity. The second seize on all developments as proof that the alleged Marian apparitions are a profit-driven hoax. Few, apparently, are undecided and content to await the Church’s final verdict.
True, when the Church evaluates visions, people expect there to be one of two judgments: constat de supernaturalitate (“It appears to be of supernatural origin”) and non constat de supernaturalitate (“It does not appear to be …”) But last Saturday Pope Francis dropped the biggest hint yet that the Vatican will not be giving a simple yes-or-no answer.
Speaking on the flight back from Portugal, Francis recalled that his predecessor, Benedict XVI, had created a commission on Medjugorje in 2010, led by the esteemed Cardinal Camillo Ruini. The Pope received the “very, very good” report around the end of 2013. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith then expressed “some doubts” about the conclusions and planned to discuss these internally. But the Pope intervened, asking that all criticisms be sent directly to him.
For years, Catholics have speculated on the report’s findings. On Saturday, Francis revealed them: the commission distinguishes between the first apparitions, in June 1981, and later ones, which are said to be ongoing daily occurrences. According to the Pope, the report says that the early visions “must continue being studied”, while expressing “doubts” about the present ones.
Francis seemed to endorse the report’s conclusions enthusiastically, dissenting only on one point: he firmly rejected the current purported visions. “I prefer the Madonna as Mother, our Mother, and not a woman who’s the head of a telegraphic office, who every day sends a message at such an hour,” he said, though he underlined that this was his personal opinion.
In recent years there have been frequent rumours of the Ruini report’s imminent release. But no text ever appears. Just last month doctrinal chief Cardinal Gerhard Müller said it was likely to “take a long time”. The delay suggests a fierce internal battle over the commission’s conclusions.
One can understand why: in the beginning the inquiry was presented as a zero-sum game: either supporters or critics of Medjugorje would achieve outright victory. But if the report is published in the form Pope Francis describes it, it will simultaneously delight and dismay both sides. Devotees will emphasise the open judgment on the early visions, while opponents will applaud the critique of later ones. The shrine will presumably continue to be one of the most popular destinations for 21st-century Catholics, with a decisive ruling on the first apparitions postponed for decades.
But this is mere speculation. As long as the report has not been published, the situation remains fluid – and prone to sudden reversals. Happily, those who don’t want to wait on every twist and turn have an alternative. Pope Francis made his comments about Medjugorje on May 13, exactly 100 years after the first apparition of Our Lady of Fatima. The Church has given Fatima the highest possible endorsement. It should be the first destination for anyone wishing to know what Mary asks of us today.
A vanishing teaching
The Pope, at one of his recent early morning sermons in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, spoke of the death penalty. As he explained how the development of doctrine takes place, thanks to the Church being guided by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Father remarked: “[Slavery] is a mortal sin; today we say this. Back then, some would say that this could be done because these people did not have a soul… The same goes for the death penalty; for a time, it was normal. Today, we say that the death penalty is inadmissible.”
Few would disagree with the Pope on this one. Slavery, once condoned, is now seen as beyond the pale. As for the death penalty, this too is held as inadmissible in most places; but not all.
When we remember that the Law of Moses makes provision for the death penalty, and that the Papal State administered the death penalty up to 1870, the Church has been wary of condemning the use of the death penalty per se. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2267) makes clear, “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
It is impossible that the Pope does not know or has forgotten the Catechism, so we must assume that his words were either not carefully chosen or were intended to stir up debate.
In theory, the death penalty is admissible, though in practice cases of its right use may be vanishingly rare, given that other means are readily available to uphold the common good. That the death penalty cannot be dismissed as “mortal sin” is important in America, where many good Catholics hold it to be necessary.
Pope Francis disagrees with them; but his morning homily cannot make any difference to the enduring teaching of the Catechism.